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    He said, “I’m a minister, a big-shot in the state”

    I said, “I just can’t believe it—boy, I think it’s great”

    A few days ago, the Unreligious Right posted about this piece, in which Ben Stein grouses that his fellow conservatives don’t respect public servants enough. As usual, UNRR’s comments are worth reading in full. There’s just one key section that I think is worth expanding on:

    When people complain about “bureaucrats,” they don’t mean cops, firefighters, teachers and CIA agents. And for the most part, they are complaining about the system and how the government conducts business, rather than about the individual people involved. Praising government workers as necessary and valuable is every bit as big a gross over-generalization, as is demonizing them.

    He’s responding to this passage from Stein’s article:

    Government employees include cops and firefighters, who do some of the most dangerous, vital work in the society. Government employees include prosecutors and prison guards, who do work that is often extremely difficult and deeply necessary.

    Government employees are the doctors and nurses at VA hospitals. They are the teachers who try to teach our kids. They are the men and women who keep track of our economic and health statistics, without which we cannot measure progress or failure.

    Government employees are the CIA agents who launch drone strikes to kill terrorists and who sometimes get killed. Bureaucrats would include the people of the FBI and it would also include the men and women at the Pentagon who guide our armed forces. These people are the muscle and bone of the nation.

    I’m not a conservative, but to the extent that the much-hyped conservative-libertarian alliance has ever existed, it’s been based on a shared opposition to government overreach; and from that perspective, in any form of it that I’m aware of, Stein’s arguments make no sense.

    All the work Stein mentions is necessary—does anyone think it isn’t?—but that doesn’t necessarily mean it must be done by the government. Just about all of us agree that the military and the police should be run directly by the government because they fall within the job description of protecting free citizens from harm. Firefighting is a grey area. Some places do just fine with voluntary brigades. And otherwise, it’s not clear why these people need to work for the government. Statisticians? Health-care personnel used by vets? Schoolteachers? They all have direct private-sector analogues. One doesn’t have to denigrate the work they do to wonder whether it could be done better if not run by the government. When services are paid for from tax money, it’s functionaries, not the citizens who are end users, whose preferences tend to decide what gets delivered, and effectiveness and efficiency get tossed aside in the bargain. Additionally, government employees create, as Nick Gillespie puts it at Hit and Run, “a permanent lobby for expanded government and higher taxes.” It might be nice if we were able to draw a firm line between necessary and superfluous civil servants, but in reality the latter only have positions to fill because the former shrewdly figured out how to entrench themselves and expand their power base.

    Also, even if we decide that every last agency currently in existence really did need to be public rather than private, we still have a right to ask whether everything it’s doing is justified. It’s one thing, for example, to recognize that law enforcement officers work under dangerous conditions and will sometimes make fatal mistakes in good faith, for which they shouldn’t be punished legally or ostracized socially. It’s another thing entirely to insist that any old incompetent thing a cop or prosecutor does is excusable because he or she is just trying to protect us from the baddies out there. I’m not always fond of Radley Balko’s tone, but click at random on his list of articles and posts at Reason. You have your botched raids by paramilitarized police, you have your prosecutors going unpunished for getting suspects convicted with evidence they faked, you have your assets seized from people who are never charged with a crime. Also, don’t forget about the traffic fines not intended to increase road safety but to fund public operations.

    You don’t have to harbor any animus against The Man to recognize that there’s a terrible danger in encouraging those in the justice system to use the “we’re doing a dangerous job” card to get a free pass on any old error they might make. The power to shoot, arrest, and land people in prison should require more, not less, accountability than other work.

    Ben Stein is welcome to point out that most government employees do the best they can and don’t deserve to be stereotyped as exploitative and shiftless. The flip side, which neither he nor other apologists for big government ever seem to get around to thinking about, is that individual citizens don’t deserve to be viewed by civil servants as fonts of tax revenue who should shut up and do what we’re told by our betters because every intrusive little rule they’re moved to come up with is vital to the social order. If more conservatives are starting to realize that, so much the better for them.

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