Clearing away obfuscation on public sector unions.

Here’s an economics, philosophy, and history lesson regarding the current union craziness in Wisconsin.

Will Wilkinson, who I have a weak spot for reading and quoting incessantly, actually stands out pretty uniquely in his recent attempts to delineate public from private sector unions. He’s done exemplary work drawing the lines along economic grounds already — private workers unionize to get a fair amount of the surplus their labor generates, while public workers unionize to…claim taxpayer funds? The lack of rationale erodes the case pretty quickly, and in fact it legitimately amounts to hijacking democracy.

Funny how public unions — the most “in” with government (I mean, it represents its employees!) are one special interest the left embraces while decrying others.

Wilkinson now takes to the Democracy in America blog for the Economist to elucidate the difference between the public and private union from the standpoint of political theory — his area of expertise. What I found especially insightful were his points about how much of the debate, which is centered on whether or not public workers are actually overpaid, misses the forest through the trees:

the real question is whether government workers should be granted special legal powers that (a) are unavailable to other groups whose welfare also turns on transfers from the treasury, or on the size of compulsory transfers from their bank accounts to the treasury, and (b) limit democratic sovereignty over the distribution of the burdens and benefits of the system of public finance.

I can’t think of a more concise way of stating it. From the standpoint of theory, this government rent-seeking is an assault on sovereignty. What is happening with public sector unions around the country, which have been growing in membership while private unions have been shrinking and now account for over half of union membership, damages public finances and hinders governments’ ability to carry out their democratic mandates.

Farther right from Wilkinson, over at Bloomberg, Amity Shlaes is comparing Scott Walker (WI’s governor) to Calvin Coolidge. That’s a HUGE compliment in conservative circles — it is widely known that Coolidge was the *last* truly conservative president (this even comes from Reaganites). I count Shlaes as an excellent economic historian, and she recounts a little-known tale of how Coolidge faced a similar union debacle with the Boston police while governor of Massachusetts. So what did Coolidge do?

The police were fired. Instead of melting into conciliation, Coolidge plowed ahead, in mid-September sending the astonished Gompers a decidedly cold and categorical letter. There was, Coolidge wrote, “no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, any time.” {emphasis mine}

I’ll drink to that.

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