Public Sector Unions in Wisconsin
by Walter Block
Recently by Walter Block: It's Ayn Rand Bashing Time, OnceAgain
Public sector unions in Wisconsin have been in the news of late. They are reacting against Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who is trying to curtail their power and pelf. Virtually all Democrats support the labor organization, and there can be few Republicans who do not favor the Wisconsin governor.
What is the proper free enterprise or libertarian position? I attempted to answer that question in this blog. My answer in a nutshell was, Both. Let them have at each other, each of them weakening the other. A pox on both houses, was how I put it.
Yes, unions are disgusting and repulsive institutions, as the right side of the political spectrum properly emphasizes. They restrict entry into the labor market, and either beat up potential competitors who they characterize as "scabs" (where are the politically correct opponents of hate speech when we need them?), and/or get the government to do this evil deed for them, via legislation such as the Wagner Act which forbids employers from hiring replacement workers on a permanent basis.
However, we advocates of the freedom philosophy must never forget that the government is also an illicit, illegitimate and entirely vile organization. Its middle name is also initiatory violence. We must never blindly follow the Republicans in their support of the state.
"There are two fundamentally opposed means whereby man, requiring sustenance, is impelled to obtain the necessary means for satisfying his desires. These are work and robbery, one’s own labor and the forcible appropriation of the labor of others. . . . I … call one’s own labor and the … exchange of one’s own labor for the labor of others, the u2018economic means' for the satisfaction of need while the unrequited appropriation of the labor of others will be called the u2018political means.' . . . The State is an organization of the political means."
This seemed like a simple call to me. I thought most readers of the LewRockwell.com would react to this blog of mine with a ho hum, what else is new, of course, attitude. However, I reckoned falsely. I did not realize that there are quite a few brilliant people who read this blog, many of whom disagreed with me, some of them strongly. Inadvertently, I had created a firestorm of interest in this issue. Let me share some of these responses with you. The present essay is an attempt to deal with them, anonymously for the most part but not entirely, along with my replies to them.
There were a few reactions that were very positive. I know that I am on the correct analytic path when the great Bob Wenzel supports my position. One comment went so far as to say "Brilliant! This made me reconsider my own position in a way that only Rothbard and Hoppe have. That’s about the highest compliment I can give…" My only response to that compliment was: "Thanks. That’s a pretty fast crowd you put me in. I can't think of a higher compliment. I’m honored."
Here are some other positive responses: "Your blog post on the Wisconsin showdown was interesting and informative! Having read the (very good) book Alongside Night, I can understand and even sympathize with it." Once again, Ayn Rand hits the nail on the head. Here is another supportive reaction: "… the longer the squabble goes on, the fewer days in school for the children. That has to be a plus." A plus indeed. Given that public education is on net balance a negative, the less of it the better. I can't resist sharing one last one: "Sir Walter, Your logic is impeccable, as always. A devoted fan." My reaction to this is that it is letters like this that make it all worthwhile.
Now for the critical responses to my blog. There were several that were so impolite I just ignored them, and continue to do so now. But here are some thoughtful critiques.
Criticism 1. "… why must one choose sides in an issue when both sides are wrong? Is there some u2018law' that says this must be done? Although Jane Fonda was correct in protesting our involvement in the Vietnam War, she was wrong about supporting the North Vietnamese. She should have condemned the entire war. I condemn anyone who uses force, be it a government bureaucRAT or a union thug."
Response 1. If we take this objection literally, we libertarians must all become pacifists. Surely, adherence to the non-aggression principle implies no such requirement. We must only oppose initiatory force, not any force at all. Of more relevance to the present situation, I think this critic misunderstands what I meant by saying "I favor the union thugs, not the government thugs." Of course both sides were wrong. Did I not say "… a pox on both of them"? When there are two bad guys duking it out, it is not anti-libertarian to hope that the fight lasts as long as possible, so that each side can inflict maximum philosophical damage on the other. And, if one is weaker than the other, the more strength that can be imparted to that side, the longer the conflagration will continue.
Criticism 2. "Government employee unions are the lesser of two evils? They need to be broken. They are parasites upon the back of the rest of us. As far as government being the real evil you are correct. We cannot get rid of it yet but we can bust their unions. Please rethink your position."
Response 2. Well, yes, certainly government unions are evil. And, so are private ones. They all engage in restrictive entry, whether by blue collar (explicit violence against "scabs") or white collar (labor legislation) methods. Of course, it is entirely possible for organized labor to act compatibly with libertarianism. All they have to do is limit themselves to mass quits, and eschew all attempts to prevent other workers from taking the jobs they spurn. However, purely as an empirical matter, I know of no union that limits itself in any such manner. So, yes, I agree with this critic that unions are parasites (well, I prefer "tapeworms," but I'm not going to argue this point). Indeed, my credentials as a hater of unions consist of a long paper trail. Almost 100 pages of this book of mine are devoted to an excoriation of this institution. However, to make this point, and only this point, is to fall into the Republican trap. Our justified venom for unions should not blind us to the fact that the state, too, is an enemy of freedom, and, indeed, when push comes to shove, a more powerful and daunting one.
