Angels, Demons and Government Workers

Originally published in the Herald-Mail

Thomas A. Firey Jun 24, 2014

Last March, a Minneapolis-area high school held a fire drill in –5 degree temperatures and –25 wind chill. Students were quickly ushered outside, including one girl who had been in the school’s indoor pool for gym class. Though she was barefoot and wearing only her swim suit and a towel, she was told not to fetch her shoes and coat from her nearby locker. She ended up suffering frostbitten feet.[1]

It’s tempting to chalk up such stories to stupid or uncaring teachers. But that’s almost certainly wrong. In the Minneapolis case, the girl’s teachers were so concerned about her that, after several minutes in the cold, one lent her a coat and another let her sit in the teacher’s car to keep warm.

Teachers and other government officials are often characterized in two very different ways: One is that they are incompetent or malevolent “demons” who wield power harmfully. The other is that they are altruistic, expert “angels” whose actions are beyond criticism.

As different as those characterizations are, they’re both rooted in the same notion of government—what is called Public Interest Theory. Under this theory, public employees and the managers and politicians who oversee them are—or, at least, should be—motivated solely by the desire to benefit the public. Government officials who fail that expectation must be either incompetent (e.g., Herbert Hoover failing to avert the Great Depression) or selfish and evil (Richard Nixon abusing executive power).

A half century ago, a different notion of government began gaining popularity. Under Public Choice Theory, government officials are just as self-interested as their private-sector counterparts. They are motivated by the rewards (monetary and nonmonetary) they receive for their work, and they want their jobs to be secure and relatively pleasant. That doesn’t mean that government workers and officials don’t care whether their work benefits others (many care a great deal), but rather that they care for the same reasons that many private-sector workers and managers care: because of personal ethics, or because they believe in the importance of their work, or just because they want to keep and advance in their jobs. Under Public Choice, government workers and officials are neither angels nor demons, but human—like everyone else. And bad government actions are often the result of perverse incentives given to public employees, not incompetent or malicious workers.

Not surprisingly, Public Choice has proven far more effective than Public Interest Theory in predicting and explaining government officials’ policies and actions. Consider the Minneapolis teachers. They’ve been instructed repeatedly to follow fire drill procedures or else face discipline or even the loss of their jobs. Accordingly, during the fire drill they sent a wet, half-clothed girl out into the subzero cold. Yet they cared about the child and ultimately lent her a coat and (after receiving permission from a school administrator) let her sit in a teacher’s car. Public Choice also explains school officials’ suspensions of students for “weapons violations” like chewing a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun[2] or “drug violations” like having aspirin or prescribed antibiotics in schools.[3] Government has clear procedures concerning weapons and drugs, and public employees are disciplined to follow those procedures—even if they are inappropriate in a particular case.

But there’s an important difference between self-interested public employees and self-interested private-sector workers. Government officials operate and are rewarded under a monolithic political system while, in the United States and most other countries, private-sector workers operate under a market economic system. Markets give both workers and the public much greater freedom to escape the harmful effects of self-interest. A pharmacy customer dissatisfied with Rite-Aid can take his business to CVS, and a clerk unhappy with working at Walmart can take a job at Sears. But the Minneapolis girl couldn’t easily switch to another school when she was told to stand half-naked and dripping wet in subzero temperatures, nor could her teachers and administrators easily switch jobs to a more compassionate school system that allows teachers greater discretion.

Government is necessary to provide some of the goods and services that people desire—it’s difficult to, say, have a private army that protects only paying citizens from military attack. But as long as monolithic government employs and is run by flawed, self-interested people like those who work in the private sector, it’s best to leave as much of human life as possible in the private sector. And when we do rely on government, we need to think very carefully about the incentives and instructions we give to very human public employees.

Thomas A. Firey is a senior fellow with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and a Washington County native.