"Why Everyone Should Join A Union" Why? Radio episode with guest Mark Rieff
2:35AM Dec 12, 2022
Jack Russell Weinstein
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Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's college of arts and sciences. Visit us online at why Radio show.org?
Hi, I'm Jack Russell Weinstein host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today's episode, we're asking Mark reef why everyone should join a union, please visit why radio show.org For archives show notes and to support the program, click donate on the upper right hand corner to make your tax deductible donation through the University of North Dakota secure website. We exist solely on listener contributions. Let's pretend for a moment that I'm a candidate running for the president united states, long term listeners and friends know that I do not have the personality or temperament to do this, but stay with me. Let's also pretend that I'm campaigning on universal health care. If I were, here's how I'd put it to the voters. Imagine never having to pay another medical bill for the rest of your life. Imagine that you'd never have to worry about affording the doctor or accidents or cancer treatment. Would that make your life better? In response, of course, people would shout the word socialism at me or complain about high taxes or long wait times. But I'd respond Hold on. Before we get there. Before you tell me why it can't or shouldn't happen. I just want you to really think about my first question. Take a section. Sorry, take a second. And actually imagine what it'd be like if no matter what you and your family did. You wouldn't go bankrupt. You wouldn't be denied coverage or not get a referral in your wildest dreams. If health care could be completely free. Would that be something you'd want? The answer is yes. This is something that pretty much everyone would want richer, poor, liberal or conservative, educated or low information voter. When asked so straightforwardly, just about everyone would agree that they'd prefer not to pay medical bills. So why then to so many people in the United States dismiss the idea of state subsidized care and vote against their own interests? Why is anything aimed at getting closer to this ideal rejected out of hand? The ultimate reason I think, is that a widespread fear of words has prevented people from considering the ideas behind them, especially words with ambiguous meanings. Take for example, the objection that universal health care is bad because it's socialism. Most Americans have no clear idea what socialism is even though they're against it. While the Pew Research Center found that a little more than half of Americans react negatively to the word a third of respondents could offer no specific reason why, of the remaining two thirds 19% claimed it undermined the work ethic, while another 17% claimed it had worked in the past. As one man interviewed by the New Yorker put it, socialism strips away people's rights. Look what's happening in New York, you can't even supersize your sodas, because they think we're too stupid to make our own choices. So that's why we can't have free health care, because if we do our sodas won't be large enough. Now, okay, I'm being a little crass and reductionist, but I'm doing so to make a point. It doesn't matter to the argument that universal health care isn't socialism at all, or that public health systems are rousing successes in every single capitalist democracy from Sweden to Japan, to Israel to France. The fact is that voters are making bad decisions based on faulty advice and acting against their own interests. Because we've all been trained to have knee jerk reactions to new political policies. American politicians are really good at persuading us to take things away from ourselves, and inept at convincing us to give ourselves more than we already have. It's this knee jerk reaction I want all of us to attend to. Because our conversation today comes with a lot of baggage. My guest is going to defend the idea that everyone should join a union and that unions themselves should be considered a basic institution of society. He argues that unions are just as important as families, schools, the army and water treatment plants. This is a much more daring position than most organizers take. Traditionally, they argue that unions will result in better work conditions pay and benefits. They don't make the more profound claim that unions are preconditions for freedom. Their point is empirical and self interested. My guests is philosophical and concern with the common good. It's just the kind of conceptual heavy lifting our politicians don't want us to do. Look, I get it. Thinking about ideas is hard. That's the whole premise of why radio. Bass media is not built for this. Neither are political campaigns. Instead, voters like you and I are encouraged to think strategically and in terms of process The barbarians are at the gate we're told. And if we open it just a crack and even consider socialism just for the sport of it, the next thing we know our rights will disappear. And we won't even have the freedom to choose the size soda we want. It's better to be safe than sorry to think conservatively, bad strategy is complicit. But if we follow this approach will never make the world a better place. Someone might invent technology that solves some of our problems, but will still be passive recipients and not agents of change. Moral movement requires collective courage, power negotiation, and an openness to ideas of freedom that unions provide in the workplace. Because collective bargaining is the only tool that breaks the monopoly of power of those who sign our paychecks here, union membership is agency. But But But I'm getting ahead of myself. For now, I simply want us to consider the possibility that union membership might be a social good, and that criticism about corruption or loss of freedom might be a red herring. Might be brings philosophy to the table might be is the precondition for change might be makes the heavy lifting, not so heavy, which by the way is how unions work in the first place, whether in philosophy or workplace justice solutions are only achieved when we are in this together. And now our guest, Mark reef was a lawyer before he received his PhD. He since taught political, legal and moral philosophy at the University of Manchester University of Durham, the Frankfurt School of finance and management and the University of California Davis. He was a fellow at the husafell Center for Ethics at Harvard University. He's also the author of five books, including in the name of liberty, the argument for universal unionization, Mark, welcome to why. Thanks, Jeff.
