During the morning after Irene’s rampage through New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie made a point of singling out workers who went above and beyond the call of duty in the days leading to the storm.

The governor noted that many had worked for 72 hours without sleep, having “left their families behind” and eaten “lousy food”  to help ensure the safety of their neighbors and fellow citizens. That’s the stuff of heroism.

As luck would have it, those dedicated, selfless workers happened to be public employees.  Or, as the more-radical government haters would call them, “taxeaters.”

 The governor did not even attempt to single out any of the thousands of government workers – including the exhausted members of his cabinet – who worked tirelessly to ensure minimal loss of life during a devastating storm. But he did refer to those who, like him, have dedicated their lives to service.

The most-conspicuous among them were the firefighters, police officers, National Guard troops, and other first responders who put their own lives at risk to ensure the safety of lives and property. (One firefighter nearly died in Princeton while attempting a rescue.)

But thousands of others were at their posts for days, working behind the scenes in operations centers, gathering intelligence, planning evacuation routes, seeking shelter for temporary exiles, and otherwise coordinating and executing the state’s emergency response. Christie noted that many had been away from their families for 72 hours.

Christie used the word “service” to describe this sort of dedication. But one person’s service is another person’s unnecessary and wasteful exhibition of encroaching government power, executed by loafers who eat and vacation and retire at taxpayers’ expense.

As though public employees aren’t taxpayers themselves.

According to the anti-government, market-worshipping crowd, the nation is divided into taxpayers and taxeaters – the latter group would include all the people who worked for hours on end to keep New Jerseyans safe during the Irene crisis. Their pensions, their benefits, their pay, their vacations, their very choice of careers, make them objects of scorn and contempt among the neo-laissez-faire crowd. They seem to believe that the impulse to put society ahead of self is more to be pitied than admired – after all, that doyenne of unregulated capitalism, Margaret Thatcher, reminded us many years ago that “there is no such thing as society.”

There’s no question that among the millions of public employees across the country there are many incompetents and slackers. But having spent 33 years in the private sector before becoming a taxeater myself, I can assure the market-worshippers that there’s no shortage of incompetency and just plain stupidity in the private sector as well. And we’re not just talking about mail-it-in drudges at the low end of the spectrum. After all, how did that AOL-Time Warner merger work out?

Then again, as the son and son-in-law of New York City firefighters and now as an employee of a state university myself, I’ve witnessed extraordinary work ethic and selfless dedication to duty among the so-called taxeating class that so infuriates radio talkers and others on the government-hating right.

Governor Christie was absolutely right to remind New Jerseyans that the actions of innumerable and anonymous public employees no doubt saved many lives when Irene ravaged the shore and many inland communities.

He was right to thank them. So should we all. And the next time you hear the phrase “taxeater,” just remember that it was a taxeater taking those 911 calls during the storm, a taxeater who rescued civilians from the storm, a taxeater who designed coastal evacuation routes, and a taxeater who found cots for the stranded.

Private enterprise is a wonderful thing. But sometimes you’ve got to hand it to those taxeaters. They may not be entrepreneurs, but they know how to get the job done.

Terry Golway is director of the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy