The Body Politic Bent on Self-Destruction

November 11, 1990|By William Pfaff

CHICAGO — 0NCE AGAIN this year nearly every candidate lost who suggested that the government might spend more on some manifest need, and possessed the courage to add that to spend one should tax accordingly.

What this really amounts to is a direct and tangible manifestation of popular hostility not only to politicians but also to the American Government itself.

It does no good to say that Americans are behaving perversely about taxes - that vast national needs are unmet, the economy deeply indebted, the rate of taxation half that of any other country with serious national pretentions.

The reason it does no good to do so is that Americans now, by and large, are convinced that paying taxes produces little or no visible benefit, not only for the individual taxpayer himself, but to the public well-being. There no longer is much sense that the government itself does good for the people, outside fixed, hence non-discretionary, popular "entitlements," and in providing national defense.

The military are exempt from the general condemnation of government and politicians as incompetent or corrupt, perhaps because people simply have to believe in something. Or perhaps it is that most of us over the last half-century have had some actual connection with the services.

Because of three wars and the draft, between the 1940s and the 1970s nearly every family had someone in the service at some point. These may not have come back with a high opinion of military efficiency, but they recognized that military professionals are serious, work hard, make sacrifices and are acting from a sense of duty toward the country.

Americans do not believe that about the civilian agencies of government. The civilians are "bureaucrats," time-servers, paper-pushers, spendthrifts. The public is told that this is so by every politician from the president down to the lowest candidate for federal patronage. They go out to where "the real people are" every two or four years to congratulate "the real people" on not being bureaucrats and parasites in Washington.

However this demagogy, contemptible in motivation, touches upon a truth. The functioning of American government is not good today when compared with government in other countries. The quality of the American civil service is not, overall, very high today by comparison with the civil service in Japan, or in Britain or France. Why should it be? What able person wants a career denigrated by the president himself, ritually scorned by politicians, poorly paid, regarded with suspicion or contempt by one's fellow citizens?

A senior British public servant knows that he is more important to the competence and continuity of British government than most of the individual politicians who succeed one another as his nominal superiors - and that he (or she) is recognized to be so.

The professional head of the British Treasury has traditionally, if impiously, been regarded as the most important figure in British government after the prime minister herself. A senior British civil servant is well paid, has the respect of society, and will retire with a title and the queen's express gratitude.

The national school systems of Japan and France are organized to deliver their student elites to certain institutions of higher education - Tokyo University, the French "Grandes Ecoles" - whose function is to form the professional leadership of the nation.

The highest social prestige attaches to the graduates of these schools, who in France constitute the so-called "Grands Corps" of a civil service which rules not only government but, just as in Japan, sets the general direction of the nation's industrial policy and its investment priorities.

If a society organizes itself to place the best of its young in government service, it can expect efficient, imaginative, highly motivated government. People who pay taxes get something for it. Seeing that taxes buy good government they are willing to pay taxes. Nowhere in the other industrial democracies is there the tax phobia that exists in the United States. There is a reason. People are buying good government.

In the U.S., they are not doing so. At least it is the demonstrated conviction of American voters that Americans are not buying good government with the taxes they pay. How are we to change this? We certainly do not change it by paying still lower taxes, or rewarding politicians who denigrate government and civil servants.

A positive change can only come if political leadership is prepared to restore value and respect to government service so as to make it possible for government to recruit from the best people available in American society.

Today there is not only no sign of that being done. There is virtually no sign of any recognition that it needs to be done.

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