9/10/2011—There is a disconnect in America about who public workers are. Are they the firefighter heroes of 9/11, going into burning buildings that everyone else is running out, or are they the “parasites” you see referred to all over the Internet?
Well, public workers are paid with taxpayer dollars. So, of course, that means they are paid by you and me. On the other hand, everyone is paid by you and me. The people who work for Ford got paid when I bought a Focus. And I am paid by the tuition dollars of my students in law school. So, we are all parasites in the literal sense. That just means we depend on, and interact with, each other.
The reason some people don’t like public employees is the same reason they don’t like government in general—there is no choice about the paying. My students can just not go to law school. I can buy a GM car. But I am stuck with paying the taxes that go to public workers. Taxes are theft, they say, which means that government workers who receive them are criminals.
This view is based on an illusion of individual choice. And it has little to do with government actually. It is the same illusion that is being argued against Obamacare—that of the rugged individual who lives on his own, without health insurance. There is no such person.
A few weeks ago, National Review (maybe online) had a review about a book touting the difference in responsiveness between the private sector and government. Where do your frustrations come from? Dealing with bureaucratic government agencies or with efficient businesses? But think about this. Have you ever tried to speak with a human being at Norton, in the private sector, new tech computer security field? It is about the same as dealing with the office of unemployment compensation.
This illusion of individualism goes all the way back to Enlightenment social contract theory. It roots in the image of the pre-political human being. But the solitary human being has never existed. Even the individual human family has never existed. Our ancestors were social animals—apes. Before there were human beings, there were proto-human groups. As Daniel Quinn in the book Ishmael might have put it, we became human in human interactions.
So, on this Anniversary, let’s celebrate public workers and the work they do every day. They don’t all risk their lives for us—although many do, especially when you count our soldiers, who are public workers, too—but they all do work for us. And the work they do is usually dirty work one way or another. (I’m thinking of the amazingly good trash pickup in Pittsburgh). And even where it is a good job with good pay, it is generally earned with honest and hard work.
Because the fundamental thing about public workers is that they are not “them”. They are “us”.