Ph.D. Octopus

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What “Right to Work” Laws Reveal about Libertarians.

with 11 comments

By Peter

There is a threat that all good libertarians must rise up against. State legislatures around the country are debating whether to make it illegal for one private entity to freely sign a type of contract with another private entity. I speak, of course, about Right to Work laws, which make it illegal for one private actor (unions) to sign particular types of contracts with another willing private actor (companies). What an outrageous infringement of individual liberty!

Imagine a situation like this: An employer, lets say a restaurant, signs an exclusive contract with a uniform company. An employee at the restaurant, if they need a new uniform, must buy it from that uniform company. Now, I, as a non-liberatarian might disapprove. But a good libertarian should say that everyone has voluntarily agreed to their position. The worker, after all, doesn’t have to take that job. He knew he would have to buy from the uniform company when he took the job. The restaurant and the uniform company have each voluntarily agreed to do business with each other.

Now lets imagine another: the same restaurant faces pressure from their employees, who are mad about low pay and unsafe conditions. The majority of the employees strike, a boycott is called, and the restaurant’s image suffers. After a while the restaurant decides that it is in their financial interest to sign a labor agreement with the employees, who have constituted themselves as a union. Part of the deal mandates that all employees must pay dues to maintain the union, in order to prevent free riders. Just like before, an individual employee is free to leave the restaurant. So they are acting freely when they come to work. The business and the union have each voluntarily agreed to their conditions. The state doesn’t have to get involved.

Two cases in which private actors act freely. The state doesn’t coerce anyone. Yet libertarians are ok with one, and not with the other.

Of course the fundamental difference– which gets to the heart of modern libertarianism– is that in the second case, working class people are benefiting, while in the first case, businesses are benefitting.

Thus we get to the total Orwellian absurdity of the “right to work.” Do workers in those notoriously high-wage right to work states like Mississippi and Louisiana have the right to work when they want? Do they have the right to tell their boss to fuck off? Or to name their own salary? Or take as many sick days as they want? Or to wear Slayer shirts to work? Or to have safe working conditions? Of course not. Under capitalism, workers lose those rights for the 8 hours they are at work. But, for some odd reason, there is one demand which is absolutely outrageous to make on employees: the demand that they join a union in order to work the job. You could demand that they cut their hair, or get an expensive master’s degree, but never demand that they join an organization that negotiates on their behalf.

And aren’t libertarians supposed to hate government intervention? A true libertarian might say, we’ll pass no laws about it. But if there were no right to work laws in, say Mississippi, then unions might put enough pressure on one employer until it was in the company’s interest to accept a union-shop. And then the union might marshall that strength and work on the next factory, and then the next…So to prevent this holocaust of high wages and safe working conditions from happening, the brave John Galts in the Republican party run to the safety of the nanny state, demanding that they ensure that no unions can ever demand a union-shop in negotiations.

In final words, let us hear what Martin Luther King Jr., whom the modern right is now convinced is one of theirs, had to say on this subject:

“In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. It is supported by Southern segregationists who are trying to keep us from achieving our civil rights and our right of equal job opportunity. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights. We do not intend to let them do this to us. We demand this fraud be stopped. Our weapon is our vote.”


Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 2, 2012 at 21:25

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. I love it when the right goes running to the nanny state, when defenders of the constitution want to legislate religious views, when free marketeers want the army to help keep the oil flowing.

    michael gill

    January 2, 2012 at 22:03

  2. We have laws in this country that tip the scales in favor of union organization over an employer’s right to say “fuck off.” Libertarians object to two in particular: one that says employers may not fire someone for organizing and another that mandates good faith negotiation with unions. Both of these laws violate the nonagression principle and impose legally mandated duties on employers that they would not otherwise have, and that they must comply with under pain of fines, etc. Right, wrong or indifferent, that is distinctly unlibertarian.

    Any discussion of unions or “right to work” laws is fundamentally flawed, from a libertarian’s perspective, unless it is first established that the entire framework is fundamentally unlibertarian. Your post assumes away this issue and proceeds apace with supposed libertarian hypocrisy. But this hypocrisy is manufactured because you fail to note the first principle violation at the outset.

    Aside from being completely manufactured and misunderstanding libertarianism, it’s a good post.

    an actual libertarian

    January 2, 2012 at 22:59

    • I agree with you. The author does not understand Libertarian viewpoint and is debating a strawman. There is nothing anti-Libertarian about both examples as long as the framework of a free market system is in place!


      January 6, 2012 at 07:50

  3. Another piece missing from this analysis is that libertarian freedom of contract includes freedom to self-select into them. Strikes are fine; so are scabs. Appeals to majority will or solidarity do not bind. Parties may negotiate en bloc for better deals, sure, as long as all (not most) named parties consent. Such an arrangement naturally avoids free ridership by withholding its gains from those who negotiate outside it. So while ten suppliers may freely pledge to set a minimum price, or to sign only five-year-plus contracts, they can’t stop an eleventh supplier from undercutting them, or stop their clients from seeking outside supply next round. Self-selection opens the very shape of contracts to competitive pressure: without it, markets become races to cartels.

    Corollary: libertarians like markets. They figure expected safety and compensation increase in the long run under markets and stagnate under cartels.

    Jason Treit

    January 3, 2012 at 05:27

  4. So a law “that says employers may not fire someone for organizing” “violate[s] the nonagression principle”!

    Sort of reminds me of how the “War of Northern Agression” began when South Carolina opened fire on Ft. Sumter.

