Social Justice, Libertarianism

Prompted by Wisconsin

At the risk of violating blog etiquette, I am not (for now, anyway) writing an introductory post.  Suffice it to say that I agree with my co-bloggers that libertarianism and social justice go together and that libertarians should not ignore social justice.  That said, I move on to something I’ve thought about for a long time, though this specific formulation is prompted by events in Wisconsin. 

Many libertarians seem to applaud Governor Walker’s efforts.  I think this may be mistaken—even if the sort of state he wants to bring about is pretty close to the sort of state I would consider ideal.  (I do not know what sort of state he really wishes to bring about, but for now I will just assume its my sort of libertarian state—even though I have doubts.)  I’ll explain why.

A friend of mine recently posed a question that went something like this: “assume Governor Walker’s desired policies were the norm and that state employees were agitating for the sorts of rights they now take for granted.  What would justify granting them those rights?”  As a thought experiment asking us whether or not there is justification for those rights as they are, this seemed to me quite useful.  On the other hand, I am not sure it is particularly useful for thinking about the justice of what is going on in Wisconsin now.  I think the situation there is more like one where people have certain legal rights now and what is being considered is the revoking of those rights.  Revoking rights, I think, destabilizes what Lon Fuller called “interactional expectancies” (see his The Principles of Social Order, Second Edition, 2002, 218-224).  Put differently, people have legitimate expectations of receiving the sorts of benefits they have long been promised and so unilaterally removing those benefits is illegitimate. 

To be honest, I’ve not read the actual legislation under consideration.  I’ve got in on my hard drive, but it’s not a priority.  I am less interested in the actual events then I am in the principles at issue.  So, what I am actually looking for are answers to 2 questions. 

First and more importantly: What would make it permissible to unilaterally change the contracts of state employees (or any employees)?

Secondarily, why do so many seem to think its OK to do so? 

I don’t have an answer to either question; perhaps my co-bloggers or readers will have suggestions.


For my part, it seems to me that employers’ unilaterally changing contracts—that is, changing the terms of the contract without any input from employees—is impermissible.  I’d likely admit that employers can tell their employees that when their contracts are complete, the terms will change and that if they do not like the new terms, they are free to leave.  Some employees, of course, will stay on while others will leave.  But unilaterally changing the terms of a contract while the contract is in force seems to me to undermine the entire point in having contracts.  (Importantly, I think that when we are talking about tenured professors the contract has no end date.  Whether tenure is a good idea or not is a separate question.)  When those that cherish systems of contract are willing to endorse such acts, it seems to me to undermine the very ideal they seek.  Perhaps I am missing something, but it seems to me that we have to achieve the ideal without violating contracts or otherwise acting immorally.  The ideal must be “morally accessible” as Allen Buchanan says.  It “should be achievable without unacceptable moral costs” (see his Justice, Legitimacy, and Self-Determination, 2004, 61).

I recognize that some will say that the situation in Wisconsin is a bit different then what I have (loosely) described.  It is, after all, a government that is the employer and government contracts are different (subject to different laws, etc.).  That sort of thinking strikes me as both too statist and too easy.  Indeed, it seems to me to beg the question in favor of the state’s right to dismiss genuine contracts.  If a government can make a contract, it should be a contract in exactly the same way any other contract is—and so should only be changeable by the same rules.

Part of the problem, I think, is that governments have long built absurd clauses into the contracts they use.  I’ve heard of a state university whose contract was one page but referenced a "University Handbook" (or some such) that was completely unavailable for a 2 year period (it was in the process of being revised, if I recall correctly).  New hires signed the “contract,” of course, ignorant of what they were agreeing to.  This is not, I think, an unusual circumstance.  Some contracts at state universities have clauses such that the entire “contract” is subject to rules that the legislature puts in place at any time

A second part of the problem, I think, is that our culture teaches people to "just trust" that such agencies would not do anything wrong (hence signing the above sort of contract is supposed to be OK).  Really, the message is “contracts are not worth the paper they are written on” (and, I suppose, “promises are just words”).  So, I shouldn't be surprised when my students hand assignments in late and expect no penalty (my syllabus indicates the penalty).  Or when editors are shocked that I get them a referee report by the agreed-upon date (I can’t be the only one, can I?).  All of this strikes me as rather unfortunate.  I’d rather we take contracts more seriously.

  • Bill Woolsey

    I think you need to become acquainted with the issues involved.

    The issue is whether or not collective bargaining will be allowed on health care and pension issues for state employees.

    Supposedly, the state employee unions have agreed that they need to pay more for their health care and pension benefits.

    In other words, some of the increases in costs of those benefits will come out of state employee pay rather than from taxpayers.

    Now, I know that I need to learn more about the issues, but I think what it means for these issues to no longer be part of collective bargaining is that state employees in Wisconson will be treated like–me.