Thanks for having me.
If you'd like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Our handle is always at why radio show why radio show you can always email us at ask why umd.edu Listen to our previous episodes for free. Learn More, please rate us on iTunes and Spotify so that others can find the show. And we very much appreciate if you'd help us make our 15th Season better than the previous ones. Visit why radio show.org and click donate in the upper right hand corner. So Mark, unions have played such a big part of the last century and a half. Yet, I think you're is the first link philosophical book I've ever read about this. Why have philosophers spent so little time talking about unions?
That's a really good question, Jack. And I find it mysterious and surprising because unions are so important, and have such a large effect on the arrangements under which we live, which are what political theorists talk about all the time. I think there are many causes of this. But one of the biggest is hyper specialization that is taking place all throughout society. Now everybody has to be an expert in the tiniest aspect of things. And because they are specialists, labor economists and people who study management relations, and they write a lot about unions. I think political philosophers is simply shied away and sort of felt that they, they need to stay in their lane and not talk about these issues, when in fact, it's really necessary that they do because these other folks don't have training in the tools that political philosophers have developed to understand what makes a just society.
Well, I guess I want to ask you, and I hadn't anticipated this. But could you talk a little bit about what specifically a political philosopher does and why unions are relevant? Because I think especially those of us who are the those of my listeners who've heard me a political philosopher talk for so many years, we talk about justice, we talk about freedom, these concepts are much more abstract. But unions are very concrete, very practical, very day to day. So why does that fit into the the realm of political philosophy as opposed to something else?
Great question. Well, yes, I mean, I think political philosophy is about the moral issues or the moral considerations that should come into deciding the arrangements under which we live. And as you say, some of those are really big concepts like equality and justice and fairness. And those can be talked about in the abstract, but political philosophers have always talked about things that are more on the street issues like unionization, like discrimination, and if we want political theory to be relevant to our daily lives, we can't just stay up in the clouds. We have to show how There's a connection between these abstract concepts, most of which are, are ill defined anyway. And the actual arrangements under which we live the specific issues that confront us every day. And political philosophers are trained to do that. So it's, it's really important. I think from my background as a lawyer, I've I've, I've always been interested in connecting more theoretical concepts to sort of their on the street impact. And that's why I thought it was important to write about unionization, because that's a on the street issue, but one that has a really wide impact on a lot of aspects of, of freedom and equality.
How much does the the utopian history of political philosophy affect this? Because, right, in, especially in the last 50 years or so, political philosophers have have talked about this distinction between ideal theory and non ideal theory. And unions feel like something that would be in a non ideal world, you know, and Thomas Moore is talking about his utopia or Plato's talking about his Republic, there's there doesn't seem necessarily to be a place for unions, because unions are supposed to fix something that's broken. So is this just a non ideal discussion? Are unions only there to fix the broken? Or are unions there? From the get go, because it's part of a perfect society.
What that's a really important distinction between ideal and non ideal theory. And, unfortunately, I think there's disagreement within the profession about where the border lines lie there. In my view, ideal theory that is totally abstract and and removed from the actual circumstances under which we live is just pointless, because it doesn't tell us anything important about how we should live. So even ideal theory, if it's going to be useful, has to have some practical implications. And so, so for me, the real difference between ideal and non ideal theory is non ideal theory assumes that we are not all working together for a agreed outcome that some of us are working against us. And so we need to be we need to take that into account and show how we can come up with policies that survives what a famous philosopher once called the strains of commitments, the reasons why people might object to certain policies and then seek to overturn them. And if you don't do that, I think you're just doing what the British called Trainspotting, which is a pointless activity relentlessly pursued, it just gets you nowhere. So my book is, it's really an exercise in both the first essay is more of a exercise, in ideal theory, the next two are non ideal theory, but all of the essays, and all of whatever it's whether it's not ideal or ideal, it's always designed to make sure that the connections between these general concepts we talked about, and their effects on the street are clear, because otherwise what we're doing is just pointless.
I want to pull the thread of that sort of everyone not being on the same side, because in 1971, John Rawls wrote this book A Theory of Justice, which as you know, and many of our listeners do, change the landscape of political philosophy. And in the process, he's writing this ideal theory. And in the process, he talked about the head of the household, the head of the family, being perfectly just in caring about the family and feminists came along and said, that's insane, that many families are profoundly unjust, and that many men in particular, as heads of the household will be abusive or selective or not do what's best for everyone else. We get something similar when we hear employers say things like, Oh, we're a family here. Oh, we care about you. Oh, you know, all of our employees are super loyal, and you want someone who's loyal. And so you talked about the conflict, it seems to me that one of the starting points is going to have to be that there is inherent conflict between not just employers and employees, but employers and employers and employees employees and that we have to start with this non ideal sense that conflict comes first. And if we treat it in its most perfect sense. We're not representing anybody's actual experiences is this kind of what you're getting at?
It is and the family is a good example is Well, there are several important relationships we all have in our life that are important to us as human beings. But these relationships also present the danger of power imbalances, the family being one example, the employer employee relationship being another example. And so if we want to live in a just society, we have to make sure the institutions we adopt, are designed to at least counteract the temptation for one party in these relationships to dominate the other. And so the family is one place where we need, we need both pre and post institutional regulation, the employment setting is another, I think the landlord tenant relationship is another one that is rife with possibilities for domination. And if we're going to have a just society, we need to not only prohibit certain acts that we think are unjust, we need to create institutions that do some of this work for us, and make it less likely that people are going to abuse the relationships that these arrangements give rise to.
I remember when I was a kid, living in New York City, my mother tried to start a tenants union. And all of the people who were interested came to our apartment in one evening, and we're talking and the the super not even the landlord, the super went down to the basement and cut all the power to our apartment, in an attempt to stop the conversation. Is that is a tenants union A union too? When you talk about union? What do you mean? Is it just employers? What is the word union mean? And and in what context? Has it become relevant to our conversation?
Well, I think it is, and what you've given us a great example of the problems here, the the the landlord has the power to take these acts, which will prevent you from discussing things, not because he doesn't. And he's not responding to them subsequently. In other words, he's not arguing about why you should be satisfied with whatever he's doing. He's trying to prevent you from even talking about them, and from using your collective power to get somewhere. And that's the same thing that happens in the employee employer relationship, all the time, the employer, because he negotiates with all the employees and does this time and again, has a lot of expertise in coming to contracts with employees, the employer has a lot of power, ask anybody who works for a living what they're most afraid of, and they'll tell you stories about Well, I'm afraid my boss is going to come up with some weird proposal that I have to work on or take some sort of bizarre view of things I do, and I'm going to have to defend myself. It's, it's a real problem. It's the same problem that that teenagers have when they're worried about their parents not letting them do what they want to do. If we have unions, that's a way of balancing out that these power of the power that these managers have in these very powerful organizations. So it's an it's a, it's an important counter effect to the power that one gets from being an employer or being a landlord.
What's the difference between thinking about a union as an institution as sort of a formal part of the system, and just a bunch of people coordinating I'm thinking of the famous story about the actors of from friends, who decided that they would only negotiate together so that if they lost one actor, they'd lose them all. And therefore, by doing that, they raised their salary per episode till something like a million dollars in episode. Is there a meaningful difference between those two things? And what do we get by using terms like institution and by formalizing the process in that way?
Right, so let's think about the world is divided into pre institutional rules and post institutional rules. When you're thinking on how to organize society or any kind of collective enterprise, you make decisions about what kind of institutions that enterprise is going to have. And these are sort of general organizational decisions and they have effects like for example, if we've decided that we're going to have a capitalist economic system, we're going to have firms business firms, which is a way of organizing capital to create various goods and services. And if we're going to do that, which I think is a good thing, we do have to be concerned that that gives the owners of capital, quite a lot of power over the lives of workers. And so what can we do about that? Well, we can do pre institutional things. And we can do post institutional things, the pre institutional things we can do is we can say, if we are going to have institutions like firms, we need institutions like unions, to be sure the power levels between groups of employees in an employer are equal. We also need lots of post institutional rules. These are rules about what firms can do. And what about what unions can do can't create justice without either kinds of rules. The anti union votes want us not to have unions, and therefore want us to rely purely on post institutional rules. But these just don't work. There there. There are too many varieties of abuse that are possible. We can't prohibit every one of them by having some rules, the system will get bogged down in monitoring all this, we can't have that we have to have some sort of institutional check and balances as well. That's why I think we need unions whenever we have firms.
So if I'm following you write institutional rules or regulations and things that are in the design and structure in the limitations of these organizations, but pre institutional rules are ways that an outsider can come in an influence and push and say, the institutional rules are unfair. So outside the institution, someone comes and says, You're not recognizing non Christian religious holidays. So your employees have to have Saturday off or Friday night off if they need or something like that. Is that what you mean? Or is it something more social contract II where the pre institution, stuff happens while we're setting things up?
