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Morality of working for the government

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Rob-H
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Hey guys,

I've been working for the federal government since early last year, and now it looks like I'm going to have an opportunity to leave for a private sector opportunity with a large company making about twice the salary.

I'm waffling on this because after I was laid off in Nov. of 2008 it took me over a year o hard job-seeking to get back into the workforce.  I also finished my MBA in the summer of '10, was able to speed it up thanks to the time laid-off.

I'm terrified of being just haphazardly and inconsiderately  cut like my last company did with no heads up and a paltry severance, even though my salary with the government is artificially low (I've been long overdue for the pay-level the private sector job would pay)

I should note the government job will non-competitively promote to a pretty decent level, but it'll take another year or so to get there.

I've always been an objectivist by nature, even before coming upon the teachings, and I totally live by the "you make your own destiny" philosophy.

What would you do if faced with this decision?

Advice I get generally depends upon who you ask; it's either along the lines of:

1.  "Absolutely! Governments are havens of mediocrity and you can get your investment back on that MBA and make your market rate in the private sector."

(These are generally people who have wealth to fall back on and I question their grasping of the concept of "I'll have nothing if this doesn't work out.")

Or:

2.  "No way!  You want to be forced back in line with the rest of the 1 in 5 Americans looking for a job?

Regardless of who you listen to, I can only remind you of how tough it was to be unemployed."

These are both accurate, and far as I can tell, very valid views.

Any perspective or anything anyone can provide that might make this decision a little easier?

I suppose a traditional view is that on a government salary, I have the security of not having to worry about being cut, but have to live with the fact that I'm "raping the system". I agree with the philosophy and theory, but I question this, as I am actually doing work and providing value for my pay.

In private industry, I risk being with a  company that won't recognize my willingness and ability to achieve,  missing out on advancement, or worse, being let go.  The only two private sector employers I've had fit this mold, and neither were worth tooting your horn about being a part of.

This is a tough call to make.

Edited by Rob-H
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If you are as you claim an Objectivist by nature all your life you will come to realize that decisions should be made on principle, not the expediency of the moment.

You do not appear to be taking a principled approach to this.

I'll go no further on this for the moment and let you settle a bit on what this means.

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You don't have to leave a "government job" because you're an Objectivist. Government jobs come in all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of legitimacy. It is unclear if yours is truly something you ought to leave on principle.

Suppose your current job was a totally legitimate government job -- say in the courts or the Army -- with all the security of tenure that implies, wouldn't you still be in this quandary: trying to decide whether to take the job that pays double, but has more risk? If so, many factors go into evaluating how much risk you ought to take, and folks on the forum wouldn't be able to help wth that.

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I may not have been clear about my approach to this. If this is the case, I apologize.

Political cariacatures aside, I have no doubt that will provide an even value-for-value exchange, regardless my employment relationship.

But with the unstable nature of private industry employment today, and track record, I'm uneasy about moving back to the private sector, for it's implications on long-term sustainability. From my reading of the situation, this is anything but a focus on the expediency of the moment.

Please let know how you see this as mistaken

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In short, harder.

Yeah, I actually do work in Defense, in an administrative role of choosing suppliers and obligating taxpayers' money.

There is fraud, waste, and abuse, like you see on the news, but not from me. I can't stop it all, but I can be forthright in how *I* do my job.

I was hired in under a special authority, which Obama just ended by Executive Order, supposedly to make it easier for vetereans to get federal jobs.

But this is funny, because I tried to get in with the government fresh out of college (all things being at parity at that level of my career) and I was always passed over for people with special "veteran" or "disabled veteran" status, even when the agency told me I was their first choice and that they were forced to go with a candidate with a special point-preference.

I lucked out in 09 with a special hiring program that sidestepped all that.

So yeah, although I've now built a reputation on my work ethic and performance here, plus I've got contacts in the agency, it may now be tougher to make happen "on paper."

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In that case it sounds like you have a legitimate job that you need to have no qualms about, at least where it comes to your role and contribution.

The decision then depends upon factors like the possibility of getting another job if things don't work out, your own financial resources that you can fall back on, the attractiveness of the new offer, the way you see the economy heading, the stability and prospects of your prospective employer, and so on.