    So, most years, we are informed about the cost of health care for the next year. There are different options, but usually, they are going up. And so, the next year, the payroll deductions are a bit higher. Sometimes there is no change, but rising health care costs.. you know.

    For us, the pension benefits don’t change much, but I suppose they might. Our deduction for the state retirement system is pretty consistent as a portion of salary, but I am pretty sure the state could change that if they wanted.

    In Wisconson, they have to get the union to agree to these changes. In South Carolina, there is no SC government employee union.

    On the other hand, the unions in Wisconson will still be able to negotiate about wages. So, if the state has some proposal for cost of living or merit increases, then they must get union approval to implement them. And, of course, the union can propose those.

    If anyone else has a better understanding, then fine.

    But the notion that this is about unilaterally changing the union contract before it comes up for renegotiation, is, I think, wrong. Though perhaps that is happening.

  • Isaac Morehouse

    By this logic, anything people expect from the state, they have a “right” to. I find this troubling.

    I don’t care what arrangement the thieves have among themselves as far as how to divide the spoils they coerce from taxpayers. If they fight with each other and it results in less present or future predation, I say it’s a win.

    A possible side benefit is that every time the state breaks a promise is helps reinforce the fact that state promises are not to be trusted in the first place.

    You’ve been promised SS. Does that mean you have a “right” to it? What would that even mean? You have a right to money taken from others? You have a right to your own money which was taken in violation of your rights?

    Are you saying it would be immoral to kill SS? Even if the answer is yes, you have to answer if that is more or less immoral than the problems caused by continuing it and “keeping” the promise.

    If keeping a promise results in more harm than breaking it…

  • Anon.

    ‘I agree with my co-bloggers that libertarianism and social justice go together and that libertarians should not ignore social justice…’

    Erm, A Libertarian is merely a Conservative with half a gram of Coke up his nose…

    People who wish to claim to be ‘Liberal’ on issues like f’instance Gay Equality or race relations in order to be seen as somehow more ‘civilised’ than other Conservatives. Yet they Somehow they never lifted a finger when the real fighting was done by the left during the last 40-50-odd years. After all, all they really care about is the lowering of taxation on the already wealthy(themselves) and the deregulation of big business…

    It’s not as if everything the libertarians every belived in has been proven to be utterly wrong in the last decade is it? Tell me, how is that denial of Global warming or the unfettered ‘Free market’ working out for you these days?

    You want all the benfits of a civilised society, paid for in real blood over the last Century by the real creators of a decent society – the left and the working poor .. but want to pay none of the cost i.e. taxes.

    Libertarianism is utterly opposed to any kind of social justice or civil society, what you get when you try it is a corrupt Bananna Republic.

    For a truly decent, functioning Country you require social democracy – it’s the difference between Sweden and Somalia, a true libertarian paradise without Taxes or Government.

  • Alejandro

    In the case of union contracts, (public or private) it is often the case that conditions of the contract are forced upon the employer or the government by threats of walkouts. In the case of governments (run by politicians concerned about re-election and not having to pay for the items contracted for) the result is a contract arrived at by coercian and therefore I believe are not true contracts, but ransom.

  • Chairman

    @Bill Woolsey

    “Supposedly, the state employee unions have agreed that they need to pay more for their health care and pension benefits.

    In other words, some of the increases in costs of those benefits will come out of state employee pay rather than from taxpayers.”

    This is incorrect. State employees pay for ALL of their health care and pension benefits. Employees sign a contract for total compensation. This contract breaks that compensation into different categories (cash wages, sick days, health care, pension,etc).

  • Eli

    What would make it permissible to unilaterally change the contracts of state employees? Some possibilities:

    1. The state acted wrongly in hiring the workers in the first place, e.g., exceeding its rightful scope.
    2. The contracts were negotiated in a corrupt manner, and the employees had a role in the corruption.

    Why do so many seem to think its OK to do so?

    1. I think a number of people believe #2 above as it applies to the inordinate influence that public sector unions have on state and local government.
    2. Many people support policies that raise their status, or that lower the status of disfavored groups. Implicitly, might makes right.

  • As Bill Woolsey from South Carolina points out, employees of many states don’t have the right to collective bargaining. I live in one of those states–Georgia–and the fact that our state employees can’t bargain collectively has neither (a) resulted in slave labor conditions for those employees, nor (b) saved Georgia from its own budget crisis.

    In other words, while collective bargaining for state employees may be important at the margins, it doesn’t make a fundamental difference–either for the employees or for the state.

    And that, I think, is a damning indictment of Walker. If Wisconsin is really facing a budget crisis (and I’ve seen differing assessments of how much of its budget problems are due to recent tax cuts for the Wisconsin wealthy), then Walker should be spending his time and energy on changes that matter more. If it’s critical to cut pay or benefits for state workers, then the existence of a union doesn’t stop him from making that case to the union itself or to the public. The fact he’s provoked a big fight over a marginal matter makes me suspect he’s trying to sell the Wisconsin electorate a bill of goods. As does the fact that (according to what I’ve read in the media) state union-busting wasn’t part of Walker’s recent election campaign.

