Government Employment and Hand-outs

April 2, 2008 by  

A facebook friend asked me:

What is your view on accepting governmental jobs outside the sphere of what a small state would comprise of, for example worikng as a teacher in highschool or as a nurse or doctor?

On a realted issue: what is your view on using government funded services or accepting subsidies one’s “entitled” to?

I responded as follows:

With respect to your first question:

If not considered carefully, your question might be considered as one that assumes a host of unstated facts. And, if one is not careful, ones answer to your question might wrongly be determined by the unstated assumptions, rather than by the stated facts.

Two unstated assumptions seem likely to be made by a person considering your question:

  1. that the government is funded in an immoral way (e.g., with income taxes); and/or
  2. that the government has a monopoly on the services in question (or has set itself up with laws that give it an advantage via coercion).

If you assume either of those while considering your question, you will be more likely to conclude that working for a government as a teacher, nurse, or doctor would be wrong. Note, however, that the real issue there is not “jobs outside the sphere of what a small state would comprise” but: evil government funding, or evil protectionism/monopoly.

To properly answer the question you do ask, therefore, be careful not to make assumptions such as 1 and 2. Instead, assume:

  1. that the government is not funded immorally (e.g., it is funded voluntarily); and
  2. that the government has no legislated monopoly or protection with respect to its educational and medical services.

The issue then becomes clear: is it wrong to work for such a government as a teacher, nurse, or doctor? Clearly, the answer is: “no”. If nobody is forced to pay for the government’s educational or medical services, and if everyone is free to compete with the government’s educational and medical services, then there is nothing morally wrong in the government offering such services, and there is nothing morally wrong in accepting employment from the government in respect of those services.

If, instead of just answering the question you actually asked, we assume that the government is funded immorally (e.g., with income taxes), then the issue is not really “jobs outside the sphere of what a small state would comprise”. Rather, if one assumes immoral funding, the issue is: should one accept any form of employment from a government that is funded immorally (e.g., should one accept employment from such a government even in the role of police officer or warden?).

Similarly, if instead of just answering the question you actually asked, we assume that the government has passed laws that give it a monopoly on health care (as is the case in Ontario), then the issue is not “jobs outside the sphere of what a small state would comprise”, per se. Rather, the issue is: should a person accept employment with an employer that holds an immoral monopoly? Consider as an example whether, in that situation, it is moral to accept a government job as a police officer when your job might require you to arrest the owners of private (i.e., illegal) health clinics. Does the fact that policing is inside “the sphere of what a small state would comprise” make it morally right to accept the policing job, but morally wrong to accept a job as a doctor in the government’s health care monopoly?

Finally, consider that not all legislated monopolies are government-owned. That includes doctors, lawyers, trades, etc., each of which has a guild and a monopoly: a non-lawyer cannot do most legal work; a non-member of a college of physicians cannot do most medical work; et cetera. Thus, the issue of whether the employer is a government is a red herring if what you really want to know is the morality of working for an employer that has an immoral and state-imposed monopoly.

In short, it is very important not to confuse the issue raised in your question by making such unstated assumptions. If, on the other hand, your question was mis-stated; if what you really intended to ask was a question not about “jobs outside the sphere of what a small state would comprise”, but about working for an immorally-funded government, or for an immoral monopoly, then you should re-formulate your question.

With respect to your second question:

If you pay taxes, use those tax-funded government services and take every penny the government will give you. Imagine that it is your birthday, and you are visited by the neighbourhood crook, who we’ll call Tony Soprano. Soprano obtained all of his money by stealing it from others, including yourself. Tony hands you a $100 bill and says “happy birthday”. Assuming that he has stolen at least $100.00 from you in the past, is it immoral for you to accept the money? Answer: no. If, on the other hand, Tony has never stolen from you, it would be immoral to accept the money (unless your intention is to return it to the people/person from whom the money was stolen). Unfortunately, it is unlikely in the extreme that you are not a Tony Soprano victim (i.e., a taxpayer) and, accordingly, it is very unlikely that it would be immoral for you to use government services or take government hand-outs.


