Friday, 15 June 2012

Loyalty vs. Obedience

     A recurring theme on this blog might be distinctions between easily confused concepts. I started out with a post about the difference between faith and belief and I've also written on the difference between theory and fact. Yesterday the CBC reported on a letter sent to Parks Canada employees warning them not to criticize the government and "reminding them of their duty of loyalty". The author of the letter is confusing loyalty with obedience.

     This isn't a new confusion. Shakespeare addressed it very well in King Lear, where the aging king rewarded his daughters Goneril and Regan for their fawning and empty praise, and condemned as disloyal his daughter Cordelia who alone was willing to tell him that his actions would lead to his downfall. It is soon revealed, of course, that Cordelia was the only genuinely loyal daughter Lear had.

     King Lear illustrates very well the difference between loyalty and obedience. Loyalty, whether to a person or an institution, involves more than simply doing what the object of loyalty might desire or demand; it is a genuine concern for the welfare of that person or institution, a commitment to act in their best interests, including providing needed (but perhaps unwanted) counsel. Obedience, in contrast, is simply carrying out instructions.
     So what the government is demanding from its employees is not loyalty but obedience. It orders them not to criticize its policies, and expects them to obey. It doesn't care about the reasons for criticism; like King Lear, it just wants to hear what it wants to hear. (We see this also with the Conservatives' systematic removal of any sort of non-partisan information-gathering or expert advisors from the federal budget. They know what they want to do, and have no interest in anyone suggesting what they ought to do.)
     Demanding obedience of public servants is entirely appropriate. The elected government must be able to implement policy by directing public employees to carry it out. That's not controversial at all, and in fact is central to all employment relationships; within the scope of one's employment, one is obliged to obey one's employer's directions. But only within the scope of that employment.

     It's not always a clear line, of course. If you're employed as a commercial airline pilot, your job is flying planes and what you do or say on your own time is generally your own business so long as it doesn't impact on your ability to fly planes safely and on time, but if you publicly badmouth your airline and negatively affect ticket sales, even on your own time, you can expect to be fired.
     That's the argument that the Conservative government is trying to use in justifying its attempts to exert greater control over the speech of public servants, and superficially it seems reasonable. But there's a crucial difference. Government is not a business, at least not in the sense of a competitive market enterprise pursuing profit. An airline can lose market share and thus profits if its reputation suffers. Government cannot. Government is government, regardless of who happens to form it. A political party can certainly be harmed by damage to its reputation, but so what? No civil servant is obliged to help a party get or stay elected.

     Civil servants owe a limited duty of obedience to whatever political party happens to form the government, but if they owe a duty of loyalty it is to the nation and its citizens, not to the political party. Loyalty to the nation demands providing honest counsel, engaging in the democratic process, and saying what one thinks needs to be said. Sometimes that will be at odds with what the party in power wants us to hear. Too bad. We the people don't always have access to all the information we need to make informed decisions around election time, and so it's vital that we hear from everyone who might know something relevant. IT IS NOT for government to control that dialogue!


  1. Some very good points Tom. I will make note of this, however:
    "No civil servant is obliged to help a party get or stay elected."
    In actuality, civil servants have a whole host of restrictions when it comes to political activity, in order to avoid the possibility of the public service having any kind of partisan loyalty to a particular party. So, for example, while I would be allowed to run for office if I so chose, in order to do so I would have to get a leave of absence from work. I can support a political party or candidate, but cannot identify myself as a publice servant while doing so. Any political activity would have to be run by management first for approval.
    It is a fundamental part of the Canadian political structure that the civil service is absolutely neutral in relation to Parliament.

  2. And there are excellent reasons for this neutrality, which I support. I suppose the tricky part is in defining the boundaries of neutral. What concerns me especially is the way the government has been cutting funding to and in some cases completely closing down programs to provide the information upon which Parliament relies to make decisions. I agree, of course, that data must be collected in a neutral and non-partisan fashion, but there is something wrong when any data that fails to support the government's priorities is dismissed as insufficiently neutral.

    If the letter to Parks Canada employees had simply stressed the obligation to neutrality, that'd be one thing. But it framed it in terms of "loyalty", which is not kosher at all.

  3. Came across your blog today and really enjoy reading your posts. I think this particular post is really relevant to whats going on with that public servant from Texas who is refusing to the sign off on same-sex marriage licenses because they conflict with her religious beliefs. Look forward to reading more of your posts.

  4. Thanks for your comment. The case that's been in the news lately is in Kentucky, and it's complicated somewhat by the fact that she's an elected official, rather than simply a public employee who can be fired for not doing her job. That one raises a bunch of other loyalty/obedience issues, because as the elected county clerk, she asserts the legal authority to instruct her staff to obey her instructions, while at the same time undermining the notion of legal authority itself by refusing to follow the SCOTUS decision. So she's demanding her employees recognize and obey HER authority, while selectively ignoring that of SCOTUS. (And, as is a recurring theme in many of the comment threads to this blog, she's asserting that her authority is backed by God, which is to my mind downright blasphemous.)

  5. Tom, very thoughtful. Today due to a situation in my professional life I googled difference between loyalty and obedience. Your article popped up. Thanks for your contribution to the internet world.