    Libertarian or no, we should want our politicians to be honest and transparent. Walker isn’t.

  • Tom G. Palmer

    A mere expectation of a benefit taken from others is a very, very weak foundation for allowing state employees to loot and plunder the public and then invade the buildings of representative and deliberative bodies. Unlike other organizations, in the case of the state you are not allowed to opt out; they will still tax you and thus force you to pay for their services, regardless of what choices you make. I can choose UPS or FedEx or DHL, but the state insists on being universal. I’ve lived in France and been subject to the extortion of the state employee unions, who shut down the whole country when their demands are not met. No thank you.

    Would you be as worried if the shareholders of Archer Daniels Midland (generally probably less well off than the teachers in the Wisconsin state educational system) were to invade the US Congress’s offices and demand that their subsidies continue and that they maintain the right to monopolistic “collective bargaining” with the state? What about state-financed clergy invading the representative bodies of countries that subsidize religion (Germany, Turkey, etc.) and demanding that they continue to have the right to “collective bargaining” to extract benefits from the taxpayers? I hope not.

  • Pendulum

    Let me begin by saying that I also have no intimate familiarity with the events in Wisconsin. (And little interest in gaining any.)

    I suspect, however, that Walker is not arguing that he can unilaterally change the contracts of state employees. Instead, what he is arguing for is a contract modification.

    To analogize to the private sector, Company A contracts to pay Company B $20,000 per month for advertising services for a period of 2 years. Company A’s sales dramatically decrease for unrelated reasons. At the end Year 1, Company A approaches Company B and states that they plan to renege on the contract unless Company B agrees to drop their fee to $10,000 for the same level of services. If Company B fears that Company A may go bankrupt, they may have good reason to agree to the modification, even if it’s “at the point of a gun”/unfair/mean for Company A to fail to honor the existing contract come hell or high water.

    If contracts were fully enforceable as written, this wouldn’t be permissible. However, there are numerous ‘public policy’ exceptions to limit the full enforceability of contracts. These exceptions may or may not be wise, but they are undeniable, and they have made contract modification at the point of a gun a fact of life.

    Er – I wish I had done a better job of explaining myself. The above seems rather incoherent.

  • Renvoi

    One reason for treating the government contracts at issue differently than contracts in the private sector is that if a private contracting party knows it cannot fulfill its end of the bargain (e.g., they won’t have the money to pay the other party to the contract when the debt becomes due), that party can file a bankruptcy petition, deal with the debt in the bankruptcy, receive a discharge of the debt, and then move on with their life either after a reorganization or a liquidation. The other contracting party (the creditor) will likely get pennies on the dollar, and while it may seem like a bad deal for that one creditor, society as a whole will benefit from the relief bankruptcy provides. As a state, as opposed to an individual or business, Wisconsin does not have a similar insolvency mechanism to deal with the impossible debts that many believe will be coming due — it is stuck with whatever debts it has promised to pay, no matter how inescapable. I’d argue that this arrangement differs from the arrangements between typical private parties enough to justify a state to renege on its promises unilaterally in order to avoid an insolvency for which it has no tools to manage effectively.

  • Annoyed. Seriously? I liked you.

    I have not read any of the above comments but I felt compelled to comment on this blog.

    This logic is ridiculous – why is it okay to “unilaterally” GIVE someone rights?

    A right to health care? If we give that right are we then not allowed to take it away? If someone gives the wrong kind of “right” it most definitely can be taken away.

    Go read the Mises blog on the history of unions – I don’t think you know what “right” you are even referring to. Its all in the legal definition of “collective bargaining”.

  • Josh

    Sure, the pensions etc. are part of a negotiated contract. The realistic question though, is how were the negotiaters able to achieve a contract that grants such an outsized compensation package to its members relative to private sector employees performing similar work.

    If the answer is because the employer’s management was negligent or incompetent to protect the interests of the owners (the taxpayers) – and it’s hard to imagine any other reasons – then there is sound cause for the taxpayers to demand a correction – and slim moral basis for the employees to object.

    That said, so-called collective bargaining rights are not rights for people, they are rights for unions. It may not be very pertinent to Wisconsin’s budget situation, but eliminating forced collective bargaining is better for high achievers, worse for underperformers, and therefore better both for the taxpayers and for the most skilled and motivated workers.

  • Brian Miller

    The public sector union contracts are de-facto null and void, since the taxpayers who are required to pay for them and responsible for the fulfillment of them were not a party to the negotiations.

