Sunday, March 20, 2011

Why are Government Workers So "Entitled"?

Align Center

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.]


thedancinganimal said...

Hi Dr. Hunt,

It's Brad from your Nietzsche class a couple years ago. I've enjoyed reading your blog the last couple years to get a libertarian perspective on events. I was hoping you would weigh in more on this one, since most of the other info I get from it is unquestionably behind the unions. While I have libertarian tendencies, public education is an issue that always gets me. I think, to offer another answer to your question, public workers feel entitled because they feel what they are doing is important...very important to society. I am inclined to agree with them.
Public education admittedly has its faults, but I feel it is important to have some good, quality educational opportunity for everyone (this is not only for people who come from unsupportive family situations and outside of public education they would have no chance to succeed, but also because I think PubEd would improve life for everyone). So, I guess this is the right that I and others think everyone is entitled to. I have yet to be convinced that a completely privatized system could work. I understand one response might be that if I care about it, I should donate money to a charity to support it, instead of being FORCED to "donate." Here I bite the bullet and say, yes, I am paternalistic about this and think I know best. The reason I am, is because even though I think PubEd is important, I wouldn't donate to a similar structure voluntarily--partially because I don't want to bear more than my fair share of the burden and there is nothing in place to get other people to contribute as well. Yet, when it is compulsory for everyone, I recognize this is an important cost that I am willing to pay my fair share for.

It may be that we disagree on this point, and my guess is that you think the benefits of privatized education (like profit incentives) would outweigh the costs (some people never getting any education, or getting the "cheap" one because they were born into a certain family). Even if we disagree on this, though, I think my view is the one shared by the protesters and "entitled" workers, and I think IT is what needs to be addressed.

-- As a side note, what annoys me most about the Madison chaos (I am now in Grad School in Atlanta, but still hear about it constantly, especially from people who knew I lived in Madison) is that neither side seems to even be trying to understand the other sides arguments. This "debate" has the chance to bring up really interesting discussion about what is behind libertarian ideas which is important since (IMHO) the public perception of libertarianism is that it is synonymous with "Tea Party" and it risks getting cast aside as "crazy" if the arguments aren't made clear (my unscientific observations tell me that there is over 50% of the population that will NEVER support the Tea Party).

Lester Hunt said...


Thanks much for your very thoughtful comment.

You do a very good job of explaining why these folks, and many others, believe that money for education should be extracted via taxation. Knowledge is important enough to justify coercion.

I respect that argument. But I don't think it addresses the issue at hand. At most it establishes a right that is held by the student. They have a right to an education. What I am wondering about is why so many public school teachers feel that they themselves hold a similarly sacred right: to their income-stream. That is very different.

If it is converted into an argument for this latter right, what it means is that, because of sacred importance of the work they do, they are morally on a plane that is higher than the rest of us and deserve rights that others don't have. This may well be what they are thinking -- it is even suggested by some of their rhetoric -- but there are some ethical and political objections to it that I think would be obvious to most people in a liberal democracy.

That's the main reason I didn't put this explanation in my post. If it is what they are thinking, it does them no moral credit. I was looking for the human-all-too-human sort of explanation, not the seriously creepy kind.

You are certainly right about the "debate" here. I have never seen the level of public discourse sink so low. Even the Vietnam period was not nearly this bad.

Anonymous said...

Interesting way of putting it. You would not contribute to the system voluntarily but you are willing to let the force of government compel other people to work for your benefit since you feel it's in societies best interest. No one has the right to compel others to work for their benefit. We sort of discussed this as a country back in the 1860's and came to the correct conclusion. Too bad the more subtle version has crept back into vogue via the modern progressive state.

Brett_McS said...

Well, you're in good company. Every Randian I have ever known worked for the government.

Have you tried pointing out to your fellow government workers that your pay and theirs is provided at the point of a gun? What was the reaction?

I'd guess that the typical government employee with an entitlement mentality will not discover the true nature of reality until they get kicked out of the coccoon. There is just no incentive for them to do so before then.

Anonymous said...

"Their income, being collected by force according to rigid rules, seems absolutely secure."

As good a summary of feudal nobility as I have ever read.

Anonymous said...

