Giving thanks for helpful government employees

"Helpful government employee" is not an oxymoron, although libertarians sometimes act that way. I've been reminded of this by a number of positive interactions lately:

  • We had a leaky toilet for several weeks before it was replaced. The city called me up and said "Hey, your water bill got a lot higher - we think you might have a leak." I had already found it, but still, what great service! (I think they were motivated by a drought due to them not setting water prices based on supply and demand, but it was still nice.)
  • The city fire prevention dept called me up about 2 non-code-compliant things they had spotted on our property in their periodic survey. One was a hot tub plugged into an extension cord. The other was a wheelchair lift that had been built un-permitted. They wanted both unplugged until compliant, and the hot tub fenced off, and plugged into a grounded, permitted outlet, and the lift to have an electrical permit.

    Sure, I don't think they should be telling me what to do. But they were very reasonable - and in fact, both the precautions on the hot tub were things we were planning to do and hadn't gotten around to yet. They didn't fine us. They didn't tear them down. They didn't enforce any building permits (only electrical ones, which they felt were important for fire safety), or county health codes (although they warned us that the county might have other objections if they ever noticed the tub). And one could easily imagine a private neighborhood association which inspected properties for fire safety, even in libertopia.

  • Most recently, I'd been fed up with paperwork from the state EDD, which handles the taxes we pay for (some of) our childcare workers. Every quarter, they ask for all quarterly forms since the first quarter, every quarter I would print out and send all of them, and then the next quarter they'd say they weren't received. After a year and a half, they started trying to fine me.

    So I replied with a letter about how I wasn't going to pay the fines, I had sent in these forms again and again, and there must be some snafu on their end, and I would appreciate it if they could figure it out and clear this up. I got a call from a nice lady today who had figured out that I had been issued two different numbers, and so my submissions were under one and the requests under another. Typical bureaucratic snafu - but the state employee involved didn't say "What a whiner, I don't have to do what he says, I have the mighty arm of the state behind me!". Instead she said "Aww, poor guy, let me fix his problem".

None of this changes my belief that there are major, systemic problems with democratic, centralized governments, problems which give rise to worse service on average. Nor that the incentive structures of public vs. private employment tend to draw more talented individuals somewhat more often to the private sector. But surely the incentives also draw more selfish people to the private sector and more altruistic ones into public service. Altruism in the role of managing top-down solutions to problems may tend to do more harm than good, but a genuine enjoyment of helping people, when used to do so directly, is a wonderful thing.

Let's not forget it, lest we be judged arrogant and elitist - with reason.

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Dealing with goods private

Dealing with goods private employees happens to me everyday and I don't find anything surprising or worth noticing about it.
However, in two years, I've dealt with a few public employees: customs & immigration officers, policemen, MTA employees, USPS employees, and DMV employees. Maybe it's just me being unlucky but I havn't yet encountered a single helpful and nice civil servant. (It could be argued that I am instinctively hostile to them, but really I am not, I try to be extra nice because these people often hold something of value to me, and I never wear my "civil servant = slave owner" when I deal with them.

Depends on the government

City governments are naturally more responsive than state governments, and state governments are naturally more responsive than national governments. Moreover governments in wealthy neighborhoods are naturally more responsive than governments in middle class neighborhoods, and the latter are more responive than governments in poor neighborhoods.

A simple example to prove this point is the quality of public schools in different areas. "Inner city" public schools have the well-deserved reputation for being horrendous. Public schools in well-off neighborhoods, meanwhile, can approach private schools in the quality of education which they deliver to their students.

Theoretically I agree with

Theoretically I agree with you, my experience speaks otherwise though

- I can introduce you to a few MTA employees (city) working in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Manhattan, you'd be surprised.

- DMV (state) has been worse than Customs & Immigration (federal) so far. 

Manhattan is large

Manhattan's government is not very local. I think a good measure of locality is the number of people governed by the government. So, since Manhattan has a large population, Manhattan's government is not very local. My parents' town has what I would consider a highly local government, because their town has 12,000 people. I have found the town's police polite and helpful.

As for the comparison of DMV with Customs and Immigration, I'm not sure that like is being compared with like here. The DMV does something different from Customs and Immigration. If you actually compared like with like you might try comparing the federal customs and immigration with the state customs and immigration. It's not a fair comparison for Constitutional reasons, but it seems a necessary one if you really want to compare like with like. Also, Customs and Immigration has different faces for different travellers. My guess is that a Mexican illegal in California would have sharply different views about Immigration as compared to the DMV.

Altruists, Empricism in Government Efficacy and Libertarianism

It does seem, at least in my personal experience, that people who are more caring, sensitive and interested in questions of well-being for strangers tend to gravitate toward state work, or at least non profits, many of whom are at least nominally supported by the state.

Female friends of mine, GF included, are school teachers, aspiring labor lawyers, social workers and the like. Interestingly, the more intellectual/ideological among them have a distaste for Americans and even humanity in the abstract, for human "arrogance" and despoilation (spelled right?) of the environment. They'd also sooner raise dogs and cats than kids. Some of the MOST ideological gravitate toward organizations like Food Not Bombs, places so radical that they are not government affiliated for obvious reasons.

I think the incentive problem necessitates empirical research, whereas the information problem, not as much. For the people above, it isn't incentives - they are quite motivated - it's their ideas about the underclass and society's "true" enemies that might be the bigger problem. For example, a female middle school teacher I know visited Mexico and was in awe of how people "came together" there, and didn't "need" consumerism. Typical stuff. This view is tied into a well known progressive sense of obligation to influence people to believe the right things. They want to overcome the supposed "emergence" of the good society from rational self interest and actually help socialize people to, say, not litter. Talking about the incentives of property rights to achieve the same thing eschews the "people's romance", which is exactly what they value. They prefer the long haul route of changing people's hearts and minds...not their petty "incentives". It's a value judgement. I myself can't get excited about any effort to get people on the "same page" save for not murdering and raping and pillaging, but the property rights scheme and rational self interest seems to take care of that just fine. I may be wrong, but I think that behavioral economics is showing that to legalize drugs, for instance, would undermine a fragile sense of the people' romance that views drugs as simply bad, and socializes people to reject them in the abstract. This brings the libertarian back to defending drug use on pluralist or hedonistic grounds, not pragmatic grounds.

Middle and upper class people go into state work for reasons different from the lower class, who consitute more of the people who work for BART (bay area rapid transit, or more recently "bay area rides together") for instance. Much of social work has been professionalized and incorporated into the state, so they go where the work is for the most part, though ideas of the state as truly representative of the "the public" is also held. Seeing as how people concerned for public welfare go into state work, there is indeed some evidence for the state as truly "public" oriented, contra the more vulgar public choice proponents.

Don't think that guarentees any particular result even if true

"Seeing as how people concerned for public welfare go into state work, there is indeed some evidence for the state as truly "public" oriented, contra the more vulgar public choice proponents." You are ignoring the quantities of such "good" people, their actual power in state organizations, and the fact that "bad" people might also be attracted to public service and in greater numbers. Those are scare quotes.

BTW, I can't say I disagree with your observations, but don't forget they are also attracted to private non-profits also, private colleges and the like.