    It’s a bit like me contracting with a contractor that he’ll receive twice the market price for overhauling my home, with any overages and all payments paid for by my other neighbors (who aren’t asked beforehand).

    Is it “social justice” to then have the contractor show up at the doors of the other people and demand his payment? Of course not.

    Yet they Somehow they never lifted a finger when the real fighting was done by the left during the last 40-50-odd years

    That’s an odd contention. The Libertarian Party calling for “equal rights for homosexuals” back in the 1970s and 1980s when Democrats were describing gay people as “diseased” and “perverts.”

    The Libertarian Party was condemning DOMA and DADT when Bill Clinton was signing it and Joe Biden (the current “left wing” vice president) was co-sponsoring both in the Senate and voting for them.

    Libertarians were big funders of the lawsuits against DADT and DOMA that forced the Democrats to repeal the latter legislatively (before the high court revoked it judicially) and that forced the current “liberal” Obama administration into abandoning defense of the latter (after losing three appeals in a row where the left’s current high champion administration claimed that gay families were like child rapists or murderers).

  • Brian Miller

    Ooops, I meant “repeal the FORMER legislatively.”

  • D

    Oy. I’m going to limit myself to this one point:

    You write: “It is, after all, a government that is the employer and government contracts are different (subject to different laws, etc.).”

    No. The difference is that if my grocery store is contracted to pay my employees and I can’t afford to pay my employees, then I go out of business. I don’t mug random people on the street so I can honor my contractual obligations.

    Governments can and do. Also, for those that enjoy lots of government services, the risk of the (state) government “going out of business” and losing everything outweighs the risk of certain sectors conforming to the reality that the people paying them have been conforming to for 3 years now. For this reason, most folks believe the government “just can’t” go out of business, which is why government makes promises to its employees that my grocery store would never consider. It knows that the good people of Wisconsin can be held hostage to their whims under force of arms.

    Why is this so complicated? And why do Libertarians miss this simple point? The government has the guns and the jails to extract money from its citizenry, and we rely on them enough that they “can’t” go out of business.

    The reason we founded a representative government is because in the past (and many places in the present as well) tyrants and despots extracted money from the populace without restraint in order to feed their appetites and their privileged cronies. The whole purpose of responsive government is to curb that appetite to the bare minimum. In the Wisconsin case, we have the potential to slide very much backwards along that continuum or to simply say enough.

    Steinglass wrote something this silly in DiA the other week. I couldn’t believe it. If the private sector makes contracts it can’t honor, they go out of business- and they go *into* business understanding that constraint. A government that knows no constraints can promise the moon and then send NASA out to get it for them- all on somebody else’s dime.

    Please don’t muddle this on a site that has Libertarian in the title. It makes me think the last bastion of sanity has finally lost it. . .D

  • Will Roentgen

    The taxpayers were party to the negotiations – their authorized representatives negotiated on their behalf, just as stockholders of a corporation authorize a board and management team to run their corporation on their behalf.

    If a corporation enters into a contract, a change in the executive management of the corporation does not invalidate the contracts that the corporation has committed to, no matter what minority shareholders feel.

  • The unions (and by that I mean union leadership) has publicly stated that they agree to the changes to the current contract, the increases in their pension and health care contributions. What is in disagreement is what items should unions be permitted to collectively bargain and whether or not they should be able to have the state take membership dues out of paychecks.

  • jason_brennan


    I guess I’ll have to admit I didn’t do any heavy lifting for gay rights 40-50 years ago, since I’m only 31 years old. Thanks for your post.

  • I’m not sure I can respond to everything, but here’s a start at it:

    Rosemary W.P.-Thanks; I caught & fixed that, but I guess it was after you read it!

    Bill W.- I may not have been clear enough about this, but I really wanted to stay away from the actual events in Wisconsin to talk about the theoretical issue only. Wisconsin was only a prompt. That said, isn’t the removal of the right to collectively bargain about health care and pension issues the state unilaterally revoking a right the employees had? If it is, why not just make it such that there will be no collective bargaining for these things for new (or, perhaps, untenured profs)? Eventually no one will have the right, but no one will have had the right revoked.
    About your later point

    Isaac M.-First, not all expectations are legitimate. I admit I can’t offer a full explanation of what counts as legitimate, but I would have thought that when A promises B that X will be delivered and then delivers it for years, B has a legitimate expectation. That seems to be the situation in Wisconsin, though I may be wrong about that. Second, as I indicated to Bill W. above, I really wanted to address the theoretical issue. So one way to put this is: IF the WI employees had a legitimate expectation, shouldn’t it be respected? Third, as for the rest of your comments, I think they suggest you would prefer anarchy to a libertarian state. That’s fine, of course. I actually have quite powerful leanings toward anarchism myself. But if we are to remain libertarians, on my view, we have to remain statists (minimal statists to be sure) and this means trust in the state is not a bad thing (part of the problem I hint at toward the end of my post is that we can’t now trust the state). Fourth, if the state promises me SS (by which I mean there is legislation passed saying I will get SS), then yes, I have a legal right to it. Whether I should have been promised SS is a different question. I tend to think I should not have been given that promise. So, I would suggest phasing it out (by at least no longer making the promise to people who have not yet worked—and perhaps by discontinuing the promise to younger workers and even offering older workers alternatives). Fifth, I don’t believe all taxation is theft. Again, in my view to be a libertarian instead of an anarchist (I admit I often straddle the line between the two), is to be committed to the existence of a state. And states must have revenue. I think our governments tax us far too much and spend far too much, but I think the changes have to be done gradually.

