The changing face of public service

There was a largely unnoticed piece today in The Hill about former Bush White House staffers running for office in the 2010 elections. It made me think about the changing nature of public service, the professionalization of the political class, and the competing claims of what constitutes an ideal model of a public servant.

Ever since I was old enough to think about politics, I have had an attachment to the citizen statesman. The man or woman who serves out of a sense of duty,  brings years of real world experience to the job, and returns home after the job is done. I still believe in the concept of the citizen politician, and probably always will.

However, in recent years I have had to consider whether I hold a somewhat romanticized notion of what marks the idealized elected official biography. While a background outside of government may indicate that the person has pursued goals other than political power, and hopefully has impressed upon that person that government can not and should not attempt to manage all aspects of society, an individual with extensive political experience could certainly be a superior candidate in some cases.

This is particularly true today due to the massive scale of government and resulting specialization and professionalization of its functions and human resources. This is not a good thing of course, but it is a reality, at least at the federal level and to a certain degree among the states as well.

Some have argued that this reality makes the case against term limits as well – that institutional memory held by long-serving politicians is necessary to the effective functioning of government and its multitudinous extensions. Of course, an argument against term-limits is closely related to an argument against the widespread necessity of citizen politicians.

While on the whole I believe legislative term limits are healthy for republican government, the aforementioned massive scope, specialization and professionalization of government also would seem to suggest that seasoned politicians certainly have something special to offer in some cases. To an extent, this would apply to career political aides and operatives who eventually throw their hat in the ring themselves.

Admittedly this is something of a sprawling, inside baseball kind of discussion today. Why does it matter? Well, we’re talking about the people to whom we are entrusting our country and our freedoms.

Bottom line is that while I still hold to the ideal of the citizen statesman, I am open to the idea that political professionals in some cases – the elected variety and those behind the scenes – may be well suited to serve. As this trend continues however, we must be vigilant in ensuring that candidates accustomed to working within government are not also acclimated to the idea of its inevitable expansion.

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Filed under George W. Bush, People in Politics, Philosophy and Ethics

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