An Air Force sergeant has been discharged for being a vocal “birther,” someone denying that the president was born in the United States. Meanwhile, three ATF agents involved in “Operation Fast and Furious,” a highly controversial plan to permit illegal gun sales that end up in the hands of Mexican drug cartels, have new jobs at ATF headquarters.
Now perhaps the sergeant should have lost his post—and for those who resent not being allowed to quit the military, maybe this exemption should be made more universal—yet I’m struck by the implied lesson here: Conduct that questions the legitimacy of the head of the U.S. government, however fallacious and misguided, will get you fired; conduct that violates the law and arms alleged warlords said to be great threats to civil peace does not necessarily preclude a promotion in your future.
The modern examples of this in U.S. government are too numerous to list. Hayek’s insight that “the worst rise to the top” would seem to have an application not just in electoral politics, but all throughout the bureaucracy, including the state’s enforcement apparatuses.
A look at Obama’s appointments to high office would seem to confirm our suspicious that what would pass as poor job performance throughout the rest of the economy does not necessarily mean poor future job prospects in the government sector.
This does not mean, however, that government has no standards. Pointing out that official estimates for war costs are probably greatly understated can easily get you canned. Blowing the whistle on government atrocities will lose you your job and more. Simply standing up against established wisdom is a great risk, everywhere from public academia to the military, the federal executive branch down to the local police.
But arming dangerous criminals? There might be a raise in your future. Helping an illegal weapons trade coverup? You’ll be called back to a high-level counter-terrorism gig. Were you involved in multiple shady foreign policy operations, including an entire secret and illegal war in Cambodia? You’re just the kind of guy we need to investigate 9/11! Interfere with humanitarian aid to detainees in Iraq? Expect to be asked to run America’s biggest war. Shame the country and enrage its enemies with the most callous thing said in recent memory about governmental killing of innocent children? You’ll soon be made Secretary of State. Failed in predicting or dealing with the financial crisis? Expect to be reappointed. Shot a helpless woman in the head while she stood in the kitchen holding her infant? We expect to see you at the next major federal raid, as well.
Government accountability is practically an oxymoron, and this is not hyperbole. Because the state is a unique social institution—a monopoly on legal violence—it cannot be held liable for its actions in the same way as are individuals and private institutions. The only remedy is a vigilant public. And so where’s the outrage?