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Source link: http://archive.mises.org/8176/so-you-want-to-work-for-government/

So you want to work for government?

June 5, 2008 by

You should read this post and thread first:

- The head of IT has been in government for 27+ years. She is the one making purchasing decisions and setting strategic direction. She does not own a computer or have an external email address. She does not buy on-line, and she has the web monitor set so tight you can forget about using the Internet. No IM. No webmail. Then to ensure you cannot possibly reach the outside, no non-government equipment permitted in the building without a specific exception. This will be your organizational leader as the rule – not the exception.
- Change is glacial. Two weeks I did nothing because they could not allocate a machine for me to access the network, until I had a badge. To get the machine, a form needed to be signed by my boss, his boss, her boss, and his boss. My boss walked it around, and was told that was inappropriate, and it still took 4 hours. Then it went to the help desk who took 9 business days to process and deliver the equipment. Deliver in this case meant coming to my desk and providing a user id and password to a machine sitting there. To install software requires you to have an exception form filed. Another round of 4 signatures in my department, one from security, one from the helpdesk and one from a person who no one can explain except they need to sign the exception form – six days. Complain or bother anyone about a request and it will disappear. Petty is an understatement.
– It is true that no one gets fired. But worse, making decisions is career limiting. The solution is to ensure you never do anything of risk. What you want is to be tied into a project you can claim some responsibility with, if it goes well, and disavow any relationship if it fails.
- No _one_ makes any decisions because there is safety in numbers – very large numbers. All decisions are by committee and expect it to take weeks. They spent 12 weeks, with a minimum of six people in nearly 20 meetings discussing a database key. One key. It is an extreme example but that it can happen says it all.
– If you take any type of leadership position and do anything that employees do not like – they submit a grievance. Why? Because while one is pending, they cannot do anything to you, include request work, or deny automatic or scheduled promotions in grade. A 25 year developer? here has had a grievance on her various leaders, continuously for over 12 years. She is proud of it. “They don’t tell me what to do!”
– Write off leaving government. You can always leave right? Wrong. Would you hire someone from an environment that fosters the behavior above? With very few exceptions, spend more than a year or two as a “gov-e” and you can kiss the private sector good bye. Who would want this behavior and if it took you more than a year to figure out you should quit, that says volumes.

Unless you want to do what you are being hired to do for the next 20 years, with 2.5% annual increases in pay, bosses who make no decisions and run the same technology for decades – run away.


Fred Furash June 5, 2008 at 2:21 pm

Ugh. This is disgusting. I’ll be using this in the future as an example of government “efficiency”.


Pablo Escobar June 5, 2008 at 3:44 pm

I’m still an undergrad at the moment… becoming a bureaucrat is my last resort (in case I don’t get a job in the private sector)…although my cousin works there and he tells me its quite cushy. Not much work. Pretty good pay. Hard to get fired.

Inquisitor June 5, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Hah, I categorically refuse to work for the public sector – however difficult the government is trying to make that.

Bruce Koerber June 5, 2008 at 4:53 pm

Making the decision to work for the government is an ethical and economic decision.

To some these are two different aspects for consideration, to be treated and pondered separately.

Despite the propaganda that is passed off as education, it is unnatural to try to separate them, it is contrary to common sense, and it is ultimately a fantasy and vain imagining to come up with any rationale to separate economics and ethics.

As long as ‘science’ claims neutrality by artificially dissecting reality, so long also will the moral high ground of laissez-faire only be known to those who are classical liberal scholars.

We cannot expect ethics to enter into the decision-making processes of others if we separate ethics and economics ourselves.

gene berman June 5, 2008 at 5:51 pm

Move along, folks–nothing here to see. Mises said it all–as definitively as it could be said, a very long time ago. It’s BUREAUCRACY, 125 half-sized pages (available free on this site) that will tell you absolutely everything worth knowing of the subject.

magnus June 5, 2008 at 8:05 pm

I had a government job for a couple of years after I got out of school, before I grew up and woke up.

I would eat bugs before I worked for the State again.

