A Basic Conflict
I’m a compatibilist by instinct. I don’t often see conflicts between fundamental rights. Maybe it’s because such conflicts are actually rare. Or it could just be a personal bias. But I tend to see rights as mutually coherent, and I see coherence as one mark of a more-likely account of rights.
Still, I do see a conflict between fundamental rights on the question of public-sector unions. As a result, I don’t have a lot to say about the issue.
Government workers have a fundamental right to associate. Which means they may form unions. Yet this right conflicts fairly strongly with the taxpayers’ right to see that their money is distributed appropriately. My former colleague Will Wilkinson makes the best case against public-sector unions that I’ve seen so far:
In any productive joint enterprise, there’s a question of how to split the gains from cooperation. Our native sense of fairness tells us that our shares should be roughly proportional to the value of our contributions. But distributive fairness doesn’t automatically prevail. What we actually get—whether we get a fair share or get used—depends on our bargaining power. Individual workers with few options hardly stand a chance against managers backed by massive capital. Workers are most likely to get a cut that reflects the value of their contributions when they band together and bargain collectively. “To each according to his or her individual bargaining power” is hardly a compelling principle of distributive justice, which is why institutions that equalise bargaining power, such as private-sector labor unions, make moral sense.
The thing is, public-sector unions don’t work like this. They aren’t bargaining against capitalists for a fair cut of the cooperative surplus. They’re bargaining against everybody who pays taxes and/or benefits from government spending. The question of distribution in democratic politics isn’t about splitting up jointly-produced profits. It’s about interest groups fighting to grab a bigger share of government revenue while sticking competing groups with the tax bill.
At the very least, claims made by public-sector unions have to be defended on a very different theory of fairness than those made by private-sector unions. That theory can’t be “stand up for the little guy,” because the little guy in this case would be the individual taxpayer who doesn’t already have a relatively cushy public-sector job. And the maxim “side with narrower interests against the general good” just defeats itself right out of the box. If you can come up with a better principle, I’d be happy to hear from you. Really, I would.
When corporations organize to squeeze extra cash from the state, the left screams bloody murder, and it’s a good thing they do. Yet when public sector employees commit the very same foul, the left rallies in support. It suggests that what the left really hates about corporate rent-seeking isn’t rent-seeking, but corporations. Rent-seeking is just fine when our team does it.
Still, what does the right to associate mean, if does not include some form of collective bargaining? Can we rightfully deny it? I don’t see a way out here. I really don’t. I see a basic conflict that I can’t easily resolve.