July 18, 2013


Advancing Liberty from Within the Government

By: Carl Oberg

Last time, I discussed whether you should work from within the government to advance liberty.

How should you react when your supervisor or an elected executive for whom you work wants to conduct an action with which you disagree? How do you react now? Most likely you agree to disagree, make your peace with it, and move on. If the decision is important enough, you may make a stand and refuse to budge, threatening your career position. You have that choice. But when working for the government, you must also consider that your choice will have impacts on countless others who may not have the option to choose principled disagreement.

This is serious stuff. That is why I cannot implore you enough to fully realize the consequences of your choice when you enter the government as a classical liberal.

Let’s assume you’ve made your decision and you are starting your new career. Remember that decisions are being made not to serve the bottom-line profit, but to accomplish a mission as defined by the leadership, similar to a nonprofit. As with any career, you need to believe in that mission. If you do not believe in it, you should not be there.

Bureaucracy is king. Understand the motives and vision of your co-workers and the leadership. Realize that all the good intentions and hard work in the world are sometimes not enough to change the bureaucracy’s direction. Ultimately, the person at the top has the final say, and he is likely a political appointee or an elected official. His motivations are not necessarily perfectly aligned with the mission of the government agency. There may be political points to be made. So you must be careful to pick your battles. Choose fights you have a reasonable chance of winning.

Finally, what about the possibility of changing the system from inside? The possibility of being a “mole for liberty” is certainly attractive. While the rest of the classical liberal community labors incessantly to slowly change society through a combination of political action and public education, you could be the hero and end the erosion of liberty by smuggling a government-shrinking memo through the bureaucracy! This is not likely. But there is need for people to commit themselves to educating civil servants on the value of liberty. Perhaps that would effect change and contribute to the liberty-advancing effort. Again, be aware of the perverse political incentives and mountain of bureaucratic procedures standing in your way. Always keep your eyes open.

I have not laid out an easy path. Being a classical liberal in the public sector can be a mind-numbing, frustrating experience. But with the right job and the right mission and largely unencumbered by everyday political concerns, you can make a difference. When I entered public service, the people of the United States had to navigate thousands of regulations and high tariff barriers if they wanted to trade with the people of Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Oman. But with the right political incentives and diligent teamwork, I was able to contribute to an effort that tore down those regulations and lowered tariffs to almost zero. America now has free-trade agreements with those countries. Individuals across the globe are able to trade freely thanks in part to my efforts.

I call that a win for liberty.

Carl Oberg is executive director of the Foundation for Economic Education. He was previously a contractor at the U.S. Department of Defense and a civil servant at the U.S. Department of Commerce. This is an excerpt from the Institute for Humane Studies Public Policy Career Guide.