Politics & Policy

Shrink the Civil Service

A VA administrator who mocked veterans’ suicides was a particularly flagrant example of a very common type of bureaucrat.

Apparently unsatisfied with Hallmark’s seasonal greetings, Robin Paul, manager of the Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis, opted for a homemade touch on her holiday cheer. So, on December 18, the “IND STICC Team” received an e-mail featuring photographs of a toy Christmas elf who was, per Paul’s captions, “self-medicating for mental health issues” and “trying to hang himself from an electrical cord.”

Because nothing says “Merry Christmas” like mocking veterans’ suicides.

The e-mail was released this week by the Indianapolis Star, which also reports that Paul has apologized and was disciplined at the beginning of the year. On Tuesday, Paul was placed on administrative leave, but she will continue to collect her $79,916 salary while the incident is investigated.

One can accept Ms. Paul’s taking responsibility for her “poor judgment” and also find her proclamation that she “hold[s] all Veterans [sic] and military personnel in the highest regard” somewhat hollow, given that she found it oodles of seasonal hilarity to joke about the two dozen of those veterans who kill themselves daily. And she is, remember, part of the same Veterans Health Administration that manipulated waiting lists, leaving some 120,000 veterans without care. Nearly 300 veterans died waiting.

With due respect to the many public employees who perform their jobs with diligence and care, Ms. Paul is part of that ever-present species of “civil servant” who is neither.

Contempt for the public among public employees is hardly a new phenomenon. The tax collectors who feature so prominently in the New Testament were a scabrous lot, known to overcharge so that they could skim a bit for themselves, and the summoners of the 14th-century ecclesiastical courts, who would regularly summon innocents to court unless they received a hefty bribe, come in for sharp treatment in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (from the friar, of course). Not coincidentally, bureaucrats find themselves in a diaspora throughout Dante’s Inferno. “It’s hard to think of a major writer — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Kafka, Joyce, Lawrence — who hasn’t at some point or other satirized bureaucracy,” wrote Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books’ blog in 2013.

And the Obama years have reminded us why. The Internal Revenue Service, taking after its Roman forebears, took sudden, unusually aggressive interest in hundreds of conservative groups trying to organize under the not-for-profit umbrella. And why not? After all, those groups were filled with “crazies” and “a**holes,” as Lois Lerner wrote in candid e-mails to colleagues. (She would mysteriously “misplace” those e-mails when congressional investigators sought to fulfill their duty as public watchdogs.)

During the 2013 “shutdown,” the National Park Service, in an act of unnecessary hostility, taped off open-air war memorials on the National Mall and attempted to shut down a highway in South Dakota from which Mount Rushmore — which falls under NPS purview — is visible.

Meanwhile, in August of last year, two New Hampshire teenagers reentering the county from Canada had their bagpipes seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection — despite the fact that the teens had already gotten the bagpipes, which contain ivory, approved for reentry by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Of course, the “Let them eat cake!” mentality applies at every level. Just this week Detroit’s city-council president and a city clerk petitioned the Detroit Elected Officials Compensation Commission for raises — the same week in which 12,000 city retirees saw their monthly benefit checks cut as a consequence of the city’s bankruptcy settlement.

Public servants are supposed to be characterized by public-spiritedness, but there is little in government work that encourages virtue. In fact, it more often does precisely the opposite. What better place to skim, skimp, and shirk than in the largest, most inefficient, most aggressively self-protective institution known to man? The vast apparatus of clerkdom that characterizes the modern welfare state has little incentive to good behavior and much incentive to — or, at least, little reason to avoid — vice. It is no coincidence that we get Lois Lerners, not Leslie Knopes.

Which is a powerful reason to keep government as small as possible. The larger Leviathan grows, the more Robin Pauls will be a part of it. Keeping government small increases the likelihood that the people working in it will be both civil and actual servants.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.


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