Too frequently what happens when those on the left of the political spectrum debate or argue with those on the right is a dialogue that devolves into a shouting match. It’s understandable when so many of the issues are deeply personal and emotional, as the issues surrounding public unions are in Wisconsin. What I’d like to do here is pose a debate between what I see as the two dominant economic perspectives in American public discussion and work backwards to analyze the underlying assumptions and differences that too often go untouched. By doing this maybe we can gain a deeper understanding and basic respect for the other side and remember that very few people are truly unreasonable. I can’t claim to be perfectly objective here, though I respect what I understand to be each position. I welcome comments about whether you think I’m on the mark or if I’m missing important points. Here goes:
Left: Unions must exist to counterbalance the undue power that businesses have over workers. Capital is concentrated in the hands of few and those few determine the ability of many laborers to feed their families, access adequate healthcare, and lead their lives with basic human dignity. It is a fundamental right to be able to organize and voice opinions in the interest of human welfare. Unions are a right.
Right: Wait a second. Hold on. Where do you get this idea that businesses have undue power over workers? Are they forcing workers to take the jobs? Do they physically threaten workers to get them to accept lower wages? If they did, they would be breaking the law. The balance of power lies in the ability to freely choose. If a worker does not want to work for a particular wage, they may choose to go elsewhere with their services. If the wage is truly too low, then nobody else will accept it either, and the business will be forced to raise it. It’s a self-correcting balance that is only warped when one side is able to force workers to forfeit their wages in the form of union dues to support a cause they may not believe in, and force managers to make decisions that are not in the company’s best interest, which undermines the jobs of everyone involved. Not only do unions disrupt a perfectly fair balance of power between labor and capital, they reduce the freedom of everyone involved.
L: To claim that the power structure evenly supports both labor and capital through freedom to choose is to ignore the real world. In economic models, individuals may appear to have complete freedom to accept or deny based on price alone, but in reality individuals are living, breathing people. They need to eat, they need to have shelter, and they need to feel a baseline security in order to live with dignity. To equate the consequences of a waiting game between labor and capital would be to deny that laborers are human. That’s not to deny that owners of businesses aren’t human either, but by definition their position is one of accumulated resources, sources of credit and, in the current moment, an abundant and desperate labor force. If we don’t allow laborers to band together and create pressure commensurate to the pressure that accumulated resources can apply, there cannot be equality.
R: It’s easy to paint business owners as unfeeling and selfish hoarders of capital, but without individuals who take risks and put their livelihoods in the balance when organizing all the complicated factors involved in running a company we wouldn’t have the technology and quality of life that we have now. The stress and personal assets that are invested in making a business successful can’t be ignored just because it’s not convenient to think of owners as humans who are just trying to make their living. Besides, the way you describe the things that humans need to survive and be considered dignified human beings implies that each individual is owed these things by the mere fact of their existence. Who do you imagine should be required to provide these things for them, and by what right should they make that claim? Everyone should have an equal opportunity to earn the things they need, but they are not entitled to these things. The declaration of independence says that every man deserves the right to the pursuit of happiness, not the provision of happiness. If that were the case, then society and economy as we know it would break under the stress of an unproductive existence.
L: Claiming that workers have a right to be treated with dignity is not the same thing as saying that they deserve to be given something without earning it. It means that everyone has an equal opportunity to earn what they want. It is equality, not entitlement that workers demand. The pursuit of happiness referred to in the declaration of independence was a cry for equality in the pursuit of happiness. The poor and working class are simply much less able than the rich to pursue happiness. This is what needs changing through regulation, union bargaining and protections for the less powerful in society.
R: Workers already have equality in terms of opportunity and freedom; there is no need for unions to give them that. As I’ve already pointed out, workers are equally free to take an offered wage or decline it in favor of a preferable alternative. Unions decrease freedom, they don’t increase it. To say that pure equality is our goal, we could just take whatever hardworking and innovative people earn that put them ahead of the average and give it to those who have less. The problem with this kind of distributional equality is that it denies individuals the right to what they create and earn while rewarding those who do not contribute.
L: Workers do not have equality of opportunity because their choices are severely limited and controlled by systemic and environmental influences beyond their control. Influences that are much less limiting on the owners of capital. Additionally, your claim of pure distributional equality is not being proposed by anyone here. I also am arguing for the equality of opportunity to determine life outcomes. All workers want is to have the same power to decide for themselves how their lives will be shaped that those who have economic resources have. The rich don’t deserve to be more free than the poor just because they have more money. They may be able to buy more things, but their life chances need to be equal to everyone else’s. Without protections against the influence and power of those with resources the freedom of workers is threatened and limited.
