Monday, February 28, 2011

The Government Union Bind

Pity a poor government union leader. The glory days are over.

It was all such fun when government employees were underpaid and underappreciated. But over the last generation union leaders in partnership with their Democratic friends have made government employee unions into the big power player in state and local politics.

Kevin Williamson writes about the power of the government employee unions in chilling detail.

Public-sector unions are enormously important political players, including in those states where their collective-bargaining rights are limited or nonexistent...

Many union critics in the past few days have referenced Stanford professor Terry M. Moe’s fascinating paper “Political Control and the Power of the Agent,” published by the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization in 2005, citing a single extraordinary fact: In the elections Professor Moe studied, union support was as valuable as incumbency in determining winners.

Now begins the long recessional. The reason is pretty simple, according to Nicholas Wade in The Faith Instinct. He is discussing the egalitarian social structure of hunter-gatherer bands.

Men like power and will seize it if they can. But if they can't rule, their next preference is that no one rule over them.

Fairly short and sweet, and it explains a lot. It helps us understand why people are indulgent towards people perceived as victims, but they combine against people that are perceived as having power to rule over them.

That is why, in this age of enormous government power, practical politicians and activists make such a big deal about how their clients are helpless victims. They are like the foxes in the henhouse insisting that there's nobody here but us chickens.

The problem with the government employee demonstrations that started in Wisconsin is that they are communicating to the American people that government employees are not helpless victims. They are communicating that they are, in fact, powerful, the rank-and-file of a very powerful political faction. In fact, as Professor Moe details, they are so powerful that their power is as significant a factor in election results as the power of incumbency.

For years and years the American people have not really understood the power of the public-sector unions. But now they are getting a lesson in the power of unions. And, according to opinion poll results, they don't like it. They want to see government-employee union power reduced.

The practical thing for the government employee unions to do would be to step back into the woodwork and negotiate some give-backs. But of course that is not how the world works. The rank and file demand that their leaders act as leaders and fight back against the give backs. Strategically that is the worst thing to do because it dramatizes the power of government employee unions in a way that is likely to unite the American people against the unions. But there's nothing the leaders can do. Their members demand to keep all their benefits. The leaders must fight. They must lead their members into a battle they they know will end in a horrible defeat. Why defeat? Because people hate the powerful and instinctively combine against them.

It all fits into my theory of politics, that the trouble with government Anything is that you can't fix that Anything until it is broken. For years we knew that Fannie and Freddie were a problem, but we could never do anything about reform until they practically wrecked the world economy. For years we conservatives have been railing about the power of government employee unions to no avail. But now that the pay and pensions of government employees are threatening to wreck the finances of state and local governments, now people are paying attention.

Which leads to my basic question. Never mind the power of the unions, or the economic damages of debt and taxes. Why would anyone in their right mind surrender their child for a 12-year term in a government child custodial facility with no possibility of parole or early release? Why would anyone in their right mind give the government custody of their retirement money? Why would anyone trust the government to do the right thing by granny in 2030 when the budget is a bigger mess than it is today?

You tell me.

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