#159 The Death of the Civil Servant

The Death of the Civil Servant

Government employees work in a monopoly where the fallen nature is encouraged.  Private employees work in competitive environments which discourage self-interest. 


What happened to the term “civil servant?”  Honestly, I have not heard that term used in twenty years.  The idea was that workers who earned their living in the public sector were serving society.  Not so much anymore. 


Sand on the Tracks

Roy Orr was a Democrat, who served a term as the President of the National Association of Counties.  I was once part of a leadership group interviewing Orr, and he continually used the phrase, “Sand on the tracks…That’s all we were, sand on the tracks.”  Okay, here’s the explanation: If a train gets stuck on a steep hill, or the tracks are iced over, they throw sand on the tracks for traction.  The sand gets smashed by the extremely heavy locomotive.  During a visit to a policy-making committee in Washington, he was dismayed that the staff was not showing much interest in his proposals.  The bureaucrats told him in private, “You’re just sand on the tracks.”  Meaning: Mr. Orr would soon be gone, and the bureaucrat could do what he wanted.  See why this podcast is titled “The Death of the Civil Servant?”  That’s because they are not serving society anymore, they are serving their own self-interest. 


Work is Good

It’s the title of podcast #24, and it earns a spot on the ten Biblical Commandments of Economics in the book titled Biblical Economic Policy that I wrote with Sergiy Saydometov.   When folks work in the private sector, they work in a competitive environment.  That means, they must serve the customer before they get served.  It’s one of my favorite lessons of economics that I will explain to my sophomores at DBU next week.  In a competitive environment, the firm must serve the customer first, before the firm gets served.  In a competitive environment, discrimination harms the discriminator. 

But the public arena is non-competitive.  People work in a monopoly: There is only one street department, one sewer department, one police department, and only one public library.  If you don’t like their service, you have no competitive supplier to switch to.

Okay, certainly there are good people who work in government.  In the Christian worldview, we believe everything was made for God’s good purpose.  But all of it CAN be used for bad purposes.  My point today is that public government jobs encourage the fallen nature, while the private, competitive sector punishes the fallen nature. 

Historically, civil servants were paid less than private servants.  The reason was a simple concept from finance: Risk and return.  Working in the public sector was seen as having less risk, so there was less pay.  Now, that kinda makes sense.  When the economy is bad, as it is today – I could read a dozen business headlines about companies laying off employees – workers in the private sector lose their jobs.  In the public service corps, there seldom are staff reductions.  The assumption is that when others lose their jobs, there is even MORE work for the public sector to do, to make up for it.  In economics, John Maynard Keynes said that the government must “spend against the wind,” and he was right.  Banks and other private institutions naturally retreat in the face of a recession.  If every entity does that, it takes a long time to recover.

While the purpose of government is more than economic, it DOES make sense that historically, there has been a trade-off of risk and return working in the public sector.  You had less risk of being laid-off, but you made less money.  Not so today.  Public employees make more than private employees.  So they have less risk and GREATER return.  Pretty good gig, if you can get it. 

Do you know what NARFE is?  Ginger and I are learning more about it because their regular meetings often earn a photo and a story in our local newspaper.  It stands for National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association.  Here’s why that’s disturbing: You know, their salaries and retirement benefits are paid by the taxes extracted from the profits of the private sector.


Everyone Likes Profit

The idea of profits deserves an entire podcast all its own.  It might be more than a podcast, maybe a book.  The longer I have studied Christian Economics, the more clear has become the importance of profits.  I end each podcast with the phrase: Fear God, tell the truth, earn a profit.  Profits: Without them, we can’t keep the Biblical command to give.  Without them, no salaries could be paid in the private sector.  Without them, there would be nothing for the government to tax.  Think about this: These folks I’m talking about today, who want a bigger government: If you just follow the logic chain one short step, you find they WANT more profit because that’s what they tax to pay for a larger government.  In his landmark book Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt encourages us to think about the next step in the economic chain.  That’s all you have to do, to see that even the most liberal Democrat wants higher profits in the private sector, so she can tax them.

