Are You Being Served?

One of the strangest terms that is used in modern conversation and writing is the term "service." There are some straightforward uses. For example, you go to a restaurant and a waitress comes up and asks if she can serve you. In that context, the term means the same thing to both of you. But I want to take issue with another use of the term that has become quite common. That is the issue of "government service." The use of this term has corrupted and confused much of the discussion of what government does, on both the domestic and the foreign policy fronts.

What brought this to mind is a newspaper story in the Aug. 10 Winnipeg Free Press that I read while at my cottage in Minaki, Ontario. The article, "Jake the Dope-Sniffing Dog Bow-Wows Out of the Job," is about a drug-sniffing dog facing retirement. The sentence that caught my eye was, "They [Jake and his handler Connie] formed one of the approximately 70 detector dog teams strategically located across Canada, serving both travelers and commercial operations."

Note the use of the term "serving." How does the dog serve travelers? By fetching a stick, perhaps? Or maybe by helping them retrieve their baggage? No. Everyone knows how he "serves" travelers – by catching them with illegal drugs. Connie, who didn’t want her last name revealed, made clear how the dog served. The reporter, Jason Bell, writes, "’Everyone on line is usually clapping when they see him working – except for the guy he’s sitting in front of,’ Connie said, with a laugh."

In other words, both she and the reporter know that the dog is not "serving" travelers in any reasonable sense of that word. Rather, the dog is trying to catch travelers.

You don’t have to be an opponent of the drug war to understand and agree with my above statement. Even if you think the drug war is a great idea, it’s important not to corrupt the language. One would have to stretch to claim that people or dogs who catch others importing illegal drugs are serving these others. It’s these others who will "serve" – by doing time in prison.

The same kind of misleading language pervades discussion of another domestic government institution, the IRS: Internal Revenue Service. Whom does the Internal Revenue Service serve? One could make a case that the IRS serves Congress, the president, and the federal bureaucracy because these worthies take the money that the IRS collects and spend it on causes that they or their constituents believe in. In that sense, the IRS is a service. But what are we to make of the statements that congressmen of both parties were making in the late 1990s, when it was revealed that the IRS had been treating some taxpayers badly? In response, congressmen and the IRS started advocating that the IRS treat its "customers" better. And by "customers" they meant taxpayers. When I ship a package using the United Parcel Service, I’m a customer buying a service. How do we know I’m a customer? Because I do it voluntarily. But the only reason I pay taxes, as is true of most people, is that taxes are compulsory. If I refuse to pay taxes, then I’ll lose my assets and might go to prison. As I wrote in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey, calling taxpayers customers of the IRS is like calling chickens customers of the egg farmer.

The only way we know that someone is being served is that the person voluntarily buys the service. Now, it’s possible that government workers serve us by doing something we value, delivering our mail, for example. But what the government produces is typically given away or, in the case of sniffing dogs, forced on us, and we who pay for it through taxes have no choice in the matter. This means that even though, by our standards, government workers sometimes serve us, they often don’t. Which makes it ironic that the term "service" is used so commonly to describe what government workers do and so rarely to describe what workers in the private (i.e., voluntary) sector do. Often, when I am introduced before audiences, the person introducing me says that I "served" in the Reagan administration. But when I introduce myself, I say that I worked in the Reagan administration. I’m trying to do my little bit to get people to use language accurately and honestly.

Which brings me to foreign policy and the military. A term that is widely used to refer to the activities of people in the military is that they "are in the service," "serve in the military," or "serve their country." But how do we know? There’s not a market test. Neither they nor their employer, the Department of Defense, gives us a chance to say whether we want them to fight abroad and pay for their services. And that means that we can’t be sure they are serving. Some people value what they do and, if, given the option, these people would pay for what military personnel do, then they are being served. Other people actually think it’s a disservice for the military to invade countries that don’t threaten us and, by those standards, these people are not being served.

Interestingly, the term "service" to refer to being in the military came about as a purposeful corruption of the language. When military conscription was introduced on America’s entry into World War I in 1917, Wilson’s government, wanting to avoid the kind of draft resistance that occurred during the U.S. Civil War, decided that the terms "draft" and "conscription" sounded too harsh – i.e., too realistic. So Wilson’s government started an advertising campaign aimed to get all draft-eligible men to register on the same day, Registration Day. To get them in the "right" frame of mind, the government started referring to draftees as "servicemen." The term stuck long after the draft ended and has been with us since.

What complicates matters enormously is that the military is engaged in producing what economists call a "public good." A public good is a good that has two characteristics: (1) non-rivalry in consumption and (2) non-excludability. Non-rivalrous consumption means that your consuming it doesn’t prevent me from consuming it also. When you eat a hamburger, I cannot eat the same hamburger, making a hamburger a private good. But when you gain from defense, that doesn’t necessarily prevent me from gaining from that same defense. Thus, defense is non-rivalrous in consumption. Non-excludability means that it is difficult or impossible to exclude non-payers from consuming the good. So someone who defends you from foreign invaders also defends your neighbor next door even though you paid for it and he didn’t. This latter characteristic, non-excludability, leads to what economists call "the free-rider problem." People have an incentive to free ride – not pay for a service, in the hope that others will pay for it. But if enough people free ride, the service won’t be produced in a free market. That is economists’ traditional rationale for government to provide defense. If you want to see a clever economist consider the various ways defense could be provided privately, and then showing the problems with each one, read the relevant sections of David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. If you want to see another economist’s (in my mind, the intellectual equal of the brilliant David Friedman) case for how defense could be provided privately, read Jeff Hummel’s article, "National Defense Versus Public Goods: Defense, Disarmament, and Free Riders." (The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 4, 1990, pp. 88-122, available here [.pdf].)

That much defense is a public good is what makes it plausible to say that some people in the military are serving us – they are doing so by defending us. But the majority of people in the U.S. military are not engaged in defense, but in offense. George W. Bush essentially admitted this fact when, days after the ghastly terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he started talking up the need for "homeland defense." That was his admission that the U.S. military with, at the time, its approximately $300 billion annual price tag, was not mainly engaged in defending us. To make it more concrete, consider this exchange I had with one of my former Marine officer students at the Naval Postgraduate School, who came by to visit shortly after Sept. 11:

Marine officer: "Do you know what our plan is for defending the United States?"

Henderson: "No. I’ve always wondered about that. Tell me what it is."

Marine officer: "We don’t have one."

Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at