Most commentary on Tuesday’s recall vote in Wisconsin has focused on the raw politics of the episode. This is what our media thrives on: who’s up, who’s down, and what it all means looking toward November. Some commentary, thankfully, has delved deeper into the meaning of the entire skein of events over the past nine months, ever since Governor Scott Walker tried to get a handle on his state’s financial circumstances by trimming the sails of the state’s public service unions. Of that more sophisticated commentary, none has been better, I think, that my colleague Walter Russell Mead’s analysis here at The American Interest Online. If Walter exaggerated the role of the public employee unions within the Democratic Party, it was only by mild degree. Otherwise, his analysis is spot on.I would like now to take the commentary a bit deeper still, into what some might even consider esoteric zones: namely, what recent events tell us about how far we have strayed from both democratic theory and traditional practice in this most democratic of lands. I want to talk first about the basis for unions in democratic theory, second about the denaturing of democratic leadership, and third about the essence of democratic representation.Much recent commentary has lumped together all unions as though trade unions and public service/employee unions are essentially the same. They most certainly are not the same. The trade union movement, whose history is long and copiously recorded and studied, arose during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a response to exploitation and abuse by then virtually unregulated corporate interests. As the average size of economic units rose, driven by the exigencies of technology, workers gradually recognized that to garner a fair share of the value of their labor, they would have to organize themselves into a collective bargaining voice. Any given laborer could make a case to an employer if he was one of five or ten or fifty, and he would know that his special skills would be appreciated in that conversation. But where a given laborer was one of 1,000 or of 5,000 or more, he would not stand a chance against bosses so rich and powerful that they essentially held all the bargaining cards.From the perspective of democratic theory, collective bargaining in the private marketplace made and still makes perfect sense. If back in 1886 the Supreme Court ruled in Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific that corporations were for all practical purposes “virtual individuals”, meaning that they could join together to mutual benefit to pursue their economic interests, then it stood to reason that labor’s right of collective bargaining also had to be legitimate. One kind of virtual individual logically begs the other. It took some time for this principle to be validated in practice, but again, in terms of democratic theory the case was airtight.The only alternative to labor’s right to collective bargaining would be to have the state itself directly regulate, if not itself own, corporate operations. But neither corporatist nor communist formulas had a chance within the basic ethos of American democracy. If the state did not regulate corporate practices as regards fairness to labor and oligopoly and so forth, and if labor’s right to collective bargaining were not recognized, then the specter of anti-capitalist violence and revolution loomed. This is why even such devout non-socialists as Otto von Bismarck supported both the trade union movement and the birth of the International Labor Organization—a seemingly counterintuitive fact that actually makes perfect sense if you stop to think about it (or actually study the history of the early trade union movement).Now consider public service or public employee unions in this light. Those who labor for private corporations require some capacity for balance and redress against their employers because no other avenue of accountability and fairness is obviously available to them. But public service employees work for government, and democratic government is accountable to the electorate. So if public employees believe they are not being treated fairly, institutionalized avenues of redress are available to them: As citizens, they can campaign and vote to oust politicians who do not appreciate them properly, and elect ones who do. Government workers can compose a political constituency just like any other group, and in many democratic countries they clearly do. According to democratic theory, therefore, there is no justification for any public employee union, which adds a vehicle for political influence on top of those that already exist.The origins of public employee unions are complex, and I do not propose to go into the history or the legal basis for them here. Suffice it to say that in the beginning, it never occurred to those negotiating over this question that public servants would have the right to strike. Obviously, some public servants are more essential to community safety than others; policemen and firemen come readily to mind. Air traffic controllers rather obviously fall into the same category. In my view, public school teachers are not far removed as essential workers, because they really are essential professionals and deserve to be treated as such. But since they have formal democratic channels for accountability and redress, they should not have a right to collective bargaining or a right to strike. If they don’t like the deal defined that way, no one is forcing them to take a job as a public school teacher.Not too many people know this, but Calvin Coolidge made his national mark originally by opposing and shutting down a 1919 strike of Boston policeman when he was Governor of Massachusetts. It turns out to be quite interesting to go back and read what Governor Coolidge had to say at the time