The high road to coercion: public goods and forced unionism

There is a striking parallel between the argument in favor of forcing people to contribute to public goods and forced unionism. In both cases, it is argued that only forced contributions will ensure that people who benefit from public goods and collective bargaining pay their “fair share.” Of course, this argument simply assumes that all people who are forced to contribute to the government and labor unions want and appreciate those benefits – which is simply incorrect.

Since it is perceived too costly and impractical to distinguish between sincere opponents and free riders, this distinction is lost in practical politics and labor disputes. In reality, tax payers and employees of unionized organizations are simply treated as “blocks of people” where objections of individuals do not really matter. To sweep individual consent so easily under the carpet is one of the defining characteristics of governments and labor unions.

In his seminal work on private provision of public goods, Social Contract, Free Ride, Anthony de Jasay writes:

“The high road to coercion is the contractarian pretension that acceptance by a person of a share in a benefit he did not solicit is tantamount to his tacit acceptance of an obligation to provide a share of the corresponding contribution in the same way as those who did solicit the benefit.”

In this book Jasay also argues quite persuasively that the prohibition on free riding that is sought in collective good arguments will be undermined by the fact that governments  in turn generate the most formidable opportunities for free riding and parasitism by allowing voters to enrich themselves at the expense of (other) taxpayers.

Advocates of collective bargaining for public sector unions claim that collective bargaining is a “right” or “human right.” It is not clear what is being meant by “right” in this context because one cannot claim a right of this nature without assuming a corresponding obligation of others (companies, governments) to negotiate with you. In the case of public sector labor unions the nature of this presumed right is even more contestable because government employees are not bargaining for a share of the profits of a private company but for taxpayer money. Public sector union members  basically expect taxpayers to refrain from efforts to protect their own money and freedom of choice so that government employees can enjoy more generous compensation and benefits.

There is an ongoing debate about the question of whether public employees are overpaid or underpaid. Compensation in the private sector is, absent government intervention, governed by supply and demand. Compensation in the public sector is governed by supply and demand and majority rule. The role of coercion in paying government employees simply excludes a rigorous test of what these employees are worth to the taxpayer. Education is also a poor proxy for compensation of public employees because, as the growing education bubble makes clear, companies that are operating in a competitive environment are not going to pay an employee for their educational degrees as such. That governments do often pay high salaries to people with degrees that are not held in high esteem in the private sector reinforces the unhealthy relationship between publicly-funded education and government.

Jim Goad and the Passover Syndrome

Over at Taki’s Magazine, Jim Goad writes about ethnomasochism and the conformist mindset of today’s progressives:

A common delusion among Passover Syndrome sufferers is that they represent the cusp of some bold revolutionary cultural vanguard rather than modern mainstream society itself. They seduce themselves into thinking they are rebels against an oppressively racist society, yet there is nothing dangerous or career-threatening in anything they say. In truth, to disagree with what they say is to court ostracism, assault, and possible legal action. So rather than being mavericks in the Nat Turner mold, their personalities more fit that of the obsequious and conformist House Negro who toes the party line with a wide, bucktoothed grin. They seem cognitively incapable of grasping the fact that their personalities are indeed so fundamentally conformist, they may have participated in lynch mobs a century ago.

Similarly, in an engaging piece about the lack of ideological diversity in American theater Harry Stein makes the following  observation:

Like liberals everywhere, its creators imagine they’re speaking truth to power—when, in fact, they are the power, and guard it as jealously as any of the right-wing, American-allied dictators of yore they grew up protesting against.

One of the most fascinating questions about contemporary political culture is how long progressives  can keep claiming that they are fighting the status quo before recognizing that they are the status quo. During the 20th century the United States has seen an almost uninterrupted  victory of those who want to use the power of the state to alter the unequal and “prejudiced” outcomes of individual choice and free markets. This ideology has become so widely accepted among those who seek power that even Republican candidates like Sarah Palin feel they need to play the “sexism” card to win a debate.

There are those on the Hard Left (labor unions, for example) who never had problems  recognizing that egalitarianism requires massive coercion. But this identification with power is not comfortable for those whose political ideals where shaped in the 1960s. The history of how the libertarian socialists and radicals of the protest generation gradually degenerated into advocating the worst kinds of censorship, elitism, and authoritarianism still remains to be written.