The Case Against Public Sector Unions

Speaking as I do here to outsiders, I am sure few readers of The American Scene would find it hard to understand that your French writer has an almost preternatural distrust of unions. There is little doubt to the objective observer that France’s public sector unions, at least compared to other large, modern economies, are among the most egregious rent seekers. I don’t think you have to be a fire-breathing right-winger to find that organizing paralyzing strikes to protect, say, the right of train drivers to retire on a full government pension at 50, is consistent with imrpoving the general welfare.

And yet, I like to think that I have a nuanced view of unions. In Germany in the wake of the financial crisis, most unions and bosses brokered deals whereby workers would get paid less for not showing up to work, instead of being laid off, an arrangement which, on top of being arguably more just, allowed these firms to rebound faster when Germany’s exports surged on the back of the global recovery and the slumping euro. In Sweden, unions are famously cooperative with bosses, and known to sometimes agitate for layoffs of union workers when they believe it is in the best interests of the firm. And in the US, organizations like the Freelancers Union, as our Ross and Reihan have shown, point the way to a possible bright future where unions are a valuable support for people, not static jobs or economic rents.

And of course, as a classical liberal, I have to recognize, with about the same pleasure as performing surgery on myself without aenesthetic (I don’t recommend it), that it would be incompatible with a free society to prevent workers from organizing. I wouldn’t like it, but seriously though, I would, Voltaire-like, die for the right of private sector workers to unionize.

That being said, I am utterly, 100%, honestly convinced that banning public sector unions is both compatible with liberal principles and highly desirable. This is a relevant subject not just for France (ha!) but also for the US, where the role of unions, and in particular public sector unions, is fast growing.

I would put forward two arguments in favor of the claim, one utilitarian and one moral.

The utilitarian argument is that unions work at their best — indeed, work at all — when they work as a check on a management which, by design, seeks efficiency at any cost, and might seek it at the cost of the legitimate rights and interests of the employees. But in the public sector, there is no such drive for efficiency to provide a check against. Corporations are an animal designed to respond to market pressures by becoming always more efficient or dying. It’s the nature of the beast. When a country’s public sector changes to become more efficient, it is by accident (by which I don’t mean “accidentally”, but as opposed to “by design”), either because the right politician was elected or because the state finds itself one day with a bottomless deficit. Given that the public sector does not have the same drive for efficiency than the private sector does, the natural incentive of public sector unions is simply to drift toward the kind of rent-seeking that has made French strikes the world’s laughing-stock. Teachers’ unions in the United States are definitely in this group (can I get a bipartisan amen?). Since in the public sector, unions are supposed to be a check to something that doesn’t exist, they should go.

The moral argument, and for me the most important one, is that working in the public sector is public service. Both of those words matter: it’s a service. Almost by definition, in any given country, the most talented public servants could get much higher salaries, and much better working conditions, in the private sector. The reason they don’t do that is because they want to serve their country and their fellow citizens. And in many cases (military, police, firefighters), they risk their lives for their fellow citizens, and wouldn’t change that for the world. Unlike many libertarians and some conservatives, I have no animosity toward government as an idea. I don’t view it as a necessary evil. I view public service the same way I view all endeavors in service of others: as very good and noble. But, by definition, being a public servant requires humility; it requires a healthy disregard for one’s own interests. Not just as a practical matter but also as a moral judgement, we should not want our public servants to be people who picked those jobs because they come with lifetime employment, early retirement and pensions backed by the full faith and credit of the United States. Public sector unions are by definition antithetic to the nature of what public service should be. Unions exist to defend the interests of their members. Such organizations are certainly consistent with legal principles and potentially even useful in the private sector, but not in the public sector. The idea of public service is incompatible with organizations designed to defend the interests of public servants at the expense of the general welfare.

Oh and by the way: here’s my new hero.