GOV2.0: Personality Tests for Public Employees

A recent blog post by economist Scott Sumner got me thinking about another way we could quickly improve our government.

We should require Public Employees to take personality exams before they are hired.


At issue is human “spite” and how it affects economic development. If you’ve ever dealt with public employees, certainly you know them to be some of the most spiteful monkeys in the barrel. They are capricious and angry, they forget who they work for, and they wield power arbitrarily. Somehow, you feel lucky when they actually do their jobs.

Caveat: Some aren’t bad. But WHY do we have to accept it at all?

Yes, firing them is next to impossible, but setting up new rules for hiring them is easy as pie.

The GOP should promise to establish a Civil Service Personality Exam for all public employees that weeds out those who don’t realize their job is to make private life easy.

What would the test look like? This:

In a trade, you can receive either

  1. $5 while your trading partner receives $4.
  2. $4 while he receives $1.

In a trade, you can receive either

  1. $1 while your trading partner receives $10.
  2. $0 while your partner receives $5.

To grade this test we just need the definition of economic spite:

A spiteful individual is willing to forgo material gains from trade unless the terms of trade give him a large share of the pie.

So if someone doesn’t say #1 to both questions, she does not work for the government.

Across the board, we want civil servants to live without spite. We don’t want them resenting the free market. And this kind of public employee will be

  1. more likely to accept less pay when times are bad.
  2. less likely to be upset when private citizens make more than they do.

If we’re going to have public servants, we should hire the kind of employees we actually want to deal with day to day.

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