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The Myth of Public Service


The death of John F. Kennedy Jr. filled the airwaves with much rhapsodizing about “public service.” Never mind that Kennedy did not go into public service, but rather launched a for-profit enterprise, George magazine (although it glamorizes public service). That didn’t stop commentators and politicians from lavishing praise on the Kennedys for, as Vice President Al Gore put it, giving so much to the country.

What I’m about to say is not specific to the Kennedy family. The family exemplifies the public-service ethic I want to explore, but many other people also do so. The Kennedys have been more explicit than most, however, in promoting the idea that public service is a special virtue deserving of extraordinary praise.

I wish to point out a misconception about what is called public service and demonstrate that it is not praiseworthy at all. Indeed, it is not service! It is especially revolting that public service is contrasted favorably with business and moneymaking. On CBS, Andy Rooney, for example, said during the weekend of the Kennedy accident that the family was special because rather than make money, it tried to help people, usually, he added, through government. (Joseph Kennedy, of course, made lots of money by defying Prohibition, perhaps the most noble thing a Kennedy did. That money made it possible for his children to devote their lives to acquiring power.) It is odd that devoting one’s life to gaining political power is seen as more noble than devoting one’s life to acquiring money. The oddness becomes apparent when we compare the two endeavors.

One makes money by creating and offering value to customers. By definition customers have to consent. It ought to be obvious, even to people like Andy Rooney, that you can’t distribute what does not exist. So any good that public servants might do (we’ll see about this shortly) is radically dependent on the creators of wealth. I submit that this dependence is woefully unreflected in the relative accolades accorded the creators and the distributors. What is reflected is a serious moral retardation in the opinion makers of this world, where the disposal of wealth is praised and the production of wealth is scorned. (No one has topped Ayn Rand in pointing out this malady.)

The businesspeople typically regarded as powerful are actually quite lacking in anything properly called “power.” Bill Gates and the CEO of General Motors, for example, have to plead with you, the consumer, to get a penny of your income. They say, in effect, “Please look at my wares. I think you’ll find them useful. If so, please buy them.” The power is yours. You have to decide whether you’ll pay attention and ultimately buy. Businessmen do their darndest to make things you’ll want and to persuade you of their value. But one thing is clear: they can’t force you to do anything. Any act of force or fraud is known to be a crime and a violation of your property rights.

It is amazing how oblivious people are to this central fact about the marketplace. We throw terms like “market power” around with wild abandon. You’d think that a businessman could send you a bill and compel payment before you’ve decided to buy. The root of this error is that people do indeed want various goods and services. Those things are scarce; they aren’t gifts from nature lying on the ground waiting to be picked up. To get something we want, we must give up something else. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but that’s not how the world is set up. Businessmen are not responsible for scarcity. On the contrary, they sweat to relieve scarcity as best as possible. They produce. They charge for their products because, first, they are not our slaves, and second, they have to obtain the scarce resources that they will transform into more useful things. As Samuel Johnson said, “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.”

Yet business people are seldom admired or spoken of in the reverent tones re-served for public servants.

Let’s contrast the moneymaker with the public servant. Right off we can recognize that public servants don’t make money. But instead of indicating nobility, that ought to incite suspicion. What then do they do? They certainly dish out a lot of money. But they first have to take it from the creators. If you and I try that, it’s called theft.

While Bill Gates can’t get a dollar from you without your consent, Bill Clinton and the gang can. They do it all the time – adding up to more than a trillion dollars a year. The tax system is a massive machine to transfer wealth from those who make it to those don’t. (And that doesn’t mean only “poor” people. Plenty of wealthy people get huge government subsidies.) Try telling the IRS you don’t like the service so you don’t wish to do business with the government this year. Lots of luck.

“Public service,” then, consists of taking from producers and giving it to non-producers. “But their motives are good,” some people will say. Even if that’s true, weren’t we taught that the end can’t justify the means? But let’s go further. There is no reason to believe that people who take government jobs have better motives than people who go into business. It is conceivable that people with identical motives – good or bad – could go into either business and politics. A businessperson may wish to efficiently provide needed goods to people and to donate lots of money to charity. That’s conventionally considered a good motive. On the other hand, someone could go into politics purely to gain prestige and power. That might be thought of as a bad motive. (The condemnation of self-interest per se is another ethical fallacy, but it can’t be explored here.)

The mistake is assuming that a public servant isn’t “selfish.” The naivetŽ of that assumption should be obvious. People are people. They don’t become saints when they choose government work. It does no good to argue that people can make more money in business than in politics. First, it’s not true for everyone. Second, people seek more in life than money. For some, power and the prestige issuing from the mystique of the state outweighs the money forgone. It’s plain silly to portray Ted Kennedy or Bill Clinton as “selfless.”

The public choice school of political economy has gone to great lengths to show that most of what goes on in government cannot be explained if you assume its personnel to be enlightened and selfless public servants. The scales fall from the eyes as soon as you see politicians and bureaucrats as self-seekers. The public-service model is also defective in that it assumes that people know what’s in the “public interest.” There are many interests, some of them conflicting. Government personnel have no special insight.

Since top government jobs consist in wielding power, we’d be closer to the mark to assume bad motives on the part of the job-holders. Why would a decent person want to hold the power to dispose of people’s liberty and income? Such a person might have made an innocent error about what his job entails. But the safer assumption is that he is a bounder. (See F.A. Hayek’s “Why the Worst Get on Top” in The Road to Serfdom .)

There is nothing noble about public service. It’s about expropriation and control. When public servants aren’t taking our mon-ey, they are telling us how to live: Don’t smoke, don’t use drugs, don’t gamble, don’t talk to your business competitors, don’t make too much money, don’t think up your own way to educate your kids. They are control freaks when it comes to our lives. And it gets worse all the time.

Enough of the adulation of public servants. There’s nothing noble about what they do. And they aren’t servants; they’re masters . We’re the servants. When will the American people discover that?

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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.