20 February 2011

Workers' rights implies employer powers; powers government does not have

When he first ran for President in 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot often promised that when he got to Washington, he'd "run it like a business."

It's one of the biggest reasons I didn't support him.

There's no doubt that Perot is a successful and intelligent businessman, but it's difficult to believe he could manage to amass his fortune and never figure out this truth: government is not a business.

Today, we have thousands of government employees demonstrating in the street over employment contract disputes in Madison, Wisconsin, and it seems to me that they share Perot's misapprehension about how government works.

Again: it isn't a business. For one thing, government should never have, or achieve, a goal of growth or profit.

They are called "public servants" because they are not simply employees serving the finite economic purposes of a business. Public servants serve a need defined by our society, and body politic, as necessary for the common good.

That's not to say they should not be paid fairly. However, their compensation is also a political decision, and ultimately, both the lawmakers and government unions are on the same side of the negotiating table.

It is not morally within the realm of the powers of elective office to elevate the needs of this self-selected minority above those of the larger society which both elected and non-elected public servants are supposed to serve.

Nor can it be truly a right for non-elected public servants to use the powers of collective bargaining to elevate their standing above those they are supposed to serve. Implicit in collective bargaining is the ability to quit; to hold the continuation of the business hostage. But striking government workers aren't shutting down one factory. They are shutting down the government. They aren't using their leverage against a small ownership group; they are using it against the entire body politic and even subsequent generations of taxpayers, all of whom have no real say in the negotiation.

In an ideal world, all of our wages would be determined by a free market. But a free market implies free decision-making, and taxpayers are simply not free to decide what they are willing to pay on a contract by contract basis. They are only free to decide who will make those decisions for them over a limited period of time, based on a limited set of priorities.

Their elected officials are bound to represent those interests, expressed in a free election, and public servants are bound by the same. Government decides things, and acts, more slowly than private business. That's one of the reasons, unfortunately for those who choose it, that "public service" used to be generally lower paid work.

But it isn't any more - why is that?

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