2013-06-10

Power Dichotomy

When I think about the future of society and its relationship to government, I see a major barrier standing in the way of freedom.

According to multiple sources, the US Department of Defense is the single largest employer on the planet. And that's just one department of the US federal government. Taken in sum, the US government is the largest employer in America. This is true for many other, if not most, countries in the world, at least "advanced" nations in the G7 or G8 or G-whatever they're counting these days.

Setting aside any debate about how involved the government should actually be in our lives, we should consider the legal impact of having such a large public-sector economy.

The Current Environment
Bureaucrats have an impact on our daily lives, and I know this because I have been in the very rooms where policy has been created, at the very time policy was being created. These are not nefarious Koch brothers or corporate bigwigs. They are regular, middle-class folks like you and I. For all I know, you yourself might be one of them, and if so, you know that what I'm saying is true. Bureaucrats have the power to set up the regulations, bylaws, and general guidelines that define our relationship to the state.

If you work at the DMV, you get to decide how many hoops I have to jump through in order to renew my license. If you work at the IRS, you have the power to increase or decrease my odds of being audited. If you work at an office that regulates a particular sector of the economy, like rental housing or gas stations or whatever, you have the power to determine how many inspections I must pay for this year. You might not have the power to create a new law, but you certainly have the power to change my relationship to the law.

In contrast, I have no similar power over civil servants. I can impact a particular company's relationship with my own employer to some degree, but that's different for two reasons. First, my clients are not individuals, so if I chose to create an adverse relationship with one of my clients, no one individual would suffer beyond the normal issues that occur during a day at the office. Second, because my employer will cease to exist if its employees don't give our best work to our clients, any adverse relationship I create between my clients and my employer is an existential threat to myself: I might be fired.

Neither of these two facts applies to government employees. In the first case, bureaucrats can easily target specific individuals for increased regulatory burden, and they have done so many times. Spare me the burden of having to prove it: I've seen it, firsthand. In the second case, the government cannot be "fired," and statistically speaking, neither can most bureaucrats.

Therefore, civil servants and government employees of all varieties have a disproportionate share of power in any professional relationship, combined with what is essentially professional invincibility.

Note that none of my comments thus far are meant to carry any implication about what's "good" or "bad." These are the plain facts of the matter, uncolored by opinion. Public employees - even low-level employees - possess personal sway and are difficult to fire, that's all.

Where Is Their License?
If we suspend disbelief for a moment and assume that whatever government, bureaucracy, etc. we already have is necessary and useful (ha, ha... bear with me here), we nonetheless run into a significant problem that goes even beyond the fact that public sector employees can and do adversely impact the lives of ordinary citizens. The problem is this: there is no set of regulations to which the public sector is held.

Think about it. In order to live a normal life, we are all required to get driver's licenses and car registrations at the DMV, we must pay our taxes to multiple taxation offices, if we own special equipment, we must have it regularly registered and inspected by the proper authorities, we must notify various offices if we plan on digging holes, burning fires, and so on, and so forth. Forget the merits or demerits of any of these rules and simply as yourself the following question: What licenses and registrations are required to be a civil servant?

This is only a half-rhetorical question. I actually know the answer to this: none. To gain employment with a public office, one need only pass a drug test and an applicancy test, both of which are administered under the supervision of similar public servants.

The point here is that, while every facet of our lives as citizens is subject to license and regulation, no facet of anyone's life as a public employee is subject to license or regulation. Our role is to comply with the rules they set; their role is to interpret and execute their legislative mandate. If something goes awry, it gets settled in court.

The Point
What this all adds up to is a situation in which the regulators can regulate, but cannot be regulated. So long as we were only talking about a small number of mostly elected officials, as in the early days of the Republic, this was an acceptable compromise. If anyone screwed up, we could vote the bums out, and problem solved.

But as governments have grown to become the largest employers in the world, we have run into a situation in which a large segment of our nation's population lives a life very different from our own. Sure, they also have to get driver's licenses and so on, but while they have the ability to regulate specific individuals (and punish them into compliance where necessary), we have no such control over their lives as public employees.

This has created a significant legal moat between them and us. They get to audit us. They get to enforce city codes against us. They get to make us go to the back of the line. They get to make us come back tomorrow with proof-of-address. We hold no such impact over their lives.

Now, considering the various revelations of the past few weeks and months - the IRS scandal, the phone and internet surveillance scandal, the endless stream of criminals shot to death by police officers, the pepper spraying of peaceful protestors, and so on - I would argue that we have reached the required tipping point. We see the clear and incontestable fact that public employees are abusing their powers. There is no question about that.

So, would it really be controversial to require the bureaucrats to be licensed and regulated in the same way that ordinary citizens are? Let them feel the full force of their own regulations. Let them feel real responsibility and real accountability for their actions. Subject them to an equal level of regulation. And let those new licenses, rules, and regulations be enforced, not by yet another layer of bureaucracy, but by ordinary public citizens in their interaction with public sector employees.

Correct the imbalance of power in this way, and observe how justifications for the size and scope of government melt away in the fact of the ever-increasing number of public employees having to actually shoulder some of the burden themselves.