Saturday, December 3, 2011

Should a Libertarian Work for a Union?

An EPJ reader sent an email to both Bob Murphy and me, with his permission after removing his name an identifying details I reproduce his email here, along with a response:
I am emailing the both of you are both similarly aligned with the beliefs that I also hold. However, there is something that I must tell you guys-- I am a union-member.

I know that this makes me seem a hypocrite due to my also being an Austrian (of the Rothbardian persuasion) and that I portray myself as such. In all honesty, I do consider myself a true Austrian.

Before I left XXX to move back home to ZZZ, I talked to my father to align a job for myself. He, having retired as a union Ironworker...had many connections in the heavy industrial/construction industry. The thing is that in ZZZ and these industries are entirely unionized and require all contractors to be union, as well. When I arrived in ZZZ, I was hired by two of the subsidiaries of the 'Company Y' to work in their office/shop to learn the ropes, but I had to get a union card before being allowed on any of the job sites.

...The management/owners aren't Austrians, but they obviously would prefer to be a non-union contractor. As for me, even though the union requires a substantial base-rate of pay to members (plus benefits), I make substantially more than this rate (plus yearly bonuses and per diem)....

There is a saying in this line of work, "you're either a company man or a union man, you cannot be both". Well, most of the men that I work with (save a few outliers) are company men. We know where our pay comes from and who takes care of us when we need help (hint: it isn't the union).

I know that you guys are busy and probably have more important things to do than to read a lengthy email by yours truly, but I felt that this is something that I should get off of my chest. I don't like it when people aren't up front with me, so I felt it important to be up front with the both of you. Also, I don't want to appear to making excuses with the content above, but it is merely the reality of the situation. I do, however, go out of my way to spread free-market and libertarian ideas on the job site. My hard hat has two prominent slickers on it: "libertarian" and "tu ne cede malis". This alone has started more conversations than anything else.
Dear X,

First, I would like to comment on your use of the word "Austrian". The Austrian school of economics is a value-free scientific discipline in the same manner that physics is. You can use the science of physics to build a hospital or a bomb. There is no moral or ethical posture held by such a science. As another example, someone who understands Austrian theory and knows that printing money would distort the economic structure in favor of capital goods such as the stock market, could advocate the printing of money, if he planned to personally buys stocks in advance of such money printing. He would be applying Austrian theory correctly from a technical scientific point of view. Science, in this sense, be it, physics or economics,does not make value judgements. It seeks to explain the world, but the moral and ethical means for what science is used for is beyond its scope and falls in the realm of moral philosophy.

Thus, "Austrian" should not be used to explain your ethical and moral beliefs, in the same way that a physicist, when simply identifying himself as a physicist does not identify his moral position on building bombs or hospitals. When you get into the moral sphere and believe that coercion is evil, you are in the realm of libertarian philosophy, not Austrian economics.

As for being a union member, we are live in a very unfree world in many ways. A doctor can't practice medicine in the United States without a government license, even if he understands the sole purpose is to limit the number of people that enter the medical field and a taxi cab driver can't drive a cab without a government issued hack license. Yet, there is nothing wrong with their seeking their professional licenses from government, to practice in their chosen profession, as long as they do not become advocates of the licensing programs in any way.

It's the same situation for a union member. Most unions are in existence only because government regulations  make it difficult or impossible for companies to hire non-union workers, in such a situation a worker is in no significant way different from the position of doctors or cabbies seeking a license. Just don't ever advocate union formations or union programs and in my view you are not in any way violating libertarian ethical code.

And although there is no requirement in libertarian ethics that you engage in debate with other union members, it appears that you don't mind doing so given the stickers on your hard hat, so why don't you try reading these two books during lunch breaks, they might result in some conversation: The Strike Threat System  and The Theory of Collective Bargaining.


  1. Good answer. I was thinking about this problem the other day. However can this logic be applied to a government or city job? All the salaries are paid for by govt coercive action. Like you said if you want to be a plumber in a certain area you might have no choice but to become a union member. Private unions just make it harder for others to enter the field. But is this the case with being a govt worker? I remember from Ludwig von mises book "bureaucracy" Mises sort of frowns on those who become government workers. In that they are not utilizing their full potential.
    Is a libertarian that becomes a federal or city worker a hypocrite? Many libertarians dont by govt bonds because the govt has to take it from some one in the future to pay them the principle plus the interest. Becoming a state employee is sort of the same thing you are not the one stealing per say but the govt is doing it for you to pay you for your labor (in the same way as a bond). This I think is a more interesting than unions.

  2. IMO, when you have no other reasonable choices for employment you are a "victim" and are not giving your "sanction" by accepting this employment. You give your "sanction" when you then use your privileged position to victimize others.

  3. You can't respond without citing Block on this issue!

  4. Speaking of Mr. Murphy, why is his blog down, anyone know ?

  5. "Just don't ever advocate union formations or union programs and in my view you are not in any way violating libertarian ethical code."

    For clarity, I assume you mean a libertarian does not support laws forming/protecting unions. A libertarian would not have a problem with voluntary unionizing. The problem though is that without the force of government, the union has no real leverage and becomes irrelevant.

    The worker is employed at the will of the employer because the employer is paying for the worker's labor. Essentially, the employer is a consumer of labor and as such, should be able to 'buy' his labor on his terms like a consumer of goods and services.

    If you are an employer, unionized workers would be like all the grocers "unionizing" into a cartel to set their prices. Unions basically engage in price-fixing of labor.

  6. I'm in a similar situation: I'm a Rothbardian an-cap who works in Hollywood and thus am a member of a union. Unhappily, begrudgingly so. I wrote about it here:

  7. Anonymous @2:29 PM asked, "Is a libertarian that becomes a federal or city worker a hypocrite?"

    There's quite a bit written about the subject from a Libertarian persective.

    I've read some, as I recall, so long as you do not advance goberment, it's ok and a Person is not a hypocrite for doing so.

  8. @ anonymous 12:24PM.
    Do you have any suggestive readings on the subject I have never came across any thing like that?

  9. Libertarians on UNIONS--the summary combats extreme 'libertarian' conservatives claiming libertarianism=right to work, anti-unionism, anticollective bargaining, etc. and shows the correct fight is for automatic choice of union your legislator! and that Unions are working with Libs in many areas...