TC Bell June 6, 2008 at 10:22 am

I had a “meeting” with a State Actor this past week. The “meeting” was scheduled for 2:00 p.m. so I arrived around 1:30 p.m. just to be safe. The secretary called the woman I was supposed to meet with. No answer. Ten minutes later the secretary calls again and leaves another message on the voice mail. I decide to wait it out with by reading some Mises. I finally close “The Anti-Capitalist Mentality” and look to see what time it is. To my utter horror it was 2:25 p.m. (I had to work at 3:30 p.m.) and there was absolutely NO sign of this State Actor I was supposed to meet. The Secretary notices that I’m still sitting in the waiting room and asks “Has she come out yet?” I wearily reply “No.” Five minutes later this woman nonchalantly walks out of her office and introduces herself. I glance at the clock as she asks the secretary “How long has he been here?” “Over an hour.” The State Actor could care less. I then ask her if she will be paying for the Parking Ticket that I will receive in about fifteen minutes. I then told her that “In the Free Market you can’t show up to a meeting thirty minutes late.” That really made her upset.

The moral of the story is:
When a court orders you to go to a meeting with a State Actor YOU must be there or YOU face jail time. But THEY can get there whenever THEY want to. That is only because WE work for THEM.

I’ve started using the term “Uncivil Master” instead of “Civil Servant”. I ask that the rest of you join me in calling a Spade a Spade!

Michael A. Clem June 6, 2008 at 11:51 am

Bureaucracy exists in private organizations, too, especially large organizations. It’s true that government regulation and intervention has to some degree propagated such bureaucracy and altered the incentives for minimizing it, but even without such intervention, it would still exist, as all organizations need some kind of structure.
We can also change the question around: So you don’t want to work for the government? Then be very careful about your employment situations, what company, how regulated the industry is, what kind of licensing or other restrictions exist, etc., etc. Even then, we ALL work for the government through the taxes we pay at all levels. To not work for the government, you need a high degree of self-sufficiency and/or illegality.

toolkien June 6, 2008 at 4:16 pm

Private companies ultimately have profitability and stock holder demands to meet. They can get away with it when times are good, but when times are bad, heads are counted. Not so with government. They can just tax (or borrow) more.

Somewhat as an aside, and certainly not mounting revolution (yet), but there is a question as to whether the rank and file bureaucracy are fair game during the “overthrow”. Some take the position that they need to work and it’s just a job. But when you see just how mercenary even low level humps are in this whole process you just can’t let it pass. I pay 45% of my labor in taxes to support this B.S., and there can only be a bigger grab later. Am I to sit idly by while 60+% of my labor is taken, in a risk based environment with little security, just to have it get sucked into a black hole where people don’t work and rig the deck in their favor, with guaranteed pay and benefits?

As we move ever closer to one worker supporting two retirees and who knows how many bureaucrats, the healthy host/productive layer has to do something before they become the slave class.

Solomon June 6, 2008 at 5:54 pm

It’s baffling to me how people not only praise and try to enhance bureaucracy, but actually believe that acting in a totally risk-free environment is metaphysically possible. One would think that the first fundamental law of reality, TANSTAAFL, would be learned just by being alive.

Robert June 6, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Bureaucracy is necessary in most large-scale human endeavors. Properly invoked and managed, it ensures levels of production efficiency and effectiveness otherwise unattainable. So, there is quite a distinction to be made between the small “b” bureaucracy necessary for efficienct and effective production and the big “B” bureaucracy of the interventionist state.

Bureaucracy played a key role in organizing the efforts of hundreds of thousands of people during the 1960s, as Americans successfully blazed a path to the surface of the Moon. This little “b” bureaucracy was not without some waste and inefficiency, however it was invoked and fairly well managed toward a specific end. The vestige of the 1960s bureaucracy known as NASA (with a definitive mission) has, sadly, become a big “B” bureaucracy, poorly mismanged and likely to invoke the mental images in the above article.

Big “B” bureaucracy is on the march at all levels of government in the United States. Not sure why most people express surprise, revulsion or dismay since this is a direct result of statism built on the German model of social welfare and economic planning introduced by Bismarck in the late 1800s. Go figure.

For the brave of heart check this to see the growth of big “B” bureaucracy in our government. Shouldn’t come as a surprise, if your paying attention!


Robert June 6, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Not to dwell on the irony, but our understanding of space and time can be indirectly attributed to big “B” bureaucracy. Remember Einstein sitting in the Swiss patent office formulating his special theory of relativity? Almost poetic, eh?

P.M.Lawrence June 6, 2008 at 10:18 pm

Ah… no, Robert.

