Libertarianism and Right-to Work Laws

Today, my talk (Youtube video) will be about libertarians and their views on right-to-work laws, which prohibit unions from requiring all workers within a given company to join the union. First we should begin with the types of libertarians that exist. This is a really Orwellian choice of language, don’t you think?

In my view, there are two types of libertarians:

  1. Left-wing libertarians (or libertarian socialists; some even call them anarcho-syndicalists like Noam Chomsky).
  2. Right-wing libertarians, i.e. Koch brother types.

What both sides have in common is their avowed support of “freedom”, and usually freedom from state coercion and things like that. But the left-wing is on the side of the workers and the general public except the powerful, and the right-wing is on the side of the rich and powerful, mostly capitalists. It is obvious that the left-wing libertarians will favor unions and oppose right-to-work, and right-wing libertarians oppose unions and support right-to-work.

The early enunciation of this split in libertarianism can be read in John Locke, whom I would consider a right-wing libertarian, because he defended the liberty of the capitalists against that of the laborer. Adam Smith is somewhere in between, because he liked free markets benefiting employers, but he was also highly sympathetic of the cause of the workers and trade unions. Marx was clearly a left-wing libertarian, because he made some negative statements about the state, which under the highest form of communism would “wither away”.

In principle, one could say that one is a political centrist libertarian with no partisan preference on either side. But we could only do that if we kept the debate highly abstract and within philosophical debate club circles. But we are talking about problems in the real world, and here you have to choose on whose side you are on. Whose freedom should we advocate? Given the worker-capitalist conflict it is not possible for both sides to have an equal amount of freedom. If you are for “right-to-work” laws then you are in favor of diminished workers’ rights and for increased employers’ rights. Individual workers (not in a union) are screwed against capitalists unless they have rare and needed skills. But that is always a tiny minority of the workforce, and can not be national policy. It can only be individual advice (“get more education”).

Even if we accept a framework of union coercion restricting workers’ individual freedom, one is also implicitly endorsing the increase of employer coercion in the form of lower wages, longer hours, fewer benefits and harsher working conditions. In that case union coercion is much better than employer coercion. So most Americans understand the freedom fallacy and support unions, which poll after poll shows.

But some libertarians bypass the industrial class conflict argument by siding with consumers (“consumer sovereignty” etc.). But that is not realistic to mitigate industrial class conflicts, because customers generally don’t care whether a shirt is produced in a sweatshop in Bangladesh or in a decent company. They care about price and product quality only.

Some libertarians might even acknowledge class conflict but counter that workers can always choose to leave their abusive employer and find another job or open up their own company. My response is “good for you”. But we are not talking about individual advice, but about the experience of the average worker who is either better off in terms of wages, benefits and rights on the job or worse off under right-to-work, and they are clearly worse off. Even by libertarian economists’ own admission if workers do find a better job, they will go for the better job. The fact that many workers don’t do it indicates the terrible nature of the job market, which really is a restriction on the freedom of workers. The capitalist has the freedom of movement, and blackmail workers with redundancy, but the worker is tied to his locality in most cases and has no similar method of blackmail against their abusive employers.

Some libertarians might argue that if unions are good for workers then they would voluntarily and on their own accord choose to join a union. We don’t have to force them. The Volkswagen Tennessee story is one example of that. Workers had a unionization vote and a majority voted against it, albeit with only a small margin. Right-wing libertarians will beat their chest and proclaim that we should accept workers’ choice. Unions are not good for workers, the clever VW workers recognized, so the right-wing libertarian says.

But there are several problems with the argument

  1. Mostly Republican politicians (senators and the governor) led a misinformation campaign about how VW will allegedly move the plant to Mexico if they voted in favor of unionization. This is bullshit, because VW management in Germany implicitly supported the unionization vote, because in Germany unions are represented in the corporate boardroom, and they were highly enthusiastic about it.
  2. These politicians also threatened that if VW unionized all tax incentives for the plant will be repealed. This is blackmailing and has nothing to do with giving workers “free” choice.
  3. Even if one thinks that the first two points do not matter, it does not mean that workers are well-informed about their choices. Libertarians assume that people have the freedom to decide but also that they have all the available information at their disposal. But we have a strong anti-union culture in the South as a result of business/politician propaganda, so information for workers is not as widely available as suggested.
  4. I want to diverge with left-libertarians on one more point (though they would agree with my first three points: I don’t mind having to “force” workers to join a union if I were a dictator, even if a slight majority of workers opposed joining the union right now. I assume they will grow to like the union once they are in it, just like with social security, which the rich try to destroy, but were not successful (yet).In addition, I have no moral qualms to coerce people to embrace higher wages, better working conditions, better taking care of their families and their pursuit of happiness. I will try everything I can to convince them of it, but if they don’t oblige then the state still has the power to impose the “common good”. But let me give you an example before you go take out your Hayek and quote Road to Serfdom passages.

    My favorite example of soft paternalism are pensions: most workers obviously like pensions, so no convincing work and direct government coercion is necessary. But let us assume that libertarians even oppose pensions, which robs workers of their current labor earnings by forcing (!) them to save for the future. But having pensions, i.e. coerced savings, is still a good idea, because most workers are not careful enough with money and will end up with no savings at age 65 and become too weak and unfit to continue working or have to work until they die. Libertarians might argue “Tough luck. Make better decisions!” But I would find that view crazy. Why would we let seniors starve and work themselves to death just so we can enjoy some hollow form of “liberty”. Where is my freedom, when I am poor?

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