One of the strangest terms that is used in modern
conversation and writing is the term "service." There are some straightforward
uses. For example, you go to a restaurant and a waitress comes up and asks if
she can serve you. In that context, the term means the same thing to both of
you. But I want to take issue with another use of the term that has become quite
common. That is the issue of "government service." The use of this
term has corrupted and confused much of the discussion of what government does,
on both the domestic and the foreign policy fronts.
What brought this to mind is a newspaper story in the Aug. 10 Winnipeg Free
Press that I read while at my cottage in Minaki, Ontario. The article, "Jake
the Dope-Sniffing Dog Bow-Wows Out of the Job," is about a drug-sniffing
dog facing retirement. The sentence that caught my eye was, "They [Jake
and his handler Connie] formed one of the approximately 70 detector dog teams
strategically located across Canada, serving both travelers and commercial operations."
Note the use of the term "serving." How does the dog serve travelers?
By fetching a stick, perhaps? Or maybe by helping them retrieve their baggage?
No. Everyone knows how he "serves" travelers – by catching them with
illegal drugs. Connie, who didn't want her last name revealed, made clear how
the dog served. The reporter, Jason Bell, writes, "'Everyone on
line is usually clapping when they see him working – except for the guy he's
sitting in front of,' Connie said, with a laugh."
In other words, both she and the reporter know that the dog is not "serving"
travelers in any reasonable sense of that word. Rather, the dog is trying to
You don't have to be an opponent of the drug war to understand and agree
with my above statement. Even if you think the drug war is a great idea, it's
important not to corrupt the language. One would have to stretch to claim that
people or dogs who catch others importing illegal drugs are serving these others.
It's these others who will "serve" – by doing time in prison.
The same kind of misleading language pervades discussion of another domestic
government institution, the IRS: Internal Revenue Service. Whom does
the Internal Revenue Service serve? One could make a case that the IRS serves
Congress, the president, and the federal bureaucracy because these worthies
take the money that the IRS collects and spend it on causes that they or their
constituents believe in. In that sense, the IRS is a service. But what are we
to make of the statements that congressmen of both parties were making in the
late 1990s, when it was revealed that the IRS had been treating some taxpayers
badly? In response, congressmen and the IRS started advocating that the IRS
treat its "customers" better. And by "customers" they meant
taxpayers. When I ship a package using the United Parcel Service, I'm a customer
buying a service. How do we know I'm a customer? Because I do it voluntarily.
But the only reason I pay taxes, as is true of most people, is that taxes are
compulsory. If I refuse to pay taxes, then I'll lose my assets and might go
to prison. As I wrote in The
Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey, calling taxpayers customers
of the IRS is like calling chickens customers of the egg farmer.
The only way we know that someone is being served is that the person voluntarily
buys the service. Now, it's possible that government workers serve us by doing
something we value, delivering our mail, for example. But what the government
produces is typically given away or, in the case of sniffing dogs, forced on
us, and we who pay for it through taxes have no choice in the matter. This means
that even though, by our standards, government workers sometimes serve us, they
often don't. Which makes it ironic that the term "service" is used
so commonly to describe what government workers do and so rarely to describe
what workers in the private (i.e., voluntary) sector do. Often, when I am introduced
before audiences, the person introducing me says that I "served" in
the Reagan administration. But when I introduce myself, I say that I worked
in the Reagan administration. I'm trying to do my little bit to get people to
use language accurately and honestly.
Which brings me to foreign policy and the military. A term that is widely used
to refer to the activities of people in the military is that they "are
in the service," "serve in the military," or "serve their
country." But how do we know? There's not a market test. Neither they nor
their employer, the Department of Defense, gives us a chance to say whether
we want them to fight abroad and pay for their services. And that means that
we can't be sure they are serving. Some people value what they do and, if, given
the option, these people would pay for what military personnel do, then they
are being served. Other people actually think it's a disservice for the
military to invade countries that don't threaten us and, by those standards,
these people are not being served.
Interestingly, the term "service" to refer to being in the military
came about as a purposeful corruption of the language. When military
conscription was introduced on America's entry into World War I in 1917, Wilson's
government, wanting to avoid the kind of draft resistance that occurred during
the U.S. Civil War, decided that the terms "draft" and "conscription"
sounded too harsh – i.e., too realistic. So Wilson's government started an advertising
campaign aimed to get all draft-eligible men to register on the same day, Registration
Day. To get them in the "right" frame of mind, the government started
referring to draftees as "servicemen." The term stuck long after the
draft ended and has been with us since.
What complicates matters enormously is that the military is engaged in producing
what economists call a "public good." A public good is a good that
has two characteristics: (1) non-rivalry in consumption and (2) non-excludability.
Non-rivalrous consumption means that your consuming it doesn't prevent me from
consuming it also. When you eat a hamburger, I cannot eat the same hamburger,
making a hamburger a private good. But when you gain from defense, that doesn't
necessarily prevent me from gaining from that same defense. Thus, defense is
non-rivalrous in consumption. Non-excludability means that it is difficult or
impossible to exclude non-payers from consuming the good. So someone who defends
you from foreign invaders also defends your neighbor next door even though you
paid for it and he didn't. This latter characteristic, non-excludability, leads
to what economists call "the free-rider problem." People have an incentive
to free ride – not pay for a service, in the hope that others will pay for it.
But if enough people free ride, the service won't be produced in a free market.
That is economists' traditional rationale for government to provide defense.
If you want to see a clever economist consider the various ways defense could
be provided privately, and then showing the problems with each one, read the
relevant sections of David Friedman's The
Machinery of Freedom. If you want to see another economist's (in my
mind, the intellectual equal of the brilliant David Friedman) case for how defense
could be provided privately, read Jeff Hummel's article, "National Defense
Versus Public Goods: Defense, Disarmament, and Free Riders." (The Review
of Austrian Economics, Vol. 4, 1990, pp. 88-122, available here
That much defense is a public good is what makes it plausible to say that some
people in the military are serving us – they are doing so by defending us. But
the majority of people in the U.S. military are not engaged in defense, but
in offense. George W. Bush essentially admitted this fact when, days after the
ghastly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he started talking up the need
for "homeland defense." That was his admission that the U.S. military
with, at the time, its approximately $300 billion annual price tag, was not
mainly engaged in defending us. To make it more concrete, consider this exchange
I had with one of my former Marine officer students at the Naval Postgraduate
School, who came by to visit shortly after Sept. 11:
Marine officer: "Do you know what our plan is for defending the United
Henderson: "No. I've always wondered about that. Tell me what it is."
Marine officer: "We don't have one."
Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.