I’ve been following an argument going on among self-described libertarians in the blogosphere over labor unions and right-to-work laws with a certain amount of bemusement. From my point-of-view, at least, they’re tying themselves into knots on the subject. The original kick-off was this article:
A “union shop” agreement between an employer and a union commits the employer to ensuring that new hires join the union within a specified period. Right-to-work laws ban union-shop agreements.
Let’s put it another way: They violate freedom of contract.
If employers choose to conclude union-shop contracts with unions, what gives the Indiana legislature the right to interfere?
Employers own the wages they will pay and the sites where work will be performed under such contracts. So it’s their right to dispense the wages and make the sites available specifically to union members, just as it’s their right, more generally, to trade with anyone they choose.
When a legislature interferes with voluntary employment contracts, it infringes people’s freedom to bargain with their own labor and possessions. Treating this kind of interference as acceptable means licensing arbitrary interventions into the market by politicians, who are ill-equipped to second-guess the decisions made by the real people making work agreements with one another.
On more than one occasion, I’ve heard some libertarians object to right-to-work laws on the grounds that they undermine freedom of contract by barring employers from negotiating closed shop agreements with unions if they so choose. At Reason‘s Hit & Run blog, J.D. Tuccille repeats this argument. Tuccille says he opposes Michigan’s new right-to-work law because it “bans closed shops in which union membership is a condition of employment.”
Libertarians generally oppose banning contractual agreements into which parties voluntarily enter, so Tuccille’s objection seems reasonable — but only because it ignores the alternative.
Right-to-work laws at the state level “balance” federal labor legislation only by countering state intrusion with state intrusion. The result is certain to be a continuing effort to “fix” problems caused by earlier laws. And politicians will be at the center of it all, building their authority while playing the sides against each other.
A free market in which businesses and labor negotiate conditions on their own can be created only by actually freeing the market. It will also reduce the power of government and the role of politicians. Yes, that is more difficult than enacting ever-more legal spackle.
One argument for right-to-work laws is that such rules provide a counter-balance against an inherent pro-labor bias in federal labor law. But if that’s really the problem, it would seem the better solution would be to fix federal labor law, not endorse yet more government interference with private economic arrangements. Are there better libertarian arguments for right-to-work laws? If so, I’d like to hear them, for at the moment (and despite my anti-union sentiments), I’m not convinced.
One thing we might want to do is define our terms. I would define libertarianism as the political policy that advocates minimizing coercion and maximizing individual freedom, liberty, and voluntary association. Minarchism is the sub-division of libertarianism that sees the legitimate role of the state as reducing aggression, theft, breach of contract, and fraud. Anarcho-capitalism is the belief that the state should be abolished entirely in favor of private defense and voluntary contracts.
When did all libertarians become minarchists and anarcho-capitalists? I see precious little about individual freedom in any of those posts, lots about contracts, and even more about constraining the state.
I have no particular animus against either labor unions or government. I see them as strictly instrumental. There will always be competing interests, selfish motivations, and rule-breaking. There needs to be a referee. Government is that referee.
Similarly, labor unions are useful to the degree that they lower the transaction costs for negotiating wages or advocate for the welfare of workers and their communities. They are unuseful to the extent that they act for the aggrandizement of union officials, promote inefficient work rules for companies, or are coercive.
What am I missing?