Giving and Taking Unions
After slipping into another certainly fruitless discussion with a certain of our regular commenters, it occurred to me that one of humanity’s detrimental tendencies, with particular implications for modern society, is to think of societal mechanisms with too narrow of a focus, usually adjusted to the breadth at which our preferences appear clearest.
The case in point: I would argue that the appropriate concept of workers’ unions is as, themselves, a reaction to the market (using “market” in its broad, theoretical sense, of course). Workers needed a mechanism through which to assert their rights and needs, and in many respects, the unionization method worked out well. However, if we begin to see unions as the source of, rather than the means for, improvements, we create another institution that must constantly be justifying its existence. We also maintain a centralized power even in the absence of a centralized goal toward which to wield it, thereby giving those at its head unhealthy room to lead toward their own ends.
The question is not what good unions may or may not have done in the past. It isn’t even what they boast of wrenching from employers (often taxpayers) now. The question that we must consider is whether unions currently help us to strike the appropriate balances between employers and workers and between freedom and regulation. Keeping them in their conceptually appropriate place, if we diminish the influence of unions — or even disband them altogether — now and need their services again someday, we can always reestablish them, no doubt in a more effective form for having scuttled entrenched interests.