One of the divides in current political discourse that is the most meaningful for me, and one of the most important for the future of the American left-wing, is whether American liberals should favor a labor-based vision or a government redistribution-based vision. These are of course not mutually exclusive. I believe in the existence of a social safety net, and it’s precisely those who can’t get work who need it the most. Similarly, those who favor an aggressively redistributive social policy generally believe in the right to unionize, albeit in a way that tends to be more theoretical than anything else. But all of us are looking at the same elementary issues: attempting to recapture some of the massive amounts of capital that have flowed away from the lower classes towards those at the very top for several decades. (Some call this class warfare. I call it performing CPR on the American dream.) The question is, are we are going to have a vast social welfare state that provides essential needs to more and more Americans as more and more jobs are lost to outsourcing and creative destruction, and in doing so denies people self-determination and the dignity of work? Or are we going to try to keep as many people out of the social safety net as possible by rebuilding the domestic labor market and protecting the ability of working people to collectively bargain in order to capture a larger share of profits from those at the top? Make no mistake: nothing resembling the conventional picture of American prosperity is possible unless we start balancing out material resources again. You cannot have the kind of society that we say we want when such a ludicrous amount of money, as detailed in those charts, resides in the hands of so few.
The liberal vision of the future as expressed by progressives or market liberals (or whatever other term of art) is based on government redistribution through social programs. This position is perhaps most consistently expressed by Matt Yglesias, but there are many converts. It is based on the assumption that the globalization/neoliberal model we have embraced to the detriment of American labor for 30 years will persist. It further concedes that in this context, the American unskilled labor market is going to suffer in perpetuity. To combat the necessary degradation of the lives of those at the bottom, believers in this kind of liberalism– which I have referred to as “globalize-grow-give” liberalism and which the indispensable Mike Konczal has called “pity charity” liberalism– support a robust safety net that captures wealth from those at the top with high taxes and distributes it to those at the bottom with social programs providing health care, food stamps, subsidized housing, and the like. To the credit of the proponents of this vision of liberalism’s future, in their ideal theory, those at the bottom have their needs met; whether we are comfortable with making vast swaths of our people essentially wards of the state is a separate question. I can’t and wouldn’t doubt the sincerity of these appeals to the condition of the worst off. Indeed, the typical appeal to the well-being of those in the Third World, who gain jobs in factories and higher growth, is a measure of the sincere and well-taken sympathy of those who make these arguments. (That the growth in those Third World countries comes at the expense of workers exposed to horrifically poor work conditions– dirty, dangerous, long hours for low pay, under the constant threat of economic or sexual exploitation of bosses– usually goes unsaid.)
There are some pretty glaring reasons to distrust this vision of the left’s future. Believers in this kind of government charity liberalism are typically far too confident in their ability to win these concessions from Congress and state legislatures in the first place. We just had to trade desperately needed and temporary unemployment benefit extensions with an extension of massive and fiscally suicidal top-bracket tax cuts. (But, you know, it’s the left that commits class warfare. Or something.) An absolutely essential plank of any reputable social safety net, a system of universal health care, was only recently passed by the slimmest of margins after massive controversy and under unusually favorable conditions. That system is rife with compromise and filled with cracks, and oh by the way, it might not survive the year thanks to legal assaults. This is the reality under which working people are asked to labor: under the constant threat of governmental takeovers by libertarians and conservatives who will do anything to undercut the programs that support the working class, and in a cyclical political system that ensures that such a takeover will eventually take place. No one wants to live that way. This is one of the essential problems with paternalism: it requires the ability to trust in the paternal figure. Recent history gives us every reason not to trust our ability to maintain even the existing social welfare state. Wealth redistribution by government might provide for the people in the lower socioeconomic classes under ideal conditions, but it will never resolve the power imbalance, which is why I continue to insist not on enriched workers but on workers who are empowered to provide for their own enrichment.
And I think I can identify an interested party who, theoretically, could help to restore labor power, American unions, and the counterbalancing effects of collective bargaining and worker strikes and protests: libertarians.
If you take libertarianism to simply be the mouthpiece of the ruling class (and as I’ll explain, you can be forgive for thinking this), then there is no reason to think that libertarianism could be an ally of a renewed American labor movement. But there are two theoretical reasons that could compel such an alliance: the principled support of elementary rights, and the practical support of an alternative to government action.
Most libertarians will at least concede the right to unionize in an abstract sense, although I’m sorry to say that this seems to be fading with the new cohort of young libertarians these days. The right to organize with other workers stems from basic human and civil rights: the right to free speech in advocating a union, the right to assemble with your fellow workers, your right to free association in forming whatever kind of affinity group you choose, and the right to control your own labor power and sell it however you choose. It’s hard to straightfacedly endorse, for example, the rights of corporate personhood while denying the rights of workers to band together in any way they see fit.
I think that libertarians could support invigorated unions in fact, rather than merely in theory, for a practical reason: strong labor unions could represent an alternative to government.
Government grows. This is acknowledged with anguish by some and with acceptance by others. It is by now banal to point out that small government champion Ronald Reagan significantly enlarged the federal government, that the Contract with America-era, Gingrich Congress enlarged the federal government, that the combination of a George W. Bush presidency and Republican control over both houses of Congress gave us the prescription drug benefit, one of the largest government programs in the history of our country. (Indeed, many of the members of that Congress remain in the body today, and have merged, somehow, into deficit warriors.) For those who fear government growth, the questions are how fast it will grow, what legitimate purposes the growth will serve, and what counterbalancing forces can be shored up against government. My contention is that unionism represents an alternative to government social programs that can slow the growth of government and act as a third force to counterbalance both government and the corporation.