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I may not have been clear about my approach to this. If this is the case, I apologize.

Political cariacatures aside, I have no doubt that will provide an even value-for-value exchange, regardless my employment relationship.

But with the unstable nature of private industry employment today, and track record, I'm uneasy about moving back to the private sector, for it's implications on long-term sustainability. From my reading of the situation, this is anything but a focus on the expediency of the moment.

Please let know how you see this as mistaken

Consider that what the government offers might be a false security.

A few years back I got laid off from a government(not the US though) job because some genius had made a miscalculation in the budget. They came up short with some 20 million dollars, which is an enormous amount here. So, they replaced me with someone who was paid by another part of the government.

I actually went back there, at a different section, while I was studying. It was a pretty decent place to work, an interesting and educating job, so I went there over the summers. After finishing my studies it was pretty hard to find another job, so I thought I might as well stay there for a while. My previous job there had made me rather over-qualified for that job, and I was quite frankly the best at what I did there. Both bosses and co-workers thought that naturally I should stay and get promoted.

Of course, it did not quite work out that way. You see, the government had some sort of unemployment program where they hand out government jobs to people who have been unemployed for a while. Wherever they are roughly qualified the agencies are obligated to take them in. So, I was replaced by this tiny old lady who moved very slowly and talked in a barely intelligible way(note: part of the job was service and support).

Now, my point here is not to sound bitter - i'm certainly not. It's just that the government tends to work in mysterious ways. After all, they don't have to generate any profit so they can make all kinds of irrational decisions.

In the private sector you will atleast have the security of your own competence. And in time, as you develop and get better, you'll have something really solid to fall back on. With the government though, it usually means you just have to grow old.

As I don't know your situation well enough I can't say what's the best decision for you. I just want to offer a few points to think about. One last thing to consider might be your chances of building up a savings account. If the new job offers a substantial raise and if you're likely to stay there atleast for a while, then maybe you could realistically count on saving enough to survive even if you run into trouble.

Edited by Alfa
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  • 1 year later...

Is it moral to work for the government? If your function in the government would be done in the market if it were allowed then I can see this being fine from an Objectivist perspective. I work in healthcare in the UK where 95% of healthcare is provided by the state - so clearly someone in this industry has no choice.

But what about people with less clear choices? For example, if you are an MBA would it be immoral to accept a government management job in a department that wouldn't exist in the free market? Lets say you would really enjoy the challenges of turning around a government department. You basically aim to try to make the department the best it can be by making it more efficient. You would also enjoy the extra free time (less hours worked in government) for your side projects. Is this moral?

Edited by Kate87
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It is moral to work for the government so long as you don't advocate for government involvement in that industry. Ecample is teachers. It is moral to work in public education under the current state because you didn;t choose to have the government to be involved in education, you are forced into this reality. However, if you endorse or advocate for government run schools then you would be held morally responsible because you are an accomplice to theft. Government reflects the views of the people so if you are calling for government run schools, then you are part of the problem.

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I don't blame people for trying to make their way the best they can in a mixed economy. They can do what they want with their money and labor, its their voting habits that piss me off.

If you are an IT guy who works for a public school, you aren't doing anything wrong.

I do not think it would be moral to joing any of the organizations that actively promot tyranny such as the DEA, FDA, ATF, IRS etc. A lot of police depatments should be avoided too.

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The IRS is a good example of what I mean as this wouldn't exist in a free market economy. An MBA who wanted to work there to make the department more efficient by cutting admin costs, reducing the number of managers, improving processes, etc would be immoral in Objectivism's view? Even if he really values his free time for other projects and so chose the government job with less hours so that he could work on his novel in his free time?

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The IRS is a good example of what I mean as this wouldn't exist in a free market economy.

The IRS is a decent example. A much clearer example (where it's much more difficult to lie to yourself about what you're actually doing) would be a concentration camp.

Would you take a job as a concentration camp guard because it has better hours? I'm guessing no. (on the other hand, if your actual options weren't guard vs. lesser paid private sector employee, but guard vs. prisoner, then you probably should take the job).

An MBA who wanted to work there to make the department more efficient by cutting admin costs, reducing the number of managers, improving processes, etc would be immoral in Objectivism's view? Even if he really values his free time for other projects and so chose the government job with less hours so that he could work on his novel in his free time?

