The Political Economy of Government Employee Unions | LewRockwell.com

By Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Editor’s Note: Unlike the protests and “revolution” in Egypt these domestic uprisings are characterized by government employees and unions demanding more than their fair share of the overall economic pie as if they’re somehow “entitled” to a pension and benefits when the average non-government worker cannot even find a job in this recessionary economy. This is a government of, by and for the people, not of, by and for the government. Let’s get real people!

The main reason why so many state and local governments are bankrupt, or on the verge of bankruptcy, is the combination of government-run monopolies and government-employee unions. Government-employee unions have vastly more power than do private-sector unions because the entities they work for are typically monopolies.

When the employees of a grocery store, for example, go on strike and shut down the store, consumers can simply shop elsewhere, and the grocery-store management is perfectly free to hire replacement workers. In contrast, when a city teachers’ or garbage-truck drivers’ union goes on strike, there is no school and no garbage collection as long as the strike goes on. In addition, teachers’ tenure (typically after two or three years in government schools) and civil-service regulations make it extremely costly if not virtually impossible to hire replacement workers.

Thus, when government bureaucrats go on strike they have the ability to completely shut down the entire “industry” they “work” in indefinitely. The taxpayers will complain bitterly about the absence of schools and garbage collection, forcing the mayor, governor, or city councillors to quickly cave in to the union’s demands to avoid risking the loss of their own jobs due to voter dissatisfaction. This process is the primary reason why, in general, the expenses of state and local governments have skyrocketed year in and year out, while the “production” of government employees declines.

For decades, researchers have noted that the more money that is spent per pupil in the government schools, the worse is the performance of the students. Similar outcomes are prevalent in all other areas of government “service.” As Milton Friedman once wrote, government bureaucracies – especially unionized ones – are like economic black holes where increased “inputs” lead to declining “outputs.” The more that is spent on government schools, the less educated are the students. The more that is spent on welfare, the more poverty there is, and so on. This of course is the exact opposite of normal economic life in the private sector, where increased inputs lead to more products and services, not fewer.

Thirty years ago, the economist Sharon Smith was publishing research showing that government employees were paid as much as 40 percent more than comparable private-sector employees. If anything, that wage premium has likely increased.

The enormous power of government-employee unions effectively transfers the power to tax from voters to the unions. Because government-employee unions can so easily force elected officials to raise taxes to meet their “demands,” it is they, not the voters, who control the rate of taxation within a political jurisdiction. They are the beneficiaries of a particular form of taxation without representation (not that taxation with representation is much better). This is why some states have laws prohibiting strikes by government-employee unions. (The unions often strike anyway.)

Politicians are caught in a political bind by government-employee unions: if they cave in to their wage demands and raise taxes to finance them, then they increase the chances of being kicked out of office themselves in the next election. The “solution” to this dilemma has been to offer government-employee unions moderate wage increases but spectacular pension promises. This allows politicians to pander to the unions but defer the costs to the future, long after the panderers are retired from politics.

As taxpayers in California, Wisconsin, Indiana, and many other states are realizing, the future has arrived. The Wall Street Journal reports that state and local governments in the United States currently have $3.5 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities. They must either raise taxes dramatically to fund these liabilities, as some have already done, or drastically cut back or eliminate government-employee pensions. Read more…

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