Bureaucracy of the sort you describe achieves effectiveness at the cost of efficiency. An analogy: because hydrogen peroxide and nitric acid are cheap, a cheap way of getting them to the required concentrations and purity is to blow warm dry air through them. Even though that is wasteful because it also carries off a lot of what you want to keep, and polluting too, what’s left is still cheap (in comparison with alternative methods). That’s what NASA was doing in the ’60s.

The difference nowadays comes in two respects: the wasteful bureacratic part is many times bigger, so its inputs have to be taken from a smaller carrying sector, and so bureaucracy is not so cheap; and, bureaucracy is now very effective at carrying out its new objectives rather than whatever original objectives were given to them, i.e. it is very effective at perpetuating bureaucracy.

Robert June 6, 2008 at 11:35 pm

P.M. Not so quick.

I understand the tradeoff between ideal machines/processes and losses due to design/production decisions. The primary point here is that no large scale human endeavors achieve measurable effectiveness without some bureaucratic system of control. Think of the pyramids as another large scale human endeavor. No argument that inefficiency in production (methods, tools, labor constraints) reduced effectiveness (delivery time, cost of production, yield, etc.). However without the designer/builder bureaucrats and the countless numbers of lower level functionaries, it just couldn’t happen. It did happen, that is to say they got built (effectiveness) and I guess your point would be with lower yield/time unit (efficiency). Correct?

I like your discussion of the “smaller carrying sector”. That can explain the increasing costs of proliferating, unmanaged bureaucracy. I would, however, challenge the idea of the bureaucracy carrying out its “new objectives” in lieu of its original purposes. That is part and parcel of the morass in the government and many segments of the private sector economy…unmanaged growth in wasted capital and labor (i.e. yield is low, cost up). There must be a systemic correction, since the available capital and labor are finite.

Further thoughts?

gene berman June 7, 2008 at 10:00 am

Robert and Michael Clem:

Your conclusions (and R’s critique of Mr. Lawrence) are simply wrong because, whatever the strength or coherence of analyses, they fail “from git”–right from a definitional misidentification of bureaucracy with hierarchalism. All bureaucracies are hierarchal by design; their purpose is to perform executive functions (regulation and enforcement) and, in so doing, to strictly control (by compartmentalization of function and limitation of discretion) tendencies toward the tyrannical exercise of delegated authority. The petty tyrannies of bureaucrats are nothing compared with those of officials not so constrained.

Any organization of more than one person can assume–and always “on purpose”–hierarchal form; it’s purpose is to expand the scope of action (and the efficiency) of the principal actor–the guy at the top–from whom those below receive both their job instructions and their remuneration. If the organization is a profit-seeking enterprise, the guy at the top is always able to evaluate whether or not a particular division achieves expected contribution to the whole–he simply “looks at the books.” It is quite true that there are differences among entrepreneurs when it comes to effective management of an organization (of any size). In many (indeed, most) cases, the entrepreneur is able to employ subordinates whose acumen and skills quite exceed his own–at least in the specific function-areas for which he’s hired their services. The entirety expands (rather than contracts) both the volume and scope of that which the unaided entrepreneur could accomplish (and, at each incremental step in expansion, “the books” guide him as to whether to act through others on a larger or smaller scale). If, somehow, the entrepreneur is slow or unwilling to recognize those areas in which his outfit is not performing “up to snuff,” he will not remain ignorant for long: “the market” will inform him (often rudely). A competitor(s) will perform where he has been below-par (or merely complacent): his stock (the value of his enterprise) will suffer (whether or not it’s publicly-traded).

What IS a true relationship between bureaucracy and private-enterprise management is that, to the extent that private business is regulated or constrained (or even “advantaged” as by subsidy, legal restraint of competition, or protection against imports) by authority, certain characteristics of bureaucracy will emerge at the intersecting facets. Eventually, the sheer volume and intrusiveness of the regulations with which a large “Human Resources” department must comply must, eventually, affect other departments for which it acts as the source of operating personnel. It is simply impossible to calculate the multitudinous restrictions on creativity of design, product improvement direction, etc. brought about by the degree to which the landscape of the market is distorted by existing legislation and the prospect for more of the same.

I urge both of you to read BUREAUCRACY: it’s the very closest you (or I) will ever come to “knowing everything worth knowing” about any such topic. I’d rank it no lower than 4th among Mises’ works (after HUMAN ACTION, THEORY and HISTORY, and “ULTIMATE FOUNDATION…”) and certainly in 1st place for readability.