    Anon 8:12-I’m not sure you want a response, but here goes: First, libertarians are not conservatives. They may have been in bed with conservatives for political reasons for a long time, but that’s just an unfortunate historical fact. Conservatives want all sorts of laws libertarians reject (anti-drug laws, anti-gay marriage laws, anti-porn laws, etc etc etc). Second, I am not sure why you think libertarians “never lifted a finger when the real fighting was done by the left during the last 40-50-odd years.” I lifted more then a finger, though (of course) only since I have been alive and, perhaps, not as much as I could have (who has?). Third, I assure you, I am far more worried about welfare to the rich then I am about welfare to the poor. So was Adam Smith. Fourth, I have no idea how libertarians (or other advocates of free markets) could have been proven wrong in the last 10 years when the country was so far away from being libertarian (or a free market). Fifth, I don’t deny global warming. Sixth, as for your claim that “Libertarianism is utterly opposed to any kind of social justice or civil society,” please read Jason and Matt’s posts.

    Alejandro- This strikes me as a really good point and if you are right that the contracts were only won coercively, I think that would be the end of the story for me. I am not sure you are right about the empirical facts. Unions have certainly had problems (including elements of racism), so you might be.

    Chairman- That seems right to me!

    Eli- I think I would accept your second explanation about what would make it permissible to unilaterally change the contracts of state employees (see my response to Alejandro above), but not the first. If I promise to give you the Hank Aaron baseball I am holding, then it seems to me I owe you something. If it turns out that I did not own the baseball, I would have wrongfully promised. I don’t think that justifies a claim that I owe you nothing. Perhaps I must pay you some cash amount instead. Similarly, that t he state was wrong in promising X does not mean it can simply decide not to do X or something similar. About why so many people are OK with gov’t unilaterally changing the contract: I think both of your responses have some truth to them, but I’d hope to convince people to give up the second since I do not believe—and don’t want others to believe—that might makes right.

    Michael P.- Interesting point. I think I agree with everything you say, though I can’t commit to the empirical claims (since I don’t have enough evidence).

    Tom P.- I certainly agree that a “mere expectation of a benefit … is a … weak foundation” for an obligation. I was assuming, though, that the expectations were legitimate. As I indicated to Isaac, I don’t know if the case in WI is one of legitimate expectations. The idea that the state employees are looting and plundering, I have to say, strikes me as a bit far-fetched. As for the comparison to agricultural (and other) subsidies, this is a huge question for me since I am opposed to government subsidies to corporations. I’ll have to think more about the analogy since I am inclined to think there are differences. I realize I may be mistaken about this, but importantly, the only differences I need are differences in how the subsidies came about. That is, even if I agree that the state should be out of the education business entirely just as I think it should be out of the agriculture business entirely, there may still be a morally relevant disanalogy if the way the subsidizing activities came about is different in the two cases.

    Pendulum-I think you did very well explaining that. I’m afraid my response won’t satisfy you. I should first note that I tend to believe we should return to a system with that accepts the doctrine of specific performance, so am very skeptical of “’public policy’ exceptions” to the enforceability of contracts. While I would agree that “if Company B fears that Company A may go bankrupt, they may have good reason to agree to the modification” and that if they do, all is well (or well enough), but I would also say that Company B is not obligated to agree to the modification. If Company A goes out of business, that is a consequence that might have to be accepted by all parties. The same holds here: if the employees accept the modification for fear that WI will otherwise go bankrupt, then all is well (or well enough). I think more is coming about that later, but that is all I can do for this evening.

  • Collective bargaining isn’t a right, it’s a power that’s been previously granted by the state government to the government employee unions.

    Collective bargaining is the power to compel employees to allow you to bargain for them while compelling the employer to reach an agreement with you in order to employ anyone.

    It’s completely inconsistent with any sort of libertarian defined justice.

    If _some_ employees choose a union to represent them, then why must all the other potential or actual employees be forced to be represented by that union? If some employees want a union to represent them, why must the employer be forced to negotiate with that union, rather than another union or an individual employee?

    If the state has agreed to a contract with existing employees, it should stick to the terms of that contract.

