The Real Public Servants


Private enterprise does more for the national good than it gets credit for

hoover_logo_diJames Huffman  writes:  Alexis de Tocqueville reported that “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. . . . Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.”

    [Alexis de Tocqueville‘s Democracy in America is available in paperback from Amazon ]

Tocqueville went on to observe that these civil associations serving every imaginable end were the product of what he called “self-interest well understood.” Tocqueville reflected that “the beauties of virtue were constantly spoken of” in “aristocratic centuries,” but he doubted that men were more virtuous in those times than in others. 

In the United States, he had observed, “it is almost never said that virtue is beautiful.” Rather Americans “maintain that . . . [virtue] is useful and they prove it every day.” This is what Tocqueville meant by “self-interest well understood,” which he illustrated with this quotation from Montaigne: “When I do not follow the right path for the sake of righteousness, I follow it for having found by experience that all things considered, it is commonly the happiest and most useful.”

“self-interest well understood” “forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits.”

Twenty-first century Americans have forgotten this ancestral insight—that “self-interest well understood” “forms a multitude of citizens who are regulated, temperate, moderate, farsighted, masters of themselves; and if it does not lead directly to virtue through will, it brings them near to it insensibly through habits.” Perhaps “self-interest well understood” sounds too much of Adam Smith’s invisible hand for present day Americans whose habit, like the French of Tocqueville’s time, increasingly is to look for solutions not to private collaboration but to an omnipresent government. Nineteenth-century Americans who turned to both neighbors and strangers in pursuit of mutual interests would be puzzled at the hard and fast boundary their twenty-first century descendants draw between public and private interest.


Young people applying to colleges know that their prospects for admission will be enhanced if they have a record of public service. They also know that volunteering for a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the needy or preserving the environment qualifies as public service, and that working for a profit-making business, even if as an uncompensated intern, does not count as public service. This distinction conforms to one of the standard dictionary definitions of public service: “something that is done to help people rather than to make a profit.”

Other definitions of public service include the supplying of what economists call public goods (e.g. clean air, national defense, street lights) or what might be described as public necessities (e.g. water, electricity, sewer, transportation) and the work that someone does as an employee of government (more commonly called the civil service in this country). These forms of public service are like the first in that they describe things done for reasons other than profit. The non-excludable and non-rivalrous nature of public goods prevents them from being supplied for profit. It would be unseemly if not immoral to allow anyone to profit from the provision of public necessities. And government is by definition a not-for-profit activity.

Politicians often tout their record of public service as a reason they should be elected or reelected. Often that record includes previous elective office or government employment. Many government employees similarly profess that as public servants they warrant special consideration and respect because they are engaged in public service. The implication, if not explicit declaration, is that they have somehow sacrificed their personal self-interest for the good of the public.

In some cases this claim of personal self-sacrifice is true. Members of the armed forces, particularly those whose assignments put them in harms way, risk the ultimate personal sacrifice and warrant both our gratitude and respect. The same is true of law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and emergency response personnel. Although it is also true that career military and public safety personnel often have generous compensation and retirement benefits, their core mission of protecting others from harm surely warrants both generous financial rewards and recognition…

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Hoover Institution

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