December 09, 2005

The Roots of a Public Service Ethic

Lex wrote, in the comments to the prior post:

I was particularly struck by this statement by Mr. Kling:

To achieve prosperity, a country must foster three "ethics."

* A work ethic.
* A public service ethic.
* A learning ethic.

It would be interesting to sketch out how the Anglosphere has incultated and cultivated these "ethics" over its history. It is noteworthy that he refers to an "ethic", i.e. a moral and subjective component more than an institutional framework -- i.e. he does not take people as rationally self-interested monads. Also, the idea of a "public service ethic" is massively important, and too often obscured or ignored or even denigrated in libertarian thinking.

I don't think that a view of people as "rationally self-interested monads" neccessarily precludes the emergence of a set of ethics, so long as these self-interested individuals understand the need for a framework of social assumptions and institutions within which individuals can maximize their happiness. "To secure these ends, governments are instituted among men..." and such governments require a public service ethic deeply encoded in society in order to function with any kind of optimality.

For such ethics to be deeply encoded, it helps to have a long history of their evolution as part of a culture. One fascinating glimpse into this evolution is afforded by N.A.M. Rodger's newest volume, Command of the Ocean. This work, universally and justly described as "magisterial", is a study of the institutional evolution of the Royal Navy over time, in the broader context of the role of sea power in the history of the British Isles. Particularly interesting in addressing Arnold's and Lex's questions, is the era in the latter half of the Seventeenth Century, and particularly the role of Samuel Pepys, the key architect of the Royal Navy's institutional structure. Pepys is, of course, also famous as the author of an extremely detailed, candid, and intimate diary which fortunately was eventually discovered and decrypted. Preserved therein, like a fly in amber, are the ethical thoughts and assumptions of a key actor in a time in which the older morals of crude self-enrichment in service of the Crown were giving way to something like the bbeginning of a public service ethic. For example, Pepys regularly, in fact enthusiastically, took customary bribes from people doing business with the Navy. He clearly thought of these payments as his rightful due and carefully totalled up his take in his diary. At the same time he took pains to conceal the actual receipt of the bribes from his wife, which his predecessors might not have seen any need to do.

Much of this transition was concurrent with a gradual increase of productivity and social wealth, and a consequent strengthening of the state's ability to finance its activities. On thing that is striking in Rodger's narrative is the fact that from Drake's day on, it was generally realized that if England could afford to keep a strong squadron permanently based in one of the western ports, like Plymouth, it could, because of the prevailing wind patterns, guarantee control of the English Channel and the Western Approaches, permanently. What prevented the Navy from doing so for almost another century and a half was simply that the English state couldn't afford to do so. Fiscally, it was further from their capabilities than a lunar base would be for us today. It was not until Sir Isaac Newton's reform of English currency at the start of the Eighteenth Century, and the development of a national debt capability at reasonable interest rates, that the Western Squadron was affordable. This promptly gave the Royal Navy the command of the Channel, which it never relinquished thereafter, to the chagrin of Napoleon, Hitler, and other premature Europeanists.

Without the ability to raise adequate wealth, the English state had to rely on makeshift public-private mechanisms that were inherently open to corruption. Royal dockyards were operated by contractors who were expected to front pay and expenses out of their own pockts, often for years at a time, and often without full reimbursement. In return they were expected to use the dockyard for private business. Rodger cites the case of a dockyard contractor who made a ship from navy supplies and with navy employees, and then sailed it to Spain and sold it, pocketing the money. After this was discovered, the Crown found that it could not prosecute him, or even fire him -- the law at that time required the state to prove that particular actions had harmed the national interest, and he maintained that the ship had been built with leftover material and on employees' spare time. He was, however, admonished not to do it again.

All this sounds like a banana republic today. And it's true. The question is not what causes corruption -- it should be, "What causes a public service ethic?" Such an ethic is neither normal in history, nor easy to achieve and keep. It is a great achievement we take for granted.

Posted by James C. Bennett at December 9, 2005 06:03 PM

Francis Fukuyama, at the beginning of "Trust" says that when economists say that people are rational utility maximizers, this can be taken either in a weak or a strong sense. If it just mean people do what they do because they want to do it, it is a tautology. If it is meant in the "strong" sense, that people generally are rational and generally pursue self-interested ends in a pretty focused and pretty exclusive way, then you are a making a strong statement about how people really are. What needs to be done is to find the factors which create the middle ground between these two extremes, admit that often people do not behave as "self-interested monads" in any narrow sense, do not wave aside large parts of actual behavior by saying "tastes and preferences are given". This gets us into the kind of cultural analysis that Tocqueville did, for example, asking why some groups of people and not others seem to have a broader and more long-term idea of "self-interest", encompassing what he called "self-interest rightly understood" in the American case, which included all kinds of public-spirited conduct. Arnold Kling is an unusually smart man, and for a self-described libertarian, an unusually insightful one about what a real economy and a real society need to be like to succeed. A fair number of libertarians take the "hard" perspective, and dismiss any notion of a public service ethic -- the state is the enemy, all its minions are corrupt or incompetent or incapable of functioning in a market economy and hence contemptible. This often shades over into a disdain for patriotism, a low estimation of military service as a calling. On Samizdata, for example, a site whose posts I almost always agree with, there is a subtext of animosity not only to an oppressive state, but toward the idea of any national or communal loyalty at all. A society actually built on such principles wouldn't last a week, and no one's life, liberty or property would be secure.

We need to know more than just the legal and economic and political background. We also need to nderstanding where Pepys "got the idea" that he should put the interests of the country and its Navy somewhere pretty high in his estimation -- not above a little bribery, but in addition to some bribery. How such an ethic is created and sustained is critically important. Yet another aspect of the Anglospheric past that needs to be brought to light.

Posted by: Lex at December 9, 2005 09:45 PM

The interesting question is not how Pepys came to want to serve his country, but how he came to define what that service should be, compared to Drake or Hawkins a century earlier, who were not above a bit of piracy from time to time. Or how that evolved into Royal Navy administrators two centuries after Pepys who not have dreamed of taking a penny from a favor-seeker.

It's also interesting that it was Pepys who introduced a merit-based examination for naval officers. Any ninny could (and did) buy an Army commission, and ninnies could buy navy commissions, but they still needed to pass an examinatiion oin navigation that included trigonometry. Many favors could be bought in King Charles's navy, but bribes could not get one past the examination (or at least rarely enough that it was generally not thought to be bribeable.) Making a distinction between things that could be bought with bribes, and things that could not, is at least the start of a public-service ethic.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at December 9, 2005 10:07 PM
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