One day, about 30 years ago, when I was the general counsel of the United States Office of Personnel Management (the agency responsible for management of the Federal civil service) under President Ronald Reagan, one of my colleagues in the agency's senior staff circulated among OPM's leaders a paper that advocated a radical heresy.
The agency should cease all activities to recruit America's "best and brightest" young people into federal government service; we should stop sending recruiters to the best colleges and universities and stop trying to induce the best students to embark on careers in the foreign service, the defense agencies, the intelligence services and in the domestic departments, he urged.
His argument was this was inimical to the best interests of the American people: The "best and brightest" belonged in private industries and professions, where they could actually accomplish something of benefit for the country.
Government, even at the lofty levels of the federal service, was a wasteland of ill-conceived programs that accomplished little other than oppress people, overregulate and overtax them and waste their resources.
Staffing government with ever-smarter people would only make government more competent at oppression, overregulation, overtaxing and waste.
Inasmuch as government was hurtful when it wasn't silly, the more inefficient government is, the better off the people are.
If smart and able young people insisted on wanting careers in public service, he thought we ought to steer them away from the federal government and send them instead in the direction of local governments and religious institutions.
After all, firefighters, police officers, traffic engineers, schoolteachers and nuns are far more likely actually to help people than are federal bureaucrats.
So went my friend's argument.
This was the view of a government executive who, like our bosses, Reagan and OPM Director Donald J. Devine, thought that government in America was indeed overstretched and was being told by Congress and, in a sense, by the American people, to do things — to perform functions — that government cannot do well if at all.
Reagan heartily believed that public service ought to be a respectful and honorable calling, but that it was impossible to respect public servants if the things that government was doing, especially not by accident but by design, were dishonorable and undeserving of respect.
The best way to get people to respect government was to shrink it, Devine argued. If the functions of government were perceived to be legitimate, necessary and minimal, then the American people would respect government; and the best and brightest would flock to be members of the civil service.
Thirty years later, the president of the United States is a man who worships government as much as Reagan distrusted it.
In the last five years, President Obama and his allies in Congress have expanded the scope and reach of government dramatically.
Increasingly, the federal government is responsible not just for national defense and fighting organized crime, but for the delivery of formerly private and local services, such as medical care and hospitalization, on which people's lives depend.
Yet, as the Obamacare and Veterans Affairs scandals demonstrate that, even under a president totally committed to making government as big and as competent as it can be, government stretched beyond its legitimate boundaries doesn't work.
And in consequence, Obama has accomplished something of which my government-loathing colleague at OPM only dreamed: Driving the best and brightest of America's young people away from public service.
The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the federal workforce is aging significantly and that it is having a harder and harder time in recruiting bright young people to join the service.Joseph A. Morris is an attorney practicing in Chicago.