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Campus Media Response: Wisconsin Protestors: Fighting for the Privilege to Count Themselves as the “Public”

Newly-elected Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, buoyed by Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature, has proposed a dramatic revision to the privileges currently enjoyed by state employees, especially public school teachers. State employees’ unions have responded by staging large-scale protests in the capitol of Madison. It is no surprise that students at the nearby University of Wisconsin, like Sam Stevenson, have weighed in on the controversy. Stevenson argues:

By attacking the benefits and pay of the state’s nearly 200,000 public workers, the governor is sending a clear signal to working people across the state that his administration is dedicated to destroying living wage jobs with humane benefits in the interest of providing his business supporters with cheap, easily exploited labor.

As concerned citizens and students, we mustn’t allow ourselves to dismiss these attacks as the plight of others; the assault on the working class and public employees is part of a war being waged against the public university and with it the very foundation of our democratic society. . . .

The changes being proposed by the Walker administration would drag Wisconsin into a proverbial dark age where working people are deprived of collective bargaining rights and ultimately any agency to improve their lives and contest the dictates of the ruling elite.

Given that Wisconsin is facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit in the next two years, what do those like Stevenson think is the alternative to Walker’s proposal? Most critics of Walker contend that the budget shortfall was caused by a package of tax cuts for “business supporters” pushed by the governor in January. Their implication: taxes should be raised to cover the gap.

Whether or not it is true that tax cuts were responsible for the current budget shortfall, there is a deeper problem with the alternative of further increasing the burden on taxpayers. Higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy inevitably mean less investment in the private economy. Government employees who demand more from taxpayers are arguing, in effect, that government jobs should take precedence over private prosperity.

What makes the Wisconsin protestors think they have a “collective bargaining right” to demand this preferential treatment? Central to state employees’ vision is that, as “public servants,” their work more directly promotes “the public interest.”

But it is hard to see why a government school teacher, for instance, provides services that are more important than a private school teacher—unless it is assumed that the state school teacher’s job is privileged morally because state-run schools teach those who might not be able to afford private school. Never mind that most parents could afford to pay for their children’s education if they weren’t taxed by school districts in the first place. Never mind that a government education is of diminishing value as students who graduate cannot find a private sector job. Never mind that the taxpayers could just as logically claim the title of “the public.” These facts are ignored. The trick of the protesters is to claim the title of guardians of the public and extract privileges on that basis.

Ayn Rand reminded us that this pressure group warfare is the inevitable result of combining the worship of the amorphous “public interest” with a morality that celebrates sacrifice:

Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals take precedence over the interests and rights of others.
If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment—and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy would bring them into existence.

Since there is no rational justification for the sacrifice of some men to others, there is no objective criterion by which such a sacrifice can be guided in practice. All “public interest” legislation . . . comes down ultimately to the grant of an undefined, undefinable, non-objective, arbitrary power to some government officials.

It is bad enough when politicians claim to represent the “collective” interests of society, and demand individual sacrifice for the sake of this end. It is worse when a permanent political class claims to represent the same—compounding their privileges with the “right” to bargain collectively. Students who pursue education in order to achieve a livelihood for themselves and who believe their hard work shouldn’t put them in debt to the “public interest” should think twice about supporting the teachers who make such demands.

Creative Commons-licensed picture by pchgorman on Flickr.

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Valery Publius is the pen name of a teacher living in the American South.