Criticism 3. "I am a big fan of you and your work. I bought your book on the privatization of roads. I agree with you probably 95% of the time. But in this instance you are being illogical. These are not two separate entities. They are different factions of the same entity. They are all part of the government. Breaking government unions severely weakens the government. Much of their voting power is derived from getting as many tax collectors on the payroll as possible."
Response 3. Thanks for your kind remarks. You make a good point to the effect that the unions are like junior partners in the ruling class. Murray Rothbard would agree, as do I. However, right now, there is a falling out between thieves. It is as if a senior and a junior gang member are fighting. They can, logically, do this, even though in some (very important) sense they are part of the same entity. I don't see why my analysis must be jettisoned because of your very valid point. Why cannot we both be correct?
Criticism 4. "Do you root for the coercive unions in Greece as well, since they are opposing the Greece State? I am confused why someone I consider one of the greatest living Voluntarist Libertarians is condoning coercive activity. Tactically, why would you ever root for one of two wholly coercive organizations, even if one is weaker? Not only are you now rooting for a wholly coercive organization, but in the end there will probably be some coercive ‘compromise’ that just increases coercion and negates Voluntarism.
"Unlike with the German invasion of Russia – where you can support defending against the unsolicited, coercive invasion, even if it is being defended against by coercive Bolsheviks; you are clearly supporting the defense and not the Bolsheviks – supporting the coercive unions has no clear underlying Voluntarist principle. The ‘underdogs’ are screaming for mass unsolicited coercion, and nothing else. Why not just say you are opposed to any violation of the Non-Coercion Principle, so you clearly support no one? Just like, for instance, the Civil War in Spain?"
Response 4. Thanks for your generous compliment. I “support” both sides in the Spanish Civil War: It would be great if they had killed each other off. Neither the Fascists nor the Communists are friends of freedom. Yes, the relationship between the Greek government and the Greek unions is roughly parallel to that between the Wisconsin state and its unions. The same analysis would therefore apply. I am only "rooting for a wholly coercive organization" so that it has the strength to weaken a stronger "wholly coercive organization." Why is that incompatible with the non-aggression principle? I do indeed come close to your suggestion that I "support no one" with my "pox on both houses" statement. But, literally, if I supported no one, and, somehow, magically, my wishes came into being, then there would be labor peace, and no weakening of either of these vicious institutions, the government or the unions. Can't a libertarian welcome the weakening of both? I’m just (dramatically) making the point that both the union and the government violate the NAP. Surely, you agree with me on that?
Criticism 5. "You support people who are trying to loot the public? I don’t understand. If you think that both groups are thugs, why don’t you refuse to support either group? If the state government is a criminal enterprise because it taxes the people, then surely the union is just as bad, if not worse, because they not only support the taxation, they encourage even more taxation because they want more of the stolen loot for themselves. I guess you didn’t exactly say you supported the unions, only that you were u2018rooting' for them over the governor. But I would rather root for the governor, because the less loot that is being handed over to thugs, whether the thugs are unions or corporations, the less stealing from taxpayers the government will be able to justify."
Response 5. I actually oppose both the government and the unions. I only "support" them in the sense that I'm rooting for them to fight each other, so that both may be undermined. The government, I fear, violates rights on a far more massive scale than do the unions. It is not for nothing that the latter are merely the junior partners in this illicit conspiracy.
Criticism 6. "I think I would have to disagree with you in this case. Normally, union thugs get together (i.e. u2018negotiate') with government thugs to give away Other People’s Money to the union thugs to the betterment of both the union thugs and the government thugs. In this case, if the government wins, at least we’re subjected to only a quotient of 1/2 thuggery. It’s sort of like the set theory of a u2018lesser infinity' of thuggery."
Response 6. You make an important point. But, in my view, given that the government is far more powerful than a bunch of unions, if they win, they will do far worse things than steal a few more bucks from the long-suffering taxpayers. Anyone ever hear of the drug war? Of massive government regulations? Of taxes for expenses other that public sector unions?
Criticism 7. "Your advocacy of the union position will mean ever increasing taxes for us in Wisconsin. That’s fine for you. Not so great for us here in Wisconsin. Thanks for your support for the free market. Not. Do you run away from your job? Do you ignore a legal election and the consequences? Do you use fraud and lies to get out of work? Fake Dr notes. DO you even believe in representative government? You have a nice gig going in academia , wouldn’t want to rock the boat with your fellow “educators”, would you. I have either misunderstood your political humor on this matter, or no longer have the respect for you I once did. Nothing to keep you awake at night I’m sure. Plug this union hissy fit into the typical media template at your peril."
