Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why are Government Workers So "Entitled"?

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Government workers in Greece, faced with austerity measures, rioted and firebombed a bank, burning to death three human beings trapped inside. In New Jersey the Governor responded to a severe recession by denying government school teachers their expected annual raise (a raise, during a recession) and the reaction from public sector unions was screaming, white-faced rage. Here in Wisconsin, the Governor is trying to limit the collective bargaining rights of state workers -- a measure that would leave them with roughly the same rights that federal workers have -- and the reactions from the unions was three weeks of demonstrations, illegal obstruction of the legislative process, and an unprecedented flood of death threats and obscene phone calls.

Clearly, these people sincerely believe that they have rights that people in the private sector do not have. Why?

I mean this seriously as a question. I am struggling to understand. In my moral universe, the income of the government worker is more, not less, ethically dubious than that of a private worker. If you are flipping burgers in the private sector, every penny of your income comes from people who like your burgers enough to pay for them. They are glad to do so. In government work, every penny is extracted by force from somebody like the burger-flipper, someone who produces goods and services sold in the marketplace. How can anybody think this is a right, let alone collective bargaining for more money to be collected by force?

Part of the reason, obviously, is that these indignant government workers do not see things this way at all. They are simply "workers," and their public sector union is simply "a union." Thus the reasonable sympathy that people feel for the producers of goods and services is extended -- fallaciously, I say -- to them.

Another reason is the one suggested by Louis C. K. in the above video: people just naturally tend to think that whatever the have right now, regardless of where it came from or how obtained, is a "right." Also fallacious, of course, but understandable. I get it.

But there must be more to it than that. Haven't we learned in the last year or so, that government workers feel more entitled than others? After all, starting about 3 or 4 years ago, families in the private sector started to behave as if family members would be laid off or cut back. And they were, and they did the best with it that they could. When private sector workers lose economic ground they do not scream, demonstrate, or riot.

I can think of two special factors at work here. One is the law. Here is a fact that will amaze government workers: People in the private sector do not generally feel that they have a right to their own jobs. One main reason is that, legally, they don't. Most of them can be fired at any time and without cause. It's called "employment at will." Government work is not like that. Those people do have "rights". It's a different culture, and I suppose it leads to a mindset of entitlement.

The other factor is the profound difference between markets and taxation. The burger-flippers of the world know very well that their income is paid by the customers, and if the customers stop liking their burgers, there will be no money to pay them. Period. They will have to go, and there is no use whining about it. The insecurity of their income stream is brought to mind every day.

The opposite is true of government workers. Their income, being collected by force according to rigid rules, seems absolutely secure. There is no reason to think about it at all. And so they don't. Thus the effect of the Louis C. K. principle is enhanced, squared, cubed. If whatever I have at the moment is a right, then whatever I can't fail to have must be an absolute right, a human right, a natural right!

This, too, is an illusion. Government money is indeed less insecure than private money, but it is not absolutely secure. In bad times, tax money dries up and belts must tighten. This however comes as a profound shock to many government workers. Hence the indignation and the explosions we have seen.

This anyway is the best explanation I have come up with so far.

[Special note in response to the hate mail I am likely to get for writing the above: I myself am a government worker. So if you think that I am saying that government workers are bad people, or that the never do fine work and provide essential services, then all I can say is take a deep breath and read this post again.]
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