Monday, November 2

Are government employees more selfish?

One difference between left wingers and right wingers are their views of whether government or the private sector are better placed to offer services to citizens. Left wingers tend to be suspicious of businesses and more trusting of government, while right wingers tend to feel the opposite.

So perhaps a worthwhile question to ask is whether people running governments are any different than people running businesses. The answer is "yes," according to a recent study by Dutch researchers Margaretha Buurman, Robert Dur and Seth Van den Bossche.

In 2000, a Dutch research organization sent out surveys about working conditions to 8,000 Dutch workers and received a little over 4,000 back. Respondents were compensated for the survey -- they could choose either a "widely redeemable" gift certificate, a donation to charity, or a lottery ticket. The gift certificate and donation were the same value, and the lottery ticket had the same expected value (i.e. the total prize value multiplied by your chance of winning was the same as the donation and gift certificate).

Civil servants chose lottery tickets far less than employees in the private sector, indicating that government employees are less willing to take risks than those in the public private sector. Perhaps more surprisingly, civil servants chose the charity option less than the private sector, indicating that private sector employees are more altruistic and caring.

However, the researchers noticed that tenure mattered for government employees: new civil servants were more likely to choose the charity option, while employees who had been in the civil service a long time were more likely to take the gift certificate. The authors suggest "quite a few public sector employees do not contribute to charity because they feel that they already contribute enough to society at work for too little pay."

The risk results seem intuitive. If you're a business person, you've generally chosen less job security than you'd get with a government job. And if you're an entrepreneur, you're often having to put your own money where your mouth is, whereas you're playing with other people's money in government.

But the altruism results are a little surprising. Most people tend to think of government as being more benevolent than businesses, because businesses are just out to maximize profits. But the results show that the people in the business world are a little more caring than some people tend to think.

Of course, the results are just for the Netherlands, and there may be cultural differences between Dutch work environments and North American ones. But it would be interesting to run the same test in Canada and see if the results are the same.