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Countervailing Power

by on February 23, 2011

I have been patient in reacting to the peaceful but serious battle over the future of unions, which began in Wisconsin.  I have yet to write  a detailed account of that conflict.  (I notice I am using words like ‘conflict’ and ‘battle;’ even peaceful protests can become ‘contests’ and ‘battles’ and ‘conflicts.’  These words imply strong disagreement.)  I will not spend time summarizing here what the governor has done except what I find necessary in this narrative.

The media, who did some work correctly, found quickly that the issue was larger than a deficit in the state budget.  While there appears to be some doubt about whether Wisconsin began the year with a budget surplus, the issues at stake are the same:

Walker has introduced a bill that would strip public employees across the board — from teachers to snowplow drivers — of their right to collectively bargain for sick leave, vacation, even the hours they work. But absolutely nothing would change for local police, fire departments and the State Patrol.

Why try to destroy a union for public employees in this way?  John Kenneth Galbraith did some classic work on the balance of power between economic entities: ‘countervailing power.’  Rather than lots of small corporations competing, the competition is between a few large companies and economic powers, including organized labor (unions), retailers and producers.  For Galbraith, “the American economy was made up of large organizations, and to function properly, there had to be a system of checks and balances,” and unions are (yes, present tense) a central element, along with producers and retailers and distributors.  The government’s role is not to represent workers, according to Galbraith, but to mediate the conflict between all sides.  The voice for workers is, guess what, unions.  The voice for public employees is, surprise, a union for public employees.

What should be the role of the government in resolving the competing interests in Wisconsin, and other states that have adopted the same pursuits?  Let’s turn briefly to the Founding Fathers, and in particular Federalist 51 (Proper Checks and Balances Between Different Departments):

Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger.

I can infer from Galbraith’s work that checks and balances exist not only between the executive, legislature, and judiciary, but also between competing economic interests.  We have seen what happens when there are no checks and balances on a federal government: the government doesn’t work.  All sorts of laws get passed because there is no faction that can oppose the law with legislative force.  So, what should the role of government be?  Shouldn’t it be to preserve the economic checks and balances?  Let me return to the question why try to destroy public unions.  Forget that it’s being done this way, or that way, or any other way.  The reason to destroy a public union is to minimize the power of the unions.

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