Public servants, public service and what the words mean

By Stephan Drew

Staff Writer

We all know that words have meaning. Most people try to use them with care to precisely express their views, wishes or intent. But, over time, we occasionally find that the words may no longer suit their actual description. I’ve been thinking about one common phrase for a long time – “public servant.” What does it really mean to be a public servant or to have one actually “serve” you? We’ve had many esteemed leaders, on the national, state and local level, whom we’ve been honored to call “public servants” and I wondered if the present state of public service actually fits the original meaning of the words. I began to question how much the meaning of the phrase has changed since its original use. According to David Collins, founding lieutenant governor of New South Wales, the phrase was first used in 1797 in reference to convicts assigned to public labor for the government. Later, it was being used to describe any freed convict who did public service for the authorities. In his “Account of the English Colony of New South Wales,” Collins went on to describe how many of them would shirk their required obligations and abscond with valuable government property, turning to deceit, trickery and robbery in an attempt to enrich themselves without labor. This is a far cry from our modern public servants, right? I have never hired a personal servant, but I think I have a pretty clear understanding of what the words mean. Servants are honest and honorable employees, hired to do your bidding, for what I would hope is a livable salary. Like any other job, there should be an amicable relationship between the employer and servant. But, at the end of the day, they are still employee and servant. One is the boss and the other is not. If either of them is dissatisfied with the arrangement, they have the right to dissolve it. Imagining life if I had a servant, I had to ask myself a few questions: Would my servant make more money than I do? If so, how much more and why? Would they be able to give themselves a pay raise without my knowledge or consent? Would my servant live in a finer house or be driven to work in a much nicer car than I have? Would they send their children to private school while I saved every penny for mine to get a public education? Would the crowds part for them, or stand to applaud them for simply entering a room? Would they be seated at the best table and savor a free meal while I paid far too much for mine? Would they (at my expense) receive lifelong benefits to which they had never contributed? Would they make millions of dollars writing books and appearing on television, sensationally describing their service while in my employ? Would they be revered or honored with awards and degrees because of their service, for which they had already been paid? Would they live in secure neighborhoods with armed guards, all at my expense? Would they have monuments erected in their honor, parades to flatter them or schools named after them? Would they be given huge salaries at Fortune 500 companies with little or no duties simply because they had once been my servant? All these things I wondered, and more. So, when you ask yourself what “public servant” really means, just remember where it began and where it is now. I’m no prophet but I certainly am glad that none of our modern-day leaders would follow the path of personal enrichment just because of “public service.”

Author: Rachel Howell

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