U.S. Civil Service: How Progressives Prostituted Their Own Child

One of the more important levers of political power is the appointment of supporters to run the government.  That's inherently corrupt, since it puts loyalty over both ability and the public interest, setting up the maintenance of that loyalty by mutual favors.

China's Emperor Wu figured that out around twenty-three hundred years back, inviting a hundred young scholars who weren't hereditary nobility to a imperial competitive examination.  He subsequently used the top men (no girls -- he was already henpecked) in his government, thereby inventing the Professional Civil Service, though he likely didn't know that.

A professional civil service is intended to deliver good government through two salient characteristics: able bureaucrats are selected by competitive examination, and tenure protects workers from political interference in doing their jobs.  In the first half of the twentieth century, civil servants commonly eschewed political activity and usually were paid less than private-sector workers, though security and good pensions balanced that.  Such systems tended to minimize corruption, keep government employment costs reasonable, and maintain stability.  They did not, however, please the elected politicians, whose hands they remove from that particular lever of political power.

Though America's Founders followed Emperor Wu by some two thousand years, they didn't see fit to embed a professional civil service into the Constitution, resulting in use of the even more ancient spoils system for manning government.  If you won the election, you won the spoils -- in that case, the right to appoint your supporters to run the government and provide you any little favors you exacted in return.  The forbears of the Progressives, reacting to the resulting corruption, advocated civil service laws; the U.S. Civil Service was set up in 1871 and began professionalization with the 1883 Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act.  That very real progress had taken nearly a hundred years.

The Progressives, though, didn't rest on their success in reforming the Civil Service toward Emperor Wu's model; folk who set out to improve those around them never seem to finish the job.  They opened the twentieth century with their drive to embed labor unions into law and went on from there to wrestle racial and subsequently other forms of discrimination to the mat.  As we all know, they succeeded on both counts. However, as usual in matters political, unintended (maybe) consequences have manifested; one of those is the effects of these two programs on the professional Civil Service.

Government was once considered exempt from unionization.  The idea of soldiers, cops, teachers, or firemen going on strike was simply too destructive; it was considered immoral.  Laws providing for unions didn't include government employees, though some informal government unions existed here and there.  With time, those changed, and unionized government workers became routine.  One result was raising government salaries from below to above those in the private sector; another less obvious effect has been more insidious, as we'll see.

For now though, the other Progressive triumph -- over discrimination -- needs review.  After the Supremes mandated equality with Brown vs. Board of Education, President Kennedy signed a 1961 executive order instructing government to take "affirmative action" to assure that all government actions be free of bias.  In 1965, President Johnson signed his own executive order demanding an increase in the hiring and contracting affecting protected groups; today's reverse racism was under way.  That's why, for instance, blacks are a higher percentage of government workers than they are of the population.  And this too has been insidious and accompanied by unintended (maybe) consequences.

Consider the effect of these two programs on the U.S. Civil Service.  First, those competitive exams to select the best talent don't work that way anymore when you move lower-scoring applicants over higher-scoring ones because of preferences.  That has prostituted the professional Civil Service in favor of its use to reward members of politically favored groups.  Second, when you legally protect public unions, it sets up a client relationship among the civil servants, their unions, and (in this case) the Democrats that guarantees corruption.  It's undeniable that these programs increased the cost, lowered the qualifications, and made the Civil Service more responsive to the politicians.  Emperor Wu would not be pleased.

It's unfortunate that little political ironies like this are so common.  The Progressive do-gooders labored to diminish the evils of the spoils system in American government and succeeded.  They actually did some good.  Then, in pursuit of still more good via unions (which are turning out to be a little too good for public servants) and ending discrimination, they've restored the essence of the spoils system to civil service, but with corrupt unions added -- leaving the service worse than when the Progressives set out to help in 1883.  Apparently, good government is a disposable good.   They did it all themselves, but they lack the honesty to admit it. Emperor Wu wouldn't be surprised.