Whatever your particular feelings about government social programs, it’s to the benefit of the conversation if we acknowledge that they exist out of real need. That’s not a question begging statement; I’m not assuming that the fact that there is a need means that it is appropriate or beneficial for government to fill it. But I am saying that the safety net expands because people have needs that are not being met. If I’m right that a renewed, reinvigorated American labor movement could provide its members with the economic security and social goods that are provided, piecemeal and unequally, by the American social state. If you simply see the world in a reductive way, then you might not care to examine the difference– government and unions going in the file “stuff lefties like.” But actually, the differences are considerable. A union provides more for its members by capturing value from corporations, not from taxpayers. Corporations and those wealthiest few who live on their profits have done incredibly well for themselves in the last decade even as the economy has tanked for those at the bottom and real wages have been flatlined for decades. (Corporate America is currently sitting on a$1.8 trillion treasure trove, if you’re worried for their fiscal security.) It’s always worth reminding that (most if not all) of the essential elements of a fair and safe workplace, which even the most conservative now would not challenge, came not from government and legislation but from the insistence and direct action of the American labor movement. It should appeal to the practical and theoretical convictions of libertarians to make providing for workers a matter primarily of negotiating between non-governmental entities like unions and businesses.
Social safety nets are paid for by value captured from taxpayers, which means that they are funded through the arbitrary, Byzantine machinations of our tax code– a code that corporate entities have found myriad ways to avoid and exploit. Despite the stereotype of the intractable union, companies working with well-organized labor unions have actually traditionally had an advantage in being able to renegotiate with a unified entity when events demanded renegotiation. See the example of Wisconsin– the public sector unions haveconceded to the elements of Scott Walker’s plan that would reduce deficits. You can negotiate with a union. You can’t negotiate with the government. Finally there’s the reality of a shared interest in the health of the company and the viability of the contract. Unions want the companies that their members work for to succeed. They merely insist that the workers capture a fair share of the profit derived from their labor. There is no similar mutual dependency in the relationship between taxpayers and those who utilize public social programs. Part of the reason so many people are driven crazy by paying for necessary social programs is because they feel no stake in that relationship. The connections between management and the union are immediate and obvious.
I believe in power, and I believe that it is unevenly distributed, and I believe that it is necessary for democracy to work on establishing countervailing forces so that no one power rises to exploit the people. A strong labor movement can act as a counterbalance not only on corporate power, which is desperately needed in a context where so much money has ended up in the hands of so few, but also on government. Rather than the unhealthy and corrupt pseudo-balance that we’ve had in the binary between government and business, a new, real balance might emerge between government, labor, and corporations. The history of the labor movement teaches us that labor and government used to oppose each other all the time; that’s a necessary reality in these kind of relationships. This third power base could represent the interests of those who have had practically no voice for decades. All human institutions are, to a degree, corrupt; it’s absurd to complain about the abuses and petty corruptions of unions without going over the laundry list of exploitative and destructive behavior wreaked by corporations. I endorse this kind of balance of large entities not because I think unions are immune to abuse but precisely because I know all three of these kinds of institutions are potentially abusive. If libertarians can come again to recognize that in fact the needs of individual liberty are best served by adversarial institutions, they might recognize that unions represent a potential check against government and corporations that (yes, it’s true) both restrict individual freedom.
Do I actually think any such thing is going to happen? Of course not.
The problem is that while libertarians might be able to come around in this direction, libertarian institutions never will. Libertarianism’s central problem, as an edifice, is its inability to speak frankly and critically about the reality of power imbalances. This is particularly manifested in an almost juvenile naivete about corporate power. Libertarian institutions, visibly and most importantly the Cato Institute and the Reason Institute, have been captured by well-moneyed interests. Individuals can and do operate within those institutions with independence and integrity, but on the whole, they are subject to influences both subtle and obvious from those who fund them. Libertarians are in a bit of a bind. No matter how much presence it has in the media, libertarianism (in anything resembling a form pleasing to institutional libertarians) is embraced by a tiny fraction of Americans. So, with the help of well-moneyed, corporatist donors, they have erected think tanks and media institutions that extend their influence far beyond their numbers. This is great for getting a seat at the table. The problem is that top-down, hierarchical power structures are precisely the worst setup for an ethic of individual liberty. And any political institution dependent on such a small number of donors and deep pockets are inevitably constrained by that relationship. My libertarian friends tell me that Cato and Reason make libertarianism powerful, and maybe they’re right. I just know that they also make it endlessly corruptible.
I believe in the intelligence and dedication of many individual libertarians, but I am frequently left agape at the utter impotence of the ideology writ large to react against powerful, rich corporate entities and the degree to which they have captured our treasure and our political institutions. A situation like the one in Wisconsin should result in a great rift within libertarianism, pitting differing factions against each other and deeply exploring what it means to be a free person in a larger community of workers or taxpayers. Instead, as is depressingly common, libertarian discussion on this issue reads like the minutes to a committee meeting. I ask again what conclusions I am expected to take from an ideology and its apparatus that seem to redound again and again to the benefit of the richest and most powerful, and the best I receive back is the aggrieved insistence that I am being unfair. The last several decades have witnessed an American economy utterly transformed, where the degree to which some small portion of our people have wrested control of some vast amount of our resources has spiraled out of control. Look again at those charts. They represent a kidnapping of the economic progress of society, and yet libertarian solutions to this situation are next to nonexistent. I’ve offered what I think is a solution that is both theoretically and practically pleasing to the principles of libertarianism, but I have little reason to expect anything like such a labor-libertarian alliance. What instead will libertarianism do in the face of a society that seems to exist only for the interests of such a tiny number of people? My sad prediction is nothing at all.