Apparently a part-time public servant has written to the Prime Minister about her mother’s probable redundancy following the merger of the Ministry of Fisheries and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. According to Stuff, she has sought to help the PM “understand what is happening to people in this country when they are losing their jobs”.
She provided a copy of the letter to Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson, who also happens to be Labour’s State Services spokesman. Grant claims that, “It is very easy for the current Government to lump everybody into a statistic and … depersonalise it. But these are real people, with real lives and families.”
I would be somewhat surprised if any member of the current government was unaware that the public service was staffed by real people. I’m also pretty sure that they’d know that almost all of those real people would have living relatives. Grant and the anonymous author of the letter appear to be asserting that because public sector job cuts affect real people with families the cuts must ipso facto be bad and wrong.
Losing one’s job is usually a painful experience. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t happen. That said, in an ideal world no-one would have to work so there wouldn’t be jobs to lose. So, the question really is not “are public sector job losses a good thing or a bad thing?”, but is rather “are public sector job losses better than the next best alternative?”. As Eric Crampton at Offsetting Behaviour is fond of pointing out, many leftist objections to things they don’t like are based on a Nirvana Fallacy, which is to say that their arguments assume that the alternative to a bad situation is a good situation. However, in many situations, the alternative to a bad situation is a worse situation.
Unfortunately for the cause of responsible government, the choice is more often between a bad situation now and a worse situation sometime in the future. All too frequently, governments are willing to accept a worse situation in the future to avoid a bad and therefore unpopular situation now. And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what Grant Robertson appears to be advocating.
According to the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom, the New Zealand government spends 41% of the country’s GDP. Which means that for every $100 of wealth created by the working population, $41 are spent by the government, leaving the person who actually created that wealth with only $59. This situation is aggravated by the fact that the government only actually collects $34.5 of the $41 it needs, which means that for every $100 of current government spending about $16 is going to have to be paid off by future taxpayers. This situation still exists after 3 years of a centre-right government taking steps to cut back on expenditure. National has actually succeeding in redressing the balance somewhat; in the year ended June 2009 (the financial year that began with Labour’s last budget) government expenditure hit 46% of GDP, so 41% is an improvement. Maintaining the public service at 2008 levels would have imposed a huge long-term cost and a massive drain on the wealth-generating part of the economy. Grant is willing to impose that cost on all current and future tax-payers to spare a small number of public servants the relatively short-term pain of redundancy.
Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 388 people died in accidents on New Zealand roads each year. Had they not been travelling in cars, most would still be alive. Yet no-one is proposing that New Zealand do away with cars in order to save lives. Despite the personal tragedies associated of losing 388 ‘real people with real lives and families’ a year to car crashes, the country as a whole is willing to lump them into a statistic and depersonalise them. We prefer to accept their loss rather than incur the inconvenience of not having cars. We collectively consider that life without cars is worse than losing 388 people a year to car crashes.
Since National took office, about 2,000 public service jobs have been cut, which is less than 700 a year. So, is the alternative, which is not cutting jobs, better or worse? Ultimately, that comes down to your view on how much damage a bloated public sector does to the economy, and how much benefit you think you get from the public service.
If, like Paul Krugman, you believe that having the government build things then blow them up and rebuild them is good for the economy, then you probably think that 46% of all wealth created by the country being spent by the government is beneficial. In which case, not only are National depriving public servants of their livelihoods, they’re making everyone else poorer too. If you believe that, then it makes perfect sense to oppose cuts to the public sector. If you believe that, then you don’t need to resort to sentimentality to make your case. If you believe that, then you can, like Paul Krugman, make the case for an alien invasion to improve the global economy.
But that’s not what Grant’s arguing. He’s exploiting our sentimentality to make the case that once a public servant has a job they should keep it forever regardless of whether the country can afford it because redundancy is unpleasant. Pointing out that public servants are ‘real people with real lives and families’ and that being made redundant makes people sad is like arguing for the abolition of cars and roads because of the road toll. It’s sentimental twaddle.