All the world hates a civil-service drone - and Jimmy Carter plans to do something about it. Last week, he introduced proposals to put the thrill back into bureaucratic life for some 2 million federal employees, suggesting ways in which they might be punished, rewarded and otherwise managed along lines that encourage enterprise and efficiency.
Before there is panic in the theater and a mad rush for the exits, I should explain that I don't intend to to go into the intricacies of Carter's civil-service plan here. I am interested only in the fact that it goes - wisely, in my judgment - in the opposite direction from much of the other political reform being pushed by Carter at the moment. By that I mean it seeks to put politics back into the governing process, not to take it out.
The great holy grail of American political reform is an idealized, unattainable - and frankly weird - state in which there is no discretion, no judgment, no flesh and blood, no better and worse - in short, no human politics. We have a couple of broad, if doomed, techniques by which we are continually seeking to achieve this elusive and beatific condition. One is to put the thing on automatic, to opt for wheel-of-fortune choices, as distinct from deliberate political choices for which someone has to take responsibility. I have in mind, for instance, the lottery reform of the draft, or the seniority principle of selection of congressional chairmen, procedures that may end up working great injustices, but which we nonetheless believe have the enormous advantage of not being anybody's fault.
When we seek to approximate this bloodless, mechanistic condition in a process that has real people making decisions, we opt for what Jimmy Carter - in the context of merit appointments of federal judges and prosecutors - has called an "independent, blue-ribbon committee." When you think of the regularity with which such "independent, blue-ribbon" folks as those on the Warren, Kerner and other commissions end up king political judgments that enflame one part of the society or another, you have to wonder what accounts for the stubborness of our faith.
I don't know the answer, only that we persist in believing not just that there are apolitical, antiseptic solutions to human, communal problems, but also that the makeshift solutions we come up with from time to time should last into eternity. The point here is that most political reforms are remedies for other, earlier reforms that good old human nature has learned how to corrupt. Sooner or later the boys in the back room, bless 'em, are going to figure out how to work the levers of even the most elaborate machine designed to enforce equity and virtue - and you are going to have to build a new machine. The seniority system on Capitol Hill, after all, was once a remedy for the abuse of the appointive power of the leaders of Congress.
The reform of a reform is what Carter's civil-service proposal amounts to. But it goes to questions more durable than merely the need to rearrange the procedural furniture every few generations so that the wrong people won't get too comfortable. It also goes to the sacred and confused idea of "merit" in our governing process. "Merit" is supposed to be something apart from and even opposite to "politics" in our system; and it is a formulation much used by all the best people, including our president, who, in the campaign, put it this way: "All federal judges and prosecutors should be appointed strictly on the basis of merit without any consideration of political aspects or influence."
What can this mean? At the simplest level, merit means not being someone's brother-in-law, or not getting the job because you ponied up a huge campaign contribution. But we have refined the idea well beyond that, and it is these refinements - or many of them, anyway - that are being repudiated in Carter's current civil-service-reform proposal. The theory has been that you could isolate the ingredient of merit; you could grow it in a test tube or raise it under greenhouse conditions or legislate and decree it. Merit was thus seen as a kind of automatic, disembodied combination of virtue and skill, the qualities a public servant would naturally develop if he were insulated from the rough-and-tumble pressures of competition, uncertainty and the need to produce on someone else's schedule.
Tenure has been central to this rather cockeyed idea. As a shield against wanton firing under a spoils system, civil servants were given assurance that they could not be dismissed for anything much short of a felony. And whenever some individual or group is pushing a plan to take an institution "out of politics," as the saying goes, you can pretty much count on the fact that one staple feature of the plan will be that the institution will be run by privileged, unfireable personnel. To take the president as an example again, when Carter was running for office, he endorsed the truly terrible proposal for an apolitical attorney general - a chief law-enforcement officer who would not be part of a president's Cabinet but would have an independent five- to seven-year term of office. In this guise, tenure could lead to the creation of a genuinely reckless, unaccountable an unmanageable source of police power in government.
And we have learned something else about tenure, which is this: that it works in many, if not most, cases to precisely the opposite effect from that intended. Tenure - i.e., all but ironclad job security - is supposed to free up its beneficiary from demeaning anxieties about his future or what the boss wants so that he can let his better instincts and ideas flower marvelously for the public good. Alas, whether in the university professorial tenure system or in the bureaucracy Carter is now planning to alter, it hasn't worked that way. The tenured notoriously do not seem to regard themselves as freed up to indulge the courage of their imagination and convictions. They seem to react, on the contrary, as folks who do not need to move and don't either need or want to do much that jars the system of things-as-usual.
Congress and campaign reformers continue to pursue legislation intended to depoliticize the political process. They are making a series of ultimately doomed attempts to legislate proper political relationships and to find formulas that would render political life bloodless and accident-proof. And at this moment, the Carter plan for revising the civil-service lifestyle appears. It is an occasion of wonderful irony. The president, with the assistance of a task force and his first-class civil-service appointee Alan Campbell, has perceived the federal bureaucracy stalled, like some Amtrak passenger train marooned in an Indiana snowdrift. In this case, anyway, and it is an important one, he has recognized that merit and politics aren't two polar compass points - that without the exercise of political judgment and responsibility, merit fades.