It's the ladder, a rule that said, for example, employees have to have Saturday, Saturday off would be a post institutional rule. And we need all sorts of post institutional rules like that we cannot solve all the problems just by designing our institutions in a particular way. But we also need institutions that help us do certain things. We need religious organizations, we need economic organizations, which we call firms or businesses. And by having such organizations, we make it much easier to ensure that people will not be abused doesn't mean we don't need post institutional rules, it means we need them both.
When we come back after the break, I want to talk to you about how unions fit into the overall our overall conception of freedom, this sense that it limits employment, I really want to target the argument against unions as a way to enter into your discussion of why unions are so important. But before that, you're listening to mark reef and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life, we'll be back right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions about afterlife. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein, we're talking with Mark reef about unions and why everyone should join a union and I'm speaking to you from North Dakota, which is a right to work state. Now, that sounds nice, right? I want the right to work. We all want the right to work. But what that means in practice is that unions have very little power here. And this for me is countered by the fact that at the University of North Dakota, I'm protected by the fact that technically I'm in a state job. So if I was to be fired for something I said on the radio here, for example, it might be protected by the First Amendment because if the university fires me for saying something the government is firing me for saying something. So there are two threads that we'd have to pull in order to analyze Is my workplace which is how do I advocate for myself? And how do I get change in us in a workplace where we do have a union, but it's tremendously weakened tremendously ineffective. At the same time? How do I use the government protections to allow me the most freedom if I want and have to say the things that I feel like I need to have to have? So with those sort of themes, Mark, first? Why is a right to work state, anti union? And what would unions bring that precisely folks who advocate for right to work? Wouldn't want?
Great questions. Okay. So part of the problem here is that unions have an obligation to represent all employees, even the employees that are not members of unions. And if you're on the right and and want to weaken unions, one of the things you can do to weaken unions, is to prevent people from paying dues. And if you're in a right to work state, since everybody gets represented by a union anyway, why would you join, just let the union take care of you for free, because if you join, you have to pay dues. And this course, makes the union less powerful, because it doesn't represent anybody, everybody. And it also makes them less powerful because they have less money. And and that undermines the very idea of unionization in the first place, which is one of the things I object to, if we're going to protect employees, we need some organization to do that. It's not sufficient. As an example, you gave that you could file a lawsuit, if you were improperly dismissed, you've got to get a lawyer to do that you got to pay for it yourself, it's very expensive, it'll take years, you'll get a represent reputation of being a troublemaker, it's really not a feasible remedy if you're abused. But if you had an active union, a strong union representing you, they can go in and talk to the employer and they can get things done on your behalf without you having to pay for them without you having to go find the experts necessary to do this. And you can protect your rights in that sense. So in my view, everybody should have that right now and right to work states now because of a recent Supreme Court decision, at least in the public sector. And it's going to be interested to see what effect this has on unions. But the reason these, these statutes have been pushed has been to undermine the financing of unions. The claim is This is to protect liberty. But in fact, I think it's an infringement of liberty.
I want to hold off on the Liberty conversation for a minute, because that's going to be super rich and interesting. And I want to call back to something that you just said, we live in a in a system of law based on common law. And so when something goes wrong, the system allows for you to redress it after the fact you take it to court, you hopefully get a result in your favor. But this can take tremendous amount of money, tremendous amount of time. And there are a lot of instances when when something is resolved. It's not even relevant to the to the complainant in the first place. But unions have the ability to do things in advance to prevent write. The Union gives us the ability not to have to go backwards all the time. But to anticipate is, is this is this the only place that we have real power to do this to to plan the contract in advance to negotiate something new, without going backwards about am I right in thinking that that unions aren't just about redress, it's also about anticipation in the future.
Yes, you are. It's about balancing the power between the players. And again, if we believe in in free enterprise, if we believe in the free market, the free market assumes that all the players have equal bargaining. And in real life, we know that individuals often don't have the same kind of bargaining power as these big either corporations or public institutions do. And so we need some way of of, of joining together and create some bargaining power, which at least makes firms behave better. There's lots of studies that show that in unionized firm, the firm just doesn't abuse its employees as much as non unionized firms because they know if they do there'll be an easy or at least more realistic return. Action and and there'll be some redress. So they have to pay attention to that. So they simply behave better. Interestingly, there's also a lot of studies that show in unionized firms, the firm itself is less likely to engage in illegal conduct, like fraud on its consumers, just behaves better. And again, I think this is a result of making sure that the firm or the leaders of the firm understand that it's not simply their, their kingdom to do with as they wish, but they have, they have partners who are, have at least much of the same power as they do, and and that makes everybody behave better from the get go. And it makes it less necessary to go through all these post institutional remedies, like lawsuits and things to correct things after the fact as you say,
there's there's an an ethos, there's a sense when people talk about unions, that unions are depicted, not simply as corrupt, but the union prevents the employer from firing the lazy, the lazy, useless person, or the union dries up the salary so high that fewer people will be employed, or the union is such a power that it creates large scale threats over small things. And so you get the stories of New York City teachers who never teach a day in their life, but can't be fired because they're protected by the Union. The first question is, is all of this nonsense, but that, but that's sort of an empirical question. The real question here is, do unions take away the freedom that companies have to hire and fire the people that they think are best? And do unions limit the amount of jobs there are? Because employees suddenly become so expensive?
