What Exactly is “Public Service?”

Service is one of those ubiquitous, loosely defined words used to describe all sorts of exchanges. It can involve delivery of a material good for money, such as in restaurants, or it can represent the value of labor expended on behalf of another with no remuneration, such as spending time at a rest home caring for the elderly. At its core though, all service involves a giver and receiver.

On a daily basis we come across dozens of examples of service. On a regular basis, I attend a church meeting, or service, where a sacrament is served to a congregation, followed by a sermon delivered by a speaker, followed by a lesson given by an instructor. When I get home, my wife and I serve our children a meal. These are common everyday examples of service.

The etymological roots of the word service stretch back to antiquity and refer to servus, the Latin word for slave. A slave provides service to a master at the threat of his life. He is the purported property of the master and as such has no legal recourse for improper treatment. Over time, slavery became indentured servitude with a preset term of service in exchange for expenses paid up front for debts uncollected. Thankfully, slavery in the developed world has dwindled to a minute, illegal, underground industry with no general public support (although Tax Freedom Day might be considered an annual celebration of the end of annual indentured servitude).

Modern concepts of service have evolved as well. The most common forms of service used to be church service or charity, where laborers received nothing, or at most the basic necessities—giving themselves over to the ministry through missionary service or charitable service to the poor and needy. The difference between this and punitive slavery is the voluntary nature of the work.

Usage of the term service today rarely refers to ecclesiastical or charitable work. It is now much more common to hear of customer service, military service, or public service. However, some of the connections between old and new concepts are still used today, when politically advantageous, to speak of regular employment in certain fields as being unselfish service. In reality the profession was likely entered into, after careful examination, as a means of serving the needs of self.

This leads me to this idea of “public service.” It’s difficult to think of a more oxymoronic misnomer. I frequently hear politicians laud their own by saying, for example, how a colleague “gave up a lucrative career in academia to pursue public service.” This contradicts the definition of service that describes an exchange between a giver and a receiver—not a thief and a victim, or an overlord and a vassal. It seems to me that today’s “public servants” enjoy much more than the basic necessities that servants of old received. In fact, the pensions, insurance, 16% higher average pay for federal employees, and job security all make it seem as though public employees are the benefactors of the public’s service, not the other way around.

I’m not a big fan of the direction of this country’s military apparatus. We are sending the military overseas into high risk, low reward situations to fight for causes that have very little (if anything) to do with our freedom or domestic interests. I’ll admit to not feeling gratitude for the service of those who send men and women on these missions. I realize that many young enlistees have put their lives at peril not necessarily knowing what their mission will be, and I admire their courage and willingness to pay that price, but I think the greatest service they can offer us would be to help rebuild this country from the inside by contributing their talents at home. If that means defending this nation from enemies foreign and domestic on our soil, so our people can flourish in freedom, that is an admirable aspiration, and service worthy of my gratitude.

Like the direction of our military, I am dismayed by the transformation of our local police forces from institutions dedicated “to serve and protect” into quasi-military enforcers who will stop at nothing to bring down the most minor offenders. Once reserved for large metro areas with frequent violent standoffs, SWAT teams now blanket the country, fueled by federal dollars and advanced military equipment. Logan, Utah, which in recent years was named the most crime free area in the nation, has access to a SWAT team. This hardly seems like a mentality of service.

We need a paradigm shift around service. I would like to propose we examine our lexiconical usage of service—and in so doing, decide what it truly means to serve. We need to eliminate the present idea that serving (or simply serving within) the state is noble and praiseworthy. The talent of so many is being wasted on the self-fulfilling prophecy that is bureaucracy. It can and should be employed to greater benefit in the private sector fueling the engines of prosperity.