Ideal vs. Reality

Or, one of the many reasons we can’t actually have a reasonable debate about public employees in this country.

We’ve all seen it.  The thing you get whenever anyone discusses teacher competency issues–the “I can make a C feel like getting the Medal of Honor” speech. The “thin blue line, protecting us from criminals” that comes up whenever anyone discusses possible police misconduct. And whenever bureaucratic issues gets brought up, you get the “tireless public servants, keeping the country running and the people safe from robber barons” spiel.

Of course, it also works the other way. “Time-serving tin-pot child-squashing tyrants.” “Racist, brutal agents of oppression.” “Little tin gods, reveling in meddling in ordinary peoples’ lives.”

The problem, to put it bluntly, is this. Whenever the topic turns to public employees of various kinds–or employees of any technically nonprofit organization, for that matter–there is this odd assumption that crops up that all of the employees will embody the standards and be in alignment with the goals of the organization.

For teachers, it is that all teachers are concerned with teaching children reading, writing, and all that other good stuff. For policemen, that all simply desire to uphold the good, protect the right, and bring down the evil. For normal government functionaries, that all endeavor to selflessly serve the public. And, furthermore, that not only are they all imbued with virtuous motives, but that they are also all capable of performing their jobs, as, apparently, all such persons who are incompetent and desire such jobs are both capable of seeing their own incompetence and actually giving up their desires in order to benefit everyone.

Excuse me when I say, nonsense. They’re human beings, people. Just as fallible as anyone else–just as prone to vice as anyone else. For every responsibility they have, they have privilege–authority, opportunity for illicit profit, the ability to make someone’s life just a little more difficult, or an utter hellscape, and a system that will, unless a violation is utterly egregious (and sometimes even then) will back them to the hilt, because to admit failure is to admit the system is fallible, and we can’t have that, can we?

Of course, then there’s the flipside, which I’ve just outlined above, which sees only the power they wield and not the constraints they work under. The teacher often has to deal with arrogant and/or uncaring parents and students and administrators, the cop faces the possibility of getting killed for what to him seems like no reason and has reams of paperwork while frequently dealing with some of the worst people imaginable, the bureaucrat has to deal with uncooperative citizens and more administrative madness. All the while, truth be told, not being paid nearly enough for the work they are doing and being blamed for things they can’t help.

The reality is that the motivations for public employees, as well as their ability to do their jobs, is a very mixed bag, and cannot be boiled down to the actions of either a few bad, or a few shiny, apples.  Don’t make them out to be saints, but don’t make them out to be monsters.

‘Til next time,

Lowell Van Ness


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