The Declaration, Public Service, and the Extent of Organization

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” – Declaration of Independence

Those guys could put together some words – “a long train of abuses and usurpations” … “it is their right, it is their duty” … “to provide new Guards for their future security.”

Before the mideast uprisings and the Japanese earthquake and potential meltdown, the US news feed was dominated by the debate over collective bargaining in the public sector. Despite what left-leaning pollsters and pundits are saying, the anti-public-sector-collective-bargaining movement seems to have the upper hand. Why do I say this? They’re winning. Even in left-leaning places like Maryland, public sector unions are being stripped of their collective bargaining powers.

In such debates, it is certainly reasonable to consider the plausible extent of the different sides of the argument, extending each to seemingly absurd ends and considering the outcome. For instance, suppose we allowed (even promoted) unionization of the armed forces, with collective bargaining rights. Does that give anybody “the ick”? It should. The military exudes nobility and chivalry, and yet to think of the military collectively bargaining against the citizenry for their wages is frightening. It’s only a short half-step from there to military dictatorship, something we surely don’t want.

Fortunately, the military does not operate this way and does not collectively bargain against the population. But what if it were not the military but the national guard? Or, how about the police, or firefighters? Uh oh. Now we’re treading of familiar ground. At what point does it become dangerous for those who provide protective services, for those who work to ensure the safety of the citizens, to bargain collectively for higher wages against the very people they protect? Is this a conflict of interest, with the potential for exploitation? You bet.

In fighting to defend exorbitant benefits packages (at the taxpayer expense), police unions in a number of municipalities have made links between public safety and their salary and benefits packages. In Wisconsin, public unions have even started threatening businesses, demanding that they publicly denounce governor Walker’s defense-of-taxpayers moves (err, “anti-collective-bargaining”) or risk being formally denounced and boycotted by the union workers. I’m all for free association and boycotts where necessary, but this is a bit much. Is it out of plausible realm for business owners to wonder if their rights and security will be defended? What if the unions do more than boycott – what if they throw bricks through windows? Will the police – who have also signed on to boycott and publicly denounce the businesses – enforce the law and defend property rights? One certainly hopes so, and police officers can be quite a noble lot – but it is reasonable for a business owner to have concerns.

Now, the right answer, if you ask me, is privatization where possible. Privatize schools and as many other public services as possible. If teachers want to unionize to negotiate with privately run schools – then fine. That’s fair dealing, and it doesn’t require them to give up their collective bargaining. The privatized schools that produce the best results will receive more students (and thus vouchers and money) and turn an actual profit. Competition will eliminate profit (it always does), parents will get better educations for their children, teachers can still unionize (if they want to) – that’s winning all over the place. Who gets hurt here? Simple: bad teachers who currently get paid for nothing and left-wing politicians who want a steady support base. (We’ve said on a number of occasions – good teachers will likely see their pay increase in such a scenario.)

It’s reasonable to assume that firefighters could also privatize. I suspect though that this is not the right answer for police. Police perform an intrinsic public service and require the public trust. They enforce basic laws, perform the most basic and fundamental purpose of government: collective defense of individual rights. Just as we wouldn’t want a fully privatized military (mercenaries) we also wouldn’t want a privatized police force. What we do want, is a police force that does not use, does not even think to use, its position of authority to extract greater benefits from the citizenry. To serve and protect, not to exploit.

Let us hope this flail dies down soon, and rational order is returned to public service. We, as a society, can certainly choose to move in the right direction. The alternative, “to provide new guards for their future security,” can be a difficult process.

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One Response to The Declaration, Public Service, and the Extent of Organization

  1. “Now, the right answer, if you ask me, is privatization where possible.”

    I think this is the crucial fork in the logical road. I don’t understand at all how, under the minimalist ideas of government presented here, a citizen should not have the right to choose, or not, where to work, in what capacity, whether to leave that position if it proves undesirable… or whether to agree as a group to leave that position if doing so provides an expected (not guaranteed, but expected) return. Or more precisely, I don’t understand how all of those things sound good… but only until we start piecemealing which jobs are or are not subject to those same rights of choice.

    As you suggest, let us take the situation to its logical extreme. What if everyone did decide to make good on their threat and go home? What if no one, as an individual rational agent just like the engineer, cashier, etc., wanted to be a policeman, or a fireman, because to be something else allowed them more freedom to act as a rational agent? Should we draft policemen? I don’t see how the fact that the paycheck comes from the government instead of a private entity would make me want to work– and negotiate– any harder to provide the best for my family.

    I always say that the problem is messy. But that’s not just a frequent lame observation, that’s my point. That is, we would like to have an approach, a particular set of rules, that will result in no situations where we can point to an issue and say, “That sucks.” But my view is that there simply is no such set of rules… and so we do the best we can.

    For example, the privatization solution seems to make sense, in that it eliminates the conflict of interest… but only until you get to the realization that some jobs seem “more essential,” in some sense, like law enforcement. So the band-aid is to make the rules different for policemen (or firemen, or teachers), despite the fact that they sit down to the same dinners, live the same lives, as the rest of us.

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