No, I don't think they do. Remember what, we all have different sets of freedoms, and one of those freedoms we have is the freedom to abuse others. And that's a freedom that we're all better off without doesn't mean you can't fire employees, it means you can't fire employees for arbitrary reasons. Now, unions are there to help protect employees who are being either discriminated against or fired. For reasons which aren't true. It's, it's not true, that someone who is a terrible employee and doesn't do their job and never shows up for work can't be fired, of course, such employees can be fired, if it's true. But employees can be accused of these things when it's not true. And so they need someone to defend themselves. So. So a lot of the stories you You told there, which I think are to capture the public imagination, and I think this is what unions do. It's just not true. And and of course, it may be true, in particular instances, you might find some employee that really shouldn't be fired, that somehow he's got some protection. But that's true whenever you have institutions. And I think the much greater danger is that you have employees who are going to employ yours, excuse me, who are going to use their power to abuse their, their, their employees, they're going to set arbitrary rules about when people have to show up, they're not going to give you notice about when your hours, how many hours you're going to do, they're going to drive your wages down, so you can't even live on them. These are things that happen all the time, to almost anybody, the sort of outrageous examples that are often cited in the in the media, either they're not true, or they're true in a very small number of cases. So I don't think that should dissuade us from having unions, because I think what we want is people who think we play by the rules is someone to protect us if we do play by the rules. And that's what unions do. Unions are not there to protect people who don't play by the rules. So thank you. I don't think that's a rational worry.
So I'm curious about in your book, and in our conversations, there's both explicit implicit argument that unions make people more free. But libertarians traditionally, are opposed to unions. They think it impairs the free market and since it impairs the free market, which is the fundamental mechanism of freedom for a libertarian. They need to be discouraged or even regulated against. So I guess the question is, could you present the libertarian argument against unions and why you think that's not true and How your vision of freedom is countered to sort of this. Every one is a free agent, attitude. Because libertarians right, very, very simply a libertarian, argues that we have no moral responsibility towards anyone else other than what we choose. And that the market, the market is the arbiter of basically, everything, certainly everything economic and that people have the free the free will and the ability to quit and to and to accept a job and to fire people and to find another job and all this kind of stuff. And so that's what individual freedom looks like being an agent and a free for all. But that's not at all your vision of freedom. So what's the libertarian argument against unions? And why doesn't that hold water?
Well, you've just given a very good description of the libertarian argument against unions. But let me take, let's look at that argument a little bit closer to see what's wrong with it. First of all, if you're going to believe in the free market, why would you have firms affirm is not a free market institution in the sense that it is not. It is like a mini socialist dictatorship, because it's got a hierarchical structure, all the resources within the firm, both capital and labor are organized from the top, people don't have the ability to individually negotiate what they're going to do every time they do it. So firms are an exception to the free market. And this is just not me saying this, a lot of very conservative economists concede this, that in a capitalist society, we don't follow the free market rules within the firm. But if we're not going to follow the free market rules within the firm, we need to do something to be sure that the exceptions we make here, don't go off the rails that they don't abuse people. And so if we have unions, we have an ability to ensure that this hierarchical organization doesn't abuse its power, this actually makes them the market more free. Now, you remember that in a in a capitalist society, what we're trying to do is, is make all capital and labor efficiently allocated well, we don't officially efficiently allocate capital, for example, if we exclude all black employees, because black people are our important employees, they contribute a lot to France. So we're arbitrarily cutting out the productive ability of firms if we exclude black people, or women, or any other group you want to do. But these things occur, as we've seen in history. So if we have something like unions, we're more likely to prevent those kinds of free market distortions from arising. And that makes the whole market more free. And if the market is free, that makes us all have greater freedom. But one freedom we don't want people have is the freedom to arbitrarily oppress others, because that makes us all less free.
is collective bargaining. A, a drag on a free market? In the sense that, again, this model, this libertarian model that we're talking about, it's one agent, let's say one consumer, buying a product from one seller, and collective bargaining isn't one consumer, it's 100, or 1000, or 10,000? All speaking in one voice? Does that undermine the market? Because we're no longer individual in the same sense?
