That it should be so widely accepted that the advocacy for labor and that for genuine free markets are mutually exclusive is instructive of the state’s ability — among its most important — to come between those whose interests actually align. The union/anti-union schism within American political rhetoric, a false choice that closely parallels the Democrat/Republican divide, is a guise placed over the real, underlying issue in our economy.
The meaningful division is between those who use coercive manipulation of the bounds within which economic activities take place, and those who rely on voluntary, cooperative courses of action. Any number of organizational structures, including unions, would occupy a free market, negotiating for their members, systematizing production and administering business affairs. If public workers’ unions draw special ire due to the fact that their members “feed from the taxpayers,” then we would do well to remember that their members are the taxpayers.
Members of these unions work for the formal state, as against technically (very technically indeed) private firms, but many among the latter category benefit no less from the industry of the taxpayer than do state tentacles like government schools. Libertarians in good standing are apparently meant to take a “plumb-line” approach to the unions at hand, regarding the public workers themselves as culpable insofar as they’re participants through “working for the state.” But by a standard that demonizes all of those who labor to benefit the state and those who circle around it, we are all blameworthy.
Since the state exists to filch productive power from those who work, its scope extending into all areas of economic life, we are all its hosts. As such, the state feeds on us to our detriment and to the advantage of a small elite. The state’s restriction of our alternatives as both consumers of goods and as sources of labor power is what enables state and corporate entities to charge us too much and give us too little.
“All of these evils [of present day capitalism] — ,” writes Kevin Carson, “exploitation of labor, monopoly and concentration, the energy crisis, pollution, waste — result from government intervention in the market on behalf of capitalists.” While we’re singling out those whose paychecks come at the taxpayers’ deficit, let’s be ready to gather Walmart, Bechtel, Boeing, Raytheon and their kind — along with so many other supposed exemplars of “free enterprise” — for the same criticism.
Decrying the class of people who triumph in the economy as a result of tax theft or other kinds of coercive, political “restraints of trade” can’t, if we’re to be faithfully libertarian in our account, stop short of the darling “private sector.” As Étienne de La Boétie advised in his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, “the sacred name of Liberty must never be used to cover a false enterprise.” With regard to unions, the distinction many conservative and libertarian commentators are drawing between the “private” and “public” variants is — as it is in our economy more generally — misleading at the very least, declining to acknowledge the extent of the state’s permeation of the economy.
Worries that some economic actors are being “overpaid” in our statist system would be much more justly directed at middle managers and executives within the corporate complex. Without a truly freed market’s price mechanism, it’s impossible to know just how much anyone is being overpaid, or any agency is wasting, but we can be fairly sure that secretaries in state bureaucracies and K-12 teachers aren’t the “big winners” in our statist economic system.
In American state capitalism, observes Roderick Long, “some people are systematically empowered to dictate the terms on which other people live, work, and trade.” That power, with all of its attending inequalities, has never stood to create money trees for the working class, but for the power elites behind the curtain.
If I found myself complaining about the features of our very un-free market, and I often do, I think collective bargaining rights for comparatively low-paid state workers would have to take a backseat to the cornucopia of corporate welfare glaring in my face everywhere I look.