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The Woman Problem & other prose

A Nation of Officials

page 46

A Nation of Officials

There are close on one hundred thousand public servants in the Dominion of New Zealand. That staggering fact has come to light just recently.

We all knew, of course, that the Public Service had been multiplying during recent years like a shoal of herrings. But few of us suspected that the figures had risen as high as that.

It is inevitable, of course, that there should be a Public Service of some dimensions. The work of the State needs to be done. But when the numbers of State servants rise to such an extent that the Public Service threatens to engulf the whole population, it is time to stop and think.

Many of these people are doing essential jobs. Others are doing work that is, if not essential, at least useful. But an awful lot of them are just job-holders. Ask anybody you know who works in a Government department.

The job-holder has his point of view, of course. He probably has a wife and family, and he's not going to get himself flung out into the snow if he can possibly help it. Who can blame him? No—the problem is mainly a social, not an individual one.

Probably the worst thing that could happen to New Zealanders, or to any other race of people, is that they should become a race of officials. The official tends to become less and less human the further he goes. His relations with his fellow men harden and go cold. The direct links of personal responsibility and mutual interest that bind men together are broken, and something cog-like takes their place. 'Corporations have no souls,' said somebody, and there was never a truer word spoken. What he forgot to add is that people who are employed by corporations tend to become soulless, too. The bigger the corporation, the page 47stronger this tendency. And there is no bigger corporation than the State.

The best status for men is that of independence. The small farmer, the small tradesman, the individual craftsman working on his own—these have been the mainstay of every stable civilisation in history. The tendency for large numbers of men to forsake, or to have taken from them, their independent status, and to become hangers-on of the State, has invariably been the prelude to decay.

Many of the job-holders in our Public Service are not particularly happy in what they are doing—or pretending to do—or not doing at all. They are merely secure, up to a point—sure of the weekly pay envelope. If they were given a decent opportunity to do work that interested them, without being squeezed out of existence by the competition of big business firms, many of them would welcome it. But among the ranks of the Public Service are many who have known the uncertainty and insecurity of economic independence, and prefer at any cost the minimum guarantee provided by a job under the State.

The remedy for this situation, of course, is not to enlarge the Public Service still further, and to glorify a decadent tendency with the name of 'Socialism'. The proper remedy is to make it possible and economically feasible for men to work on their own, or with one or two employees under them, or in co-operative groups. Our laws should be so framed as to give security of status, as far as possible, to every 'freeman'. His nominal political freedom should be fused with a complementary economic freedom. Freedom, as many of the shrewdest economic philosophers have remarked, is inseparable from property. If the State owns all the property, or if it belongs to a few big capitalist trusts, then there can be no freedom for the ordinary man.

Because a hundred thousand Public Servants control perhaps double that number of votes, politicians of every colour are going to be very chary about interfering with the Public Service. That in itself is one of the factors that is helping to increase the numbers of public servants. A sort of snowball process has set in.

page 48

Yet, if you got these State employees in a corner, one by one, and asked them what they thought about it all, most of them would probably show some signs of misgiving. Many, for certain, would express a wish to be doing something more exciting—and would embarrass you by asking how you proposed to deal with the situation. If you simply prescribed sacking a large number of them, they would smile a frosty smile.

The dilemma is a real one. Stagnation is settling down upon this nation. The efforts of the politicians should be directed, not towards buying votes by handing out further jobs, but to the earnest study of the problem of freedom.

A lot of people distrust the National Party because it talks about freedom. Their distrust may or may not be justified. But it doesn't alter the fact that the problem of maintaining freedom in our society is the most serious one we have to face.

One clue has been provided above: property—which means, not the concentration of property in a few hands (with consequent pauperism among the rest of the people), but the widespread distribution of property among the mass of the people.

Beware of politicians who equate 'the People' and 'the State'. The State, in practice, always means the politicians themselves; for they use its mechanism to concentrate power as much as possible in their own hands. Freedom can only exist in a community when property and power belong, not to 'the People', but to Tom, Dick and Harry. For they are the real people. To put power into the hands of the State under the illusion that it is really 'the People' is to hand the affairs of the nation over to a junta of power-hungry politicians and to sacrifice freedom. The State should be limited in its powers, or it will devour everything around it.

From the point of view of its effect on individuals, this tendency for the Public Service to become bloated is disastrous and dehumanising. We all know the sort of man who is quite a decent fellow until he gets a bit of power into his hands—the petty bureaucrat. His character deteriorates, and he becomes officious and insufferable. There are other men who, when they become part of a governmental page 49machine, lapse into sloth and indifference. Others become mere victims of the bully under whose control they may find themselves. Bureaucracy encourages many of the vices of human nature—laziness, arrogance, love of power, officiousness and other such traits. It does little to bring out the virtues.

Let it be said again: there is no worse fate that could befall New Zealanders than that they should become a race of officials.