The GOP’s Fake Argument of Utility against Labor Rights

by A. Jay Adler on March 1, 2011
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………………………………………………….Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.

T.S. Eliot, “Gerontion”

As I said yesterday, the underlying and fundamental motivation for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and other Republicans’ drive to eliminate collective bargaining for public sector unions is an outright philosophical opposition to organized labor. This desire, however, springing at is it does from a rapacious post-industrial, pre-modern center of social relations deep below the social cortex, is one that politicians do not mostly choose to express publically. One has to make telephone calls in the guise of David Koch to learn of the baseball bat and the provocateurs. The conservative rank and file – at blogs, in comments, on the street – show no reluctance to express their hostility.

The pols, instead, make a seemingly practical argument.

What we’re trying to achieve through this measure is giving these local governments the tools they need to balance those budgets,” [Walker] said.

[W]e want to give the local government officials, the mayors and the school people the tools they need to control their costs.” (John Kasich)

“We must arm the municipal governments with the tools they need,” [Christie] said.

Christie and other Republican governors including Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio say states and the nation are out of money, and governments at all levels need the tools to reduce budgets. (Bloomberg News)

Ah, the tools. The tools. A wrench here, plane there – a hammer. And what are workers but an intractable nut, a resistant nail? The meme, nicely picked up by Bloomberg, is that the issue of labor rights and collective bargaining is just an element– another “tool” – in the practical fiscal matter of balancing budgets and managing the state, like choosing whether to build high speed rail or a new tunnel. In the matter of making “tools” available to serve and end, we consider the question of utility – is the tool appropriate to the task, will it accomplish the work for which it is chosen. It is a question of usefulness. But whether an individual or collective human behavior or practice is a “right,” either naturally or legally, is a question of values. The choice of a cement mixer is not value laden. The decision whether to give a governmental executive a line-item veto over budget appropriations – what one might choose to call a “tool” of governance – may involve considerations of political philosophy, but it entails no direct human consequence. Cutting people’s wages, breaking pension promises upon which a lifetime of employment service was attracted and contracted, disempowering people in a fundamental, defining human activity – their work – these are not questions of utility, but of human value, and of political power.

Were it simply a matter of providing governors the tools to balance budgets, why not eliminate minimum wages, the forty-hour work week, vacation and sick leave? These would be enormously beneficial cost savers. Do these seem extreme examples? But what separates them from what the GOP is now pursuing? If it is simply a matter of tools, subsistence conditions would do the trick.

What extreme examples do is not to assert any level of analogy, but to set parameters for the argument, provoke reconsideration of the realm of the debate. Clearly, we would not consider any of those hypotheticals above (though don’t be so sure of the limits of the Koch brothers Right). We would refuse to consider them not based on their perceived utility, but as a matter of established human values. Efficiency and economic austerity are not the summum bonum of democracies. Making the trains run on time, while a treasured dream, is not more important than feeding a needy child. These are choices in values, not tools. So as to collective bargaining rights for any kind of employee, whatever the negotiated or established bounds, they are not the equivalent of delaying upgrades in the municipal bus lines. And the decision whether employers, loaded with the power of their capital, or the power of government, are justly balanced, in the quality of life, by each employee singly or by a countervailing power of employees united – these are the profoundest questions of political power and human value. They are not pliers.

Of course, in extreme circumstances, we sometimes adjust our values to meet the pressing need. Conundrums of lifeboat ethics are meant to explore our thinking about these extremities. There are those who would argue – abstractly, anyway – that no one can be inhumanly sacrificed. We try to survive all together or we perish together. Others will accept the need in extremity to jettison those who are a drag on the chances for the greater number to survive. In real extreme cases, people have resorted to cannibalism of the dead. We might even pose the question, in horror, of dispatching those already determined to be among the expendable for the express purpose of cannibalizing them. What some of us will not consider when extremity is invoked or arrived.

But has it arrived?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour on Meet the Press Sunday boldly stated – without challenge – what other Republicans are falsely stating in support of Walker, Kasich, and others, that Wisconsin is “broke.” But, of course, neither Wisconsin, nor any state, is remotely broke.  A person or entity is broke when it has neither funds nor means to gain them, at least in measure to their need. A person without a job can be quickly broke. A government, however, can raise taxes. It is a choice not to raise them, to extend tax cuts to all or to a state or nation’s wealthiest, or to offer new business tax credits, as Scott Walker, did. These acts will reduce government revenues. But that ain’t broke. If you call it broke, though, counting on fooling, always, some portion of the electorate, you can invoke the lifeboat ethics by which employees by the tens of thousands and the millions and their bargained wages and contracted benefits, as alternate forms of compensation, the quality of their lives and their power to be more than tools to their employer are reduced in the public conversation to nothing more than tools.

Yesterday, I quoted Martha Nussbaum on the importance in a democracy of a citizenry’s ability to critically think through the issues of debate. We might consider the same of the country’s political leaders. Do they know how they muddle the terms of the debate and mislead the public on such vital issues? The word “fallacy” in its Latin origin, fallere, means “to deceive.” A conjectured origin in the ancient Greek phelos is “deceitful.” In logical argument this does not mean necessarily that the maker of the argument knowingly seeks to deceive those who hear his argument, only that at the very least he deceives himself, in believing that he argues well. When, however, fallacious arguments are purposely employed, sophists from time immemorial have found them to be a very effective – ah, what’s the word I want? – yes, that’s it – tool.

AJA

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