James Joyner recently argued with a brick wall who goes by the name John Hawkins and is the founder of RightWingNews. In this discussion, Hawkins argues that Congress and congressional staffers are getting a special deal by not having to carry the full weight of their insurance. Joyner takes exception to the notion that this is a “special deal” of any sort since nobody who works for the federal government – congressionally or otherwise – pays the full freight of their insurance.
There are arguments that Hawkins could make here, such as suggesting that congressionals should be treated differently for this reason or that. Or he could make the case that government employees pay less for better benefits for less out-of-pocket expense than non-government employees. But he’s arguing on weak ground and, as Joyner notes, doesn’t care.
This is part of a broader thing that I have noticed, though. The extent to which debaters rhetorically treat government employees as the equivalent of welfare recipients or mere beneficiaries of government largesse when it’s convenient, while recognizing that they are employees who are working for their money when that is convenient.
From the right, you see it in cases like this. The expectation that compensation levels for government employees – including benefits – are essentially gifts. That’s not to say that one cannot argue that government employees are overcompensated. That’s arguably true in some cases and untrue in others, but it’s largely a matter of perspective (albeit, ideally, perspectives rooted in a factual basis). However, government employees are at least theoretically doing the job for which they are paid for. Maybe you don’t think the job should exist, but it does. A lot of jobs that shouldn’t exist in the private sector shouldn’t exist, either, or are overpaid, but they do exist and those who take the jobs are not, broadly speaking, recipients of corporate generosity.
From the left I see it in a slightly different context. At Ordinary Times, I once saw it suggested that it’s hypocritical or something like hypocritical for congresspeople to oppose government subsidy of health care when their own health care is subsidized by the government. It’s an argument that I have seen elsewhere. Except that congressional insurance subsidies are actually a form of payment for labor performed. And, of course, crude donor-beneficiary maps can treat payment to current and military personnel in Montana as a wealth transfer instead of payment for services rendered.
Of course, sometimes people make arguments that invite these sorts of responses. If people argue that we shouldn’t lay government employees off because they should have their job, then they are advocating work-as-welfare, of a sort. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, inherently, but it does feed into the notion that government employment is about the employee, a matter of generosity, rather than about a job being performed. And when someone argues portrays government jobs as some sort of giveaway, they leave themselves open to someone pointing out that such includes soldiers, mailcarriers, and other staples of Red America.
Ultimately, government jobs are jobs and government employees should be employees. By default, they should have compensation packages commensurate with what is required to recruit and retain the desired personnel. If we’re not doing this for some ideological reason or another, that can be justified. However, except when that is explicitly what we are doing, their salaries and benefits should be considered the product of services performed, rather than taxpayer support or government generosity.