Firefighters, Envy and the Public and Private Sector

It is no secret that there is a war brewing between the public and private sectors of the economy, with their economic prospects diverging ever-more widely. As happens in many socialist regimes, the money and wealth produced by the latter are pouring ever-more freely into the coffers of the former.  Estimates across Canada now claim that those who work for the government (however broadly defined) earn between 18 and 37% more than those who do not, and that is before other factors, such as pensions, benefits, sick leave, paternity leave, extra holiday time, early retirement, are all thrown in.  This is not a recipe for economic stability, to say nothing of social cohesion, peace and harmony.

I have nothing against the public sector, and believe that some few should be employed by the government, at taxpayer expense. But we have passed the some few a long time ago, and are now at the point of the all too many and all too much, wherein most of the young people I meet and teach want to land that sinecure government job, with the chumps stuck in the private sphere paying for it all.

Take the vivid case of firefighters in Guelph, a small-ish city with a population of about 130,000, whose union just garnered them another pay raise, bringing their ‘base’ salary up to $97,290 per annum, about one dollar per person in the city per firefighter, putting them in the top tier of earners. We have to use the term ‘base salary’, especially in the public sphere, for this is before we add in all the aforementioned extras, not least a benefits package that few humans on Earth receive anymore, and a top-up on parental leave, prompting those of the fairer sex in this field to have children on a regular basis (which may be a small silver lining in all of this).  They receive this pay for a schedule which permits them to work just seven days a month.  Now, these ‘days’ comprise 24 hour periods, sure enough, during which they are permitted to sleep and do other necessities, like cook for each other, grocery shop and such.  And, after a number of years of these one-week-a-months, they can retire early, young enough to start another career, buoyed up by their comfortable pension, right up until they are laid in the ground, or, perhaps cremated (but they may be averse to the latter option). Peruse this article for more details, if you would like.

As two people were joking a couple of weeks ago on this theme in a small soiree I attended, firefighters are the best cooks around, with all that time in the hall to prepare and share fine meals.  But since when should the taxpayer fund the gourmet tastes of publicly-paid employees? (I’m not sure an answer to that is required, after I had a taste of the well-appointed publicly-funded restaurant on the fourth floor of Parliament Hill a few years ago).  Another guest at said soiree mentioned, with what I hope was a hint of irony at his own full work schedule, the very opposite of that of the firefighters, that with the 23 free days they have, firefighters often have other ‘careers’, I suppose to top up their income.  What else, I wondered, are they supposed to do? Read through the canon of Western literature? Study astrophysics? Get to the n-th level of World of Warcraft?

In most municipalities especially in more rural areas, such as where I live, firefighting is a volunteer position, a coordinated and group effort from a number of able-bodied men pitching in, and I wonder how these men feel about their colleagues getting six figures for what they do for free?

The case of Guelph firefighters is repeated across Ontario and Canada, perhaps in less extreme fashion, in various public professions, police officers, teachers, professors, the legions of bureaucrats of various stripes in all those office buildings, politicians and their ever-growing ‘staff’, physicians, nurses, city workers, every member of the military and the DND, all the maintenance workers, and on it goes.

Almost every public-sector job is, at least analogously, the same: Archaic and outmoded laws and contracts that were originally supposed to ensure that the public sector did not fall too far behind the private sector (I can vaguely recall those days, when public servants used to go into the field actually as a ‘service’, while most wanted to work in the private sector, where the money was).  Now, the tables are nearly completely turned, and not for the better, with the public sector enriching itself at the expense of, one might now say the enslavement of, the private sector.

There is much that could be said of this state of affairs that can end nowhere good, but allow me only two:

First, there is the rather obvious insight of Pope Leo XIII in his landmark 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, that it is ‘by the labour of working men that states grow rich’. What ‘grows’ the economy (to use that awkward, modern and ungrammatical term) are those individuals who produce real goods that can be traded on the open market, in other words, the private sector: Agriculture, manufacturing, creative and artistic work (of the valuable sort), truck drivers, even tourism and all that entails.

Then there are the support services, that do not add to the wealth of the nation, but help protect and support people that do so.  Here, we would place such jobs as police and firefighters, even politicians and lawmakers, whose task is to protect private property, providing the framework within which others can produce wealth. But the key is that the public sector by and large produces no economic wealth themselves, but must depend on the wealth produced by others.

So when we are discussing the ‘value’ of such services, we must put them into context. Public employees should be paid a fair wage, sure enough, but these wages, in the broad sense, should not be permitted to outstrip and indebt, even to the point of bankruptcy, the very people who provide their wages.  The Church has always taught, what is patently obvious to reason, that the vast majority of the economy must be ‘private’ if it is to flourish.  This is just common sense, for people need the incentive and freedom to produce wealth by receiving fitting recompense for doing so, without over-burdensome, even ruinous, taxation to pay for an ever-growing legion of those dependent on their income.

