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The Golden Rule of Government

Premise #1: Government exists to solve collective problems with greater efficiency and effectiveness than is possible by any one citizen acting alone.

Premise #2: Citizens generally do not have an ability to opt-out of their government due to practical considerations like jobs, family, property ownership, and immigration restrictions.

Premise #3: Public servants accept, on some level, that their livelihood is dependent upon their seriousness of purpose and fidelity to the public’s trust.

Conclusion: Public servants have special moral obligations over and above their counterparts in other occupations, given the average citzen’s relative inability to shop for a better government elsewhere.

Given this, what do we owe them?

Andy Lowenthal is a public sector strategy consultant. Follow him on Twitter.

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Daniel Mintz

I would tend to disagree with the premises here.

Premise #1: I would argue that the gate for Government involvement is not efficiency and effectiveness but rather possibility. That is Government exists to solve problems that cannot be solved by citizens acting alone (or together) in a private capacity.

Among other issues with the stated version of the premise is the inability to collectively agree upon whether Government does (or does not) do something with greater efficiency or effectiveness. Does the Government have a commonly accepted method of providing performance data associated with Government expenditures? The efforts associated with the various versions of GPRA would indicate, at least to me, probably not.

Private industry has a simple ultimate measure of efficiency and effectiveness, they either make (or do not make) a profit. If they do not do so, they disappear. Government which can tax and print money does not have that limitation; and thus needs more formal situational measurements which currently do not exist.

Premise #2: I am not entirely sure what is meant by this. The premise of the US Constitution is that the Government has a limited number of enumerated authorities (understanding that over time the courts have interpreted those enumerations differently), all other ‘rights’ and/or responsibilities are reserved to citizens. The issue is not opt-out (selectively) it is that the Government is limited in what it can do that requires thinking about opting-out.

Premise #3: Hard to argue.

Conclusion: Again, not sure what the point here is. No one, in my opinion, has moral obligations greater or less than anyone else. We all have such obligations. We do need to be mindful that only Government has the cohersive power of taxing, the law, the police and the military and thus we should be very cautious about only putting such authority into play when absolutely necessary. When misdirected the consequences are hard to fix.

Finally, regarding the question, it is not clear who the ‘them’ is that is being referred to. What do we owe public servants? What do we owe citizens? And what is meant by owe – salaries, deference, respect, defined benefit programs as opposed to defined contribution programs, cheap health care, or what?

David Dejewski

Rabbit holes abound in this discussion. Excellent!

Government exists to…

Citizens can’t…

Public servants accept…

..we owe…

Wow… this could generate a lot of opinionated discussions. Would anyone be more correct than the next person?

We might go the other way:

Government exists to serve the people and to provide structures and services for society that individual citizens can’t or won’t provide.

Citizens pay a premium for government in the form of taxes taken from their pay checks. Public servants do not have the ability to opt out of providing service to citizens.

Citizens accept, on some level, the burden of taxation so that essential services will be there when they need them to carry on with their lives.

This could be fun.

Who’s next?

Corey McCarren

I like Daniel’s last point about everyone having the same moral obligations because I think private industry and nonprofits also provide a very valuable contribution to society. In my opinion the best thing someone can do for a person is hire them. This isn’t to say at all that I don’t appreciate public sector workers, I do just as much as anyone else. I just also appreciate all of my employers who have given others and I the opportunity to excel.

I think public servants are owed the same thing as you, or I, or anyone. A decent wage, fair hours, a comfortable work environment, and benefits.

Scott Kearby

As I read the post, the question is what do we (the public servants/government employees) owe to the citizens that we serve?

At the most basic & fundamental level we owe them (the public) our best effort to serve their needs as appropriate for our particular organization. This is often not easy … we don’t have unlimited resources, we have to navigate the many rules & regulations, we have time contraints, we have to balance the needs of the individual citizen with the needs of the larger public, etc.

A couple of other thoughts for consideration ….

“No man can always be right, so the struggle is to do one’s best; to keep the brain and conscience clear; never to be swayed by unworthy motives and inconsequential reasons, but to strive to unearth the basic factors involved and then to do one’s duty.” Dwight D. Eisenhower

“Treat each federal dollar as if it was hard earned; it was — by a taxpayer.” Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense x2

Dick Davies

Aargh! Government exists to solve…that payers either can’t or won’t…

How do we get around funding or attempting questionable solutions in search of a problem?

Example: The Soviet solution to the need for new technology for a pressurized space pen = a pencil.

Some might observe there’s a little too much problem definition by stalled bureaucrats in search of career extension.


I belive that the main problem with government is that there is no competition, no profit margins and prevously there were “never ending” resources. The premise should be “what can governent do better, less intrusively, more effieciently, more effectively… We all need to start thinking more like owners of a private company, do more with less, implement more accountablity and peformance metrics, and yes people should be removed when not they are performing and not shifted to another area.

subroto mukerji

Premise #1: Government exists to solve collective problems with greater efficiency and effectiveness than is possible by any one citizen acting alone.

I am not sure where to start with this one. Government is its own interest group. It might help citizens or it might not. Its job is to perpetuate itself continually. It is certainly efficient at doing that but not much else. The free market can effectively solve problems given the proviso its free to do that. For me government’s only function is what is written in the Constitution: promote the general welfare, provide for the common defense …. and not much else.


Thanks Andy for using the word “Premise” as these are all too often elevated to…Uh Oh! you said it in your conclusion! The danger of considering very much of government operations as “moral obligations” comes with the self perpetuating cycle back to the first premise that the government in place is the only solution. When government interventions devolve to a moral imperative, how could government possibly admit that non-government alternatives exist? Wouldn’t they be immoral? Thus, limiting government’s definition of what services citizens can’t or won’t provide themselves?