I think you have just made this too complex. People just view jobs as jobs. Private or Public, most people are doing something pretty much exclusively for the money. When their money is targeted, as in this case, they get upset. They use hyperbole. Do most people really think bargaining is a "right" like speech or religion? Do most teachers think that students will really be the ones harmed because of these cuts?
I think everyone has become a used car salesman and believes that if they are honest about the situation, (that they are mad about losing 2500 dollars a year) it will not be convincing to others.

Lester Hunt said...

Single cause theories like yours are easy to test because they imply that we will always have the effect wherever we have the cause. The thing is that people don't always go ballistic when their future income-stream is threatened. What we see actually is an extremely wide disparity in behavior. That was the phenomenon I was trying to explain in the first place.

thedancinganimal said...

To anon #1. Not for MY benefit, for OUR benefit. And I explained why I would not voluntary donate. I feel it is something that we all owe, because, (yes I admit I am paternalistic about it) education is a value

This is my problem trying to debate and exchange ideas with extremely stubborn anarcho-capitalists (and also why a portion of society will always write these people off as crazy ideologues). You seem to simplify EVERYTHING, and ignore subtleties.

I understand that ALL tax is FORCED (even if this force is almost always passionately if by the use of gun they were taking away all of your most valuable possessions), but a lot of people still want to debate about certain issues that they feel are relevantly different. OK, I don't think it is right for the federal government to tax so they can spend money on the Iowa Peanut festival, but this is different then public education, or a police force, or a judicial system.

"all taxation is unjustified" is a neat and clean principle, but in order to justify it (or at least to convince a lot of people), you have to show why it is true, by showing how it relates case-by-case.

thedancinganimal said...

Also, thanks Dr. Hunt for the thoughtful reply.

I think you are right about the entitlement phenomena (and I loved that Louis C.K video), there is something more unconscious and natural that can explain it.

I am still curious to here more on your view about public education directly, or if you know of a good source that tackles the philosophical debate between "public education and no public education" in a thorough manner, I would be grateful.


Lester Hunt said...


As to things to read on education, I had to ask my wife as that is her area. She recommended this anthology, as something that gives both sides and is fairly state of the art:

Note that the issue here is fairly specific: public school choice vs. vouchers (all-school choice).

Also, she recommends looking at Cato's page on education:

Lester Hunt said...


I keep forgetting to say this, but I am glad to hear that you are ensconced at Atlanta and seem to be doing okay.

thedancinganimal said...


Anonymous said...

Another possible factor?:

When government workers' incomes/benefits are cut, they are done so by somebody in very high power. Thus they have an actual, physical agent to direct their rage at.

When private sector workers' experience similar situations, it usually is due to either 1) a supervisor at their company, who is not in very high power relative to a politician, and thus is not a very good sink for mass collective venting or 2) market processes, which as we know are "unseen" and nameless; really they aren't any "thing" at all, and thus would be hard to get mad at.

In short: Having a bad guy helps for people getting together to channel their collective rage, and the bigger the bad guy, the bigger the tantrum.

Lester Hunt said...

You're right. I did think of this myself, but not until after I had written my post.

What would it be like to have your hours at the counter of Kwik-E-Mart cruelly slashed in half, and how would this be different from the situation of the state worker? The Kwik-E-Mart worker can clearly see the reason for what has happened: the place isn't as busy as before. The state worker sees instead the meanie who slashed him. Further, in this era of collapsing civility, members of opposed political parties hate each other already, and the politician with the will to cut expenses is likely to by in a different party (namely, the GOP) than the government unions.

(I don't mean this a either praise or blame for the GOP.)

Related to this is the fact that government is a monopoly, unlike Kwick-E-Mart. The convenience store employee is alone in his misfortune, while the government worker suffering through an era of austerity is part of a vast crowd of aggrieved people, who will validate each other in their bitterness and anger.

Anonymous said...

@dancinganimal. The reason taxation is unjustified is because one's life requires using one's mind to gain values and force prevents this. The destruction caused by violating this principle can be seen in countless cases from a thief taking someone's wallet to socialist governments.

Government education is a good example. If individuals are to pursue knowledge and educate their children, they must be free to do so. If the government forces them to adopt government-sanctioned "education" then, to the extent force is used against them, they are unable to pursue what they consider valuable knowledge and education. Truth is irrelevant once force is involved.

When a thief takes your wallet, a dictator nationalizes your business or the department of education monopolizes your kid's education, your ability to use your mind and judgment is destroyed. This is fundamentally anti-life.