The future of democracy is at stake in Wisconsin. According to Paul Krugman, “what Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy.”
Thousands stormed the Wisconsin state capitol to protest Scott Walker (the “Mubarak of Madison”) and his proposals for public-sector unions. Over the past few weeks, state Senators hid out in an Illinois Motel 6, protesters littered war memorials with posters and pamphlets, doctors wrote fake notes for “sick” teachers, yoga class moved to the rotunda, and a camel from The Daily Show slipped on the icy sidewalks. But rest assured, proclaimed the crowd in matching mass-produced t-shirts, “this is what democracy looks like.”
James Madison would disagree. A public-sector union protest is not the essence of democracy. In reality, public-sector unions are a faction, and therefore dangerous to popular government.
“By a faction” James Madison explains in Federalist 10, “I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Public-sector unions are indeed a group united and motivated by a narrow interest (to maintain job security, cushy benefits, steady streams of cash, and the collective bargaining privileges that enable it all). The problem is that this interest directly challenges the common good of the political community. As one New York Supreme Court judge warned in 1943, “Nothing is more dangerous to public welfare than to admit that hired servants of the State can dictate to the government the hours, the wages and conditions under which they will carry on essential services vital to the welfare, safety, and security of the citizen”
Growing out of the Progressive movement’s emphasis on the scientific administration, public-sector unions have a monopoly on public services. Consequently, taxpayers cannot go elsewhere for the services they receive from government. “They’re stuck paying taxes, and stuck having to depend on the government for services like driver’s licenses, garbage pickup, and the many other (often too many) services provided by state and local government.” Therefore, when a public-sector union strikes, it halts the activity of government, and paralyzes the community until it surrenders to the union’s demands. Moreover, where does the money come from to pay public-sector union employees their generous salaries and pensions? Like all government money, it ultimately comes from the taxpayer. When a public-sector union collectively bargains for higher wages or more expensive benefits packages, they are negotiating to take money from the whole community of tax payers and give it to the few members of the public-sector union.
To be sure, public-sector unions are different from private-sector unions. If Apple employees go on strike, then iPads will be unavailable. But, if teachers go on strike (or follow the Wisconsin model of calling in “sick”), then public schools will close.
The Wisconsin public-sector union protests are not the pinnacle of democracy—they are its nadir. These public-sector unions are factions in action: they are a group of citizens motivated by their narrow self-interest in maintaining high salaries, benefits, and job security at the expense of the rest of the state’s well-being. Factions are “the mortal diseases under which popular governments have everywhere perished.” But, Madison’s “republican remedy for the diseases most incident to republican government” is to destroy factions by expanding the number of interests. This suggests breaking the monopoly of public-sector unions and encouraging competition. Let’s hope that it is not too late for popular government in Wisconsin.