No, not at all. Because what it prevents is market distortions, right? Because in a free market, everyone's assumed to have equal information and equal bargaining power. But the employer has a lot more bargaining power than an individual employee and has a lot more information than an individual employee because he the employer goes through these negotiation sensitive sessions time and time again. And so employees get abused, if employees can organize and rep who again engages in repeated negotiations with the company. what's likely to happen is a much fairer agreement to every everybody is going to get their fair share of the productive wealth that the company generates.
So for those who are listening, who aren't familiar with economic jargon, a market distortion is just an incident or a structure that stops the market from being a perfectly free trade area. That's an oversimplification, but that's just the gist of something has had Putting that's preventing pure free trade. And I guess the question that I want to bring up from that is, we were talking about politics. But now all of a sudden we're talking about economics. Is there a clear line between economics and politics? Do they overlap? And do we consider a union, an economic institution or a political institution? Or both? And does does that kind of parsing of the sort of the areas of of analysis of economics versus politics? does? Does that even make sense to ask that question?
Yeah, that's the $64,000. Question. Is there such a connection? And what might that connection be? A lot of people try to convince us that really everything should be about economics. And anything that makes a market more efficient, is good for the company, good for the country, good for people good for the common good. And we should oppose anything that makes it less efficient. But of course, what makes a market more efficient, what makes it less efficient, are controversial questions. And we might disagree on those kinds of things. The answers are not as clear as some people pretend. And there is a connection between economics and politics, because economic arrangements affect the way in which we live. And these can have be morally concerning. For example, we're not going to allow people to starve on the street. Even if those people are starving because of some fault of their own. There are moral limits on how much an interest in efficiency, or an interest in economic productivity can go, we have moral concerns that are more important of those. So I think it's a mistake, to see the world as purely governed by economics, the world is governed by our moral interests, and sometimes, perhaps even often. omics can help it help make society both more just and more productive, produce more things, so people aren't going to be starving on the street. But ultimately, our moral interests always have to prevail. And we ought not to allow the economics of things to rule because this is going to lead to a really harsh world in which I think people are not, are not willing to live in and are not willing to see others harmed by
and efficiency isn't the be all end all virtue. I don't want my dinner that I have with my wife and daughter to be efficient, necessarily, I want to sit I want to have a conversation. If I'm taking the Amtrak to Glacier National Park, which is one state over, I don't necessarily want that to be efficient, I want to be able to look out the window and enjoy myself. And this is relevant, because in a firm, if they give everyone a 15, or 30, minute lunch, and all you can do is efficiently, go eat your lunch, come back, I would imagine you're a much worse worker, the second half of the day, you're much more stressed, you're not not nearly as healthy. And so one of the things that I would presume a union can do is suggest that is to be the voice for things other than efficiency in the marketplace. Would that be a legitimate place for this kind of collective bargaining?
It is, but even so there are two ways that argument can proceed, and you mentioned them both yourself. You could argue, for example, that giving people a decent lunch break actually makes them more productive, and therefore makes their work more efficient overall. So that's an efficiency justification for it. Or you just could say it's just cruel. It's cruel, for example, you only get one bathroom break a day of what are people supposed to do. So both arguments can often be made, that the efficiency argument can be stretched so big that it includes the moral or we can see them as two different address two different arguments that we then have to resolve in some way. But either way, I think we agree we get to a world or affirm that is something we're more likely to want to exist or to participate in. And that's ultimately the goal. We all should have. If we're going to live a happy life.
I'm both gonna transition to another question and and ask for clarification. At the same time. I keep using this term collective bargaining? Can you explain what collective bargaining is? And why it's important more than let's focus specifically on what collective bargaining is and give me a sort of more nuanced explanation. But at the same time, I'm really curious about this. Again, this libertarian criticism that would be against it, and why this criticism comes almost exclusively from the right right. Libertarianism in our culture has seemed to be a very Republican very right wing point of view, even though you get people like Rand Paul, who claims to be a libertarian and isn't and other people. What do we mean by libertarianism in that sense? And what do we mean by collective bargaining and Ken and are the two inherently in opposition?
