On So-Called “Public Service”

Kevin Carson has a brilliant post up at the Center for a Stateless Society on the problems with public services and public-private cronyism. This is all in response to Steven Cohen’s defense of public service workers.

Here’s Kevin:

Let me start by saying I’ve fallen afoul of many libertarians by defending public sector employees like those in Wisconsin against reflexive charges of parasitism.  If they’re engaged in a legitimate function like teaching kids or delivering mail that would still exist on a voluntary basis even in a stateless society, and the state currently crowds out voluntary alternatives, they’re no more blameworthy than the workers in Soviet state-owned factories.

And I’ve argued that public sector unions frequently empower such workers against those at the top rungs of the state, and might be a useful tool for genuine privatization — i.e., Proudhon’s vision of devolving state functions into voluntary social relationships.  That means, instead of the right-wing “privatization” agenda of auctioning off government functions to crony capitalist corporations, mutualizing them as consumer cooperatives owned by the recipients of services. Anyway, I’ll proudly back a teachers’ union local against a superintendent of schools, any day of the week.

Nevertheless, the term “public service” really activates my gag reflex.  Like “statesmanship” and “reaching across the aisle,” it belongs in the kind of drinking game you play when you see managerial centrist hacks like David Gergen, Chris Matthews and David Brooks gathering to feed on a cable news talking head show.

He goes on to list the many problems with public servants including cops planting evidence, the fondling TSA and their captive “clientele”, and the prison guard and police unions and their efforts to sustain the Drug War; the politicians who start wars and the massive public-private partnerships that entrench many of the world’s largest corporations, sustain monopolies and duopolies, and the rentier class.

It’s not hard to be against the crony-capitalism, but it’s much thornier once you start talking about actual workers. Obviously even the police do a great deal of good, even if the system in which they work is heavily tilted to preserve privilege and keep the masses down. I think it’s good to differentiate between the workers and the system, as Kevin does with teachers. You don’t have to approve of the political force of the unions to understand that they’re in place to help protect workers against bureaucrats. Civil service laws were written to do the same thing.

But the system, the institutions, the cronyism – these all transcend the workers or the service being provided. Institutions seek self-preservation first and foremost. That’s why government and corporations team up to begin with. They scratch each other’s backs until the whole world bleeds.

Mark puts it well in the comments:

I think what Kevin is trying to get at is that the use of the phrase "public service" as a synonym for anything done in the name of the government winds up being a cover for all the things the government does that would be anything but a "public service" under any rational definition of the word.  Moreover, I think Carson would say, a true "public service" is not rendered as such solely by virtue of the employer signing the paychecks.

The phrase elevates government work as being somehow inherently more noble than so-called "private sector" work when in fact, I think Carson would say, it is really not inherently any different (this implies that so-called "private sector" work is also no more noble than government work).

12 thoughts on “On So-Called “Public Service”

  1. I usually like Carson but i’m not buying this. You could hear a mirror version of this from a lefty: “oh look at the bad things corporations do therefore corporations are bad. Look at the things capitalism fails at, therefore capitalism is bad”. Because bad things are done by public workers as part of there jobs says nothing about public workers any more then the owner of a McD’s is a bad person for selling fatty foods. If he is okay with a teacher then complaining about the fact there is some sort of administrator is silly.

    It’s hard to know what to make of his disgust at the term public service except that it seems like many Americans have a intense cynicism these days. I actually do public service which doesn’t mean i don’t get paid or work in a mud hut but i provide people who wouldn’t be able to afford it with a helpful service. If Carson can’t fire up his brain to try to tell the difference between an appropriate usage of phrase and PR crap then maybe i’ve thought to much of him in the past.

      

    • I think you may be reading too much into what he’s saying. His problem is when these services are monopolized by the state leaving no chance of exit and when those same services would not exist sans the state. So he leaves out some workers from this critique. But I agree, you tread a fine line when you talk about the workers themselves rather than the system.

        

      • Oh sure just because i work for a state gov you accuse me of reading to much into something. This is why we need unions.

        Or more seriously, i think when people talk about “the system” what they usually mean is human nature.

          

    • I think what Kevin is trying to get at is that the use of the phrase “public service” as a synonym for anything done in the name of the government winds up being a cover for all the things the government does that would be anything but a “public service” under any rational definition of the word. Moreover, I think Carson would say, a true “public service” is not rendered as such solely by virtue of the employer signing the paychecks.

      The phrase elevates government work as being somehow inherently more noble than so-called “private sector” work when in fact, I think Carson would say, it is really not inherently any different (this implies that so-called “private sector” work is also no more noble than government work).

        

  2. Thanks, Erik.

    Greginak, as a matter I’m an employee of a corporation, so obviously I don’t think workers in the state capitalist system are the moral equivalent of war criminals. To reiterate the analogy, we’re performing functions that would exist in a free society, even if we’ve got corporate pigs skimming off tghe top.

      

  3. I also confess my visceral reaction to the term “public service” has about as much to do with the sorts of people from whose mouths it normally issues — see the reference to Matthews, Gergen and Brooks — as with the denotative meaning.

      

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