03 September, 2020

Francis Fukuyama: Restore honor in public service


The first and most important change lies less in the realm of policy than in the realm of culture. The United States has never trusted its public servants, but, since the 1980s, the denigration of bureaucrats, the Washington milieu and government in general has intensified. While this denigration is loudest on the right, the left has participated as well, raising deep suspicions about the motives of the military, the police, the CIA and other disfavored agencies. There is a general feeling that the government is incompetent and cannot be trusted to manage anything.

What is lost in this culture is the older view that public service is an honorable calling and that citizens do not simply have rights, but also responsibilities — a view perhaps most eloquently expressed by President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” We will never entirely recover from the cynicism that has crept into our consciousness in the decades since World War II. But just as President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were able to shift cultural attitudes away from public service, so too could future leaders move the needle back.