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Avoid Phony Public Service


The dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Joseph S. Nye Jr., laments that while in 1980 three-quarters of the graduates took government jobs, just one-third does so these days.

That’s a good trend. But not good enough. Here’s hoping the number drops further.

Many people will ask, who could be against young people’s going into public service? That begs the question, i.e., it assumes what must be proved — namely, that a government job serves the public. We can approach the matter at two levels: subjectively and objectively — from the perspective of those who take government jobs and from perspective of the consequences of public “service.”

Undoubtedly, some people take government jobs because they wish to serve the public. But as the Public Choice political economists have taught us, much that we observe about government cannot be explained if that is typical. A better starting point is that people who take government jobs are like most other people. They are looking for careers that pay well and provide prestige, influence, and security. And in a lot of government work you get something you don’t get in the private economy: power. The premise that government employees are self-serving like everyone else satisfies the law of parsimony (it’s simpler than the alternative premise), and it better accounts for what we see.

But even if it were true that government employees cared only about the public interest, there would be a big problem: knowing what the public interest is. The public is a large and varied collection of individuals who have some things in common but many differences also. Who has the hubris to claim that he knows how best to serve that diverse group of people? When someone declares that he wants to go into government so he can “make a difference,” I bolt the door.

Good intentions are nice, but we should never let them distract us from the objective consequences of people’s actions. The first thing to notice about government work is that it depends on spending other people’s money, which has been forcibly taken from them by the tax collector. That removes some of the moral sheen right off the bat.

Moreover, virtually anything government does to help one group necessarily comes at the expense of everyone else. Take a current example. President Bush wants to punish foreign steelmakers because domestic steelmakers think they are engaging in unfair competition. The effect of the punishment would be to raise steel prices and take the pressure off the American companies. Is this good for the American “public”? No way. If steel is more expensive, American companies that buy steel — the automakers come to mind — will have to pay more, which will probably raise the price of cars to American consumers. Foreign cars, made by companies that can buy less-expensive steel, will become better bargains. Score one for the steelmakers at the expense of the automakers and auto buyers.

Are people who make steel more legitimate representatives of the public than people who make and buy cars? Of course not. Then how can anyone say that protecting the steel industry from foreign competition is in the public interest?

Name any government program — farm subsidies, protection of the lumber industry, Social Security — and I will show you how it helps one group by imposing burdens on the rest of society. Since that’s the case, it is absurd to expect government officials to serve “the public” with the welfare and regulatory programs we have become accustomed to. And it’s naive, or dishonest, for any aspiring civil servant to think he can do it.

On the other hand, there are people who do serve large segments of the public without imposing burdens on others. They are called entrepreneurs. Dealing only with willing parties and lured by profit, they take risks to produce goods and services that people freely buy, believing that their lives will be better off. That way lies real public service.

There is one thing that is truly in everyone’s interest: freedom. He who can find a way to protect individual liberty without violating it in the process is a genuine public servant.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.