I like that the battle over public employees’ labor unions is unfolding in the state capital named after James Madison. Madison praised America’s “extended republic,” where our experiment in self-government would be secured by a multiplicity of factions. In such a republic there would be so many interest groups, we would say today, that no one of them, or no stable coalition of several, would be able to maintain a durable majority and use the power of government against others.
As Fred Siegel has argued, what Madison could not have imagined was that government itself would become an interest group. Those who tend to its operations have ample incentive and ample capacity to bend the day-to-day workings of government in their own favor. In Charles Lane’s nice summary, “It’s not democracy when citizens lose control over the pay and benefits of the people who work for them. It’s not progressive when employee compensation takes finite resources away from Medicaid, parks, roads, and libraries. And it’s not collective bargaining when union representatives sit on both sides of the table.”
The fundamental question had to be joined somewhere: Are the people’s elected representatives in charge of the government, or are public employees and their unions a permanent government, deigning to make tactical concessions to the occasional politician who challenges its control? The fury and hysteria of the demonstrators opposed to the Wisconsin restrictions on public-employee unions inadvertently proved the point. Mere politicians elected by mere voters had no moral authority, in the demonstrators’ opinion, to challenge the permanent government’s prerogatives.
Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans have been audacious, but not conspicuously nimble. The decision by the state senate’s Democrats to deny the 20th vote needed for consideration of spending bills appears to have taken the Republicans by surprise. The work-around of passing the non-spending parts of the bill in a separate piece of legislation, one not requiring a super-majority quorum, could have been effected many days ago, without giving the pro-union zealots weeks of free publicity.
It’s even more important to defend Walker’s anti-union initiative now that it is about to become law than it was when it was a mere proposal. Walker and the Republicans must demonstrate that state and local government back under the control of democratically accountable officials is nimble, effective, and parsimonious with taxpayers’ dollars. Swing voters don’t need theory, but tangible results. Conservatives outside of Wisconsin have every reason to work for Walker’s political and governmental success. If the unions successfully reassert their pre-2011 prerogatives, union-ocracy will be an unassailable political fact for many years to come.