In response to the Institute of Public Affairs’ report early this week on trends in commonwealth government employment, and reforms to substantially reduce public sector staffing, the Special Minister of State Gary Gray has presented to the media this little gem of mirth and hilarity.
After falsely accusing me of being misinformed concerning my calls to apply the meat axe to the public sector (although they themselves intend to reduce staffing by a measly 3,100 on an average staffing level basis this financial year), Minister Gray makes the astounding claim that the Australian Public Service ‘is a foundation for our prosperity, our economy and society.’
This statement is perhaps a close relative to the bizarre ‘you didn’t build that’ statement by US President Barack Obama, contending that non‑governmental actors (especially private sector entrepreneurs producing value‑adding goods and services that typically deviate from economic convention) could not exist productively without modern government.
Unquestionably a central element of post‑Cold War leftist thought insists that the state is antecedent to private initiative, and that individuals, families and communities cannot possibly live without government and its ever‑accumulating economic and social interventions.
Such thinking ignores the long view of history surrounding the emergence of the modern state. Here, a Faustian bargain was struck between the productive classes of Agricultural Revolution‑era humanity and one cohort among many predators – such that the chosen predator became a stationary bandit that warded off the remaining roving bandits. The modern state is essentially the institutional descendant of some roving bandit that was encouraged to stay put and discipline its perverted, productivity-sapping appetite somewhat. (For more on this, view this wonderful speech by Tom Palmer and learn much in 47 minutes!).
Under this scenario the implication is that it was, in fact, economic enterprises and understandings of private property which emerged first, and government strictly second.
The ‘you didn’t build that’ stylings of Minister Gray also ignores the historical evidence that a vast ecology of non‑governmental financing schemes and provision technologies existed and thrived in the absence of similar actions by governmental authorities. Roads, bridges, telecommunications, schools, hospitals and welfare are some prominent examples that come to mind. We see some remnants of these pre-government services today.
Perhaps more importantly, when governments intervened in areas catered for by for‑profit and not‑for‑profit entities on a large scale the incentive for communities to retain their own arrangements were progressively exhausted. An important aspect of classical liberal/libertarian thought is that if individuals, families and communities possessed the wit to finance and provide economic and social services in generations past, they can do so again in the future (and even more effectively and efficiently thanks to technological improvements, deepened capital markets, and the like).
Finally, I think it is useful to acquaint Minister Gray and like‑minded types with a quote by French classical liberal Charles Dunoyer in 1817 concerning the properly understood respective roles of non‑political and political actors in manners most conducive to wealth generation and prosperity:
Man’s concern is not with government; he should look on government as no more than a secondary thing ‑ we might also say a very minor thing. His goal is industry, labour and the production of everything needed for his happiness. In a well‑ordered state, the government must only be an adjunct of production, an agency charged by the producers who pay for it, with protecting their person and their goods while they work. In a well‑ordered state, the largest number of persons must work, and the smallest number must govern. The work of perfection would be reached if all the world worked and no one governed.
Clearly in the sentiments expressed by classical liberals such as Dunoyer, there can be no place whatsoever for conceiving the public sector as the fount of economic prosperity and social cohesion.
Now, to some more technical matters raised by Gray’s media release.
The Minister claims that I didn’t acknowledge the Coalition’s rampant public sector employment growth since the first and second terms of the Howard government.
Clearly Minister Gray and his staff didn’t read the report. I can only encourage them to read page 7 and then look at the APSC and Budget Papers data shown on page 9. If he wants to spell out the Howard-era numbers for me, that’s fine he’s doing work for me now!
Finally, Minister Gray accuses commonwealth public sector workers of being ‘hardworking.’
In 2010‑11 APS staff took an average 11.1 days off work, for explained and unexplained reasons, in 2010‑11. This is higher than the 9.4 days lost per annum due to absenteeism across the Australian economy as a whole, and about five days for corporate staff.
Absenteeism rates, including that of staff who seem to vanish from their desk for reasons unknown, have been so bad in the commonwealth public sector, for such a lengthy period of time, that departments and agencies have had to develop (on the taxpayers’ dime of course) corporate strategies to reduce unexplained absences.
This is not to say that a considerable number of government employees expend extensive hours in efforts to promulgate the government’s agendas. But such an observation misses the point that my paper makes.
In the private sector people provide their labour services producing bread, milk, mobile phones, cars, houses, and the like, which add to consumer satisfactions. In the government sector people provide their labour services to tax or regulate away private sector activities, or spend the proceeds to hire more bureaucratic colleagues, send a few kill-troopers overseas or spit out a few dole checks.
The MYEFO statement released this week should serve as a salutary lesson for all Australians that large government is bad for economic health and vitality. As a corollary to this, there are abundant opportunities to reduce the size and scope of government in a meaningful fashion.
If Gary Gray and his colleagues cannot identify more than 3,100 public sector employees, and functions attached to them, to eliminate this financial year they are clearly not trying hard enough.