Friday, February 1, 2013

Rand Paul versus Walter Block on Right To Work Laws (and Further Concerns)

Sen. Rand Paul this week introduced the National Right to Work Act, S. 204. In a press release, he said:
“Every American worker deserves the right to freedom of association – and I am concerned that the 26 states that allow forced union membership and dues infringes on these workers’ rights,” Sen. Paul said. “Right to work laws ensure that all Americans are given the choice to refrain from joining or paying dues to a union as a condition for employment. Nearly 80 percent of all Americans support the principles and so I have introduced a national Right to Work Act that will require all states to give their workers the freedom to choose.”
What's wrong with this from a libertarian perspective? Here's Walter Block commenting in December 2012 on Right to Work laws.:
 Various types of union security agreements exist. Among the more common are:

Closed shop. The employer agrees to hire only union members. Any employee who quits the union, or is expelled from it, must be fired

Union shop. The firm may first employ non union members, but the employee must eventually join the union

Agency shop. The employer may hire anyone he wishes regardless of their union membership, and the employee need not join the union. However, all non-union employees must pay a fee to the union to cover the costs of collective bargaining

Dues check off. A contract between the employer and union where the former agrees to pay to the latter the union dues from each worker's paycheck.

Right to work laws would forbid all such agreements. One justification for such legislation is that these union contracts are invalid, since they are made under duress. Organized labor compels businesses to sign them by threatening all sorts of violence against them, some legal, others illegal. But suppose, hypothetically, that an agreement of this sort were strictly voluntary. Posit that an extreme left wing, "progressive," firm such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream or Michael Moore Enterprises wanted, desired, was more than willing to, engage in such a commercial interaction with a union. Right to work laws, in forbidding such an arrangement, would then be a violation of the rights of two consenting parties to engage in a capitalist act. Thus, on that ground alone such legislative enactments are incompatible with libertarianism.[...] To put this into other words, a "right to work" is a positive right. It implies an obligation of someone else to hire the person in question. Similarly, a "right" to food, clothing or shelter would oblige others to provide these things for the persons who have such "rights." But positive rights are a direct violation of the libertarian code, which is based upon the non aggression principle. These types of "rights" are a not so subtly hidden demand for wealth at other’s expense, e.g., they amount to a call for, or support of, theft. No libertarian can support them.

In contrast, libertarians do indeed support negative rights, the right not to be murdered, raped, aggressed against. And, yes, this does impose an obligation upon others – to refrain from such nefarious deeds.

Of course, the firm, under the closed shop, is "compelled" not to hire a non union worker, that is, it is prohibited from so doing. But we are positing for the moment that this prohibition stems from a prior contractual agreement, the closed shop, so it is not a compulsion at all.[...] 
Let us leave the realm of deontology for the moment, and enter that of utilitarianism. 
There is no doubt that, other things equal, right to work states would be more prosperous, have less unemployment, than those without this legislation. Why? This is because unions, as presently constituted, are an economic tape worm. They suck the substance out of companies with their strikes, slow-downs, work-to-rule campaigns, etc. It is no accident that the northeast part of the U.S., where unions are strongest, has become a "rust belt." Nor that the south, where they are weakest, has been booming, relatively speaking. To give just one instance, the northern auto workers "earned" something in the neighborhood of $70 per hour (when all fringe benefits are included) for semi-skilled work on the assembly line; as a result, Detroit is a husk of its former self. In contrast, auto workers in the southeast earn a small fraction of that hourly wage. As a result, "run away" shops are seeking to vote with their feet, moving from north to south, in their search for a more reasonably priced labor force.

Does this mean that the libertarian opposition to right to work laws, while just, is also economically inefficient? Not a bit of it. There is a right way and a wrong way to combat evil unionism, and right to work laws are in the latter category. 
What is wrong with unions? Why are they such evil, monstrous organizations? All present labor unions engage in two activities, one of them justifiable, the other despicable. What is the proper role for a union, in the libertarian society? It is to try to raise total wages (money wages plus fringe benefits or working conditions or psychic income) to the highest level possible. And, to that end, these institutions have two means at their disposal, one licit, the other decidedly not.

The former is the mass quit. When one worker goes to the boss and demands a raise, he is not likely to be met with much success. The owner of the firm might well follow the "my way or the highway" philosophy. But if the employee can credibly threaten that if the raise is not forthcoming all 500 employees will down tools, success is more likely. The owner has contracts to fulfill, a work force that actually functions, etc. Any one worker has the right to quit his job, based on the libertarian notion of free association.[...] He does not lose this right even if he does this in concert with his fellow employees (although early on, anti-trust legislation was improperly applied to people who engaged in these "restraints of trade.") So much for proper unionism. If organized labor limited itself to this one tactic, it would be acting compatibly with the non aggression principle (NAP) of libertarianism, and would not cause any economic crisis.  
But unions employ another strategy as well: restrictions on entry. In the bad old days, organized labor would engage in a sit-in, or a picket line (both amount to trespass). They would stop all shipments into our out of the plant. They would brand as "scabs" all those who wanted to take the job offers made by the firm, the ones they were refusing (why this never qualified as "hate speech" is beyond me; no, it isn’t really, but it is entirely a different matter), and through violence not allow the employer to hire them.[...] 
Nowadays, of course, this "blue collar" beating up of scabs has given way to labor legislation which compels the owner of the company to "bargain fairly" with the union[...] The firm [that] does not wish to "bargain fairly" with its unionized employees; [that] desires to hire replacement workers, or "scabs" [...] is prohibited from doing so, in direct violation of its freedom of association. It is forced to "associate" with people it wishes to avoid.[...] So what is to be done about the union menace? Simple, take away from them their illegitimate tool, trespass and restrictions on entry, and leave them with their one licit tactic, mass quits. It is contrary to libertarian principles to do anything else: to democratize them (ensure they use secret ballots), take away their right to support political candidates, or to forbid them by law to engage in freely made contractual agreements, such as union shops, closed shops, etc. [...] If we are to effectively promote libertarianism, we must start off by accurately understanding our own philosophy. Proponents of "right" to work legislation fail in this regard. At the very least, if they fully understood libertarianism, they would say something like: Of course, there is no "right" to work. However, rampant unionism is running amok, and the only way we can deal with this menace to civilization is via right to work legislation (or prohibiting them from engaging in the political process, or shoving democracy down their throats, etc.) We favor right to work laws not because they are just, per se, but due to the fact that they ward off a far greater evil.

