The pampered, privileged public service

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The Article

The Dominion budget tabled this week (or “federal” as we now say, in emulation of the Americans) was full of restraint. We have been assured of this by every media source I’ve seen, and the notion gains additional plausibility from the mild endorsements of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and other worthy, fairly independent monitors. “Baby steps in the right direction” was the message from another policy think tank, that focuses on family issues.

And that’s all very sweet. The ostentatious freezing of the salaries of prime minister, cabinet, members of House and Senate, will of course save very little money, in proportion to the whole. It is thus a gesture, a trick. Yet it sets the politically necessary example for what truly needs to be done: capping salaries throughout the public sector.

Which in turn is a gesture, a trick—a cover for the greater task of “downsizing” the whole cumbersome apparatus. Mechanisms are being put in place, to create civil service options: “Cut this, or cut that, your choice.” The government is approaching this as timidly as possible, for it is up against monopoly unions that can really ruin a politician’s day.

Yet when we speak of “entitlements,” or more precisely, against them, the first thing we face is public sector entitlements—in Canada as in every other western or quasi-western country. The troubles the Greeks are now experiencing with their civil service, which is in a position to bring the country to a halt, is a warning for the road ahead.

And forget Greece, look at California. There one may see in clear North American daylight what a vast unspeakable public bankruptcy looks like. It was not an inevitable thing. Gentle reader need only compare, candidly, California with Texas—which is flourishing, and whose voters know why. Economic decline is a choice, not a fate, and it has everything to do with big, intrusive government.

Said reader and I could argue till death about the numbers, playing selectively with the statistics; yet what is obvious remains obvious. Among the games at which I am most inclined to sneer, is the percentage of almost any published budget that is assigned to “administrative costs”—in departments that are essentially all administration.

We have a huge, wealth-destroying, regulatory machine, that is constantly growing on its own internal inflationary principles, as well as by new mandates the politicians casually assign. Some of it may well be necessary. There is general consent for some degree of public regulation for snake oil salesmen; for a bit of testing and oversight of whatever is potentially lethal. And I, for one, retain a soft spot for the Geological Survey.

But only a tiny part of the bureaucracy is devoted to such useful tasks. The far greater part is devoted more purely to Nanny State functions: to the whimsical redistribution of people’s incomes, in return for the imposition upon them of the perverse value systems of our post-Christian elites.

This is a task of generations, however, and I’d rather mark the trees than clear cut, while we still have the option. My impression is that the Harper government is trying, against the odds, to make beginnings, very late in the game; that it would not be going much faster if it had a majority. For the opposition does not come only from Parliament, but from massed vested interests which have themselves had generations to assemble.

Cutting public sector pay—relative to private sector—is more than a fiscal necessity. It is also a moral necessity, though using that word more in the sense currently conveyed by the word “morale.” With money, job security, and administrative power, comes prestige. We need to reduce that.

This is one of the points that was grasped in the earliest stages of turning India around, by such as the late Rajiv Gandhi. The argument was that business and all other private activity suffered, because the country’s “best and brightest” were magnetically attracted to the prestige of so-called “public service.” It was what upwardly mobile parents prepared their children for.

But through that “public service” came the self-serving blindness and arrogance of India’s “ruling caste.” These were people who did not have to stoop to pleasing the labouring masses, in the way capitalists must, if they are going to sell anything. Instead they acquire the attitudes that I have found here, too, in almost every encounter with a “public servant,” dressed in a little authority.

In the revenue-generating private sector, at least in principle, salaries must be justified by productivity, rather than by politically pressured “judgment calls.” Nobody’s life on this planet is entirely cushy, and almost everyone thinks he is not paid enough—but not everyone can bluster the way Jack Layton can.

David Warren
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