    That has nothing to do with granting some unions collective bargaining powers for the rest of eternity. An authorized agent of the state never signed something saying “We agree to only collectively bargain with employees forever more!”

    Even if the state put something like that into the state constitution, it doesn’t have the power to bind future voters to prevent them from repealing it, so it’s a promise the state is not authorized by the voters to make.

  • D, is right, using Libertarian in the title of the blog means you already groks basics MUSTS.

    Thomas adds a bit, so does Brian, most everyone else is bonkers.

    Chairman, the REALITY is we’ simply about to force Public Employees to go for salary right upfront, because the promises of deferred compensation are fraught with moral hazard.

    The GENIUS of this of course, is that when you don’t get the raises you want, you will be forced to strike, and we’ll get down to brass tacks on who really gets what.

  • Renvol- Very interesting. I think you are completely correct, as things now stand. I’m not sure, of course, that they should stand that way. The ability to declare bankruptcy is, in my view, quite problematic. (I’m also not sure that the rules should be different for the state, but is likely because of my own anarchist tendencies.) Perhaps bankruptcy rules of some sort are necessary for a working economy, I am not sure. If they are, surely they should be different then the rules we have in place now.

    Annoyed S?Ily- First, its obviously OK, in a large variety of cases, to give people rights. If I sell someone my car, I give them the right to my car (it ceases being mine). They give me the right to their money (it ceases being theirs). But your real point, I take it, is that in the sorts of cases we are here discussing, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place if the government did not give their employees the sorts of things it now wants to take back. I agree with that entirely. I’m not really opposed to collective bargaining—if its truly voluntary on the part of the workers (which, I realize, it sometimes is not). Still, in my ideal world, the government would not be giving people all sorts of things it gives them now. But, here’s the thing I really wanted to get across: the fact that it previously did changes things. Denying that seems like a clear mistake to me. I can’t sell you my car, to return to that example, and then insist you give it back to me.

    Josh-First, As I’ve said, I don’t know the details of the actual case here, but I doubt that the state employees really have “outsized compensation package[s] … relative to private sector employees performing similar work.” Maybe they do, but most professors have far lower salaries then they would have had if they worked in the private sector. They get other non-monetary benefits to be sure, but the pay (with all monetary benefits) is not really that high for most of us. Second, I’m not sure you’re right that “collective bargaining rights are … rights for unions” rather then people. If they are legally, that would be problematic (and likely wrong) in my view. The rights should be individual rights; should those individuals voluntarily work together, I’ll have little problem with it. Where people are members of the union only because they have no option, there is a problem. Its then—and I think only then—that “eliminating forced collective bargaining is better for high achievers, worse for underperformers.”

    Brian M,-Something got messy in the middle of your comment; I take the second half as helpful defense, so thanks for that part. As for the first part: where I agree is with the idea that government was wrong to make the contract in the first place. I’m not sure this is because tax-payers did not support the contracts; I suspect more did then did not. I simply think government should not have the power to make the sorts of contracts we’re here discussing. That said, as I’ve said in response to others above: the fact that the government did make a contract, changes the situation. Saying they shouldn’t have doesn’t help figure out what to do in the situation now (even though its true).

    D-First, I think its unfair to say the government “mugs” people. Let’s say it rips us off. As I indicated in response to isaac, not all taxation is theft. If we want a government, we have to pay for it. I want a government (well, usually). I just want a smaller government, with fewer powers; I think our governments tax and spend too much. Still, I think the changes have to be done gradually. Second, what you give as the reason for representative government is actually the reason we have classical liberalism—and I am, I hope its clear—a big fan. All classical liberals want government to have very significant limits. It must, as you say, “know … [its] constraints” and not “promise the moon.” I’m not sure what you think is muddled.

    Will R.- I suspect you are at least partly right, but I also suspect the taxpayers were misinformed or some such. In any case, I think they should not have elected representatives that were so willing to build big government.

    Patrick- That is my understanding as well.

    Thomas S- Yes, “collective bargaining [is] … a power that’s been previously granted by the state government.” If it’s a power granted “to the government employee unions” rather then the individual employees, I would add that to the long list of government errors. It should, as I indicated to Josh above, only be an individual right. I don’t think it should be “the power to compel employees” in any way. That would be inconsistent with my libertarianism. I am glad to see that you agree with me that “If the state has agreed to a contract with existing employees, it should stick to the terms of that contract.” Since I don’t think unions as some sort of corporate entity should have rights of their own—and don’t see how they could have been promised such (the leaders could have been, but there is no other entity to have received a promise), I have no problem with requiring unions to show—on a regular basis, though for practical reasons, probably not more then every couple of years—that their members are in the union voluntarily before accepting that it is rightfully negotiating for them.

    Morgan-See above.

  • I am a resident of Wisconsin and am taking exception to some of the discussion above.