Paul McKeever


5 Responses to “Government Employment and Hand-outs”

  1. Raman Gupta on April 2nd, 2008 5:41 pm

    Re. the first question:

    A government service that is funded voluntarily, and without a legislated monopoly, becomes no different than any other privately provided service. In effect, that part of the government has just gone into private business, and will either succeed or fail depending on the value of its offerings. Therefore, that service cannot be considered to be provided by a “government” in any essential way.

    As such, considering the question with those as your basic assumptions is pointless, isn’t it? Its certainly a much more interesting question if you apply the “obvious” (and true as of today) assumptions that government is obtaining those funds in an immoral way, with a legislated monopoly.

  2. Raman Gupta on April 2nd, 2008 5:48 pm

    One clarifying point: the only essential difference with a private company is that the government can provide those services “at cost” but that still doesn’t make the answer to the question with those assumptions any more interesting, since you are now effectively dealing with a private non-profit entity instead. In essence, the distinguishing factor of “government” i.e. the application of the legal use of force, has been removed.

  3. McKeever on April 2nd, 2008 7:02 pm

    A government need not be funded with taxes to be a government, and a government need not legislate itself a monopoly on health care or education to be a government: neither evil funding nor evil monopolies are necessary features of a government. To consider the question with those assumptions taken as given is falsely to preclude the possibility that a moral/proper/legitimate government can exist. And, often, taking those assumptions as given is par for the course among those who then conclude that only anarchy is moral.

    If the questioner’s question truly/merely is about being an employee of the government in the service of health care/education, then to make such assumptions is to confound the question; it leads to an answer that is incorrect, given nature of the question.

  4. Raman Gupta on April 2nd, 2008 9:02 pm

    Far be it from me to ascribe intent to someone I don’t even know, but perhaps the questioner was merely interested in understanding, *within the context of the immoral government we have today*, whether it would be moral to work for the government as a teacher or nurse or doctor. If that indeed was her question, what would your position be?

  5. McKeever on April 3rd, 2008 10:00 am

    For the record, I received a reply from the questioner which reads, in part:

    In my question I was making the two unstated assumptions that:

    1. that the government is funded in an immoral way (e.g., with income taxes); and/or

    2. that the government has a monopoly on the services in question (or has set itself up with laws that give it an advantage via coercion).

    “Within the context of the immoral government we have today” is a bit imprecise for me to provide a precise answer. However, I would say that, in the case of a doctor or nurse in Ontario, Canada (where the government holds a tax-funded monopoly on health payments, and where one could be punished for charging patients directly for ones services), it is not morally wrong to provide patients with medical services and to be paid by the government for said services, provided one does not also advocate tax-funded health care.

    The case of education is a bit more difficult because, although the government does not hold a legal monopoly on schooling (i.e., one is free to send ones child to a privately-owned/operated school and to pay that school directly), the government forces everyone to pay steep taxes that are directed to the wages of teachers in the government-owned/operated schools (whether or not the taxpayer has children that are attending a government-owned/operated school). Most parents cannot afford private school tuitions because they are required to pay education taxes spent on government-owned/operated schools. So education in Ontario falls more into the category of protectionism than into the category of monopoly. I’m not convinced that it is somehow moral to send ones children to a tax-funded school, but immoral to work, as a teacher, at one. I do not think it immoral to accept employment as a teacher in a tax-funded government-owned/operated school in Ontario, provided that one is not advocating tax-funded schooling.

    Contrast that with accepting an offer of employment as a police officer in a racist regime, where you, as an officer, will be required to expropriate people of a given genotypical-makeup, merely because of their genotypical-makeup. Even though policing is a normally proper function of government, the acceptance of such employment would be morally wrong. In such a circumstance, the alleged government is actually a criminal gang, and the alleged police officer is merely a thug in the gang.

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