Big Labor and Libertarianism
I think the real obstacle to a libertarian-left alliance is the labor movement. In the UK that movement has its own party. Here, the Democrats are the nominal representatives of labor. I think for libertarians this will be a major hurdle. I see a Cameron-like Republican party emerging before I see a real reformation of public worker unions.
As I explained in the comments to Erik’s post, I think he’s largely missing what I’m trying to get at with my support for liberaltarianism, which I view as less about electoral coalition building than it is about “asking the question of where libertarianism has gone wrong, reevaluating what libertarianism’s priorities ought to be, what battles are worth fighting, and how those battles ought to be fought.” Indeed, my ideal is not that libertarians be affiliated with the Left or the Right for electoral purposes but rather that libertarians be perennial swing voters generally affiliated with neither side even as we may work on single issues with either side where we find ourselves in agreement.
However, I want to discuss the above quote in a bit more detail, because I’m not sure it holds up to scrutiny, even though it may seem facially self-evident.
To the extent libertarianism is a political philosophy that is primarily concerned with anti-Marxism and “hippy-punching,” rather than being primarily concerned with limited government, I can’t dispute that Erik is absolutely right. Indeed, if that is libertarianism’s primary concern, then it could never cooperate with labor on any issue, almost by definition. But if that is libertarianism’s primary concern, then it is a philosophy with which I want nothing to do: anti-Marxism and limited government are two very different things.
But if libertarianism is actually about limited government and the maximization of individual liberty, then there is little reason that unions should be viewed as inherently so anathema to libertarianism that their mere presence in a coalition is an automatic dealbreaker.
We have to distinguish here between public sector and private sector unions, although I recognize that Erik was emphasizing the influence of public sector unions.
This distinction is particularly important because, when I have spoken with a run of the mill liberal about labor unions, the primary concern is just about always with the decline of the private sector unions; the public sector unions are, for the most part, an afterthought. And, as I have documented before, there are no shortage of government interventions and distortions that have harmed American private sector unions over the years, the repeal of which libertarians ought to be willing to get behind. For instance:
[T]here is a false assumption that labor unions exist virtually entirely because of government intervention and that they are therefore inherently coercive. This assumption does not, however, line up with the facts, which show private sector labor union membership at its lowest level since 1900, and at half of its level from 1935, when the first major pro-union legislation (the NLRA) was passed (and before the massive economic interventionism of FDR). Yes, private sector union membership was at almost 40% by the time Congress realized that the NLRA was too restrictive and passed the Taft-Hartley Act. But the Taft-Hartley Act was itself a government intervention, and the resulting decline in private sector union membership to 1900 levels strongly suggests that Taft Hartley is even more restrictive of unions than a complete absence of federal labor laws.
So there is nothing inherently anti-limited government about private-sector unionism. Lest we forget, unions are ultimately voluntary associations who rely upon the negotiation of private, voluntary contracts with employers. Yes, in practice, there is government-mandated binding arbitration, the NLRB, etc. But favorable regulations, subsidies, and laws haven’t prevented libertarians from collaborating with other private organizations on other issues, and certainly not from finding ourselves under the same political tent. Indeed, are there any private organizations more anathema to libertarianism than the defense industry? Yet the influence of the defense industry over the GOP and the Right more generally has hardly been a stumbling block over the years for libertarians in closing working within a conservative infrastructure.
As for the specific influence of the public sector unions over the Left as a whole, I would argue that influence is greatly exagerrated. For starters, on the state and local level, the public safety unions tend to be almost as likely to align with Republicans as with Democrats, and there are more than a few issues where even on the national level the public safety unions are likely to find the Republicans as or more willing to listen to them as the Democrats. Indeed, it is not unusual to find movement liberals/progressives on the diametrically opposite side of an issue as the police or prison guards’ unions – and specifically on issues where the movement liberals/progressives are firmly on the side of limited government.
Yes, there are still the teachers’ unions and AFSCME. They are certainly problematic to the extent they continue – with the support of many liberals – to push for the expansion of their sectors of government in addition to their more standard pushes for higher wages and pension plans, etc. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of a single issue of concern to them where they are either diametrically opposed to movement liberals or would take the libertarian side of an issue.
But these are two interest groups with plenty of individual members, each of whom likely has concerns that go far beyond the issues of interest to their unions. There’s no real reason that those two groups should be an absolute bar to a left-libertarian coalition any more than the influence of the defense industry and the Christian Coalition ought to be an absolute bar to a right-libertarian coalition. There is even less reason that AFSCME and the teachers’ unions ought to be a bar to libertarians becoming political free agents, capable of closely coordinating with either the Left or Right on specific isses.