    Public sector bargaining IS substantively different. It is only there that those with whom a union bargains are often those they have had a major hand in getting elected. In some cities in Wisconsin (most notably the school board in Milwaukee) it is beyond debate that the teachers’ union has sponsored most of the school board members. Further, often those with whom the union bargains realize their political futures depend in large measure on the future support (financially and at the polling places) of union members.

    And…. public employee unions are working for a monopoly with taxing powers, not a competing company whose existence and future success depends on pricing relative to others in its market niche. George Meany, a giant of organized labor realized this, as did FDR who warned against public sector collective bargaining, in much the same way that Ike warned of the military/industrial complex.

    As for the link provided by “chairman”, a blog, I think the following is true (correct me if I am wrong): Wisconsin’s public sector unionists bargain for a fixed formula of retirement wages. They bargain over how much they will contribute out of their total compensation for that formula. These are two separate “deals”. If they bargain for a contribution (from themselves) that turns out NOT to be adequate to fund the retirement income formulae, then taxpayers are on the hook to fund the difference. So, to say that the employees pay all of the costs of their own retirement income (which WOULD be the case if the retirement vehicle were a 401k plan with no employer contribution to supplement it) is not accurate. If the public sector negotiators were real sharpies, and got the union to agree to contributions that were MORE than required to pay out formula benefits down the road, taxpayers “win”. That, of course (for reasons outlined above) does not happen — ever. But theoretically it could. The Teamsters union was pretty good at this, by the way, in some of the pension arrangements they thrust on their members back in the day.

    Finally, to Michel Phillips: Scott Walker is both transparent and “honest” to my way of thinking. He governed Milwaukee County while I lived there, and faced a huge financial mess including corrupt practices by his predecessors. He said what he would do, as specifically as one could, and then he did what he said. Rare in a politician, and for that reason I think Walker is better suited to being a private sector executive than a politician. I expect he will be a one-term governor, maybe even be recalled for doing painful things, and then he will face a decision: (1) run for some other elected or appointed public office, or (2) become a turnaround CEO in the private sector and get rich in the process. Personally, I don’t think he gives a rip about political consequences; he has a job to do (that he would view as a mission) to make Wisconsin (now 42nd in “business-friendly” ranking) attractive as a place to locate businesses and thereby reviving the economy and tax base. The chips will fall where they may. He plays hardball, and that’s why he was elected.

    There IS absolutely a budget crisis in the state. Unless you consider a $3.6 (might be a little more or less) projected deficit in the coming FY (July) a “non-crisis”. If you read about a small shortfall (or even “surplus” as Rachel Maddow mistakenly referenced) in the current FY, that’s like saying your checking account looks OK at the moment without regard to obligations that are looming and mostly unavoidable.

    The point of removing benefits (not direct pay, by the way) from future bargaining is this: Future politicians are not likely to be so different from current politicians, and benefits is the arena in which they can finagle in a way that makes it look as if the books are balanced when it is almost certain they are not because of all the uncontrollable factors (and some that are controllable but subject to manipulation) that are inevitably present. The “manipulation” part has to do with how the rules are reestablished over time in terms of some of the variables that count for an individuals pension calculation. For a textbook example of how this is done, take a look at the pension scandals in Milwaukee county just prior to Walker taking over. A rules change, for example, enabled one guy to get a lump sum (and newly created) “drop back” payout of $937,000 on top of his $70,000+ annual payout for life.

  • D

    #Andrew Jason Cohen

    I didn’t say the government mugs people. I also don’t own a grocery store. I was using an analogy, but I think it is an illustrative one. I don’t believe all taxation is theft, but if the government wants money from you, there is very little you can do about it. The process is drawn out, and there are numerous intermediaries between my dime and the public sector’s pensions, but the important point is that if the government wants money and they don’t have it, then *I* have to pay. In the private sector, if a business wants money and they don’t have it, *they* have to pay- or at least those who freely chose to participate in the agreement have to pay. This is what I believe is “muddled” in this – and many other – posts that are too blurry in their distinction between public and private sector unions. (And I continue to be baffled as to why this is so hard for people – Libertarian people in particular – to grasp.)

    This distinction becomes a problem because there are fewer and fewer limits to what government employees can ask for, since those who employ government employees (who are themselves government employees) can always extract more money from the populace. But in fact they don’t actually extract the money themselves- they use *other* government employees to extract the money from the populace, and so the taxpayer is increasingly removed from any say as to how and why his own money is taken.

    In terms of the politics, I don’t think it is too harsh to say that the threat of loss of services is akin to blackmail of the public: “Pay up or you lose your cops, firefighters, and teachers. . .and we don’t really want that, do we?” To the extent to which these are essential services, taxpayers largely feel they have no choice but to pony up and cave to whatever demands – reasonable and unreasonable – are made by government employees.

