Does anyone think you can advance liberty from within the public sector? My colleagues seem to think it is very unlikely. One graduate school friend jokingly estimated that you have a one-in-one-million chance of actually increasing the amount of liberty in the world while being paid directly by taxpayers. That is certainly not very encouraging.
Another friend emphasized the goals of the Founders and the power-limiting nature of our Constitution. Given our system of checks and balances, any government job that is acting within constitutional constraints must not be that bad, right? Unless you believe that the government has been allowed to grow beyond its proper bounds.
A third friend told me, “You did it for over six years, so you should know.” I think my friend was being generous. I certainly did not promote freedom during every moment of my career at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Instead, I made a concerted effort to contribute to freer trade that gave new economic opportunities to millions of people. Within the sometimes heavy constraints of government work, I consider that a victory for freedom.
Eyes wide open, well aware of what you are endeavoring to do: that is how any liberty-advocate must enter a career in government. While there are some opportunities for you to expand freedom within government, especially outside of the United States in the diplomatic service, they are not easily found. Once found, the bureaucratic entropy you will encounter may just be too strong. If not careful, you can find yourself in a lucrative but disappointing career that pits you against your own ideals.
Look for jobs that increase trade but don’t rely on subsidies. This is where I spent the majority of my time in government, confident that I was expanding trade and increasing opportunities for Americans and others alike. Foreign policy and diplomacy are constitutionally legitimate functions of government and provide a way for classical liberals to represent their country abroad and educate people on the value of limited government (as long as the country is not infringing on rights abroad, of course).
Working for a state or local government can be less of a philosophical problem. After all, “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” But just because a state or local government has the power or the legal ability to conduct an action doesn’t mean it should. Something as mundane as zoning policy can have profound implications for individuals. Think about the consequences of your work and how they impact businesses and people.
My next post will cover what you should do once you have decided to work in government.
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.