about the special role of government workers. Back in those days the size of municipal and state government bureaucracies was tiny compared to what it is today, but the basic principle is the same: public employees are public servants, and the good of the community must trump any parochial interest. The assumption used to be that to be a public servant was an honor, and that public servants took it upon themselves to place the public good before and above their own. The idea that government bureaucrats might form a very sizable and self-interested constituency so powerful as to behave in ways clearly inimical to the public interest simply never occurred to anybody back at the creation of public employee unions.As Walter Russell Mead explains, public-service unions in recent decades have used their power in highly retrograde and self-interested ways. They care about themselves above those they are pledged to serve, and they have proved stalwart against all efforts at institutional reform if those efforts even remotely threaten their job status or description. But public service employees, and those on the left in general, hold no monopoly over selfishness. When Grover Norquist rants about no new taxes anywhere, ever, the deep, dark but still obvious secret here is that he and the vast majority of Republicans who support his thinking are appealing to selfishness. It’s true, yes, government can be bloated, ineffective and invasive all at the same time, but the argument that starving the monster of revenue will shrink it has turned out to be quite false. The real reason for taking this point of view, again, is simply its powerful appeal to selfishness: The average guy wants to keep more of his paycheck, doesn’t readily recognize the services that his taxes pay for as having much of anything to do with him, and so will vote for anyone who promises to let him keep more of his earnings.Now, whereas taming the incredible revenue-sucking appetites of public employee unions is clearly necessary to balance the books of thousands of municipal, county and state governments in the United States, the economic role of real trade unions is completely different. Public employee unions are filled with people whose only economic role is to be a transactional cost—whether a necessary and efficient such cost or not is a separate matter. Trade union members, on the other hand, actually make things via skilled value-added processes that people want to buy. And that is why the decline of trade unions, which has been precipitous and deeply damaging, has a totally different economic impact. Some studies estimate that as much as 20 percent of the wage inequality between the middle class and the very rich today is the result of the deterioration of trade union power. One way to rectify aspects of income inequality—though admittedly the entire subject of inequality is significantly misunderstood—would be to strengthen the bargaining power of trade unions.This won’t be easy. We all know most of the reasons for the decline of trade unions. First and foremost is globalization, wherein corporations have been able far more easily to flee from high labor cost areas, thus undercutting the bargaining power of labor. Second, the big American unions abused both their power and their memberships for many years, so they have a serious reputational problem to overcome. And third, there has been an a historic reversal in which the average size of economic units has begun to fall, and in which automation as much as outsourcing threatens the kinds of skilled jobs that used to represent bargaining leverage. As the capital intensity of value-added manufacturing processes grows, labor’s claim to have value in those processes is less persuasive. Clearly, for unions to thrive they are going to have to regionalize if not internationalize, just as trade and manufacturing patterns have done. They need to turn the proverbial race to the bottom into a race to dignity for labor and laborers across national borders. It is for that reason that the sharp decline in the international activities of the AFL-CIO in the post-Lane Kirkland era is so very much to be lamented.In a democratic polity, one way to describe the eternal challenge of leadership is that it must temper the natural proclivity toward selfishness, whether it comes from public service unions or the average Joe who is persuaded that the government is the problem. As things stand today here in the United States, that challenge amounts to reestablishing the priority of public service over the parochial concerns of government employees while at the same time reestablishing the legitimacy of fair taxation. Both have taken a real beating in recent decades, and here, too, the prospects for turning things around are not good. But even more alarming, elected leaders themselves seem to have forgotten what they got elected to do. Let a story about my own local government make the point.Montgomery County, Maryland, like many municipal authorities, has a very narrow revenue base—in this case, taxes on real estate transactions. When the residential housing market screeched to a near halt in 2008, the county’s budget got bashed. Rather than look for new ways to raise money (like privatizing the absurd alcohol control scheme the county runs), and rather than rethink the structure of its revenue stream, the politicians looked instead for ways to cut the budget.One of the things they wanted to cut was support for public transportation. Without going into details, it should be obvious that this was a particularly stupid approach to the problem. Public transportation saves energy, supports residential real estate prices, helps business, reduces congestion and road repair requirements, and more. It is clearly in the general benefit of the community as a whole. But just like members of public