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West Point for the Civil Service


Paris. -- The other day, the new conservative Frenc government of Edouard Balladur announced a series of tax increases. A special social-security tax was more than doubled, to 2.4 percent of salaries. Already high gasoline taxes went up by the equivalent of 16 cents a gallon. The liquor tax went up. The French -- already the most highly taxed people in Western Europe -- took this with scarcely a whimper.

The Communist-led GCT union made a pro-forma protest. However, there is no question but that the tax increases will be approved by parliament. Why should this be? Why is it so easy to raise taxes in France and so hard in the United States?

A part of the answer is parliamentary government. Governments are created by the vote of the members of parliament; hence it takes a parliamentary rebellion to bring them down, which carries the risk of new elections. If members of the U.S. Congress named the president, and by voting against his programs might be sent back to their districts for re-election, Mr. Clinton would not have half the problems he has today.

A second and more important reason that the French can raise taxes is that the French are realists. No one has ever told them that they can have something for nothing. Believing that there is no free lunch, the French flinch at taxes, but pay.

However, the third reason the French pay tax is that they believe in government and expect results and benefits from it -- and get them. French government is effective and efficient. Obviously some waste and inefficiencies can be found, but in general the level of performance is very high.

Perhaps the biggest single reason this is so is that government service is held in high prestige and the educational elite of the country is recruited to the civil service, which is well paid and offers the opportunity not only to hold the highest administrative offices in the land but also to be appointed to top-level business and industrial posts.

This is a system peculiar to France and would be hard to reproduce in the U.S., even though it is not so different from what the U.S. has always done with the military services. It would be perfectly possible for the United States to set up a program meant deliberately to revalue government service, and to offer non-political, super-level career appointments to people willing to commit themselves to public service.

University programs might be developed specifically to prepare young people for fast-lane civil-service careers. This is the case with the so-called "grandes ecoles" in France, which are the top-level undergraduate and graduate professional schools in the national educational system, most of which train specifically for government service.

West Point and Annapolis already train people for top career military posts. Perhaps this is one reason why the armed services are the one part of American government that enjoys consistent public respect. Voters assume that the Army, Navy and Air Force are run by capable and non-political career officers. There is no real reason why the United States could not have a West Point for the civil service.

The huge distrust and disrespect for "bureaucrats" makes government service unattractive to ambitious and capable people. The constant attacks of politicians on "Washington" and the federal bureaucracy have naturally produced a low-morale career service, as does the practice of naming political appointees to top jobs. Who wants to work for an organization in which you know that you can never go to the top? Where the friends of the political party temporarily in power -- competent or not -- will always have the policy-making posts?

Bill Clinton was elected president last fall because Americans recognized that the national government was failing to cope with the country's economic crisis. Trust was placed in him and his team, and yet at the same time people continued to express their distrust of "Washington." Mr. Clinton is somehow expected to solve the country's problems despite the government.

It doesn't work that way. The government itself has to deliver efficient services, whatever the party in power. The U.S. had a high-morale and extremely effective government service during the New Deal years, and again during and after World War II, because the national and world crises made government the place where the country's best people believed they should serve, and where they believed they could make a difference. This is not true today, and it is an absolutely basic problem. It is time to do something about it.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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