»  National Review Online

July 17th, 2002

  The Government People Have Won


When I graduated from college my father gave me the following piece of advice, one of the very few he gave me that I actually followed:  "Get a government job." Dad himself had had a government job once. It had not lasted long, and he mislaid it under mysterious circumstances, returning to the private sphere, where, after splashing about in an uncoordinated way for a while, he sank like a stone. By the time I left high school the family was so poor we qualified for full government funding of my university career. There were application forms to fill out for this aid, and I noticed how my father, at that time working as a repo man for a furniture store, wrote CIVIL SERVANT (RETIRED) in the box labeled "Father's occupation." Three years later I graduated with a feeble Bachelor of Science degree, courtesy of the British taxpayer. Which brings us back to the beginning of this paragraph:  "Get a government job."

In an excess of filial piety, I actually got two government jobs, one after the other. The first was as a schoolteacher; the second, as a computer programmer for the Post Office. (Who, having had only 20 years to get used to computers, had not yet worked out a system of job titles for IT staff. My rank was therefore "Assistant Postal Controller, Grade 2." I am not making this up.)

I would like to tell you that I found working for the government spiritually crushing; that I was outraged at the time spent in bureaucratic turf fights at the expense of any actual job performance; that I was shocked to see at first hand the waste, delay and lead-swinging that goes on in government offices; that my youthful idealism was stirred to indignation by the great fraud whose name is "public service"; and that it was these things that made me a conservative. I would like to tell you that, but in truth I can't. Schoolteaching I was just temperamentally unsuited for, having no capacity for suffering fools gladly. The easygoing style of life in a government office, on the other hand, I found quite pleasant, and the turf fights were highly entertaining. I actually wrote my first novel (unpublished and unpublishable) while fulfilling my duties as an APC/2. I left the warm embrace of government work for adscititious reasons, driven not by boredom or indignation, but mainly by itchy feet. Conservatism came later, in conformity to the conventional pattern. (Robert Frost once remarked that he had never been a youthful radical for fear of the inevitable drift to conservatism in middle age.)

My Dad was right, though, and I suspect that when my own children stand on the threshold of their working lives, I shall give them the same advice he gave me. Let's face it, in the great 20th-century struggle between the State and the individual, the State has won, game, set and match. By the time my kids hit the workforce, the "A" in "USA" will stand not for "America" but for "AFSCME."

• Item: There is now no party, nor even any coherent faction, in the U.S. Congress that favors reducing the size or cost of government. The surpluses generated by the 1990s boom have disappeared — not, as the lefties tell you, frittered away in a "tax cut for the rich," but annihilated in an orgy of spending. The federal deficit for the current budget year (which ends in September) has been "projected up" to $165 billion, from a February forecast of 106 billion. The true figure (see next item) might be a hundred billion more or less, nobody really knows or cares. Congresspeople are falling over each other to spend more — mainly on creating rafts of new jobs for government employees. Down at the state level, things are even worse, as Stephen Moore documented in the June 3 NR in a piece whose title says it all:  "Governors and Drunken Sailors."

• Item: While Senators and Congressmen hyperventilate over accounting scandals in a handful of big corporations, the U.S. government itself squanders, wastes, loses and misappropriates hundreds of billions without a blush. Congressional accounting is a joke, auditing is an entire comedy routine, and all government "budget" and "expenditure" figures, including any I may have quoted in this article, are science fiction. Corporate bosses who swindle their way into private fortunes while their companies go under, end up disgraced and/or in jail. The congressional crooks and shysters who hose public money into sinkholes like Haiti, farm subsidies, home-district pork projects or the Department of Education, go on to ever greater political triumphs, and eventually to colossal pensions and lucrative speaking engagements or prestigious academic posts.

On the other end of it, the people who invested in the companies that get looted by corrupt CEOs, did so voluntarily, in the hope of enriching themselves with no effort. When their hopes prove vain, they howl that they are victims, and the newspapers whine on their behalf about "defrauded shareholders." The people whose money goes into those government-favored sinkholes, by contrast, are taxpayers, who had the money torn from them under threat of legal penalties. When the horrible failure of government "investments" become too obvious even for lefty media stooges to ignore, the people who paid for it all without the option are chided for having greedily permitted themselves to be undertaxed.

• Item: Of course, as well as a mild economic recession of (one hopes) the cyclic kind, the feddle gummint has had to cope with a war. Around 10 a.m. on the morning of September 11 last I got a call from Kathy Lopez at NR saying: "Can you give us a piece on this real quick?" I could and did, and here, amongst other things, is what I wrote:

This is not an easy enemy to confront. This will not be a matter of great troop movements, of trenches and bombs and massed charges. This will be small teams of inconceivably brave men and women, working in strange places, unknown and unacknowledged.

I envisioned a world-wide covert operation to hunt down and kill the terrorists: a matter of infiltration and bribery, of small groups of Americans being trained in strange languages and night-dropped into strange places to do very dirty and conclusive things to our enemies with knives, sidearms and small explosive charges.

Well, it turns out that's not what our government has in mind. What they have in mind is a military build-up so overwhelmingly vast that it will take more than a year before they can actually conduct any significant land operations. Plus, of course, a stupendous bureaucratic extravaganza titled "Homeland Security," that our children and grandchildren will still be paying for long after Osama bin Laden is a footnote in the history books. Plus an exercise in "nation-building" in Afghanistan that has the potential to make the Haiti fiasco look good — and probably cheap, too — by comparison.


I never did get back into government work. Since I ceased to assist in grade-2 controlling of the British postal service, I have been a salariman in private business, or lived by my wits. As a result, my entire provision for my old age consists of a sheaf of mutual funds and rolled-over 401K plans, that are dwindling away like dew in the morn even as I write. I shall have to work till I drop, like my poor old Dad. This doesn't bother me too much, as my work is of a sort I like, and I have no taste for the kinds of things people do in retirement. I feel sorry for the other poor private-sector saps, though: those who are now, in their 50s and 60s, having to abandon their dreams of cruises and seafront condos to go back to work because their investments went south. I suppose it serves us all right. We should have got government jobs.

Note:  Any time I sound off like this about the government people, I get indignant e-mails from readers saying: "I'm a conservative and a faithful NR reader. I've worked in government all my life, and done my honest best at a difficult and thankless job. Where do you get off portraying all government workers as cynical goldbrickers?" Yes, yes, I know, I'm sorry you got caught in the crossfire there. I know of course that my local, state and federal governments do many useful things, and employ many good people — including, in the U.S. military, some who are brave and selfless enough to put their lives on the line for me and my family. Yes, yes, and thank you, really. But you surely know better than anyone how fathomless is government's capacity to spend, waste and lose money, and then to lie about it with accounting methods that would scandalize an Arthur Andersen executive. If what I have written irritates you, take comfort in the fact that you will have the last laugh. You have a government pension to look forward to, and I don't.