Mark Hammer

People tend to think negatively about government employees for four basic reasons:

1) Government workers are rarely subject to the vicissitudes of employment-at-will, or their employer picking up and leaving town, so there is an expectation, based on maintaining equity, that the less someone risks by having a particular employer, the more they ought to deliver.

2) People often don’t know what government does, and simply don’t see the many services delivered, and the many steps required to provide those services, including those services they depend on and have come to take for granted. Should any particular service be delivered in a manner not to the individual’s satisfaction, the effort required to deliver it is viewed as worthless.

3) Top-heavy government (i.e., too many managers and meetings for accountability, not enough action) tends to result in stalling and sluggish response. That gets misinterpreted as “laziness”.

4) People don’t like to pay taxes at the best of times, and at the worst of times – particularly in such a consumerist culture as contemporary North America – they really hate paying taxes that might otherwise go to maintaining the quality of life they believe they have earned. That ramps up the expectations for “SIR! YES…SIR!!!” type service from those paid off the public purse even higher. I suppose equity theory would predict that too.

I draw your attention to the emerging literature on the psychology of tax evasion, and tax-paying behaviour. The reserarch I’m familiar with shows that people are more likely to do things like claim nonlegitimate deductions on their taxes when they feel that tax revenue is not spent “fairly” by government. My sense is that there are likely some serious fiscal implications of the views depicted in the survey results, well beyond whatever scorn those surveyed might feel for government workers, or how they might vote.

What I also find personally interesting is the political slant that the poll observed in their sample. It’s been my contenion for a while that where the left used to be the magnet for the disaffected voter, and the right was the home of those content with the status quo, it would appear that the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, and the right is now the home of the disaffected voter.

As an outsider (Canadian), and most especially as a public servant, I don’t wish to inject politics into the thread. I just find it interesting to see historical patterns in how angry voters cluster together. And at the moment, the anger would seem to be on the right. I’m not sure if the perception of government workers as lazy and overpaid is a product of disappointment in the government, or whether it precedes and causes the disappointment.