The Crass Cynicism of Right-to-Work Laws


Teddy Roosevelt called their counterparts a century ago “malefactors of great wealth.”  They tried to buy the 2012 election for Mitt Romney, and the Senate for the GOP.  That was unwise, inasmuch as they have been getting all they could hope for from Barack Obama and the Democrats.  But, then, as people say this time of year, they are not the brightest bulbs on the tree.

On the plus side, though, they spent a lot of money in vain.  Unfortunately, they have lots more to spend, and losing only riles them up.

Their latest obsession: getting “right to work” legislation enacted in vulnerable states.

By law, workers in shops represented by unions already enjoy the benefits of union membership – wages, working conditions, grievance procedures, and so on – without having to join the union.  However in states without right to work laws, if they choose not to join, they must pay the equivalent of union dues in return for the benefits they receive.

In the twenty-four states where right to work laws are in place, they do not have to pay anything.

It is tempting to get something for nothing.   But because solidarity among workers is hard to quash, right to work laws don’t inevitably do unions in.  They do weaken existing unions, however, and they make union organizing more difficult.

This is not just bad for workers.  It is bad for everyone, or rather for ninety-nine percent or more of everyone, because the labor movement is our main defense against predatory capitalists and corporate domination of the state.

At the national level, Democrats nowadays stand with labor only verbally; when it comes to defending workers’ interests, they can’t be bothered, and working to advance those interests is out of the question; they don’t even want to talk about it.

But because the Democratic Party would be nowhere without organized labor’s support, this is one area where, even at the national level, Democrats plainly are better than Republicans.  Malevolent plutocrats don’t try to enact right to work legislation in states where Democrats can thwart their efforts.

But in states with Republican governors and legislatures controlled by Republicans, opportunity beckons.  And so, in those states, neutering the labor movement has become Objective Number One.  It stands even higher on the plutocrats’ wish list than voter suppression or theocracy promotion.

What just happened to Michigan, birthplace of the United Auto Workers and a bastion of union strength, is the most recent—and tragic – case in point.

With Republicans about to lose control of the legislature, the Koch brothers and others of their stripe, operating through “grassroots” organizations and think tanks and who knows in what more nefarious ways, got Michigan Republicans and Michigan’s governor to hustle right to work legislation into law.  The whole operation took less than a week.

This was not just a defeat for the people of Michigan.  It was a defeat for the union movement generally, and for people everywhere.

The reason is plain:  if they can do it there, they can do it anywhere.

Ronald Reagan’s successful 1981 attack on PATCO, the air traffic controller’s union, had major reverberations throughout the entire labor movement.  Labor’s defeat in that strike did as much as anything to make the Reaganite (neo-liberal) turn in our politics possible.

The harm continues; Reaganism continues to thrive.

And it’s not all the doing of the GOP.  There is hardly a Democrat on the national scene these days who could not truthfully say “we are all Reaganites now.”  But of course none of them would dare say anything of the kind; it is not what the people they call on for votes want to hear.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things, Reagan’s successful attack on the air traffic controllers was as much a consequence as a cause of the state of affairs that his name and Margaret Thatcher’s have come to designate.

Ultimately, the Reaganite-Thatcherite turn came about not because a villainous second-rate actor and a desiccated English hag were master strategists, but because the model of capitalist development that had been in place since the end of World War II had run its course.

In comparison to what would follow, the old capital-labor regime was fairly benign; if nothing else, it enlarged the share of the total social product going to workers and others at the bottom of the income distribution.

The old way was Henry Ford’s way writ large:  let wages rise so that workers can purchase what they produce.  Then aggregate demand will increase, industry will prosper, and capital and labor will both be better off.

That model succeeded too well.  After several decades, it became clear to a new generation of capitalists that the way forward for them was to revert back to squeezing as much as they could out of workers – depressing wages at home and outsourcing as much as possible to countries where wages are lower and regulations less stringent.

Under the old regime, unions impeded management’s prerogatives, and they imposed costs on owners.  But they didn’t block capital accumulation.  Indeed, by helping to increase effective demand, they actually facilitated it.

But in the neo-liberal order that arose in the aftermath of the PATCO strike and, later, the coal miners’ strike in Great Britain, capitalists found that they again have everything to gain by reverting back to their old ways: enriching themselves by impoverishing their workers.

This is why the most nefarious among them are now pouring money into efforts to legislate the right to work.

