These days, you are about as likely to hear "Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country," as you are to hear a heartfelt reference to the Golden Rule. And by that I mean: not very likely.
For some reason, the Zeitgeist is focused on portraying people who have devoted their lives to public service in decidedly unflattering terms. Public servants are alternately characterized as unproductive deadwood or as spendthrifts who might as well be lighting cigars with $100 bills.
So much for John F. Kennedy’s admonition to “let the public service be a proud and lively career.”
Why has so much animosity turned toward those who may have entered public service to do work that is both satisfying and meaningful?
Discomfort with the increasing regulation of modern life may be part of the explanation. When I worked at the Legislature, one friend liked to tease me by saying that every law that passes makes us less free.
But popular support for laws preventing driving while intoxicated or monitoring sex offenders suggests that people want more stringent laws to cope with some of the complexities of modern life. The reality is that enforcement of laws and regulations requires manpower — and funding.
The cost of implementing public mandates may contribute to the ire aimed at public servants. But by their very nature, many public functions aren’t geared toward making a profit.
Services that benefit everyone, such as public health programs and libraries, may be more efficient and cost-effective if the cost is spread over the entire population, rather than operating on a pay-as-you go basis. Nonmonetary benefits, such as reduced risk of epidemic or a better-informed citizenry, may justify the shared investment. Some strains of anti-government sentiment seem rooted in the perception that public funds are not administered by applying sound fiscal principles.
It’s interesting to me that out-and-out failures in the private sector, such as the destabilization of the financial industry and an environmental disaster of epic proportions have not stopped people from suggesting that government “should be run like a business.” Indeed, some aspects of government, and even military functions, have been turned over to private industry. Can it be said with certainty that these experiments have met with unmitigated success?
I have worked in both the private and the public sectors, and I have been just as likely to get dark circles under my eyes, worrying and trying to produce quality work in either type of position. I happen to prefer working in public service, on projects that have real value to people.
Tomorrow is Veterans Day, an apt day to remember sacrifices that have been made for the good of the public.
The anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination also falls in November, and I opened the article with a famous line from his inaugural speech.
Kennedy also had this to say the day he took office: “I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it — and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.”
Is it possible to muster the same courage and idealism today?
Kiki Keizer, a member of The Olympian’s Board of Contributors, is a lawyer who lives and works in Olympia.