Response 7. You say this as if it were a foregone conclusion. But, I think it is most unlikely that this spat between the governor and the public sector unions will result in higher taxes. To begin with, right now a lot of "services" are shut down. Less work means reduced salaries. In the long run, whether taxes go up or down, given balanced budgets, depends upon the path of expenditures. If each of these contending parties weakens the other, the prospects look good for less spending. On the other hand, I readily admit, this is an empirical issue. I might be wrong. But as a matter of deontology (rights) it seems clear that taking down the government a peg or two is compatible with libertarianism, even if taxes increase as a result. Ragnar Danneskjold breaks into Fort Knox and liberates some gold (assuming there's some of this precious metal in there; work with me on this). As a result, the government raises taxes. Does that definitively demonstrate that this hero of Atlas Shrugged was violating libertarian law? Not a bit of it. See on this here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
As to your other complaints I am not at all a fan of legal elections nor representative government, nor democracy. Hitler, after all, came to power under precisely these conditions; surely, what he subsequently did is not compatible with libertarianism, what we all learned in 6th grade civics course to the contrary notwithstanding. I am more a fan of monarchy than I am of democracy. See Hoppe's brilliant book on this matter. However, you've got me dead to rights on your "educators" charge. I wouldn't dare write anything not approved by the politically correct academic establishment. As for those fake doctor's notes, if they were struck off the medical lists that would be just fine with me. Oops, that's not politically correct, is it?
Criticism 8A. This two-part back-and-forth series was initiated by Four Arrows, my friend, sparring partner and co-author of this book: "Of course Indigeous Peoples in traditional cultures never had nor needed unions and rejected external authority except for a willingness to listen to gifted shamans who had talked to spirits, but even this would be rejected if life experience and honest reflection on it challenged the shaman perspective. But greed was also not a cultural phenomenon. So here is a question I don't know how you will answer. In the real world, not some idealized heaven, if you live in a town where greed has caused great inequities in the capitalistic system and you are a trained miner as has been all the generations of your family who live in a particular place that you do not wish to leave, and you go to work for the only business in town that bought up everything, so now you are a miner working in the mines but because of greed the mines are unsafe and someone dies every month needlessly while the guy drives a Rolls, etc. Several co-workers come to you and say, Walter, this is not right. We have to do something. We’ve asked the owner to set up a simple safety system that we know he can afford and he refuses. Shall we strike and see if we get his attention? What do you say?"
Response 8A. A strike equals refusal to work plus preventing others from taking the jobs you spurn. A strike is never justified. Ever. But, a mass refusal to work is compatible with libertarianism. Mass quits, or mass withdrawals of labor (allowing “scabs” to take our places if the owner chooses to ignore us; e.g., not beating up the scabs) will usually get the owner’s attention. As for greed, we miners are greedy, too. We want higher wages: total wages = money wages plus working conditions. We want better working conditions (more safety) and are not willing to lower our money wages. So, we are greedily asking for an increase in total wages. Greed makes the world go round. The owner is greedily driving around in a Rolls, but we miners have got Hondas. Not too shabby.
Criticism 8B (also from Four Arrows): "I find your reply naïve and with extraneous added and misleading information. Why naïve? Because you compare as equally u2018greedy' the miners trying to earn a living that can sustain them with the CEO’s quest for unlimited wealth and power, a common trait of an u2018owner' housing a football field of stored antique cars while his workers risk their lives for an average of $33,000 to 40,000 dollars a year (coal miner’s wage’s in Tennessee) and the owner refuses to spend a reasonable amount of money to prevent obvious and documented unsafe working conditions. Maybe you can buy a Honda on this income and raise a family and pay for health insurance, maybe not. But it is beside the point. And I could offer many examples besides the u2018high earning' miner that definitely could not afford the Honda. Wait, as I think of these examples I have to say your remarks are not naïve, they are illogical. As for adding misleading information, a strike is a work stoppage undertaken in support of a bargaining position or in protest of some aspect of a proposed agreement between labor and management. In effect, it is just what you say, u2018a mass refusal to work.' Modern strikers don’t beat up scabs and it is common for the company to hire scabs. So then, you must agree that unions that support u2018a mass refusal to work' are compatible with your position. Wow, that was easy! So why all the anti-union talk? How can the strike, which is defined as a mass refusal to work, be u2018never justified?' Here is yet another logical contradiction and vague distinction in your libertarianism, it seems."
Response 8B: Yes, indeed, the owners and the workers are equally greedy. The former are merely more successful than the latter. When is the last time a worker turned down a higher wage in favor of a lower one? When is the last time a worker paid more for house or car or a pizza than he had to? Yes, equally greedy. As a first approximation, we are all equally greedy (with the exception of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and maybe a very few others). Some are more successful at pursuing greed, but that is another matter.
But, greed is a bit beside the point. I think your more relevant sally concerns my supposed illogic concerning strikes. Modern unionists don’t beat up scabs? I disagree; here is some evidence to the contrary. But, in a sense you are right: modern unionists initiate explicit violence against scabs much less than previously. But, that is because they now have the government do this for them, in effect, via labor legislation such as the Wagner Act, which forces the firm to bargain “fairly” with the union, when it would prefer to fire all the unionists, and replace them with “scabs.” Initiatory violence is initiatory violence is initiatory violence, and it doesn’t much matter if the “blue collar” unionists do this themselves, or, go “white collar” and have the state do their dirty work for them.
Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans, and a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is the author of Defending the Undefendable and Labor Economics From A Free Market Perspective. His latest book is The Privatization of Roads and Highways.