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Policy Outside the Think Tank
26. Changing Policy in the Public Sector
Carl L. Oberg, Executive Director, Foundation for Economic Education (previously a contractor at the U.S. Department of Defense and a civil servant at the U.S. Department of Commerce)
Does anyone think you can advance liberty from within the public sector? My colleagues seem to think it is very unlikely. One graduate school friend jokingly estimated that you have a one-in-one-million chance of actually increasing the amount of liberty in the world while being paid directly by taxpayers. That is certainly not very encouraging.
Another friend emphasized the goals of the Founders and the power-limiting nature of our Constitution. Given our system of checks and balances, any government job that is acting within constitutional constraints must not be that bad, right? Unless you believe that the government has been allowed to grow beyond its proper bounds.
A third friend told me, “You did it for over six years, so you should know.” I think my friend was being generous. I certainly did not promote freedom during every moment of my career at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Instead, I made a concerted effort to contribute to freer trade that gave new economic opportunities to millions of people. Within the sometimes heavy constraints of government work, I consider that a victory for freedom.
Eyes wide open, well aware of what you are endeavoring to do: that is how any liberty-advocate must enter a career in government. While there are some opportunities for you to expand freedom within government, especially outside of the United States in the diplomatic service, they are not easily found. Once found, the bureaucratic entropy you will encounter may just be too strong. If not careful, you can find yourself in a lucrative but disappointing career that pits you against your own ideals.
Look for jobs that increase trade but don’t rely on subsidies. This is where I spent the majority of my time in government, confident that I was expanding trade and increasing opportunities for Americans and others alike. Foreign policy and diplomacy are constitutionally legitimate functions of government and provide a way for classical liberals to represent their country abroad and educate people on the value of limited government (as long as the country is not infringing on rights abroad, of course).
Working for a state or local government can be less of a philosophical problem. After all, “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But just because a state or local government has the power or the legal ability to conduct an action doesn’t mean it should. Something as mundane as zoning policy can have profound implications for individuals. Think about the consequences of your work and how they impact businesses and people.
How should you react when your supervisor or an elected executive for whom you work wants to conduct an action with which you disagree? How do you react now? Most likely you agree to disagree, make your peace with it, and move on. If the decision is important enough, you may make a stand and refuse to budge, threatening your career position. You have that choice. But when working for the government, you must also consider that your choice will have impacts on countless others who may not have the option to choose principled disagreement.
This is serious stuff. That is why I cannot implore you enough to fully realize the consequences of your choice when you enter the government as a classical liberal.
Let’s assume you’ve made your decision and you are starting your new career. Remember that decisions are being made not to serve the bottom-line profit, but to accomplish a mission as defined by the leadership, similar to a nonprofit. As with any career, you need to believe in that mission. If you do not believe in it, you should not be there.
Bureaucracy is king. Understand the motives and vision of your co-workers and the leadership. Realize that all the good intentions and hard work in the world are sometimes not enough to change the bureaucracy’s direction. Ultimately, the person at the top has the final say, and he is likely a political appointee or an elected official. His motivations are not necessarily perfectly aligned with the mission of the government agency. There may be political points to be made. So you must be careful to pick your battles. Choose fights you have a reasonable chance of winning.
Finally, what about the possibility of changing the system from inside? The possibility of being a “mole for liberty” is certainly attractive. While the rest of the classical liberal community labors incessantly to slowly change society through a combination of political action and public education, you could be the hero and end the erosion of liberty by smuggling a government-shrinking memo through the bureaucracy! This is not likely. But there is need for people to commit themselves to educating civil servants on the value of liberty. Perhaps that would effect change and contribute to the liberty-advancing effort. Again, be aware of the perverse political incentives and mountain of bureaucratic procedures standing in your way. Always keep your eyes open.
I have not laid out an easy path. Being a classical liberal in the public sector can be a mind-numbing, frustrating experience. But with the right job and the right mission and largely unencumbered by everyday political concerns, you can make a difference. When I entered public service, the people of the United States had to navigate thousands of regulations and high tariff barriers if they wanted to trade with the people of Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman. But with the right political incentives and diligent teamwork, I was able to contribute to an effort that tore down those regulations and lowered tariffs to almost zero. America now has free-trade agreements with those countries. Individuals across the globe are able to trade freely thanks in part to my efforts.
I call that a win for liberty.
Carl Oberg is the executive director of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), one of the oldest free-market organizations in the United States. Oberg spent over a decade in government working on international trade and defense policy before realizing his passion for liberty. Oberg is a graduate of the yearlong Koch Associate Program and a former policy associate at Americans for Prosperity. He holds a master’s degree in economics from George Mason University.
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