The Disrespect for Democracy that is Binding Arbitration
More vigorously than at anytime since the 1960s, America’s political left has been promoting its two-point all-purpose plan for solving domestic problems: More government spending (point 2) paid for by higher taxes (point 1). At the Federal level, the focus of applying this philosophy has been on healthcare. At the state level in Rhode Island, look for education “funding formula” advocates to ramp up their push for higher state taxes, so that spending can be raised in some communities. And at the local level…
Well, at the local level, the story is a bit different. Members of the progressive/union alliance in RI are afraid that local elected officials are not on board with the idea that everything can be fixed with higher taxes and more spending, so they’ve decided that the influence of local elected officials on municipal budgets must be reduced. Specifically, at the behest of the leadership of Rhode Island’s core-left, the state legislature this week could vote to impose binding arbitration procedures on cities and towns unable to agree upon teacher contract terms within a certain time-frame. Such action would remove true decision-making authority concerning the largest single item (personnel) of the largest chunk of most local budgets (school system) from elected officials and turn it over to electorally unaccountable panels of arbitrators.
As much as binding arbitration is intended to minimize the influence of locally elected officials, it is also intended to minimize the influence of the voters who elect those officials — an intent that runs contrary to the most basic notions of self-government. Any meaningful definition of democracy, from the classical ideas of the Enlightenment to the starker, more cynical theories of modern political science, involves the idea that actual decision makers must face the possibility of being replaced by election when the public disapproves of the decisions that are made. And since the late 17th century, dating back to the English Bill of Rights, a fundamental tenet of democratic rule has been that decisions to raise revenue properly belong to a body of freely elected representatives of the people. To replace a system of electing fiscal decision makers with a system where the role of the people is mostly to choose a panel that will present their case to an electorally unaccountable final decision maker is to disregard the principles and ideals of centuries of democratic practice.
I don’t know if binding arbitration advocates shrug or laugh when asked to consider the non-democratic nature of the means they are willing to use to advance their agenda, but what is abundantly clear is that they believe that government needs the power to spend more money even when the elected representatives of the people don’t want to — and that when the democratic process doesn’t facilitate an agenda of more spending, then a different kind of process is needed that will.
Fortunately, we still live in a country and in a state where the marginalization of public influence on local spending decisions can occur only for as long as the public is willing to accept it, i.e. only for as long as the public is willing to re-elect legislators (and city and town councilors) who approve of replacing democratic rules with a system of governance that transfers power to unelected arbitrators. Keep this last point in mind — because if you don’t like the decision the Rhode Island legislature makes on binding arbitration this week, it can be easily reversed by the legislature that is seated following the 2010 elections.