Scapegoating Public Employees
(The Business Journal, May 26, 1995)
By Richard Carson
More often than not, they are old, ugly and don't match. They look like rejects bound for the Goodwill drop-off. The desks and chairs are reminiscent of something you would find in a Naval Reserve Station that is 1,000 miles from the ocean. Then there is the paint. Call it whatever you want, but the ubiquitous off-color gray or green reeks of indifference and neglect. This could be a city, county, state or federal government office anywhere in Oregon.
The reasons for this sad state of affairs are many. We have been cutting government funding ever since the Ronald Reagan years. Trickle-down economics started to hit local and state governments a decade before Oregon's Ballot Measure 5 took effect. First local and state governments started losing federal funds, then they were forced to take on more and more federal responsibilities without funds -- in what came to be called "unfunded mandates."
Then came the Oregon ballot measures. We cut property taxes to schools and government then voted to require government workers to pay for their retirement. Then things went tragically wrong. In Oregon, it started name-calling in the press. Hostile legislative committees were set up to do little political grandstanding. The employee union decided to strike. In the background, talk radio repeated the conservative mantra of "big government, tax and spend."
The result is that employees at every level of government are being unfairly criticized. These are real people -- with kids, mortgages and dreams. They are people who work for a living and pay taxes. They police our cities, put out the fire in our homes, teach our kids and patch the potholes in our streets.
Then came Oklahoma City. Words have meaning, especially harsh words. Words cause pain and can kill people.
Now, the very people who keep the public trust and teach your children are asking themselves if it is worth it to stay on. This climate of hatred and name-calling will drive the best and the brightest out of government and out of our schools. In the end the hate monger will probably be pushed aside by sensible people who have grown weary of vicious rhetoric. Unfortunately, many people are going to leave and our institutions will suffer before that happens.
Part of the problem is that many people do not understand how this republic of ours works. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great chronicler of the American struggle for freedom, understood the bulwark that the framers of the Constitution had erected against what he called the "tyranny of the majority." He said that in America "the majority, which so frequently displays the tastes and propensities of a despot, is still destitute of the most perfect instrument of tyranny."
And what stands between you and the tyranny of a majority of Republicans or Democrats? De Tocqueville said that when the "majority has issued a decree, it must entrust the execution of its will to agents, over whom it frequently has no control, and who it cannot perpetually direct. In other words the bureaucrats of the executive branch. The American system of checks and balances is less efficient than the private sector by design! It is called a "procedural republic" for a reason. The government's business must always be conducted in public so that no back-room deals are made. Everything takes longer because we need to give everyone adequate notice. It has to have complicated purchasing rules so there is no favoritism.
For this reason, we must be leery of those who want to "reinvent" government and make it more "entrepreneurial." There was a time in the 1930s when Americans envied Hitler for putting the Germans back to work and applauded Mussolini for making the trains run on time.
Adlai Stevenson, that most persistent of liberal presidential candidates, explained it best when he said, "In the tragic days of Mussolini, the trains ran on time as never before and I am told in their own horrible way, that the Nazi concentration camp system was a model of horrible efficiency."
The process of government in a democratic republic is never very efficient. It is the inefficiencies that keep us free.
As for me, I will keep the public trust. I believed John F. Kennedy when he asked us what we would do for our country. I see no reason to abandon my beliefs or the public trust just because government employee bashing is all the rage with a few self-serving and self-styled Torquemadas. But please let me know when the pendulum swings back. I would like to be proud to be an Oregonian again.
Richard H. Carson is an urban planner and is currently enrolled in the Lewis and Clark College's Master of Public Administration program.