    Hardly surprising, given how “right to work” laws are concentrated in the South, “sweet land of liberty”, slave-labor, debt-bondage-labor and prison-labor.

    I guess history is just a vast left-wing conspiracy. The only reliable source of truth is a priori axioms plucked out of thin air. (S subject to self-interested on-the-fly amendation as needed, of course!)

    Paul H. Rosenberg

    January 3, 2012 at 11:04

  5. I think the problem here is with the definition of “libertarian,” which I don’t think is particularly stable. if we’re talking about hardcore libertarianism that borders on anarcho-capitalism, than I think “an actual libertarian” makes a good point. If we’re talking about small-government libertarianism, the point is on shakier ground.

    Not to get all academic, but it seems clear to me that everything we’re talking about here, from the state (nanny or bare-bones), corporations, and unions, to more abstract things like laws, human/individual/civil rights, and private property, are social constructs, that is, things that were invented by human beings, rather than things that exist on their own in nature. If that is the case, I don’t see how any one law or rights trumps the other, right to work vs right to strike vs right to fire someone who organizes, etc. etc. But I’m no lawyer, so I could be off on this.

    More important, however, is the original distinction between types or definitions of libertarians. In practice, though some libertarians may profess the anarcho-capitalist model, in fact, most are really small-government libertarians, though the definition of small might vary greatly. This sort of reminds of Marxists who, when confronted with the horrors of the Soviet gulags or Mao’s re-education camps or even the simple failures of smaller scale cooperatives like the Israeli kibbutz, cry out: “But REAL Marxism has never been tried! There’s never actually been Communism!” Well, no. People have tried. But it’s a damn hard thing to bring out, both because it’s impractical, and because nobody really wants it (to paraphrase a friend, even the most diehard Marxists are, either secretly or in practice, simply welfare state social democrats who like unions and a regulated market economy).

    The same is true of libertarianism. Nobody really wants a weak state, or even that limited a state. They just take so much of the state for granted that we forget that it is not natural, but something we have constructed for the broader benefit of individuals and society.

    Given that businesses rely on the state to protect their safety (through police force, fire department, military), transport their goods (roads, buses, subways), and educate themselves and their workers (public schools, libraries, and universities). One can easily add keep them healthcare with some form universal health insurance and subsidized medicines and medical treatment.

    This is why the Elizabeth Warren mantra, “nobody got rich in America on their own” is so compelling, because it’s so blatantly true that we forget how obvious it is. And I’m not talking about people in a free market cooperating for their self-interest. I’m talking about people cooperating for whatever reason to form some kind of a welfare state. After all, safety, transportation, education, and (outside of the US) healthcare are taken for granted that one can lean libertarian and still insist on the preservation of these services. And I think Peter would argue that this original (or at least older) sin of hypocrisy is where to begin here. Thus if libertarians support and benefit from these government services, than they have little ground to stand on when workers with far less demand some services of their own.

    All this is a long way of saying that once libertarians allow for the existence of some form of a welfare state, which in practice 99% of them do, than that state can basically do anything. Of course we have ways to limit the state’s power, checks and balances, the bill of rights, and all the rest. And we can debate the specifics as to whether laws favouring unions violate the American constitution or not. But the constitution is not a holy document reflecting natural law, it’s a human-made document that reflects human law. So we can argue this point all day in principle, but in practice, some kind of moral/utilitarian/democratic calculus will take place to determine which is wrong or right in the real world. And that’s what will decide the issue, principles be damned.

    David Weinfeld

    January 4, 2012 at 14:41

  6. […] What “Right to Work” Laws Reveal about Libertarians […]

    Sunday Reading « zunguzungu

    January 7, 2012 at 23:45

  7. […] To win, we have to work together and look out for one another.”Peter Wirzbicki reminds us of what Martin Luther King Jr. had to say about “right to work” laws:In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such […]

  8. Well, nice try. You would have an excellent point if not for the existing government-forced laws that favor unions and limit the freedoms of companies.

    There would be no need for right to work laws if companies were free to deal with organized labor on their own. But they are not. They are forced to accept and deal with unions. So, you are misleading when you imply that companies freely sign contracts with labor unions. That is certainly true some of the time, but much of the time, they are forced into the relationship by federal law (NLRA).

    This is a clear case where people are trying to make two wrongs equal a right. The right to work act is certainly non libertarian, but it is disingenuous to talk about it without the proper context.


    May 23, 2012 at 11:02

  9. I’m basically thinking the same thing. As a libertarian, I have a lot of sympathy for Right To Work laws because I feel that unions use the law to their advantage, which is going to choke the economy. From a *practical* standpoint, in the short term (not accounting for politics). It’s a lesser of evils, I suppose you could say.

    But I fear that’s a dangerous road to go down. Staking one wrong against another, I’m afraid is going to end up with a system of counterbalancing laws that are just harder to get rid of later. I’d rather deal with the situation by repealing laws than making new ones.

    Forbidding a private contract is forbidding a private contract. As a libertarian I’m with you on this one, it’s not right.


    December 11, 2012 at 15:27

  10. So you’re aware: Libertarians are pro-UNIONS–the summary combats extreme ‘libertarian’ conservatives claiming libertarianism=right to work, anti-unionism, anticollective bargaining, etc. and shows the correct fight is for automatic choice of union agencies…contact your legislator! and that Unions are working with Libs in many areas…


    December 15, 2012 at 00:48

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