But greed is a vice, and rare is the class warrior who will revel in it.  Yes, there are pseudo-philosophers like Ayn Rand who think that they should, and there are plutocrats who embrace her ideas.  But the better ones, the ones less morally and intellectually deficient, want better.  Inferring from where their money goes, even the Koch brothers feel a need, from time to time, for more satisfactory justifications for their predations.

There are plenty of clever philosophers, economists, political scientists and others out there who are eager to help them out.   They had better be clever if they want to defend right to work laws because the case for this latest expression of plutocratic malefaction is hypocritical or muddled or both.

* * *

Apologists for plutocracy call the ideology they promote “libertarian.”  “Classical liberal” would be more apt, but since “liberals” were the architects of the New Deal and Great Society, and since liberals today continue to defend those institutions, along with other economic, social and political advances abhorred on the right, they shun that word.

Like all other modern philosophical tendencies, liberalism takes individuals and their interests – not God and His, or “natural law” or any other pre-modern conception – as its point of departure.  The interests liberals of all types privilege most are liberty interests; they want individuals, in their interactions with others, to be as free as they can be.

From its beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, liberalism was a philosophy of tolerance, especially religious tolerance.  Liberals were also the first defenders of freedom of thought and expression.  In the liberal view, a good society is one in which individuals are as free as they can be from state and societal interference.

The first liberals also defended so-called economic freedoms – what the philosopher Robert Nozick called “capitalist acts between consenting adults.”  Modern liberalism, especially the kind associated with the New Deal, is less inclined than the classical variety to champion unregulated capitalist acts.  But its view of them is hardly hostile.

Indeed, no historically significant strain of liberal theory or practice has ever been anti-capitalist.  But modern liberals, the kind libertarians abhor, are disinclined to see political, social and economic liberties as a seamless web.

They understand that it is often necessary to restrict economic liberties for the sake of maintaining or enhancing the political and social liberties they value more.

Libertarians disagree.  Not only do they think that political, social and economic liberties comprise a seamless web; they cherish the economic liberties as much or more than any of the others.

As harbingers of the emerging capitalist order, classical liberals were among the very first to promote a vision of society based on market relations, where social solidarities give way to human interactions based on exchange.

In line with their faith in the virtues of market relations, classical liberals abhorred combinations of all kinds, especially combinations of workers.  It would take many decades for anyone within the liberal tradition to make peace with the idea of collective bargaining over working conditions and wages, and longer still for union-friendly attitudes to become mainstream.

A true classical liberal would therefore seek to end collective bargaining as such, not just to deprive unions of dues.  When libertarians today advocate right to work legislation, they are therefore either in the dark about what their philosophical commitments imply or else they are just being disingenuous.

Of course, it is possible to explain away their disingenuousness as a strategic move only  – like the efforts of anti-abortion activists to impose odious requirements on abortion providers.  But opponents of reproductive rights are clear about their objective; they just think that the best way to get to where they want to be is in small steps.

Libertarians are not similarly clear about why they are intent on promoting the right to work.  Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor, even went so far as to insist that he had no problem with collective bargaining at all.

Perhaps he was only being more than usually dishonest or perhaps his thinking is more than usually muddled.

But the fact remains: classical liberalism can accommodate associations of individuals, including workers who come together because they work in the same plant or industry, but it cannot be similarly accepting of workers bargaining collectively.  That would violate the core tenets of the nineteenth century economic nostrums that classical liberals embrace with religious zeal.

More revealing, though, of the hypocrisy and/or muddle-headedness of today’s libertarians is the demonstrable fact that, in their advocacy of right to work legislation, they allow, and even encourage, what in other, closely related contexts, they emphatically reject on both practical and moral grounds.

This last point is a bit complicated, but worth spelling out: Liberalism, both classical and modern, comes in many varieties.  But all varieties acknowledge a need for political authority.  All liberals accept the idea that coercive institutions, institutions that limit liberty by compelling compliance through the use or threat of force, are unavoidable if individuals’ interests, including their liberty interests, are to be realized to the greatest possible extent.

In this respect, all liberals are Hobbesians, proponents of the case for the state put forward by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) in a few short chapters of his masterpiece, Leviathan (1651).

Hobbes’ actual argument involves idiosyncratic and dubiously exaggerated claims about human nature and the human condition, and is therefore unsustainable in its original form.  It is the ideas behind it, not the argument itself, that have been almost universally adopted for more than three and a half centuries.

In addition, the subtleties of Hobbes’ argument are legion, and no summary account can do them justice.  But the gist of what he had in mind can be stated briefly.

If we suppose that individuals are generally self-interested and rational (capable of adapting means to ends), then, in the conditions we confront – where individuals have more or less the same physical and mental endowments, and where most of the things we want are scarce – unrestricted freedom will lead to a devastating “war of all against all” in which we are worse off than we could otherwise be.

