Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Public Service and Self-Aggrandizement

I didn't happen to catch the State of the Union Address last night. In fact, I probably haven't watched one in several years. But it's often interesting to see the intrepid responses to it the following day. And although this year was somewhat lackluster in that respect, a focus of a good part of Obama's speech apparently did not go unnoticed. He gave a considerable amount of thought and time to teachers and education in general. I won't bother waging into the polemics of federalism deep in the heart of a centralized democracy here - but I will peer beyond the veil into a topic closer to home; self-aggrandizement.

The web was a-flutter last night with the high-fives of teachers, speculating upon and cherishing several quotes from the address regarding the importance of... well... teachers. Now, I want to preface my response here by stating that I believe that teachers are very important; that two of my parents are/were teachers; that some of the more influential people in my life have been teachers; and that I have no qualms with being proud of what you produce - in almost any capacity. But I can't help but notice that there are a group of professions, which are largely centered around public service although not exclusively, which, for lack of a better phrasing, pat themselves on the back constantly - as to say not only are they important, but that they are somehow especially important.

Among their ranks are chiefly:

- Teachers
- Social Workers
- Police
- Firemen
- Military
- Truck Drivers

Each group makes its own arguments with respect to their relative importance. And, while some of these groups may have a more legitimate claim to it than others, no one can deny that all play an important role. I suppose my question is rather, "Why is it only these people who are so self-glorifying in a unanimously outward way?"

The teacher will claim that nothing is possible without education. The social worker will claim that without them people would fall through the cracks of society. The policeman will claim that without him, criminals would run rampant. The fireman will claim that without him businesses and residences would be wrought with destruction. The soldier will claim that he is defending your ability to do pretty much everything that you do. The truck driver will claim that you would not be able to buy much of anything if he hadn't transported the items first.

To these claims I say; fair enough.

But what, precisely, imbues your claim of importance with a corollary need to expound upon it any more than say - mine?

I sit in an office all day generating AWK code for various scripts for my employer. It sounds very vanilla and unimportant - but it too has purpose (importance). The code that I write allows medical groups to process their billing in short order and through far less people. This, in turn, means those medical groups have lower operating costs, which, also in turn, means that the consumers of health care (which I imagine would be pretty much all of us at some point) ultimately pay less for their services. I basically help doctors provide more affordable health care. But how pretentious would I sound if I walked around waving the importance of my job in everyone's face?

After all, what would I say to:

The construction worker, without whom I would have no home or business to work in?

The engineer, without whom I would have no vehicles to get back and forth?

The road worker, without whom I would have no road to drive those vehicles on?

The store clerk, without whom I would not be able to buy the every-day products I need?

The accountant, without whom I would not be able to reliably contract services through the exchange of funds?

The maintenance worker, without whom the basic facilities which I enjoy so frequently would fall into disrepair?

The lawyer, without whom I may find myself a helpless victim to the injustices of other individuals or groups?

The entrepreneurial botanist, without whom I might not be able to afford cheap, reliable food year-round?

The nurse, without whom I would not be able to take care of myself in illness?

All this being said, the ways of gauging any profession's particular importance is elusive (as the subjective nature of value is not inter-personal). Such subjective evaluation is generally revealed collectively through our actions in the price of labor. Where the demand for any one particular type of labor is extremely high and such labor is in short supply, people will be willing to pay much more for that person's services. It's the meshing of a particular person's unique ability to do something with the public's demand for that "something" to be done that determines it's literal price.

Does this mean that a basket-ball player is more important than a teacher? Well, certainly you couldn't make that claim for any one individual. But what the price-system can tell you is that there either isn't a whole hell of a lot of demand for teachers or that teachers' abilities are not exactly unique. This applies even more for, say, janitors. It applies (only slightly) less to programmers like myself. It applies marginally less for doctors. And it applies a whole hell of a lot less for hedge-fund managers, CEOs, and film-makers.

So what's my point in all of this?

My point is that any of these professions that I'm discussing isn't objectively less important from an inter-personal standpoint than any of the others. But, by the same token, it certainly isn't objectively more important either. So I'm confused as to why a teacher will jump through hoops in glorifying themselves constantly while, say, carpenters don't generally seem to feel the need to do so.

The only connection I can draw between the biggest offenders of self-aggrandizement amongst professions is that most (but not all) seem to fall under the rubric of public service. Now maybe one can feel that service of a people, through the state, is somehow more important than regular civilian service. I fail to see how that objectively pans out but soldiers are very fond of doing things "for their country." Maybe teachers feel the same way.

In that way, maybe those people think that there is some inherent sacrifice that comes with such services. With respect to danger, there are certainly a number of public occupations in which you risk your life - but there are also certainly plenty of private occupations that are equally risky (an exception might be soldiers in specific wartime periods). Or maybe teachers, policemen, and the like think that they are operating with marginally lower compensation than they would otherwise receive - although I think their counterparts in the private sector might have a thing or two to say about that.

So, I can't help but be left scratching my head. I certainly don't have a problem with people reaping the accolades and compensation from a service they've rendered; particularly if something they've done has resulted in benefiting the lives of the many. But in that respect, I don't typically find myself in the position of supporting wayward gloating and self-glorifying rhetoric. In fact, more often than not, I'm usually defending the people who have arguably done the most to benefit society (voluntarily no less) from people who not only wish to demonize them but to actively aggress against them.

On the flip side of that coin, I suppose I could ask why many people in public service, who would all but crucify the likes of Ayn Rand for her brand of individual egoism, would engage so fervently in the praise of their own individual contributions to society. Maybe the story of such behavior among these professions, whether the individuals are Left of Right in orientation (politically), is tied to statist views more than one would think. For the statist, justice is a call for theft; compassion a call for violence - why wouldn't I suspect that a call for collective contribution might be bore out of an inflated sense of self-importance...even entitlement?

Maybe this is the tragedy of the way things are; that there are a vast many of marginal importance bellowing the sordid incantations of sacrifice and piety. Whereas many who shake their heads at this are met only with the echo of their own voices when we proverbially ask, "Where is John Galt?" Indeed, the John Galts of this world are perhaps too busy giving birth to new epochs of mankind to revel in their own boastful incantations.

Actions speak louder than words.

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