R: Here’s where you’re mixed up. In the absence of physical force, the rich cannot ever be more free than the poor because intrinsically we are all equally free to choose between alternatives. Once we eliminated coercive and discriminatory practices by law, we saw to it that every person had equal opportunity to say yes or no to economic offers. Don’t want to buy a product? Don’t buy it. Don’t want to sell your labor at a particular price? You’re perfectly free to pursue alternatives of your choice. The rich may have more alternatives, but the freedom to choose between alternatives is absolutely equal across socioeconomic lines.
L: How can you say that freedom is equally distributed for all non-coerced people when you yourself point out that not all options are equal among people. If a poor person has two options; accept wages that keep them barely alive or reject wages and starve, how is that not coercion? How is that being able to ‘freely choose?’ If a rich person or a business owner faces the options to hire from a vast pool of labor or wait comfortably while skimming margins off of the accumulated assets that he or she has, how can we say that they are equally free? To claim that freedom and choice have nothing to do with the circumstances in which they occur is preposterous.
R: I can hardly believe that you do not accept that the basic definition of freedom is the ability to choose between alternatives without external coercion. The ability to choose freely between two options and the ability to choose between many options is philosophically identical. You seem to make freedom out to be a responsibility to provide the same options to everyone. Those who have not worked to earn their pay should have an equal right to buy what they want? No. Despite your attempt to define hunger as coercion, you cannot say that any external actor is imposing this choice. If you aim to show that if people choose certain actions that they may harm themselves, then you have proved nothing new. People are responsible for the actions that they choose, but as long as they were free to choose them, we have no further business intervening. Besides, we (especially through the government) tend to make things worse when we tell people how to use their resources.
L: First of all, coercion does not need to be perpetrated by an external, individual actor for it to be coercion. If there is a credible threat of harm or death that disproportionately affects one section of a population, even if it comes from a system rather than a dictator, then freedom of choice is not universal. You seem to ignore the fact that people are faced with widely varying life situations that sometimes preclude any realistic expectations that they can make good choices. Discrimination, historical injustices, poverty, nutrition and family situation are all factors that influence the ability of individuals to choose. Most of us agree that we should work against these influences that limit choice and freedom, but you seem to deny that poverty or affluence are legitimate factors to consider. The system is clearly unbalanced in favor of those with resources and the rights and protections for workers, consumers, the poor, and the marginalized are necessary to correct for the imbalance.
R: Well, I can’t deny you that the world is not fair. It turns out, however, that no matter what you try to do, you’re not going to make the world fair. If you try to warp the scales to support labor against capital, then it’s simply unfair in a different direction. What you’re claiming is that unfairness determined by some humans is better than unfairness determined by nature and individuals competing in a context of equal freedom. Humans have too many tendencies to abuse power over others to trust them with picking winners and losers. Better to ensure that there is no physical coercion and let everyone decide for themselves. You still haven’t given me an alternative definition for freedom, either. The beauty of freedom in the United States and an increasing amount of the world is that we can determine our own futures. Rags to riches is not just a fairy tale and there are countless examples of people changing their lives through making use of their freedom. As long as there are paths for every person to choose, we can’t be held responsible for those who don’t take them.
L: I’ll tell you what’s wrong with your definition of freedom is: you’ve mistakenly attributed a binary quality to choice. You claim that there are two types of system: those that impose a single option on everyone and those that ensure at least two options for each person. Either you have freedom or you do not. Our world is not black and white, however. Freedom is a spectrum and we need to work towards equalizing the choices available to people, not just making sure nobody’s being forced into a predetermined life. Given that not all people are born free, it is our moral responsibility to shape the institutions that order our lives, especially our economic lives, in order to correct the injustices that are inherent in the world. My definition of freedom is the ability to live with the dignity that is due to all people. Dignity is equality of life chances and opportunities. To have the choice only between starving and working for unfair wages is not living with dignity. If you believe in equal freedom for all, then you must believe in human intervention to work towards it. Unless we base our policies in a movement toward equal opportunity and dignity, we will never achieve true freedom.
R: You’re wrong. Human intervention is not necessary apart from the promotion of equality exactly as I have defined it. If we take your definition to be the true one, then we will end up taking money from those who earn it and giving it to those who don’t. Charity is great when it’s the choice of the person giving it, but if it’s against someone’s wishes it’s closer to theft. We need to think of freedom in its most basic, stripped down, natural form because it is most reflective of the human condition. You say freedom is the ability to live with dignity, but I say that freedom is dignity, plain and simple. The good news is that we can promote freedom while simultaneously creating the most wealth and benefit for everyone. As the efficiency advantages that free markets have everywhere continue to undermine wasteful economic decisions across the world, more freedom spreads into the dark corners. By taking my definition of freedom and sticking to it, we will end up with what you claim to be the right of every person. But if we try to intervene to create the situation that you say we must, we will inevitably bungle the whole job. Unless we start with individual freedom, we cannot end with equal opportunity.