I don’t say that I favor engaging in this sort of second bestism. There are problems with it. It is all too similar for my tastes to Milton Friedman's proposals for school vouchers, etc. But, at least people who argue in this way demonstrate a keen appreciation of what libertarianism is all about. There would be something to be said in behalf of these laws on that ground alone.
Bottom line: Rand Paul is again posturing as though he is getting government off people's backs, but is simply replacing one form of government intervention for another. It's the same thing with his plan to "privatize" TSA security measures. It's not eliminating government mandated groping, it's just allowing the groping to be done with other hands. It's not putting security in the hands of airlines to deal with the way they choose. Further, RP is in favor of a speedier screening for those who undergo a government background check. How is this eliminating government's role in society? It would put more data about individuals in the hands of the government or government operatives.

Finally, we should also look at RP's recent questioning of Hillary Clinton with relation to the attack on the US embassy outpost in Benghazi, Libya. Instead of asking questions about the US interference in the region that might have caused the blowback in Benghazi and which would have helped in understanding the consequences of US aggressive operations in many parts of the world, RP spent his time questioning Clinton about the pre-attack security at the Benghazi outpost. A line of questioning that perhaps might be of interest to someone within the security bowels of government, but certainly weak questions for a Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Bottom line: From right to work to airline security to the attack on Benghazi, we see Rand Paul not taking a small government approach, but the approach of someone who wants to micro-manage government in a different direction, rather than move in the direction of shrinking government.


  1. I'll forever be disgusted by the supreme court ruling on the wagner act.

  2. RTW laws might be "second bestism" as Block puts it but that's probably the best we can get out of a legislature these days.

  3. I'm no fan of Rand Paul, and maybe i understand the "right to work" idea wrong.

    But isn't it simply a law to eliminate the coercion part? In other words, the potential employee would still be allowed NOT to hire anyone who doesn't want to join a union, or not?
    So if a company only wants to hire people willing to join a union, it has the choice to only hire people willing to join the union?

    Or is Rand's proposal basically eliminating the freedom of association for the company, by forcing them to keep employed people who decide after all they want no part of unions?

  4. Walter Block is an idiot, he would have us go back to the Articles of Confederation. Yikes!

  5. This statement of Block's is the center of gravity to his argument, "Right to work laws would forbid all such agreements."

    Block may very well be right. But use of the subjunctive case 'would' begs the question whether this specific 'Right to Work' law does in fact forbid all such agreements.

    I would posit that the use of 'would' here indicates that such general statements about right to work laws are not possible, and that each law has too great a degree of individuality to convert the 'would' into a 'do'.

    There are NOT three parties to these agreements, the employees, the union, and the company, as Block's analysis would have it in the first part of his analysis. There are FOUR as Block rightly later notes. The GOVERNMENT is the fourth party and key to unionism.

    The union states are union not because every employer separately contracted with a union, but because they were placed under duress by the government which REQUIRES them to negotiate with the union even if they would rather dismiss the union - as Reagan famously did with the Air Traffic Controllers - and start over. Thus dismissing the 'closed shop' as voluntary by reason of prior agreement is not reasonable.

    If there were no collective bargaining laws supporting unionism, there would be no need for 'right-to-work' laws, because the companies would have simply hired elsewhere and broken the unions.

    I cannot imagine such powerful unions existing in an unrestricted labor market. Union's power is in their their employment. And all unions legitimate activities spring from that employment - walkouts and the like. But 'their' employment belongs in fact to the employer and not to the union. The employer can offer employment to whomever he chooses, government interference notwithstanding.

    Right-to-work laws are an example of one intervention begetting another. What was really needed was the recognition that neither the local or state governments had any legitimate authority to exercise coercion on the employers in the first place.

  6. Walter Block is FAR from an idiot and going back to the Articles of Confederation would be a step in the right direction, with the abolishment of government as the ultimate goal. Anonymous should read some of Dr. Block's books!

  7. Block says the "Right to Work" implies the obligation for someone having to employ someone else. "Right to Work" should be considered a misnomer, instead it should be "Right to Not Have to Join or Support a Union in Order to Work". No one has a "Right to Work" that would force an unwilling employer to hire them. We only have the "Right to apply for work where we choose, and to accept if offered."