    *None* of this is true for the private sector, because if one grocery store spends profligately on its employees and charges exorbitant fees for their merchandise to cover the spending, consumers have a choice to take their business elsewhere. Not so much with the cops, though the gun “crazies” seem more willing than most of us to look after their own defense, and thus break this particular plank of government monopoly. (Same for homeschoolers and teachers)

    And that’s the key word: monopoly. To the extent that the gov’t (or anyone else) has a monopoly on a product/service, you can guarantee the price for said product/service will favor the supplier. And to muddle monopolies with competition. . .well as you say, their distinction is the cornerstone of classical liberalism.

    At any rate, thanks for taking the time to respond. I hope this clarifies things a little bit. At worst, it simply repeats something that bears repeating over and over again – like a jackhammer on the concrete collective cranium. . .D

  • jorod

    Can a Presidential Executive Order create a “right”? In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10988, establishing the right of federal workers to engage in collective bargaining. The taxpayers have been cursed ever since.

  • D: I agree with your point totally. The thing is: it is not just about the money, it is (and maybe even moreso) the flexibility in terms of staffing, assignments, the establishing of performance expectations and the accountability for them, the ability to revise job roles, the freedom to release people who should be doing other work and replace them with more capable jobholders, and so on — the things organizations do “on the fly” to make themselves more efficient and effective.

    We don’t see much of that in the public sector, do we?

    As for the Kennedy Executive Order, and other enabling legislation, that doesn’t (in my opinion) establish a permanent “right”. It creates a process and enables a relationship to exist in a certain way. That can be revisited when it doesn’t work. The Constitution establishes rights that can be considered permanent or inalienable.

  • D-You did imply the government mugs people, but I am glad to hear you didn’t mean to. As for the rest of what you say in your newest comment: I think we are in agreement about most of it. I don’t think what I said was muddled in the way you are indicating, but it may be that I wasn’t as clear in my own thinking about the differences between public and private sector unions as I should have been. Indeed, I have appreciated many of the comments about that here (including yours–particularly in this post which did help). Still, I was aware that how unions bargain in the public sector is different from how they bargain in the private sector and I do think the differences are problematic.

    Jorod-You answered your own question, so long as you stick the word “legal” inside the quotation marks with “right.”

    Terry-About your first point, I agree. About your second point, given my response to Jorod, I don’t. I’m not even sure, to be honest, what it would mean to say it created a process that enables a relationship (I’d think the relationship already existed, though perhaps it changed). This may be my ignorance; can you explain that further?

  • I have a problem with unions in conjunction with government. Unions should protect employees from greedy corporations. However, in this instance, unions are protecting employees from the public. In many states they have established some prime rules and expectations, that have benefited them, but tied the hands of state officials who seek to benefit all of their state citizens. For example, seniority/tenure rules keeps leaders from firing poor teachers with tenure, so they end up firing the young ones (with new skills and abilities) regardless of their ability to teach. Our schools have fallen far behind in the world on math, science, etc. And much of the problem occurs because of collective bargaining. Teachers have no choice on whether to belong to the union or not, and then once they have gained tenure do not wish to lose it, so they end up supporting the union in the long run.
    Shall we allow monopolistic unions make these decisions for government? Shall we end up seeing ourselves become like Greece, simply because too many people want an additional form of dole?
    This has nothing to do with freedom, and everything to do with entitlements. I think we need to remember that an entitlement is not a right nor a freedom.

  • Gerald S.-If a union is not voluntary, I oppose it. If X was promised, I believe X should be delivered.

  • Josh

    Indeed Andrew, thanks for taking the time to respond! I’m sure you’ve moved on from this post by now, but if not, your response to me indicated that you are missing two critical pieces of information.

    First, that collective bargaining ‘rights’ actually are as Thomas and I described them. If you are going to continue to write about this topic, you MUST (respectfully) familiarize yourself with this subject. No employer can take away your right to negotiate for pay or have someone represent you, or to join with others to do the same. Only the law can do that, and it does it only through the encodification of collective bargaining. Collective bargaining is about preventing you from seeking representation other than the union’s.

    Second, that public employees do make substantially more than comparable workers. There was a document floating around being used by some of the pro-union protestors that purported to state public employees make 5% less than private sector comparables in Wisconsin. If you actually read the paper, you see that it actually estimates they make 30% more. That’s just Wisconsin. Take New York – I wonder if you recall the transit strike of a few years back, when we discovered that the average subway employee makes as much as the average pediatrician. It does not hold true across all divisions and I personally think teaching is an entirely separate subject. But it is true in general.

  • Josh-Thanks for that! If I ever write more seriously about the collective bargaining as it actually happens, I will definitely have to learn more about it. If you happen to see that document you mention again, I'd love to look at it! I do recall the strike in NY, but not many of the details; my recollection is that there were some workers–not the average worker–making an inordinate amount of money (through faked overtime or some such?).

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