Take democracy back from all special interests

One of the most convincing arguments against public-sector unions I've heard relies on the principle that private-sector unions and public-sector unions are inherently different creatures. It goes something like this: Private-sector unions provide individual, private-sector workers a means of organizing to represent their interests, in order to even the otherwise overwhelming odds at the negotiating table with powerful executives. Public-sector unions, on the other hand, deal with a government monopoly. A lot of the same pressures that help workers and managers in the private sector come to a mutually beneficial agreement simply don't exist in the public sector. As a result, public-sector unions act on behalf of government employees in a capacity much more akin to lobbyist groups than negotiators, advocating for an ever-growing share of government revenue and an almost absurd level of job security for its constituents, without regard to the efficiency or effectiveness of government as a whole. And since the taxpayers have no lobby to represent them at the negotiating table — unlike in the private sector, where business executives are capable of representing themselves — the end result is that public unions give government employees disproportionate power in determining the allocation of government revenue. In a democracy, voters should have more control over such things than any one interest group. Thus, public unions themselves are abhorrent to democracy, and need to be checked or eliminated altogether.

Even if you disagree, let's accept this argument as valid for the moment. And, indeed, it is certainly plausible. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank in Washington, D.C., published a report in January 2010 that found average compensation, including benefits, of state and local government employees was 45 percent higher than that of private-sector employees, despite large budget deficits. That sounds less like a mutually beneficial contract negotiated by two parties interested in coming to an effective compromise, and more like a contract negotiated to benefit one side, the government employee, with the other side, the taxpayer, unable to drive a harder bargain.

So we have our argument, and we have accepted its validity. In logic, you learn that for an argument to be valid, it must take a valid argument form. Think of an argument form as a generalized statement. Here, "argument form" refers to the premises — that Party X (public unions) are a powerful lobby group for Group Y (government employees), that Group Z (taxpayers) has no counterbalancing lobby group and that Party X affords Group Y greater representation in determining the allocation of public funds than Group Z and the conclusion that Party X needs to be checked or eliminated altogether. The thing about a valid argument form? Every specific argument of that form is valid.

Watch this.

Let's keep Group Z as the taxpayers. But let's replace Party X with, say, the "Chamber of Commerce" and Group Y with "business executives." Or maybe we should replace Party X with "the NRA" and Group Y with "gun owners." Or we could call Party X "banking lobbyists" and Group Y "financial institutions" such as Goldman Sachs.

If it's a valid argument for the limiting or dissolution of Party X, it's valid regardless of whether Party X is the Service Employees International Union or the Chamber of Commerce. Either we recognize and work to rectify the undue influence that lobbyists across the political spectrum have over our politics, or we do not. But it is simply far too dangerous to pick and choose which vested interests to allow ever-more uncontested dominance over our politics. If we've decided, as a country, the time has come to take back our democracy, then let us take it back from all special interests.

Which brings me to my final comment. I'd like to make a quick note on the idea that taxpayers are unable to effectively represent themselves at the negotiating table. To me, this seems like an odd assertion to make in a democratic society. As a fundamental principle, the people are represented by whomever they elect to public office. Our own Gov. Chris Christie is a perfect example of this — the New Jersey voting public, perceiving the public sector to be receiving unfair wages and benefits in a time of economic crisis, elected someone they thought would drive a hard bargain at the negotiating table.

The claim, of course, is that politicians will say anything in order to get elected, then lack the political will to act once in office. Well, you get what you vote for, I suppose. That's the essence of democracy.

Sam Berman is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student.


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