The Rush Limbaugh Effect: Watch As Ideology Makes a Smart Man Stupid

The radio host insists that cops, firefighters, and teachers belong to the private sector rather than the public -- simply because he values what they do.

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Rush Limbaugh, who apparently took flak from listeners after remarks he made about police, firefighters, and teachers on Monday, came back on the air Tuesday to explain that he isn't intending to insult them when he complains about the public sector -- because, you see, they aren't really part of it:

I was concerned that when I started talking about the productive aspects of work that it would be taken as an insult to police officers and firefighters and teachers. We like them .... We all assume that teachers and firefighters and cops are exclusive members of the public sector. I think that the problem that I was having yesterday is in that fundamental concession that may not be necessary to make, that cops, firefighters, and teachers belong to the public sector. 

Because you could make an argument that they don't.

This should be fun.

Now, millions of Americans, most of whom are not wealthy, pay additional money to send their children to private schools in order to keep them out of dysfunctional public sector school systems that we all rightly decry and criticize. American men and women all over the country serve as volunteer firefighters on behalf of their communities and their taxes are confiscated to pay for public schools and big city fire companies. But they choose to pay more for the value having these jobs done right creates. I mean, there is value in what these people do. This touches on the whole argument about productivity. In the sense that there's no entrepreneurism in being a police officer and that there's no productivity, maybe so, but there's value. And the value has to be calculated. It's a mistake to try to calculate that value the way we calculate the value of entrepreneurism or commerce or what have you.

That last bit is a welcome admission. But I'm confused by what came before it. Is the idea that professions are assigned to the public or private sector as a binary, instead of the conventional understanding, where your sector is determined by whether or not you in fact work for the state? If there were no private schools or private security guards or volunteer fire departments, would Limbaugh still grant that teachers, police and firefighters serve a valuable function? And wasn't he going to explain why it is that they aren't really in the public sector? But I interrupted him:

There are measurable ways to determine productivity. And there are with teachers. How well do the students do, for example, is one way. But there's no direct financial relationship until you find out how well the student does in the world. And who can keep track of all that? The bottom line, there is value that having these jobs done right creates. Now, if the states went bankrupt tomorrow, what would happen is that communities would come up with their own police forces. [Aren't existing police forces entities that communities have come up with? -- CF] People would do this if the state or the municipality went bankrupt and was not able to, the community would come together and do that. And the history of the United States, education and security, from crime and catastrophe, has always been part of the private sector.

So our working definition of "private sector job" is any public sector job that would be created in the private sector if the government went bankrupt. TSA agent? Really a private-sector worker, apparently.

But again, I interrupted:

This is what I was struggling with yesterday, why I knew that I had to be careful here.  Education and security have always been part of the private sector. I did not mean to say that there is no value created yesterday when I was talking about the job of teaching, policing, and firefighting. They are fundamental to the assurance that we have a civil society and which economic activity can flourish. They have a value that can be measured like anything else.

Congratulations, teachers, firefighters and police. You have value, a conclusion Limbaugh reached with more difficulty than would an average five-year-old, and by virtue of that conclusion, you must by definition work in the "good" sector, never mind from whence your paycheck comes. Movement conservatism tells us that the private sector is good, so if you are good - which you are, since the private sector values you - then you must be in the private sector:

I didn't want to create this line of demarcation where they are public sector and that equals the bad guys. That's not what I was saying, and I didn't want anybody to even infer that. They are with us, those of us in the private sector. They interact with us in the private sector, and they are different. They're not bureaucrats. They're not behind-the-scenes regulators that you never interact with, or very rarely. But these people -- the cops, the firemen, the teachers -- create the essentials of civil society. And Obama wants that to be seen as a public sector gig because he wants the public sector seen in a great, great positive way.
Got that, Dittoheads? Cops, firefighters, and teachers help create the essentials of a civil society. Whereas public-sector employees don't do those things. And if you sense a contradiction ... Obama!
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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