Hobbes called this condition a “state of nature.”  In a state of nature, there are no authority relations of any kind, and individual interactions are thoroughly unconstrained by rules.

Hobbes maintained that we would all be better off, better able to realize our ends, if, instead of pursuing our ends on our own in a state of nature, we could somehow coordinate our activities enough to establish a civil order in which lives and property are generally secure.

The downside, though, is that, in such a condition, everyone cannot always do what they want which is, by hypothesis, what they deem best for themselves.

But it would be irrational for any individual voluntarily to defer from doing what is individually best.  This is why individuals cannot cooperate their way out of a state of nature.

Self-interested rational individuals have incentives to enter into cooperative agreements, but they also have incentives to defect from those agreements whenever they would be better off doing so. This being the case, cooperation is impossible.  Cooperation would make outcomes better for all, but rational, self-interested individuals, mired in a war of all against all, cannot cooperate.

And so, Hobbes argued, they have only one recourse: to change the conditions they confront in a way that makes it irrational for them to do what would be individually best in state of nature conditions.

There would be no war of all against all if there were, say, some individual who is so much more powerful than everyone else that it would be irrational to defy his commands.  But there is no one like that; nature has made us relatively equal.

However we can overcome this fact of the human condition by concocting what Hobbes called “a sovereign power to hold us in awe.”  We do so by authorizing some individual to act as our representative, in much the way that in the real world we confer power of attorney on others, giving them the right to make decisions in our behalf.

Hobbes’ account of how we are able to confer this kind of authorization in the absence of political authority relations, and of how the sovereign power we concoct is able to issue enforceable commands, is ingenious, but the details needn’t detain us.  The point is that political authority, the power to compel compliance, though unnatural inasmuch as we are all relatively equal in mind and body, is something we are able to devise; and that once it is established, fear of the sovereign, or rather of the sovereign’s police, suffices to bring individuals enough into line for everyone to be better off.

And so, while we cannot coordinate our behaviors voluntarily, we are able to establish institutions, coercive ones, that bring about the requisite degree of coordination.  In doing so, we make ourselves unfree to do some of the things we may want to do, the better to realize our interests as the free beings we are.

The basic idea, then, is that we need political authority relations, limitations on freedom, to save us from ourselves and from each other or, what comes to the same thing, from the untrammeled expression of our nature as self-interested beings.

Anarchists disagree; they believe that uncoerced cooperation is humanly possible.  But all other modern political theories accept the Hobbesian doctrine in one form or another.

Although libertarians, the classical liberals of our time, sometimes evince an animosity towards state institutions in ways that seem almost anarchist in inspiration and intensity, classical liberalism does too – insisting only that we keep the coercive mechanisms we concoct to a minimum, and that we keep markets free from political interference.

No matter that exchange relations cannot survive without political superintendence; classical liberalism’s economic prescriptions have never been exactly reality-based.  Market besotted libertarians today are especially susceptible to this foible.  They simply cannot get their heads around the fact that “free markets” could not exist at all, much less flourish, without active political support.

Strictly speaking, the Hobbesian argument is about how the coordination of individuals’ behaviors is possible.  It does not address the question of how, if ever, coercion can be justified.  It was enough, for Hobbes, to show that it is in our interests that political authority relations exist.

Hobbes had principled, albeit indefensible, reasons for denying the timeworn distinction between might and right.  On this point, liberals of all kinds, including libertarians, along with almost everyone else who accepts the Hobbesian case for political authority, disagree.

They all hold, quite sensibly, that it is not only imprudent to act self-interestedly in circumstances when doing so makes individuals worse off, but also morally wrong.

The basic idea is that it is wrong to “free ride” on the contributions of others, as we would be doing if we were to benefit from the sacrifices others make when they defer from doing what is individually best without doing so oneself.

If a good requires joint production, it is only fair that everyone contributes – equally or in proportion to his or her ability or according to some other reasonable metric.  Not to do so would be to take unfair advantage of others; and that would be unjust.

Libertarians don’t get a pass on this; they abhor free riding as much as anyone – perhaps even more in view of how they go on about “personal responsibility” and distribution according to merit.

But, in making union membership voluntary, right to work legislation encourages free riding – to the extent that it does not kill off unions altogether.  Let Republicans obfuscate to their heart’s content, even Democrats gullible enough to be taken in by the “fiscal cliff” and the “deficit problem” can see through this one.

So, except for themselves, who do they think they are fooling?

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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