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The Myth of “Public Service”

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The accident involving John F. Kennedy Jr. has 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. I wish to point out a misconception about what is called public service. It is odd that devoting one’s life to acquiring 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 offering value to consenting customers. The business people we regard as powerful are actually quite lacking in power. Bill Gates and the CEO of General Motors 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 if you’ll pay attention and ultimately buy. No one can force you.

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 business people can 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. To get something, we must give up something else. It would be nice if it were otherwise, but that’s not how the world is set up. Business people are not responsible for scarcity. On the contrary, they sweat to relieve scarcity. They produce. If they charge for their products, it’s 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, unlike public servants, are seldom admired.

Contrast the money maker (an appropriate term; they create ) 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 don’t create it. They 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 and do all the time-adding up to more than a trillion dollars. The tax system is a massive machine for transferring wealth from those who make it to those don’t. (And that doesn’t only mean transferring it to “poor” people. Plenty of wealthy people get huge government subsidies.) Try telling the IRS that you don’t like the service so you don’t wish to pay anything this year. Lots of luck.

“Public service,” then, consists of taking from producers in order to give it to nonproducers. “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 we voted for it,” others will say. So? Can a majority make the immoral moral? Besides, little difference one vote makes anyway.

There is nothing noble about public service. It’s about expropriation and control. When the public servants aren’t taking our money, 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 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.

So enough of the adulation of public servants. There’s nothing noble about what they do. They aren’t servants; they’re masters . We’re the servants. I, for one, am fed up.

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Sheldon Richman is vice president of 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.