I can’t think of a better retirement gift than to have my career choice validated on the front page of the newspaper with only three months left to go. The tribute came from an odd source under the headline, “Who’s happy, who’s not: Norway tops list, US falls.” Like most headlines, this one is a little misleading.
The story explains that Norwegians are the happiest people in the world, while those of us in the U.S. have fallen from number 13 on the happiest-people list to number 14. I don’t know when the survey was taken, so it’s hard to say what is influencing our state of mind. The most important point of the story, however, related to one Norwegian’s explanation of why he and his fellow citizens are so happy. “The answer to why Norwegians are happy – it’s a bit boring – it’s well-functioning institutions. The schools, health care, police, all the bureaucracy treat people with respect and that trickles down and makes us happy, makes us trust each other, makes us feel a part of the whole community. So it’s very boring: bureaucrats are the secret to our happiness.” The quotation comes from a Norwegian comedian named Harald Eia, who seems to be a very insightful guy.
Unlike the Norwegians, I think many Americans have lost whatever appreciation we may have had for civil servants. Part of the problem are self-serving office seekers who continually remind us of how awful government is while aggressively seeking to take it over to use it to their own ends. Bureaucrats are often characterized as obstructionist, self-serving, small-minded people who are responsible for many of society’s ills. You don’t see many tributes in public forums to IRS agents, urban planners, social workers, utility billing specialists, or the many other public employees who help provide the services that hold society together. In Norway, more than 34.6 percent of all employees work in the public sector, while in the U.S. the number is less than 15 percent.
I have heard the argument that the primary reason Norwegians are happy is that they are an oil rich country, and I’m sure overall prosperity is a part of the country’s success. Nevertheless, Denmark, the number 2 country on the list, has essentially no oil; but 34.9 percent of their workforce are public employees. Mister Eia may be onto something. It should come as no surprise that the least happy places on the list – Syria, Afghanistan, etc. – have almost no functioning bureaucracy. My own experience in these places backs up both the dysfunction and the unhappiness.
As my career quickly approaches its end, I hope we will take a critical look at our attitudes toward public service and recognize the importance of both the public and private sector. A well-functioning society requires competent, caring people in government as well as private industry. We will not achieve that goal with a knee-jerk attitude that bureaucracy is bad. More often than not, bureaucrats are good people; and they may just be essential to our happiness.