The Exploitation of Labor by Government

Considering taking a job with the government? You might want to rethink that. The new survey from Partnership for Public Service paints an ugly picture of job satisfaction at government agencies.

It’s worst of all at place like the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Veterans Affairs, Labor, and Education. We find that only 50-60% of workers are satisfied with their jobs. To put it another way, every other person working in these concrete bunkers is a wreck.

To be sure, according to the survey, it’s not living hell at NASA, the FDIC, and the GAO, but it’s dreadful at the Federal Maritime Commission and the U.S. Trade Representative. Even that’s not the worst of it. The folks at the Transportation Security Administration seem ready to explode, with only a 48% job satisfaction rating.

At the TSA, we find people begging to be fired — testing the limits through unspeakable rudeness, outright thievery, and preposterous antics such as confiscating toys and testing people’s hands for built-in bombs. When they don’t get fired, they sink into further depression of the sort that comes when a person discovers there are no standards at all.

In the private sector, job satisfaction generally floats above 70%. This would seem to be enough evidence to seal it. It should be obvious that the most important first step in having a reasonable chance at a happy life is rather simple: Don’t work for the government.
Yet for most, government work offers higher salaries and benefits. This is true across all professions except those with advanced training such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers (remember we are speaking about averages here). Yet the security and pay don’t compensate for the misery.

It’s not hard to understand what’s going on here. Being part of the commercial life of a society, where there is a real sense of serving people and where change and development is the goal, is invigorating and life affirming. You are part of something. Your job is part of real life.

Being stuck in a dead zone like government — where the money you make is taken from others by force and used only to beat the paying classes over the head even more — runs contrary to the noblest aims of the human spirit.

It doesn’t take long to discover that this is true. If you are in Washington, D.C., you might strike up a conversation in the lunch areas outside of a government agency. You will get an earful about the evil of management, the idiocy of co-workers, the sheer depressingness of the whole place.

Why do they stay? The people feel stuck, fearing life outside like prisoners too acclimated to flee. Even when the bars swing open, they sit on their mattresses and wait for the next meal.

It’s hard not to feel sorry for these people. They made bad choices in life and now are stymied and risk averse. The job “benefits” are excellent on paper. The raises come regardless of the quality of your work. You get lots of vacation time. The workload is minimal at best. What’s not to like?

Well, it all seems fine from the outside. You can make every rationalization. By the time you realize that you should have listened to that inner voice, it is too late. You are in the system. You are part of the problem.

I had a friend who was ill yet had an incredibly creative mind. He was a fine writer and thinker, and a very dear person. He took a job with an agency in D.C.. He was a good sport and tried to like it. But gradually, he lost touch with his old friends, and his new friends were all from the same agency — drones mostly, people who live to complain.

He ran out of stuff to do at the agency and started to loathe his colleagues, but he couldn’t leave. The money was too good and the health care was generous enough to cover all the expenses of his Marfan’s syndrome. Over time, the spark in his spirit went away and the gleam in his eye flickered out. He stopped writing, stopped thinking, stopped enjoying life. Then, a few years later, he died.

I can’t shake the profound sense of loss that I feel over this case. I swore I would never let another friend go this direction without getting a warning from me.

Government work really is a terrible trap.

Not all jobs at the federal government are alike. What draws many people of talent are the political positions, the appointed ones that total about 6,000. It’s the first duty of any new president to find friends and benefactors to fill these jobs.

It’s all that’s left of the “spoils system” that prevailed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The new president would fire the old and hire the new. The whole thing came to an end in 1883, when the civil service came to be professionalized and the permanency of the modern nation-state took hold.

Today, the real state that runs our lives operates outside the influence of politics. There is nothing the elected classes can really do about it, even if they want to. They can hire their 6,000, but those people are coming and going and can do very little to outsmart the permanent class.

Plus, at the end of every political season, the political appointees engage in a massive scramble to convert their jobs from political to permanent ones — and they do this because they fear the private sector and what it would do to their inflated self-esteem.

Yet we can get carried away by drawing too sharp a distinction between the public and private sectors here. The mandated benefits in the private sector, set to increase dramatically with Obamacare, are making these jobs stickier than ever. People are fearful of leaving even jobs they hate, mainly because they don’t want to give up these benefits.

The irony is intense. The left always celebrated mandated benefits like company-provided health care on grounds that these benefits give power to labor. Actually, the opposite is true. These benefits give the employer more leverage over laborers than would occur in a free market.

Fearing the implications of being fired or let go — and no one who has had good health insurance ever wants to be without again — workers put up with an uncommon amount of abuse.

In contrast, a clean wage contract allows anyone to say, “Take this job and shove it.” Pile a bunch of benefits on that wage contract and suddenly the employee is beholden and stuck in a job he or she can’t live without.

[Editorial Note: The best book on how employer-provided health care has been a disaster for workers and for the system in general is John Goodman’s Priceless. It’s the only work to offer a serious alternative and radical path to what both Republicans and Democrats are proposing.]

These benefits are making the private sector more and more like the government sector. They represent gradual steps away from the empowerment that everyone feels in a world of fluid labor contracts and the freedom to hire and fire. And it’s all brought to us by those who imagine they could use the force of government to uplift the working class. It is making this class more downtrodden than ever.

People learn too late in life that their job actually constitutes their major life activity apart from sleeping. It defines us, determines our level of happiness, forges a major part of our circle of friendships, and shapes how we think about ourselves and our role in the world.

Choosing where we work and what we do is a human freedom, a human right — one of the last that we have. Don’t waste that right by feeding yourself to Moloch.

Jeffrey Tucker

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