Bureaucracy U?

Since the United States has academies to train officers for the various branches of the military, shouldn’t it also have an academy to train people for governmental service?

That’s the idea behind the proposal for the creation of a U.S. Public Service Academy (PSA). It has bipartisan support in Washington, with eighteen senators (including Hillary Clinton) and ninety-four members of the House committed to the Public Service Academy Act. UNC president Erskine Bowles has given it his endorsement.

The PSA bill was first floated in 2006 and like many of the notions that arise in Washington, has been slowly gaining traction. If we get the Democratic hat trick of sweeping the presidency, Senate, and House in the November elections, it could become an action item because higher education is an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency.

Recently, Chris Myers Asch, the chief spokesman for the proposal,
published an article in which he argued for the PSA. (His writing is coupled with an essay by American Enterprise Institute scholar Philip Levy, who is not enthusiastic about the proposal.)

Asch tries hard to convince readers that creating the PSA would lead to more efficient and effective government. That ought to appeal to nearly everyone, especially those like myself who are critical of most of what government does. I believe that he’s completely mistaken, however. The PSA won’t have the beneficial results he envisions, mainly because the problems with government in the United States have almost nothing to do with the education of its personnel. The PSA would be all cost and no benefit. (The cost, by the way: the start-up federal appropriation would be $164 million.)

Let’s take a look at some of Asch’s arguments.

First, he says that the country doesn’t have enough educational capacity to train individuals for “public service” work – despite the nearly 4,000 colleges and universities in existence, many of which have programs in “public administration” and the like. We need the additional training capacity of the PSA because, Asch informs us, 44 percent of federal workers will become eligible to retire within the next five years.

Okay, but that fact doesn’t lead to the conclusion that we need the PSA. With or without it, there will be an abundance of college graduates eager to take government jobs. Furthermore, adding the PSA wouldn’t increase the number of prospective “public service” employees. All it would do is to shift some of the students who are interested in government employment from other colleges to the PSA, where they would get a free college education to prepare them for what they want to do anyway.

Asch also informs us, “More than 80 percent of the nation’s 17,000 law enforcement agencies report that they cannot fill needed positions due to a lack of qualified candidates.” Even if that’s true, however, the solution to difficult police recruiting is hardly to put some students through an elite liberal arts college.

We also supposedly need the PSA because of “a popular culture that values individual achievement and material gain while belittling public servants.” Now there’s an enormous exaggeration! Yes, some people think that many government jobs shouldn’t exist, but very few “belittle” those who take government jobs. In any event, the key question is this: Do government agencies find it difficult to hire capable people because of this “popular culture”? Asch provides no evidence that this is the case and everything I’ve heard is that government agencies are swamped with job seekers.

Another argument Asch tries to make is that the training provided by the PSA would be analogous to that of the nation’s military academies. Turning out officers for the military isn’t fundamentally different from turning out folks who can do a good job in, say, the Department of Commerce — or so he’d have us believe. “The nature of leadership in the public sector,” Asch writes, “is more diffuse, and the path to leadership less clear. That does not mean, however, that civilian leadership cannot be taught.”

Here, Asch is trying to compare apples and oranges on the basis that they’re both edible. Training in the military, however, is highly specialized to enable men and women to lead subordinates in battle. The kinds of jobs that PSA graduates would take don’t call for leadership. Mostly they call for the enforcement of laws and regulations. Unlike combat situations, there is little or no discretion involved.

It’s true that sometimes government workers get involved in the making of policy, as when they promulgate regulations. Occasionally those regulations are sensible, but often they are instituted at the behest of interest groups and without any thought for costs and benefits for the public at large. Asch evidently believes that individuals who go through the course of study at the PSA would be more publicly spirited and would therefore make better decisions. Denying that the PSA would become a haven for big-government leftists, Asch writes, “The Academy will unabashedly embrace cherished values such as ‘citizenship,’ ‘patriotism,’ and ‘duty.”

That sounds reassuring, but where do we find professors who would do anything more than pay lip service to such ideas? Everyone finds ways to justify his own particular vision of the good as consistent with noble sentiments about the overall social welfare. Leftist professors believe that their theories are perfectly consistent with “citizenship” and so on. And even if the faculty were full of conservatives who constantly admonished the students, “Don’t act just to help some of the people, but act to help all of them,” that wouldn’t make much difference.

Asch seems to think that going through the PSA would inoculate students against self-regarding behavior or favoritism when they get into government employment, but that’s wishful thinking. The problem is not that the people who take government jobs aren’t properly educated, but that the nature of the work appeals to people with authoritarian personalities and those who want to game the system to get ahead. The human inclination to follow your instincts won’t be overcome by any number of college lectures on the virtue of doing “the right thing” and “serving the public interest.”

Perhaps the greatest political delusion is the idea that “If only we had the right people in charge, things would be much better.” That’s the driving force behind the PSA.

As I have argued here, higher education in America has been greatly oversold. We do not need another university, and especially not one meant to produce more workers for government. That’s something else that has been oversold.