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.
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).