Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns


On Wisconsin

Since I've criticized Joe Klein of Time magazine when his assessments seemed way off the mark, it's fair to cite and commend him for writing some smart and brave things about the political storm in Wisconsin:

Isn't it, well, a bit ironic that the protesters in Madison, blocking the state senate chamber, are chanting "Freedom, Democracy, Union" while trying to prevent a vote? Isn't it ironic that the Democratic Senators have fled the democratic process? Isn't it interesting that some of those who--rightly--protest the assorted Republican efforts to stymie majority rule in the U.S. Senate are celebrating the Democratic efforts to stymie the same in  the Wisconsin Senate?

An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can't be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters. And it seems to me that Governor Scott Walker's basic requests are modest ones--asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, though still far less than most private sector employees do. He is also trying to limit the unions' abilities to negotiate work rules--and this is crucial when it comes to the more efficient operation of government in a difficult time.

The most thoughtful assessment of besieged Madison (both the author of the Constitution and the city named after him) comes, as usual, from Walter Russell Mead of The American Interest. Mead has argued for some time that the "blue social model," which gave America the post-New Deal order where Big Government, Big Business and Big Labor argued but ultimately collaborated on the administration of Big Prosperity, has become obsolete.  The "chief division in American politics today," he wrote last year, "is between those who think the blue model is the only possible or at least the best feasible way to organize a modern society and want to shore it up and defend it, and those who think the blue model, whatever benefits it had in the past, is no longer sustainable."

Public employee unions are not only the principal beneficiaries of what's left of the blue model, but its most passionate advocates on ideological as well as self-interested grounds.  The Democrats of our day are the party of government in two senses: they advocate more government intervention in the economy as the indispensable means to improve social conditions; and they represent the interests of all the government's wards and wardens, the recipients and deliverers of benefits. 

There is a basic tension here.  The commitment to successful government interventions will require the party of government to insist on rigor, clear standards, and vigilant economizing - all the things likely to antagonize the party's constituencies in government.  As a result, Mead argues, the blue model routinely costs more than we can afford while failing to accomplish things we really need done.  Or, as Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana put the point to an interviewer, "I argue to my most liberal friends: 'You ought to be the most offended of anybody if a dollar that could help a poor person is being squandered in some way.'  And some of them actually agree."  But a lot of them don't agree, and you can find them shouting in the Wisconsin capitol this week.

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 1 Comment

Those are good and ain't it awful that Joe Klein has to be considered brave for saying something so evident?

If government makes its largesse an aspect of someone's self-interest, and something they have been told they earned, that someone is going to howl like mad if it's removed or reduced. Those folks are comfortable and were looking forward to being very comfortable. The "at taxpayers' onerous expense" part isn't something they want to hear or think about. A retired Ohio school principal I know could retire before the age of sixty and tells me (roughly) that she got out while the getting was good. She is very comfortable and it will not be "fair" if others don't get the same kind of deal. What's fair, I ask her? And fair to whom? Her laugh is uncomfortable. It's hard to deny a person's right to take advantage of what enhances self-interest. Except if you are the person who has to pay for it and government can threaten you with imprisonment if you don't keep up increasing payments. "It was my contract." she says.

Who the heck was defending the taxpayer's interests when negotiating that kind of contract?

Mead ends with, "The United States must reform or decline; failure is not an option." From here it looks like we will be having something like a civil war to overthrow the "blue social model". President Obama is right about one thing in the matter; these are our neighbors. That doesn't mean they are right, or that we can sustain their level of comfort, but the reform is not going to be comfortable for them.

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