service unions whose parochial interests outweigh those of the public weal, we in Montgomery County have a municipal government that thinks of itself as just another interest group. They pay lip service to democratic accountability and the public good, but in day-to-day life the truth is that it has looked at its budget situation as any private business might do so. They show no concern for or any analysis of the affect of their decisions on the well-being of the community they were elected to serve. They are interested in the county’s solvency (when they are not pandering to developers and other special interests who helped elect them), and they have insulated themselves from the broader social impact of their behavior. When this criticism was voiced at public hearings, the County Executive and his aides literally could not understand what was being said, so far from their consciousness was any sense of their really being public servants. So it’s not just public service union members who have gone parochial; their bosses have gone way narrow, too.As Walter’s analysis mentioned, money from all over the country poured into Wisconsin to support the left’s recall effort. The fact that it failed to turn the trick is not as interesting from the perspective of democratic theory as the fact that it happened at all. Let’s get back to basics here for a moment.In a representative democracy, a bond of responsibility ties citizens to those they elect to represent them. At the state level—in this case Wisconsin—only those who are citizens of the state have a right to vote for Governor, and the Governor in turn acquires an obligation upon election to take into consideration the interests of his constituents over all other concerns. The same goes for congressional districts. Only those who live in a given district are entitled to vote for their Representative in Washington, and that Representative is obliged not only for practical reasons but also for political-contractual ones to take the interests of his constituents to heart above all other concerns.Of course, sometimes the interests of constituents are diverse and conflicting, and of course democratic theory expects that sometimes leaders will have to make decisions that take into account factors beyond the strictly local level. So being a representative in a federal democracy also entails being made responsible for negotiating on behalf of the interests of constituents when matters get complicated. If enough people don’t like the way negotiations went forward, they can always replace the representative at the next election. The basic point remains, however, that from the view of democratic theory, elections make sense in the context of a binding contract between citizens and those they elect.Since that is the case, on what basis does it make logical sense in a representative democratic system to allow influence in the form of money to enter a given state or a given congressional district from outside that state or district? I cannot think of any such basis. In the context of a political campaign, the right to free speech and the right to assemble and the right to petition for redress—and all that goes with these rights—clearly applies to those within the framework of the contract between electorate and those standing for election. But it hardly follows that these rights apply equally or at all to those standing outside that contractual relationship.Of course, money is fungible. We all know that there is no practical way to prevent outside money from torquing election results in given localities. But from the point of view of democratic theory, such interventions violate the principle of democratic representation and should not be permitted.This observation is to me obvious and unassailable. Yet no one ever talks about it. Indeed, we have become so used to the dilution and distortion of democratic processes in this country that this simple observation will probably strike most people as surprising, as something that has never before occurred to them. What a deal that is.Some commentators predict that the election results in Wisconsin amount to open season on all public employee unions. That remains to be seen. What troubles me is that, whatever the future brings as a result of Governor Walker’s victory, most people will not stop to think long enough to understand the basic difference between a real trade union and a public employees’ union. If the struggling trade union movement ends up being harmed by this episode, that would be both maddening and tragic. If the Democratic Party knew what was good for the country, actually also for itself, it would be at the forefront making this distinction. But it isn’t, and it won’t. It would make sense, then, for Republicans to recognize the country’s interest, and also their own interest politically, in supporting the revival of trade union movements in the interest of the creation and stabilization of good jobs for Americans. But they don’t, and they probably won’t. (It’s quite possible that Governor Romney once said nice things about trade unions up in Massachusetts, but I doubt he wants anyone to remember that now.)Finally, to my knowledge, there’s so far been not a word said or written (outside of this note) about the democratic integrity of electoral districts and the assault being waged against proper democratic processes by outsiders. If we don’t like the idea of foreign money influencing our Federal elections—and we sure as hell don’t—then why do we tolerate outside money influencing our state and congressional elections? I long for the day when a politician of national standing so much as utters a thought on this topic. I have a feeling I’ll be waiting a very long time.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: June 8, 2012The Wisconsin Recall: Some Notes on Democratic Theory