Socialism may be defined in one way as any situation wherein the State arrogates to itself more of the economy than it should. As almost always happens, once any sector is ‘government owned’, inefficiency kicks in, for why would someone work harder and more efficiently, when they get paid the same, whether they do so or not?

Furthermore, once government employees get a taste for the power of law, which inevitably supports the unions to which they belong, and concomitant power to vote themselves ever-increasing pay raises and benefits, well, what is to stop them? Some sort of altruistic view of the common good and their fellow man? One would hope, but, given our proclivity to take whatever we can get, can one really blame the public employees from accepting the larger-than-fair slice of the pie offered to them so easily?

One more thought: We need not look far to notice the growing spirit of envy to which this all gives rise. Saint Thomas defines envy as ‘sorrow at the good of another’.  As he immediately goes on to explain, not all sorrow at another’s good is evil. We may sorrow another’s good because it causes us harm, as when we notice our enemy in war has better weapons than we do. Fair enough. Or we may turn that sorrow into zeal, such as noticing someone else’s religious devotion, or their musical skills, which spurs us to strive for such goods ourselves. Also good. Finally, we may sorrow at another’s good for he is undeserving of it.  There are extreme examples of this, as one may argue of Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize, or an actor or sports figure being paid millions for mediocre work, or at least not worth the millions.  Also proper, within limits.  The janitor in the hospital should not fell sorrow at the salary of the surgeon, whose training, skill and contributions are ‘worth’ more, but he may envy that of the security guard, or the parking attendant, even of other janitors in other hospitals, if their salaries and perks far outstrip his,and especially if his lower wages are being garnished to pay theirs.

It is in an analogous way, I fear, that into this last category the perception of public service wages and benefits fall.  Those in the private sphere, toiling in factories, sawmills, all the carpenters, plumbers, couriers, small business owners, are looking with ever-more jaundiced eye at their public counterparts. Although most of these would not begrudge them fair compensation, one must consider what that entails, especially when Ontario is $300 billion in debt, an astronomical figure that is growing by the second with no end in sight (Trudeau at the federal level may well top $1 trillion before he is through).  A nation that is as in debt as we are is quite literally and realistically bankrupt, regardless of what massaged economic graphs say:  We have run out of money.  Yet the public workers dig in anyway, always more, year by year, unfazed and unaffected by market forces.  One could offer most of these public employees half their current wages, keeping all the other perks, and there would still be hundreds, if not thousands, lined up for their jobs.

It does not take much in the way of argumentation to conclude that those who do not have the luxury of working for the government feel more than a little exploited.

And in case you think that envy is only between the public and private sector, read through the above article on the implicit bitterness between members of the already-lavishly funded public sector.  Their wages, decided by shadowy arbitration committees, are always compared to the wages of other ‘similar’ occupations, with various technical laws about who can make more than whom, police and firefighters in various municipalities compared with each other, and with their colleagues in other municipalities.

All the while, the beleaguered private sector worker, who funds all of this, muddles along, with few or no benefits, pay raises, limited holiday time and sick leave, and always with the threat of termination in the next economic ‘downturn’. As one city worker retorted, when this was explained to him by one such private worker in a candid moment, ‘well, it sucks to be you’.

I suppose that is one way of putting it, but it is indeed painful to be a put-upon chump.

But there is a silver lining, as Pope John Paul II taught in Laborem Exercens, in that the primary purpose of human work is not to produce goods (the so-called ‘objective dimension’), but rather to perfect the worker himself (the ‘subjective’ dimension).

There is nothing wrong with being a firefighter, nor a police officer, nor any government employee, and one can at least in theory be perfected in any of these paths.  The key is that in whatever vocation we seek in life, we should ensure that our motivations are as pure and altruistic as they can be, to seek to help our fellow man, not a sinecure, a guaranteed, indexed pension and a hefty paycheque.  At the end of the day, even if you be poor, over-taxed and non-pensioned, far better to do what you think you should do rather than the easy path.  To work in freedom, to see the fruit of your labour in what wages you earn, to be heartened by the connection between the worth and value of your work and your wages, to perfect the talents, such as they are, that God has given you, to strive for that too-oft-forgotten virtue of magnanimity, greatness of soul, of adventure, independence and self-perfection, to learn to stand, as Wolf Larsen would say, on ‘your own two feet’, that really is the essence of human work.

We need the vast majority of people to realize this, that wealth arises from private industry, or it does not arise at all.  The whole rickety house of cards is in quite proximate danger of crashing and burning, and there aren’t enough firefighters around to put out that conflagration.