One of my fellow Christian Economists, Anne Bradley in her book Be Fruitful and Multiply, refers to them as “leftovers.”  And she clearly makes the point that without “left-overs” there’s nothing to pay salaries with, nothing to give to your church, and nothing to tax.  That’s why one of my first podcasts #2 was titled The Prophet who Made a Profit.  Jesus HAD to make a profit, to keep the Jewish commandment to give. 


Ok, we sometimes call this “Agency.”  It questions whether the employee is working for the stakeholders, or for their own self-interest.  That’s one of the strengths of economics: We assume self-interest, which in theological terms is called the fallen nature.  When you hear the phrase “Follow the money,” in economic terms, we say, “Understand self-interest.”

In the Christian worldview, the purpose of taxing is to fight evil.  That’s why one of the most honored professions in society is the police force.  I used to tell a friend of mine who was a career Ft. Worth policeman, “You separate evil from good.  There’s no higher calling.”  That’s what police do, and we should be forever grateful.  But, just a glance at the US debt clock shows us that the two biggest expenditures of the federal government are healthcare and social security.  National security is third on the list, occupying just under 13% of spending.  Neither of the first two items has a Biblical basis.  Both of those, and many other governmental activities, were assigned to the church.  Oh, while we’re looking at it: Debt is the fourth largest expenditure at just under 9% of federal expenditures.  


Career Politicians

Let’s do a roll-call of presidents in reverse order:

President Biden is a Democrat who is a career politician.  He has NEVER produced any consumer surplus.

President Trump is a Republican, who was an immensely successful businessman and produced millions of dollars in consumer surplus.

President Obama is a Democrat, who was a career politician, who never employed one person in the private economy. 

President George Bush is a Republican who was a successful oilman from Texas and was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.

President Bill Clinton is a democrat who NEVER had a job in the private sector. 

President George HW Bush is a Republican who was a successful oil man before he went into public service.

Do you want me to keep going?

Ronald Reagan is a Republican who had a successful acting career.

Jimmy Carter: Finally, a Democrat who is not a career politician. He owned and operated a peanut farm, before he was elected Governor of Georgia, then President of the US.  Let’s keep going.

Gerald Ford was a Republican, who after serving nobly in the Navy, was mostly a career politician. 

Richard Nixon was a Republican, who was a successful lawyer in California before he entered political life.

Democrat Lyndon Johnson owned a ranch in Texas, but he was mostly a career politician. 

John F. Kennedy was a Democrat, who was a career politician and the family business was politics. 

Back to another current office holder: Vice President Kamala Harris is a Democrat who never produced anything in the private sector.

You’re welcome to think about your senators, governor, and your congressman.  If she’s a Republican, it’s very likely she was in the private sector before entering public life.  While most Democrats are career politicians, who never made a profit, paid a salary, nor created any consumer surplus.  They lived off the profits of the private sector

Mike Pompeo makes the same statement in his new book Never Give an Inch.  He writes about the current administration, “None of the Biden team have run a major corporation, and it’s hard to figure out which, if any, have signed the front side of a paycheck.  The detachment from economic reality is obvious.” 



So the best combination is a citizen legislative group and a professional bureaucracy.  By the way, that term “bureaucracy:” A bureau is a desk, so it means “rule from the desk.”  I can’t think of any positive use of the term bureaucracy.  The term “red tape” derives from the time when royal orders arrived wrapped in red ribbons.  Again: It’s a negative term.  The founding fathers clearly intended to have lay legislators who were involved in the production and distribution of goods and services for their economic support.  Those are people who understood the value of profit that supported the federal government.   

My ten-year-old grandson and I were putting stones along a very small waterway in our pasture recently, and he noticed, “We can’t live without water, but it can kill us.”  Good point.  Everything made good by God can be used for ill.  Including civil service.