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Why Be Proud of Government Work?

Mises Daily: Thursday, July 08, 2004 by

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Recently, when walking home from work, I was passed by one of those red monster pick-up trucks with an oversized bumper sticker on the back window that announced: FORMER MARINE.

It made me wonder why it is that Marines are the only federal employees who feel the urge to proclaim that they once were paid with taxpayer loot. You never see Volkswagens buzzing around town with a sign that says FORMER POSTAL WORKER, or Lexuses chugging down the street with a sticker proclaiming FORMER FEDERAL FISHERIES STAFF ACCOUNTANT.

So, what's with the Marines? Like any other federal employee, they live off of other people's money (acquired via conscription), they operate on a socialist model, they specialize in bullying people, and they are always faithful (semper fi!) to the government bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy is acting in accord with the Constitution (or natural law).

In other words, they are different from federal housing clerks in degree but not in substance.

Normally, I’d sympathize with such individuals. Despite the pay and benefits, no one said that working for the military was easy (although it often is). This is especially true for the troops sweating it out on the streets of Baghdad, many of whom signed up for National Guard service believing that two weekends a month and two weeks a year meant just that. They are, nevertheless, simply another variety of federal workers bearing grenades and guns instead of paper clips and White Out.

Both sets of workers freely chose to pledge their lives in exchange for a share of the stolen goods locked away in the Treasury for the most economic of reasons: that course of action benefited them more than the next best alternative. But while one worker finds himself in the air-conditioned bowels of the Department of Waste building somewhere near the Potomac, the other crosses himself every time he gets on the Baghdad Beltway. It doesn’t seem fair.

But it is predictable. Whether bureaucracies comprise the welfare or warfare states, they must spend their budgets this year in order to justify bigger ones next year. This insight was not accepted into the mainstream of economic thought until the development of the Public Choice school in the 1960s, but long before that, the Austrian school considered the economic analysis of bureaucracies as fair game. For instance, when Mises analyzed bureaucracies in Human Action in 1949, he merely emphasized the main points he raised in his classic 1944 book Bureaucracy.   

As recently as 1995, Rothbard noted that

Bureaucracy is necessarily hierarchical . . . because [it] grows by adding more subordinate layers. Since, lacking a market, there is no genuine test of "merit" in government’s service to consumers, in a rule-bound bureaucracy seniority is often blithely adopted as a proxy for merit. Increasing seniority, then, leads to promotion to higher ranks, while expanding budgets take the form of multiplying the levels of ranks under you, and expanding your income and power. Bureaucratic growth occurs, then, by multiplying levels of bureaucracy.

Such layers continue to fester unless constrained by a strict constitution (which is rare) or other institutional constraints (such as a gold standard). The result is hardly congruent with a peaceful and orderly society. A bureaucracy's very existence is based on involuntary trade, implying the introduction of some violence, whether in the form of tax system enforcement or of bullets fired by those federal employees stationed out on the fringes of the American Empire.

The festering explains the general resentment toward government. One can sense it in the total disgust felt toward the two major parties' presidential candidates. One can measure it in the size of record budget deficits and projected inflation. One can see it in the popularity of a recently-released documentary that questions the moral legitimacy of the warfare state and its sycophants. After a certain point, the waste is obvious.

When that happens, shame is the proper reaction on the part of those who helped cause it by participating in a system based on transferred—as opposed to created—wealth. After all, you don’t see the same kind of pride of work on the part of U.S. Department of Agriculture price fixers that you do among Wal-Mart employees. Why is that?

The answer is because a life devoted to fidelity to Leviathan in a government bureaucracy is neither a badge of honor nor the mark of a meaningful life, and most every former federal employee knows it—except, perhaps, the former leathernecks who cruise by during my walk home from work.

People who devote their lives to private enterprise, on the other hand, might be told that they are greedy and selfish but they know in their hearts that they have been serving others within a framework of voluntary exchange all their lives.

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Christopher Westley, Ph.D., teaches economics at Jacksonville State University. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Send him MAIL. Comment on this article on the blog.