Well, like I suggested above, you're skipping over the immoral parts, by divorcing the work from reality. Anyone who ignores the connection between doing that, and the effects of his work on real, productive people (who are going to be robbed or sent to jail directly because of his efforts) is immoral by virtue of being dishonest.

However, if you honestly evaluate those costs, honestly weigh them against the benefits, and find that it's worth it, then it wouldn't be immoral. I can't imagine an actual situation, in today's world, where it's worth it to take a job sending innocent people to jail, though.

Obviously, if you were doing it to save your life, then it would be something that ought to be considered. But doing it for "less hours" isn't a good trade off. I'd rather just make the time to write my novel by taking a part time job I feel good about doing in the private sector. I'd have to live in a smaller apartment, take the bus instead of having a car, and go to less expensive restaurants, but it would be well worth the trade. I'm confident that I would be both happier and more productive in my writing, that way.

In today's world, we still have enough economic and social freedom that it's a choice to become a douche-bag, not a necessity. We're still not at the concentration camp phase, where it's better to be the guard than the prisoner.

P.S. Even if you did take the guard job, your goal shouldn't be to make things more efficient. Your goal should be to drag your feet as much as possible, without getting in trouble.

A novel which deals with this issue in great detail is Vonnegut's Mother Night. It's about an American spy who goes undercover as a Nazi propagandist. Only trouble is, he does such a good job, that the American government renounces him at the end of the war. If you plan on ever reading it, don't read the spoiler:

He ends up eaten up by the guild, turns himself over to Israeli authorities for trial; when he realizes that he would be found innocent, he hangs himself in his cell

Edited by Nicky
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I think the IRS example is good, because you ARE helping producers by making it more efficient. You are reducing the departments admin drain on the taxpayer, the savings of which politicians could use to spend on either tax cuts or on services which producers may use eg roads. Even if you improved the efficiency of tax collecting itself, for example by more rigorously enforcing the tax laws, this extra revenue would be used by government again to either cut taxes or spend on services. You are not the one who decides whether to cut taxes or spend on services, however in your job you would always advocate the cutting of taxes.

To use the concentration camp example is inappropriate because murder is clearly more of a rights violation in Objectivism than taxation and clearly an Objectivist could not morally do his job under these circumstances. We had this issue in another thread Nicky where you compared the disfranchisement of women with discrimination laws. Objectivism has a hierarchy of values so mixed economy taxation levels are not as evil as totalitarian murder regimes.

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I think the IRS example is good, because you ARE helping producers by making it more efficient. You are reducing the departments admin drain on the taxpayer, the savings of which politicians could use to spend on either tax cuts or on services which producers may use eg roads. Even if you improved the efficiency of tax collecting itself, for example by more rigorously enforcing the tax laws, this extra revenue would be used by government again to either cut taxes or spend on services.

You're missing the point. Theft is bad. Whether the money is spent on starving children or a new Ferrari for some bureaucrat makes theft no better or worse.

To use the concentration camp example is inappropriate because murder is clearly more of a rights violation in Objectivism than taxation and clearly an Objectivist could not morally do his job under these circumstances. We had this issue in another thread Nicky where you compared the disfranchisement of women with discrimination laws. Objectivism has a hierarchy of values so mixed economy taxation levels are not as evil as totalitarian murder regimes.

I didn't compare anything, now or then. Theft and murder are both rights violations. They're not good. Helping theft is not good, helping murder is not good. Pointing that out isn't suggesting that the two are the same.

Pointing out that if you support one rights violation you have no leg to stand on in defending any of your rights is not suggesting that all rights violations are the same. There are principles, and then there are lists of unrelated concretes. You need to stop thinking about principles as lists of unrelated concretes.

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But with the unstable nature of private industry employment today, and track record, I'm uneasy about moving back to the private sector, for it's implications on long-term sustainability.

Many others face your same deliemma where one choice offers more security while the other offers more risk. Which one each of us chooses has much to do with our own personal comfort level, for there are good and bad points to both. At one time I "worked for the government" by being in the military, and saw the transition from government employee to private sector employee as being riddled with risk pits. However, the situation was resolved by a third option of starting a business, which proved to be even riskier but yielded greater rewards.

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