I don't think they are I consider myself a libertarian. I consider myself a left libertarian. And and this I acknowledge that a small minority of people are left libertarians, but there are such things. And so the libertarian ism isn't a unified subject. In fact, I divide libertarians into three kinds left libertarians, right love libertarians like the philosopher Robert Nozick. And foe what I call faux libertarians, which is full libertarianism is just sort of a ad hoc collection of biases and prejudices, that doesn't have any coherent unifying theme. And it's just a way of people claiming that things they prefer aren't somehow, in a sense, required by Liberty. And unfortunately, a lot of people who claim to be libertarians are full libertarians. In other words, they don't really have any kind of coherent theory behind what they're doing. Some do. And a lot of those people are right, libertarians, right. Libertarianism is a coherent a theory. But if you're going to have a coherent theory, if you're going to have principles of justice, then you have to, you have to cash those principles, those principles will be very general. And then when you're applying them, you're going to have to make them more specific. And the difference between right and left libertarians is, is right, Libertarians interpret the sort of foundational principles in certain ways that has has certain effects, left libertarians produce them in other ways, which essentially produces the same results as liberal egalitarian ism does. And fall libertarians don't have any theory. They just say I don't like this, or I don't like that. Or I want to be able to oppress others. And I don't want people to oppress me. And they claim that that's a principal position, but it's not.
So that was a little that was a little technical. So when we talk about right libertarianism, we know the rhetoric of small government, government should stay out of our lives. The only role of government is to enforce contracts to protect the security of people in the security of the state. That's those are the three big things. What is left libertarianism, can you give us an example of that? And and how does that connect to this more egalitarian perspective that you have that you you mentioned?
Right? Well, you left out one thing when you're talking about what Libertarians believe the state is, therefore, and one of the things they believe it's there for is to prevent anti competitive conduct because right, all Libertarians believe in a free market. And if we're going to have a free market, we have to ensure that it's free. And so people who take steps that would make that market less free, that has to be prevented. And so all libertarians right and left agree on those things. But of course saying that doesn't necessarily tell you what to do. Let's take the small government argument for example, is small is relative term, you know, you can have a large pin and a small Volkswagen it whether something is small or not depends on what its function is. So depending on how you take how you interpret the functions of government, government, right now can be viewed as too large or it can be viewed even as too small. Or it can be viewed as you know, Goldilocks wood as as, as just right. I mean, all the things you described preventing theft, fraud, physical violence and anti competitive conduct. Well, that covers a real lot of actual everyday regulation. It's I think, hard to come up with a regulation that doesn't fit into those things. So one of the differences between right left libertarians is how how broad you take that meaning I think government should be neither small or large, it should be exactly the size, its size it needs to be to perform the functions we want it to perform within the list you gave. And I don't think it quite does that. Now it does some things it shouldn't do. And but there are many things it doesn't do that it shouldn't do. And that's what it should be about just saying government should be small, is just a slogan, it's a way of, of saying, I'm powerful. If there's a government that regulates me, I don't like that, because I want to be able to do whatever I want to be doing. And therefore I think government should be smaller, just so I'm free or to abuse others, if you don't have that power. In other words, if you're, you're less rich, less powerful, less organized, you want government to protect you from the abuse of others. And so what that difference is what I think defines the difference between right and left libertarians about what we take government to actually be.
So why shouldn't unions be a part of the government? Why shouldn't there be? I mean, there's the Department of Labor. If the government functioned properly, and exactly the right size, that you think it should be whatever that turns out to be? Why wouldn't unions be a division of the government as opposed to located in individual firms? And having direct connection with individual employers? What Why is this a disparate? I can't think of the right phrase, why is this spread out all around the country in the world as opposed to centralized in the government?
Well, that's the argument, the same argument that we'll make between socialism and capitalism. Why shouldn't economic resources be organized by the government, in a sense in China, as it is in a socialist economy, where you don't have privately owned firms, you just have all these government sponsored enterprises. So the same reason we don't want to do that we want privately owned firms, we don't want the government interfering in everything applies on both levels, we decide we're going to have privately organized capital in most cases. And so firms are privately organized, they're not run by the government, they can make decisions within their particular sphere of influence and expertise. And for that same reason, we want their employees to be organized in private unions rather than government unions. So everything is tailored to what's actually going on, we don't need to make everything hierarchical, and decided by some sort of centralized decision making body.
So that that that's a really, really important pivot point. And that's, I think, where your research becomes so interesting, and so rich, because what you've done is you've made a claim that, that I think, would run counter to a lot of people's perceptions of unions, before they had this conversation, which is as follows. Unions are a kind of socialism, unions are a kind of drag on the free market. Unions. Yes, unions are there to protect people. But they're protecting people from the evils of capitalism, and therefore they sort of stand outside of capitalism. But what you seem to be suggesting is, private unions are actually as much a part of capitalism as the firms are. And the reason why you should be pro union and the reasons why we should encourage union within capitalism is that is for the same reason that we argue for capitalism as a whole, that it is better representative, more efficient, more responsive to the ground. So is the argument that unions are an essential part of capitalism, in and of itself, and the socialism thing is a complete misunderstanding, not just a red herring.
