Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bureaucratic Virtues

A healthy skepticism toward government bureaucracy may be a good thing. And much of it can be traced back to Robert Michels’s “law of oligarchies.” Inspired by Max Weber’s observations, Michels convincingly argued that organizations (democracies, bureaucracies) inevitably move toward oligarchy. And today, government creep is a common cry against greater government involvement in health insurance.

But over the last two decades, skepticism about the government has grown into a fierce antipathy, and an ideological position often far removed from the facts. The Nashville Tennessean yesterday (6/30/09) morning had a Tea Party protestor holding up a sign stating “Government is the problem, not the solution,” a catch phrase that may be a bit worn around the edges but still has plenty of appeal.

What about the virtues of being a public servant? A public servant, someone serving the public good, sacrificing personal gain to promote a collective interest. What happened to the nobility of the civil service profession? It was not that long ago that these were plum jobs, positions many aspired to. (And perhaps they will be again, with the current economic crisis.)

Now, this isn’t true of popular views of the military. Sure we recognize the need to cut waste and improve the way it works in various ways, but we also acknowledge (and celebrate) the importance of its mission and the dedication of its people.

There are many examples of excellence in government: the Transportation Safety Board (see NPR story), the FDIC team that takes over failed banks (see This American Life story), the Pentagon’s tropical disease drug development program . . . and the list goes on and on.

And it is not just these elite and exotic niches of government that we find the virtue and excellence we more often associate with craftsmen and professionals. Recently I became worried about cars speeding down on a street in our neighborhood with several pedestrian crossings. I called the public works office and left my name and number. Later that day a traffic engineer called me from his cell phone asked me to describe the problem as he drove down that very street. The next day a crew installed several pedestrian crossing signs. The efficiency and professionalism of this public works employee matched the best customer service of the private sector, and in the service of the public good.

Sure, the government has its fair share of bitter bureaucrats (and probably more than its fair share of absurdly rational bureaucratic processes), but it is also full of noble public servants, folks who take pride in doing their job well and in the fact that it is serving a greater good beyond private gain. We need to recognize and celebrate that, and reward it with the honor we bestow upon the military.

Matthew Crawford, in his recent book “Shopcraft as Soulcraft,” argues for the moral and intellectual virtues of (masculine) manual labor. Richard Sennett, is his recent book “The Craftsmen,” similarly highlights the social and personal goods that flow from skilled labor. These and a number of other recent works focus on the moral value and identity formation that come out of productive activities, and this marks a shift of zeitgeist as well as academic interest away from the focus on identity formation through consumption of recent years.

Crawford and Sennett point us to the virtue and honor associated with certain kinds of skilled jobs. Such virtue can also be seen in public service jobs—the virtue not only of doing a job well but also of contributing to a common purpose.

It is also true that to glorify the private sector over the public ignores all of the problems of unfettered pursuit of private gain—the perverse incentives and negative externalities that can be, and sometimes are, produced—and we need look no further than to the recent devastating effects of rampant competition in mortgage products.

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