The Public Sector, Inc.
The famous philosopher Pogo once observed, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Reviewing the greatest threat to liberty today, I offer a corollary; “We have met the enemy and we are paying for him.” Our liberty is challenged not so much by political forces as institutional ones. Until we begin dismantling the racket that is Public Sector, Inc., we will never again enjoy the liberties and freedoms our grandparents took for granted.
The current budget crisis has shined a light on the out-sized pay and benefits earned by public sector employees in state and local government. The traditional implicit bargain where government workers accepted slightly lower pay in exchange for job security and decent benefits has been up-ended, with government workers now enjoying high pay and platinum benefits in addition to life-time employment.
The showdowns in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey and other states have shown how difficult it will be to reverse course on this. But even getting public sector pay and benefits back to historic averages is just the tip of the iceberg, or, rather, treatment of a minor symptom of a virulent disease. Balancing government employee pay with resources is a fiscal challenge; balancing our liberties against ever-expanding government is a herculean fight against a massive institutional infrastructure.
Public sector unions have evolved into a permanent constituency for expanding government. The only way a public sector union can grow its membership is to increase the size of government, expanding the number of employees who can be organized. Any real reduction in the size of government will likely cost the union millions of dollars a year in dues.
In other words, the taxpaying public has created and funded perverse incentives against our own interests. Public sector unions will always want greater regulation, because it would bring into the union more dues-paying bureaucrats. Conversely, they will always resist efforts to reform, stream-line or make government more efficient, as it would reduce the number of dues-paying members.
This advocacy isn’t passive. Public sector unions employ swarms of lobbyists across the country to agitate for expanded government. In many states, they spend more on lobbying than any other interest, business or industry. They are likewise consistently among the biggest donors to political campaigns. They can shower money on their friends’ campaigns or their enemies’ opponents. They can also mobilize thousands of members to protest legislative reforms as well as ‘get the vote out’ on election day. It’s a racket. Every politician who stands up to the public unions risks the end of their political career.
But there is hope. The rise of the tea parties, grass roots conservatives and a more politically engaged public promise a potential counter-weight to the political muscle of the public unions. The legislative showdown in Wisconsin, especially, showed that an engaged citizenry can provide politicians the cover they need to enact necessary reforms.
There is also hope of enlisting more private sector union members into the fight for liberty. Lumping private and public sector union members into a simplistic “Big Labor” talking point has been a strategic mistake for conservatives. We need to distinguish more between the two, because their interests and incentives are vastly different. Private sector unions will of course agitate for higher pay and benefits, but they face the competitive discipline of the market. There will be tension between labor and management in a private company, but both need the firm to survive, so each will ultimately temper their ambitions. Public sector unions face no such constraint.
And let’s not forget, private sector union members have to pay for government, just like the rest of us. While they face a sluggish economy and an uncertain job market, they will increasingly resent bank-rolling the ever increasing pay, benefits and expanded government programs demanded by their “brothers and sisters” in the public sector.
Michael Flynn is the editor-in-chief of Big Government.