Essay:Government employment

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There are both moral and practical issues involved in government employment. As Murray Rothbard pointed out, there are two classes of people in society — those who pay more to the government than they receive, and those who receive more than they pay.[1] If a person is in the latter category, arguably that makes that person one of the looters. Arguably, one has a right to receive back what was taken from him (although this point is debated), but is questionable whether one has a right to receive any more than that. If one does take it, that arguably makes one a knowing recipient of stolen property. Arguably, that property should be returned to the proper owners; after all, tax records do exist that would enable us to determine who the rightful owners are.

Étienne de La Boétie wrote that "observing those men who painfully serve the tyrant in order to win some profit from his tyranny and from the subjection of the populace, I am often overcome with amazement at their wickedness and sometimes by pity for their folly. For, in all honesty, can it be in any way except in folly that you approach a tyrant, withdrawing further from your liberty and, so to speak, embracing with both hands your servitude?"[2] Henry David Thoreau wrote, "How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer, that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it... If the tax-gatherer, or any other public officer, asks me, as one has done, 'But what shall I do?" my answer is, "If you really wish to do anything, resign your office.'"[3]

If one works for the government, one creates a conflict of interest between one's desire to serve liberty as a libertarian, and one's desire to be a good employee and a hard-working professional who does his best in whatever field he is employed. If one works for the Drug Enforcement Administration as a special agent, one does one's fellow-man a disservice and an injustice if one pursues drug dealers to the best of one's ability. But one does one's employer a disservice if one fails to pursue them to the best of one's ability. If one does one's employer enough disservices, one's career will suffer. Lew Rockwell has pointed out that when a libertarian goes to work for the state, "it is far more likely that the state will convert the libertarian than for the libertarian to convert the state."[4]

There are jobs available in the less-evil branches of government, such as the General Services Administration or local welfare office. However, even in these agencies, a libertarian may find himself painfully aware of the needlessness of all the bureaucracy one has to deal with. It might take away from one's job satisfaction. Even those who agree with the mission of such agencies may find those jobs stifling; Ludwig von Mises writes:[5]

Government jobs offer no opportunity for the display of personal talents and gifts. Regimentation spells the doom of initiative. The young man has no illusions about his future. He knows what is in store for him. He will get a job with one of the innumerable bureaus, he will be but a cog in a huge machine the working of which is more or less mechanical. The routine of a bureaucratic technique will cripple his mind and tie his hands. He will enjoy security. But this security will be rather of the kind that the convict enjoys within the prison walls. He will never be free to make decisions and to shape his own fate. He will forever be a man taken care of by other people. He will never be a real man relying on his own strength. He shudders at the sight of the huge office buildings in which he will bury himself.

Also, one is likely to find oneself unable to voice dissent as vigorously as one would in private employment. One will have more to lose if one gets on the government's bad side, especially if one works in a field that requires a security clearance. Secessionist efforts or tax resistance, for example, could cause one to be blacklisted from working for the government.

Walter Block writes that a government employee could be excused from guilt for having committed a crime against humanity if "he functioned as a sort of Schindler: he saved more people than would otherwise have escaped." Actions taken on behalf of liberty could at least be considered as mitigating factors, in Block's view.[6]