- The Washington Times - Monday, October 10, 2011


The Duke of Windsor (no relation) once said that what impressed him most about America was the way parents obey their children. To the extent that they do, it is because, in the land of opportunity, the future matters more than the present. And, of course, the children are our future.

“I don’t want to be just another adult who stands up and lectures you like you’re just kids - because you’re not just kids,” President Obama said to a bunch of kids last month. In a speech at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C., Mr. Obama implored the students to “work hard.” He should give the same advice to federal workers.

Indeed, it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between bureaucrats and public school students, given that both groups are made up of people (a) who don’t work and (b) whose daily lives are publicly financed.

As anyone with experience in the public sector can attest, kids aren’t the only ones full of dreams. A memo dispatched on Sept. 27 at the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that many of its employees are also fond of dreaming - or, as the memo calls it, “sleeping in public areas.” Kindergartners know it as nap time. Federal workers know it as Monday through Friday.

“Sleeping on the premises is not acceptable behavior,” Ted A. Johnson, the bureau’s human resources director, explained in the memo. “It is manifestly unprofessional and creates an impression of carelessness, which unfairly impugns the hard work of the entire Census community.”

While there undoubtedly are hard workers in government, just as there are diligent students in public schools, their hard work means little when there are so many others who hardly work. In both cases, taxpayers are responsible for the bill. “When your money is taken by a thief, you get nothing in return,” the late economist Henry Hazlitt wrote. “When your money is taken through taxes to support needless bureaucrats, precisely the same situation exists.”

Actually, the bureaucracy is worse than the thief. At least the thief is mortal.

As Milton Friedman pointed out, the public sector, unconstrained as it is by the profit-and-loss system, lacks a “mechanism for terminating unsuccessful experiments; instead, they tend to be expanded to bury small failures in a large failure.” Unlike private businesses, which have to worry about going bankrupt, the government need not agonize about the expendable hordes who fill its corridors. It is this uncompetitive marketplace into which adults enter and metamorphose into children. The only thing they produce is more of themselves. Our bloated bureaucracy arises in part from what economist Bryan Caplan calls our make-work bias - “a tendency to underestimate the economic benefits of conserving labor.” At the expense of higher productivity, we strive to create jobs for their own sake, and one way to create jobs is to hire more workers who do less work. In this way, doing a bad job can bring more jobs.

As the nation’s largest employer, the federal government employs about 2 million civilian workers (excluding the U.S. Postal Service). It’s hard to blame the people who flock to its wards. The public sector is rife with job opportunities and casual about work (or the lack thereof).

Adam Smith’s invisible hand works both ways. Even those who intend to serve the public interest end up serving their own private interests. Bureaucrats, like everyone else, want to do as little as possible to gain as much as possible. Unlike everyone else, however, they are able to keep their jobs and not do their jobs at the same time.

While children are our future, adults are our present - or, in the case of some federal workers, our past. In a report released last month, the U.S. Office of Personnel Management revealed that the federal government has been paying dead government employees. These “improper payments to deceased annuitants” have averaged $120 million annually over the past five years. In one case, the son of a deceased annuitant received payments until 2008 - 37 years after his father died during the Nixon administration. Simply by dying, a federal worker provided nearly four decades of income to his son. His livelihood, in other words, outlasted his life. A government job, it seems, is as close as it gets to life after death.

To quote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”:

They groaned, they stirred, they all uprose,

Nor spake, nor moved their eyes;

It had been strange, even in a dream,

To have seen those dead men rise.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge may not have been talking about bureaucrats, but he aptly, if unintentionally, describes them. Whether they are asleep or dead, it does not matter. Their future is already predetermined. Even as they perish and fail to produce, their numbers multiply. Like most parasites, whether fleas or the Kardashians, they have a knack for growing without growing up.

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and the editor of “The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism” (Da Capo Press, 2011).

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