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Part of any quest to have more fun than anyone else you know is purging your brain of miscellaneous annoying thoughts and phrases. Since we have now begun a presidential election year, the phrase “public servant” keeps creeping into and annoying the hell out of my brain. I know with an insanely high degree of certainty, that we will all be bombarded with this phrase by politicians running for all manner of offices at the local, state and federal levels.
I – and you – need to purge our brains now, in preparation for the onslaught of self-aggrandizing candidates who will be touting their selfless and life-long dedication to serving the public good.
According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, a public servant is a government official or employee. According to dictionary.com, a public servant is a person holding a government office or job by election or appointment; a person in public service. With no offense or malice toward either of these dictionaries intended, I hereby officially and defiantly reject both of their definitions.
As I ponder them, two things stand out. First, they both cover an extremely broad range of people. As in anybody and everybody who collects a paycheck from any and every governmental agency. And, second, public servant and public service are two different animals.
I’m perfectly OK with the notion that anybody and everybody who collects a paycheck from any governmental agency is employed in public service. Whether or not that individual is a legitimate public servant, however, is another matter entirely. I want to know exactly who’s interest is being served.
We’re all familiar with the concept of Psychological Egoism, even if the term itself is unfamiliar. As per the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, psychological egoism is “the thesis that we are always deep down motivated by what we perceive to be in our own self-interest.”
Think about that a bit more deeply now… Think in the context of your own actions and decisions over your lifetime. Have you ever done anything for a purely altruistic reason? I certainly hope so – otherwise you’re a pretty awful person. There’s a scientific term for this too, by the way. The concept of Psychological Altruism is the view that sometimes (key word there, sometimes, and only sometimes) our motives truly are purely altruistic.
Have you ever done anything out of guilt, obligation, duty, or for a reward? Can you think of a politician who does things out of guilt, obligation, duty, or for a reward? Of course you have, and of course every politician has. We all have.
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Most of the time, virtually all of us do what we do out of guilt, obligation, duty, or for a reward. Get over it!
The fact of the matter is, all of us bounce around within a narrow range somewhere between pure psychological altruism and pure self-interest. You, for example could be plus or minus 5 points from 80% altruistic and 20% self-interested. That slimeball who lives down the street is plus or minus 5 points from 10% altruistic and 90% self-interested.
Nobody. I repeat. NOBODY is 100% altruistic all the time. Even the literally sainted Mother Teresa, who was canonized as Saint Teresa of Calcutta in 2016, has been criticized for travelling via private luxury jet on more than a few occasions. She did, in fact, travel via the private luxury jets of a variety of fat cats. At a minimum, that had to be fun for her, even if she didn’t admit it. To be fair, part of her mission was to raise enormous sums of money, and raising enormous sums of money involves interacting with said fat cats, who would have to be monumental jerks to not offer her free transportation to her next fundraising destination.
To be clear, I’m a huge fan and admirer of Mother Teresa. The jet rides came with her territory, so to speak. She did what she had to do to better serve the sick and starving of Calcutta. She’s far and away the best example of pure psychological altruism I can find. Even she, however, most certainly had moments when she drifted just a tad toward the other end of the scale – toward self-interest.
To be clear about something else… I’m perfectly OK with pursuing your own self-interest. Especially if you pursue it as an honest capitalist. Was the sales rep at the GMC dealership evil for demanding $63K for the Yukon I got last year? Holy cow, that’s a lot of money! Clearly though, I wanted the truck more than I wanted the money and he wanted the money more than he wanted the truck. In other words, we both pursued our own desires – our own self-interest – and we both walked away from the deal with greater value in our possession than we had before. It’s a classic example of the win-win situation.
I most certainly am not OK with anyone employed in public service constantly looking for pats on the back because they’re a selfless public servant. To be fair, though, let’s sort them out into three different categories, because some of them actually are legitimate public servants.
There are government employees who risk life and limb, there are civil servants and then there are the politicians.
The first group includes members of the military, police, firefighters, emergency medical personnel and others who literally put their lives and limbs at risk. Am I in favor of calling them Public Servants? You bet I am! Emphatically so!
The second group includes all those folks toiling away at a government job. They make their living and feed their families with paychecks from a government entity. Am I in favor of calling them Public Servants? Well… I guess I can live with that. Personally, I prefer the term civil servants for them, but hey… The vast majority of them are just regular folks going about the business of life and taking care of their families. Public servant, civil servant… I really can’t get exercised either way. Let ‘em call themselves what they want.
Then there’s the third group, the politicians. And I’m going to sub-divide them into two bunches. Bunch A includes anyone who is or ever has run for the office of President of the United States, for the U.S. Senate or U.S House of Representatives, Governor of any state or Mayor of any city with a population greater than 500,000. Bunch B includes all of the other politicians.
Bunch B gets a pass – at least for now… Anybody in that bunch is allowed to identify as a Public Servant. In fact, many of them are legitimate public servants. I personally know quite a few current and former small town mayors and members of city councils and such who are downright good people with the best of intentions and more than a touch of altruism. Yes there are also a boat-load of self-interested sleazeballs who shamelessly mislead their constituents, but given the scale of damage they can do at this relatively smaller, narrower level, let’s just let it go – again, at least for now…
Bunch A though? The incumbents and candidates for national-scale public office? No. In my book, you are not allowed to call yourself a public servant. Your staff is not allowed to call you a public servant. Anyone who contributes to your campaign is not allowed to call you a public servant. Anyone in the media who talks or writes about you is not allowed to call you a public servant. You’re not a public servant. You’re a politician.
You don’t pursue a position with that much power unless your psychological makeup demands acquiring that much power …along with the fame and money that go with it.
Your ego demands that you acquire and exercise power. You crave the fame that comes with your power. You crave the money. Becoming a so-called public servant is nothing more than your chosen strategy for serving your own self-interest.
Do not try to bullshit me or anybody else. Be open and honest about it!
You know what? Just like that GMC dealer, as long as you deliver more value to your constituents than you receive in return in the form of power, fame and money… That’s OK! Seriously!
You can be the biggest, self-aggrandizing jerk in the universe, Senator, as long you loudly, publically and repeatedly acknowledge your self-aggrandizing jerkhood – that you’re in it for your own self-interest – for the power, the fame, the money – AND you deliver more value to your constituents than you receive in return. Just do not ever – EVER – imply that you’re doing what you do for the good of your fellow man by referring to yourself as a public servant.
I’m your Intentionally Vicarious host Todd Youngblood – On a crusade against every single holier-than-thou, national politician who even just one time self-identifies as a Public Servant. Equally on a crusade against those politicians’ staffs and donors and the media that cover the whole lot of them. Hopeful that this one small bit of genuine honesty from our politicians just might inject a smidgeon or two of not only humility, but also civility and effectivenss into our political process. That would make it even easier for me to have more fun than anyone else I know.
If this episode got your brain working and/or your blood pumping – and how could this episode NOT get your brain working and/or your blood pumping??? – please tell all your friends and colleagues about it. Send them a link to the episode and/or show them how to subscribe to the Intentionally Vicarious podcast on their phones.
And finally, please consider visiting https://intentionallyvicarious.com/give/ and making a donation to one of the genuinely worthy causes listed there. Generously donating some part of your hard-earned money is fundamental to having more fun than anyone else you know.
Thanks for paying attention…
Join the discussion 2 Comments
Good post. Please include most social workers in group A. One of the discussions I led in classes was “How not to get dog bit or shot.”