After three years in Washington, D.C., I recently returned to California to take a job in the district office of a US congressman. My work with the public since then has been a sobering experience because, in the past few years, citizens in California have developed a profound dislike and mistrust for the institutions of government as an instrument for the public good, I am disturbed by this attitude.
Certainly there are valid criticisms to aim at government. Taken as a whole the system has shown alarming growth since the watershed era of 1933-45 (though in proportion to the total economy it is smaller than the public sectors in many industrialized Western nations). Moreover, all of us, including those who work as public officials, are angered by the expense, complexity, impersonal nature, occasional irrationality, and dense language of government.
I have no objection to such legitimate, constructive criticism. But I fear that in the current drive to pillory all public institutions, we destroy more than we improve. When I listen to the charges people make, or read commentaries in the press, what I often detect is undisguised hatred directed at the individuals who comprise our bureaucracies -- a hatred which does not know names or abilities, yet which is nonetheless eager to attack. What I sense, fundamentally, is a double standard. Private citizens are not willing to give to their public officials those things -- respect, a salary that allows people to live with inflation and pay their taxes -- which they demand for themselves.
Perhaps I have become too sensitive after a year of trying either to help constituents solve their problems or to explain current legislative issues. Perhaps I am chafing at a recent initiative campaign in California which made repeated reference to "the bumblers." But all too frequently I find myself trying to converse with someone who has little knowledge of the processes of government, yet who refuses really to listen to the information being communicated because he or she holds the unshakable opinion that everybody involved in government is either crooked or incompetent. I know of no other calling where dedicated professionals are told daily that their work is without consequence.
This attitude is especially difficult to accept because contemporary American society, while voting to reduce the resources available to government, continues to ask more of its public institutions. Today as always the private sector is reluctant or unable to perform many of the functions we deem essential to a civilized society:
* Local government, for the most part, provides basic services, which are both capital and labor intensive, and which account for up to 80 percent of the municipal budget. Cities as we know them could not exist without police firefighters, garbage collectors, and sewage-treatment plants, all supported at public expense.
* At the federal level citizens ask for funds for a wide range of programs considered necessary in an industrialized nation. These include money for housing, mass transportation and highways, defense, social security for the elderly, research efforts in industry, loans for small businesses, and regulation of utilities (which the companies themselves most often fight to retain).
The indisputable point is that government does not operate in a vacuum -- it responds to the public's demands. And despite proclaimed disenchantment with government, the voters themselves continue to demand more intervention in their lives. Witness the many cities in California which in recent years have, through citizen votes, adopted growth control measures to restrict private development. In short, we have gotten the sort of government we have been asking for since the great depression of the 1930s.
The result has been as intended. The economic collapse of 1929-33 which haunted my parents' memories has never recurred, largely because of government action. In other ways, too, public solutions have worked. The nation's air and water are cleaner than at any time in recent history; millions own their homes because of FHA mortgage insurance; mass transit is experiencing a renaissance which is helping to reduce the use of gasoline made from imported oil. Still, there have been many failures, and even the cost of our successes has been high.
The solution to the problems of the public sector, though, is not to be found in a wholesale attack on government workers.Nor is the single-minded solution of "letting private industry do the job" the answer to our dilemma. Anyone who has ever dealt with the wasteful, impersonal bureaucracy of the local electric company must know that such entities are no more responsive than a government agency -- perhaps they are less so because they answer only to their stockholders. More striking, perhaps, is the failure of the American auto industry to compete on its own turf. Were it not for federal mileage standards, Ford and General Motors would be even less competitive with Volkswagen and Toyota than they are today.
The real solution is for citizens to ask less of their public institutions. Measurement of public service demand is a dubious procedure at best, but during Congress's recent attempt to balance the budget I saw the clamor for more government on a regular basis. I witnessed a procession of citizen groups visiting the congressmen to say "balance the budget but increase appropriations for our programs at someone else's expense." Business groups and Republicans were as vocal as Democrats and consumers.
Since the House of Representatives is made up of 435 members, each representing a district constituency, it is not surprising that the special-interest philosophy has prevailed. If, instead, both taxes and expenditures are to be cut, then people must be prepared to do more for themselves. They must be willing to take the risks and to make, out of ther own pockets, the investments in the country's future for which they have so far relied on government.
The problem is not that there are too many bureaucrats, but that there are too few citizens who care to share in the responsibilities for their own lives. The more talented government employees have taken up their careers as an alternative to the pursuit of limitless personal profit. Unrelenting criticism will just drive these out, leaving only the true "bumblers" as our remaining public servants.
If bureaucrats are not well understood, it may be because the public doesn't always take time to engage in a reasonable dialogue. It is worth considering that, like the society it serves, government is only made of people trying to solve difficult problems.