“Public Service”? I’m Taking My Business Elsewhere

Steven Cohen, writing at Huffington Post (“We Need to Respond to the Attack on Public Service,” June 13), writes that “the profound and intensifying attack on government and public service” is cause to be “frightened.”

Let me start by saying I’ve fallen afoul of many libertarians by defending public sector employees like those in Wisconsin against reflexive charges of parasitism.  If they’re engaged in a legitimate function like teaching kids or delivering mail that would still exist on a voluntary basis even in a stateless society, and the state currently crowds out voluntary alternatives, they’re no more blameworthy than the workers in Soviet state-owned factories.

And I’ve argued that public sector unions frequently empower such workers against those at the top rungs of the state, and might be a useful tool for genuine privatization — i.e., Proudhon’s vision of devolving state functions into voluntary social relationships.  That means, instead of the right-wing “privatization” agenda of auctioning off government functions to crony capitalist corporations, mutualizing them as consumer cooperatives owned by the recipients of services. Anyway, I’ll proudly back a teachers’ union local against a superintendent of schools, any day of the week.

Nevertheless, the term “public service” really activates my gag reflex.  Like “statesmanship” and “reaching across the aisle,” it belongs in the kind of drinking game you play when you see managerial centrist hacks like David Gergen, Chris Matthews and David Brooks gathering to feed on a cable news talking head show.

On any given day, if you follow Radley Balko’s blog, you can see stories of “public servants” planting evidence on suspects, launching no-knock home invasions in which they shoot pets and wave guns at children (all over the peaceful ingestion of substances the state decided to “forbid”), and sending people to prison on testimony from jailhouse snitches coerced into perjuring themselves.  The “public servants” in the prison guard and police unions lobby the state for ever more draconian and invasive extensions of the Drug War.  The “public servants” in airports subject their public “clientele” to degradation and humiliation on a daily basis.

Every “public servant” in the Oval Office in my lifetime has launched wars of aggression that murdered innocent civilians by the thousands or hundreds of thousands, and the “public servants” in the military-industrial complex spend hundreds of billions maintaining garrisons in an empire of thousands of bases around the world, all to “defend” us against countries on the other side of the world that couldn’t possibly project military force more than a few hundred miles beyond their own borders.  And all these wars are case studies in the kind of “public-private partnership” Cohen lionizes, fought in the interest of the esteemed Generals Motors, Electric and Mills.

Cohen does admit that the federal government is “too far removed” from much of what it deals with, and recommends federalism — decentralizing a large part of policy to local governments — as a remedy.  Most of us on the Left have seen the sausage-making process in action in local government, especially as regards Cohen’s much-vaunted “infrastructure,” and it ain’t pretty.  The average local government may be “responsive” to the Rotary Club yahoos who run things (they’re real fond of phrases like “public service” there, as well), but certainly not to us.  The typical local government is a showcase property of local real estate developers, and its primary function is to provide below cost roads and utilities to the new cul-de-sacs and big box stores that spring up at every cloverleaf of the new government-subsidized freeway.

Cohen’s red herring about the big ideological war between “capitalism” and “communism” is beside the point.  It presupposes some sort of rivalry between government and business, when in fact big government liberals have been — in the words of Roy Childs — “the running dogs of big businessmen.”

As far as I’m concerned, most of the rivalry between the so-called “public” and “private” sectors in American political discourse is about as genuine as that between the “good cop” and “bad cop” in a police interrogation room.  What’s referred to as the “private sector,” by the sort of right-wing corporate apologists who typically pass themselves off as “libertarian,” is so state-cartelized and state-subsidized that the boundary between the giant corporation in the monopoly capital sector and the giant government agency is, at best, quite blurry.

The big business interests to whom self-proclaimed “free market advocates” like Dick Armey want to hand over the country are virtual creations of the state.

So Cohen’s aside that he “taught management to future public managers for about thirty years” sets off alarm bells for me.  I’ve worked in both the “public” and “private” sectors, and seen deskbound parasites in both places downsize service staff while sending themselves to cushy management retreats.   One pointy-haired boss is pretty much the same as another.

In fact Cohen is an advocate for just the kind of government-corporate collusion that has defined actually existing capitalism for the past 150 years or more.  He argues that “[T]he economic powers of the 21st century will be those that figure out how to develop a productive and sophisticated relationship between government and the private sector.”

That’s certainly true, all right.  The “economic powers” we have right now — several hundred transnational corporations that dominate the global economy — owe their size, if not their very existence, to a “partnership” with government.  It’s the kind of partnership where government subsidizes their basic operating expenses and allows them to externalize the inefficiency costs of large size on taxpayers, severely limits price and quality competition through regulatory cartels, and enforces so-called “intellectual property” laws as entry barriers from behind which privileged corporate pigs can extract rents on artificial scarcity.

Just look at Cohen’s examples.  There’s the USDA-agribusiness complex, which (parroting Cargill propaganda) he says made America “the world’s breadbasket.”  And of course, beloved of all true liberals, the Interstate Highway System — built under the direction of DOD Secretary Charles “What’s good for General Motors” Wilson, and which is now the basis for the big box “warehouses on wheels” business model that has destroyed Main Street.

In short, government at all levels provides the kind of “public service” you have a hard time escaping if you don’t want it.  It’s understandably popular with the “public” of corporate fat cats and coupon-clipping rentiers.  But whoever the customer is for such “public service,” it’s not you and me.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory