The common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves… to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection [and] opens the door to foreign influence and corruption….

— George Washington

Choice, Compulsion, Popular Opinion, and the Public Interest


Relative to our own capability to act, believe, intend, or feel in various ways, choice is the process by which we actually do act, believe, intend, and feel. While some in the cognitive sciences feel that our choices may be entirely a product of chemical processes and circumstance, most people believe at some level that choice is a function of some inviolable personal free will or agency.

For purposes of discussion, let \Omega (omega) be the universe of all possible actions, beliefs, intents, and feelings. Let G be a group of people, and let the range of actions, beliefs, intents, and feelings possible for G be called X and constrained by X \subseteq \Omega. We could say that X = \bigcup_{g \in G}{X_g} where X_g for a given individual g is the range of actions, beliefs, intents, and feelings possible for that individual.


We usually think of compulsion as forcing a person to undertake some action/belief/intent/feeling y. Alternately, we can state more generally that compulsion is the ability to restrict a person’s or group of people’s X arbitrarily. A person bound by options X_g can operate within X_g‘s range of options. They can even limit themselves further to a smaller subset of X_g. But they cannot operate outside of their own range of possibilities, in the space defined by \Omega - X_g. Governments have some abilities to restrict or expand X_g for an individual and X for a group, though thankfully this sort of interference is significantly limited by constitutions in the United States and other countries. Theoretically, a totally despotic government could cause somebody to do an arbitrary y by restricting their set of options until X_g = \left\{y\right\} and y is the only option left.

Popular Opinion

In society we tend to accept restrictions in some situations and oppose it in others. The acceptability of these restrictions seems to be governed both by legal processes and by the feelings of the public at large. Representative government still offers no perfect solution, but generally a tension of these two forces results in policy that reflects popular opinion except in certain cases where the law intervenes on behalf of minority groups.

The Public Interest

Ultimately, many instances of expanding X_g for one person results in limiting X_g for another. As stated previously, X = \bigcup_{g \in G}{X_g}. If X_g is not disjoint (i.e. there is overlap between various X_gs), then the potential for conflict resides at X_a \cap X_b for any a \in G and b \in G. So if one option in my X_g is to park in parking spot 457, then, once I have parked there, parking in spot 457 is no longer an option for anyone else. So who says I can limit other people’s options like that? Well, perhaps I have purchased a parking pass for that spot—using prices to limit demand for a certain option can be effective.

But for some instances of X_a \cap X_b there is no established system of conflict resolution. So how should these conflicts (or potential conflicts) be dealt with? Are there some ground rules?

The idea of “general welfare” can be helpful. Indeed, this is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s Preamble as one of the primary purposes for the existence of government. And even when it’s not explicitly invoked as a legal doctrine, general welfare is frequently a guiding force. For example, the substantial injury to the welfare of blacks who were denied the vote in the past was not outweighed by the minor, supposed benefit of a sense of superiority this allowed whites to carry around, and this fact was acknowledged when the judges deciding Brown v. the Board (I can’t remember the full case name) acted to “promote the general welfare.”

We all hope that jurists, legislators, and executive officers will be wise and thoughtful judges of what will best promote the benefit of society as a whole. But do they always do so?







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