The most important thing, finally, that must be understood about bureaucratic encroachment is that it is useless to try to reform the system by reform of the bureaucracies themselves or to try to “de-bureaucratize” one or another aspect of life. The ONLY way to de-bureaucratize is to remove government itself from as many areas as is possible, with (for me) the ultimate goal being its restoration to its original “night-watchman” role.

Walt D. June 7, 2008 at 12:21 pm

With many baby boomers approaching the magic 67 retirement age, with mandatory 401k withdrawals and the resulting crash in the stock market, the collapse of social security, the Federal Government is going to become the employer of last resort as baby boomers have to go back to work!

Robert June 8, 2008 at 12:20 pm

gene berman: Thanks for the post. You obviously have solid command of the theory. Encountering such well-mannered, lucid discourse is a primary reason I come to The Mises Institute site. Thanks for the additional reading material.

I agree with your statement that “All bureaucracies are hierarchal by design; their purpose is to perform executive functions (regulation and enforcement) and, in so doing, to strictly control (by compartmentalization of function and limitation of discretion) tendencies toward the tyrannical exercise of delegated authority.” I struggle a little, however, to follow your argument that “the guy at the top” simply “looks at the books” in order take action to achieve organizational effectiveness and efficiency. Enron anyone?

My fundamental skepticism tilts my thinking toward the realities of the mixed economy and away from the seemingly unattainable “free market” theories. Maybe because it (the mixed economy) is too far gone…or maybe it is because I’ve been too well conditioned by experience to accept the unfettered “free market” models in the context of current conditions. Please don’t misinterpret my point. The reality is very stark compared to how it “oughta be.”

Removing the government coercion “from as many areas as is possible” is right-minded. Fundamentally, the question for me has been and remains – What are the power levers citizens have to stem the tide? Federal, state and local government bureaucracies appear to be proliferating under the noses of a disengaged, semi-literate citizenry. Your thoughts?

Michael A. Clem June 9, 2008 at 9:41 am

What IS a true relationship between bureaucracy and private-enterprise management is that, to the extent that private business is regulated or constrained by authority, certain characteristics of bureaucracy will emerge at the intersecting facets
Perhaps my emphasis was off, but I don’t see what was wrong with what I said. The difference between private sector bureaucracy and government bureaucracy is that the market provides incentives for businesses to minimize the bureaucratic structures, for the sake of efficiency, productivity, and profit, whereas government doesn’t have such incentives. And, as you and I both said, government intervention and regulation in the marketplace tends to interfere or disrupt the incentives for private businesses to minimize bureaucracy.

gene berman June 9, 2008 at 1:28 pm

Michael (Clem):

I thought I did a pretty fair job of explaining the basic error misguiding both you and Robert. He seems to have absorbed and understood, whereas you seem totally unaffected, inclined even to merely repeat the mistaken ideas while implying that I’m incorrect in believing them mistakes, though without offering any explanation for your disagreement.

It is certain that I could do a better job. But it’s not only time-consuming (for me) but entirely unnecessary. If you read the text of Mises’ miniature masterpiece (as discussed previously), you, too, will be able to be expert on the topic. What more could one ask?


How to get from “here” to “there?” Don’t know–actually “not my department” and, besides, I’m much too old to take any active interest or part in such effort. I’d have gotten involved earlier in my life but, unfortunately, during the first half of my life, I was pretty much in the same (or worse) state of knowledge as you seem now and then it took a number of years to simply digest the new information comprising Mises’ (and Austrian) economic theory.

I appreciate your kind remarks. But, even though you’ve commented quite favorably on this (Mises.org) site, why is it that I entertain the nagging suspicion that you haven’t actually read any of the works of Mises (most esp. HUMAN ACTION)? Please tell me I’m wrong!

Discussion on this site, except for that conducted between actual subcribers to Misesian (or other Austrian) views is rarely productive (“heat” is the normal result of friction, not “light”): it’s just a reality of existence.

I don’t know how to change things. If I can get one or a few more people to actually read Mises, I count myself successful.

Michael A. Clem June 9, 2008 at 3:13 pm

All right, Gene, I’ll eat crow for not getting your point: that bureaucracy is a particular form of top-down organizational structure and not the organizational structure itself. However, while the word does have origins in government official-dom, I fail to see why it is or has to be exclusively applied to government organization.

Nate June 9, 2008 at 3:39 pm

I work for the government.

I’m not proud of that fact. Five years ago, when I started I was a very different person. I believed it was my duty. I know better now, but unfortunately am unable to quit until next year.

