Anarchists want to abolish the state, with all functions now performed by the state being performed by voluntary associations. So naturally, we object to “public employment” — the funding of services through compulsory taxation — in principle.
The question is, how do we get there from here?
Some things currently done by tax-funded government employees are legitimate functions that would still exist in some form in a stateless society. Mail delivery is one example. Education would no doubt be different in many ways in a free society — no compulsory attendance laws, and no processing of human resources for the corporate state. But teaching children is an important function in any society, and much that public school teachers do now would probably carry over without much change. Even some of what police do, like stopping violent crime and apprehending aggressors, would still be necessary — but without laws against victimless crimes, or any of the thuggish behavior regularly chronicled by people like Radley Balko.
Many government employees perform such functions in an environment where the state has coopted the function and crowded out alternative ways of organizing it.
If we view the state as preempting necessary functions, and interposing itself between the providers of services and recipients of those services, our ultimate goal is to devolve such functions into the realm of voluntary association. Removing the parasitic middlemen, who have inserted themselves into the relationship between service providers and recipients, is an important part of this process. Anything that strengthens the hand of public sector workers against the commanding heights of the state, also weakens the hand of the state and its plutocratic allies.
It’s hardly obvious, despite Scott Walker’s rhetoric, that reduced bargaining power for public sector workers will translate directly into reduced taxes. The upper management of government bureaucracies typically justify cuts in pay, benefits and staffing levels for those actually providing services in the name of saving the taxpayers’ money — and then more than eats up any savings with management featherbedding, junkets and “motivational retreats” for themselves. To the extent that public sector unions fight attempts at downsizings, speedups and cutting corners, they may actually be defending the interests of service recipients at the expense of their bureaucratic bosses.
In the case of public schools, anything that strengthens the hands of school administrators and education departments at the expense of the autonomy of rank-and-file teachers, also serves to impose the authoritarian educationist dogma on all of them. The biggest victims of such policies are frequently, not incompetents and illiterates, but those who teach their pupils to question authority and undermine the official ideology of the corporate state. The best teachers I ever had in the belly of the beast, the ones who led me furthest astray from orthodoxy, spent most of their time looking over their shoulders. If anything’s guaranteed to weed out such mavericks, it’s removing their job security and turning them into at-will employees at the mercy of idjut principals and superintendents.
The same is true of other taxpayer-funded services. It’s often the production workers who fight hardest against senior management attempts to downsize service staff and skim off the savings for themselves. An at-will worker with no union contract is a lot less likely to stick her neck out as a public advocate against the management of a post office or VA hospital.
And frankly, Walker’s attempts to depict public sector workers as privileged leeches for their pay and benefit levels rankles me more than a little, given my own status as a blue collar worker. The compensation and bargaining power enjoyed by public sector workers were once shared by a major share of private sector workers, before people of Walker’s ilk busted private sector unions a generation ago.
So while I object to government employment in principle, I’m uneasy about the standard libertarian framing of the issue with rank-and-file government workers as the villains and Walker as the good guy. If it’s a mistake to defend government workers as such, the people who rally behind Wisconsin’s state employees at least do so on sound instincts.
They perceive, rightly, that Walker wants to break public sector unions not out of any principled attachment to free markets, but because they’re unions. Unions, such as they are, are one of the few remaining vestiges of a middle class way of life, in an age of stagnant real wages and skyrocketing CEO wages and corporate profits. Walker, like other establishment Republicans, serves the interests of an unholy alliance between big government and big business. If you want to know which master’s voice he obeys, just pay attention to who he takes calls from.
Our goal is to replace the present system with a different way of doing things — not to vilify those caught up in it.
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