Julian Sanchez, a libertarian, recently wrote a smart post about “weak manning,” a fallacious kind of reasoning where one responds only to the weakest argument of one’s opponent. There’s a worse fallacy, I think.
Consider this post from Matt Welch, approvingly linked to by Conor Friedersdorf. In it Welch ascribes the lions share of California’s fiduciary crisis to (can you guess?)… the unions! Meanwhile, he does nothing to acknowledge why unions exist and why people join them: because unions help workers to improve the material quality of their lives. You could be excused, reading economic conservatives’ attitudes about unions, for thinking that unions must be a product of some malevolent intelligence bent on destroying our society. In our discourse about unions we are not allowed to point out that unions exist because they are a net positive influence on the lives of those within them, or that improving the financial security and material well-being of the people within society is one of the basic functions of government. We are instead expected only to constantly harp on the horrible greed of Detroit autoworkers or California teachers, who have the temerity to want to maximize their wages, to gain job security through their labor and to collectively bargain with their peers in order to do so. Whether or not on net those positive public goods outweigh the negative economic effects of union is a matter of argument. But to ignore those things entirely is not to have an argument at all. That’s where we stand in our discussion of unions, though, with only the bad effects at issue and the positive effects dismissed as sops to special interest groups. This is not weak manning. It’s no-manning, thwacking away at an antagonist idea without even a shred of a notion that it is necessary or helpful to consider why people support unions in the first place.
Look, libertarians and I are not going to agree on either the economics of unions nor whether unions are a legitimate method for improving the lives of workers. Libertarian opinion on unions has become so blisteringly and relentlessly negative that it seems to me that anti-union sentiment is now more powerful within libertarianism than anti-government sentiment. (As I’ve said for some time, these are contrary impulses, but I digress.) We are moving towards a rhetorical space where unions have become so vilified that conservatives can’t talk about them at all. Whatever personal opinions we have about unions, though, I’d like to think that we all agree that criticizing something has to take into account the arguments for that something in the first place. Those arguments cannot be made without acknowledging the positive impact on union members lives that the unions make, and the widespread loss in quality of life that crushing the unions would represent. To try to remove them is to beg the question, and ensures that the dialogue will be as unproductive as, well, a dialogue about health care reform where we aren’t allowed to talk about the millions of people suffering for lack of adequate coverage.
Welch and Friedersdorf are comfortably entrenched in the world of elite media. That’s not a knock on them, and I’m sure they both deserve it. Nor is it precisely an argument against their position. Whether or not unions are a net good for society that we should defend can’t ultimately have anything to do with how critics of unions live. But I wish on an emotional level that people like Welch and Friedersdorf would take care to think a little bit more about what exactly they are advocating, to acknowledge that real people will face real hardship without unions, and to stop talking like every union member is some nefarious villain. It doesn’t look good, and it exacerbates the problem of ignoring the positives of unions. Incidentally, neither Welch nor Friedersdorf, as I understand it, are engaged in enterprises that actually have to maintain much profitability. Reason magazine is a product of the Reason Foundation, a non-profit organization that relies on government largesse in the form of non-profit tax-exemptions to exist. Friedersdorf, meanwhile, writes for the Atlantic, a magazine that, if Mickey Kaus is to be believed, continues to publish (fantastic) free opinion and commentary because of the generosity of David Bradley. I wonder if it’s easier to be cutting about fiscal responsibility when you don’t actually have to worry about it yourself.
In any event, it won’t be Friedersdorf or Welch coming home to tell wives and children that the money is going to suddenly get a lot more tight, or that the health insurance is gone. That’s not an argument, at the end of the day, and I don’t mean to suggest that the two of them are disqualified by their positions in media. But we increasingly have a conservative intelligentsia that undercuts the ability of workers to improve their financial and employment situations from afar without offering meaningful alternatives. What, absent unionism, would Welch or Friedersdorf suggest public sector employees do to improve their lives? Or do they just have to take it, to live with less? And would Welch or Friedersdorf cotton to people telling them the same?
Hey, the two of them might be right about the pernicious effects of unions. The hardship that removing public sector unions would represent might be outweighed by the economic advantages of crushing the unions. It would be great, though, if such arguments came in the moral context of acknowledging that there will be a human cost to such action, and the logical context of admitting to the other sides of an argument. And we can’t begin to have this conversation when people like Welch write hundreds of words about the horrid evil of public sector unions (and, strangely, “elite media”– because, apparently, Reason is put together by a bunch of amateurs in somebody’s basement) without once acknowledging that there may be a reason people want to be in unions in the first place.