It is not a healthy environment, and I cannot express how deeply I believe people would be better off NOT ever working for the government.

Robert June 9, 2008 at 5:41 pm

gene berman: Sorry to hear you have given up! We will need the Grey Prophets moving forward into the unfolding morass. Your nagging suspicions aside, I have been working my way through Nock, Mencken and Spencer. As a wide-eyed, Year 1 apprentice to much of this body of work, Human Action is moving up the list (more quickly now with your prodding).

Another query your comments suggest: “Discussion on this site, except for that conducted between actual subcribers to Misesian (or other Austrian) views is rarely productive (“heat” is the normal result of friction, not “light”):” — heat (friction) is also normally associated with work being accomplished. Surely you are not suggesting we all just lay down and take it, eh?

gene berman June 9, 2008 at 6:30 pm


Believe it or not, you’ll actually appreciate those others even more after you’ve read HUMAN ACTION. There’s nothing else like it; the descriptive term is “magisterial.” It’s not easy, though: full digestion could easily occupy 5 or 10 years.

Don’t want to quibble over the analogy from physics but I’ve only myself to blame for your comeback, since I introduced it. So, being somewhat obliged to reply in the same vein, I’ll merely point out that, in almost all cases, the heat generated incident to the performance of work is a burden on the actual work performed: an efficiency-lowering waste of part of the effort–to be avoided to the extent possible.

Nor have I given up. The amount that a single person can accomplish is limited by a great variety of factors and I simply recognize that there’s not much that I can do except to encourage others–which I do. Some of those may be or come to be in circumstances more conducive to effecting more substantial change in the future. My assessment of the future prospect is somewhat gloomy, I grant, but preparation for the future, whether for an individual, a family, or the entire human race, cannot be positively affected by some less-than-realistic assessment. (Translation: I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.)

gh June 9, 2008 at 9:13 pm

My mother has worked for the government for ~30 years. I just graduated from college with a ‘real’ degree (chemistry) and haven’t found a job. If she didn’t make $80k pushing paper.. would I still be dependent on her?

I might end up working for the government if I am desperate enough… but I promised myself I will donate a third of my paycheck to charities if I choose to go down that path.

newson June 11, 2008 at 10:45 am

to gene berman:
i don’t think anyone can possibly know the effects of the often fractious to-and-froing on the mises blog.. i think you’d find there are many more lookers than participants. and even the lookers make judgements about the strengths and weaknesses of the viewpoints.
hostile or uninformed bloggers do mises.org an enormous service, if only to hone one’s own arguments.

gene berman June 12, 2008 at 1:28 am


I’m in total agreement–only wished to point out that a fair few of what seem to be participants (and their arguments) are more akin to what (Josh Billings’) “Uncle Remus” called “tar babies.” Each of us, in choosing commentary to engage, is forced to prioritize, based on distillation of experience. A practical man put it: “The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong–but that’s the way the smart money bets.”

My chosen focus is fairly narrow. I try to exclude the cognitively less-able, the obviously doctrinnaire, the intellectually dishonest, and most single-issue
advocates (except on monetary matters–a specific interest of mine). You could say that I try to identify smart, honest commentors who haven’t any idea that: 1) their specific argument or question is, in fact, treated by Mises in logical and irrefutable fashion; and, equally importantly, 2) that no such argument or question of importance may be adequately handled as a particularity cut off from its place in a broader, more comprehensive system of thought.

It’s a tall order–but there’s not much in the way of alternative that is not more akin to the devising (and delivery) of “sound bites.”

newson June 12, 2008 at 10:16 am

to gene berman:
i see where you’re coming from. i confess that my coming across to the austrian school wasn’t as a result of any epiphany. in fact i can’t even remember the first time i visited the site, or what i thought. obviously it impressed, hence the return visits and gradual learning.

following the blogs came much later, when i’d better understood the concepts, and i still feel there are enormous lacuna in my knowledge of austrianism, particularly in the philosophy and epistomology areas.

i’m still staggered by the commitment that misesians show in contributing to this site. i presume that they hope, as do i, that some day the cycle will turn, and people will embrace a more commonsense view of economic life.

this hope is tempered by my view that the present system will not be abandoned by the public, and liberalism has little hope of emerging until the total collapse of the old order, with all the dangers that “regime change” brings.

Sabella March 4, 2011 at 1:05 am

Pain past is pleasure.

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