That's right. That's exactly right. And just think about that. I mean, capitalism says that, using utilizing a free market, we will end up with a more efficient allocation of resources, and therefore we will ultimately produce more wealth. And if there's more wealth, there's more to divide up against the people. But capitalism doesn't say that say a firm should allow its male managers to sexually abuse its female employees, how does that promote the efficient allocation of resources? It doesn't. Most capitalism does not say that people should be able to do whatever they want. That is not what capitalism says capitalism simply says that people need incentives to be maximally productive. And that we should organize our Reese our resources into a market that is as free as possible. Most of the abuses we worry about in firms are anti capitalistic, they make the firm less efficient. And they distort resources. If for example, a firm can, through its bargaining power, pay people less than their labor is worth, then they're producing products that actually cost less than the resources required to produce them. That distorts the economy, because people buy more things that are not produced with the most efficient allocation of resources. So again, if we're going to ensure that firms behave themselves, and behave as capitalist institutions, where their decisions are about making things more efficient, not abusing people, we need something to counterbalance the management structure the firm and that something is the union.
And is this just true in the private sector? Is this just true in the business world? Or do you think that these unions also play a role in the public sector in in, in government, employee employment?
Well, I think the same rules should apply in both the private and the public sector. But I can see that things look a little different in the private sector, right? Theoretically, private, or public. agencies aren't motivated to generate profits, they don't have shareholders, they don't look like private enterprises in the same way that we usually find in our economy. But that doesn't mean that they don't have the same incentives to abuse their employees, right. So private agencies, the management of private agencies will get promoted if they make their agency leaner, meaner and more efficient. If they get people to do more, for less. This is the same thing that happens in the private sector. In the private sector, the motivation is profits for the company and bonuses for the employers. But in the public sector, the motivation is promotion for the managers or making the agency seem more appealing to the public. So even though the two sectors of the economy look different on the outside, I don't think these differences actually matter. In in terms of the threat, these employers present to the liberty of employees, and therefore we need unions in in both circumstances.
So if we need unions in both circumstances, does this mean and this is a softball question. But does this mean that everyone should join a union? Are you arguing for universal and ultimately, maybe even compulsory union membership? Is it a violation of someone's freedom to say, you have to you join a union? Is this one of those things that that just everyone not only should be, because it's better for them, but should be because we should make them?
I think everyone should be required to join a union. But that's it. That's all. You it's not the best way of saying when I believe I believe that when if we're going to organize our economy in a capitalist way and therefore have firms, if we have firms, each firm has to have a union, they're part of the same thing. And it's like amputating one arm if we have firms and no unions, I would make exceptions for small firms, family owned firms, which just has family members working for them. Because again, in those circumstances, you don't have to be so concerned about the managers abusing employees. But in any kind of significant firm, any firm that's publicly traded, for example, or any firm that has a large number of employees, they have to have a union. I think now, unions are still subject to post institutional regulation. So there are lots of things they won't be able to do. We can have all sorts of regulations about how you decide which union represents employees, for which employer, how much dues can be A charge even to some extent, what, what unions can do. But I do think it's a fundamental aspect of justice, that we do have unions. I do recognize that this is, of course, not going to happen overnight. But I do think that it gives us something to aim at, after all, the right is aiming at eliminating unions altogether. And they, they work towards this by taking small steps towards it. And I think the union movement has made a mistake simply by defending these, these small steps instead of presenting a broader goal of unionizing everybody, which would allow us to make some reasonable progress here towards having more people unionized.
I'm not sure that I'm, that I'm not covering ground that we've already covered. But I want to I want to pose it in this way. And in a way that I alluded to when we first started talking. What's the difference between the empirical argument that unions make individual workers better off and the consequences are good? And the structural and institutional philosophical argument that unions are part of justice? How do we distinguish between those two? And does one have more power than the other?
Yes, I agree fully, we phrased the argument slightly differently. consequentialist arguments, arguments that we should do X because it has a good effect, who however we define good, there's a consequentialist arguments. But we also recognize that people have rights. And and the way we understand rights are that people have a right to a certain thing, or right to do a certain thing, even if doing something else might have better effects. And most people, most theorists on both the left on the right, almost everybody, I would say, agrees that rights arguments from rights to Trump arguments from consequences. And so that even if it were true, as it is that unions are good for employees, if union somehow violate people's rights, then we can't have unions. My argument is that not only do unions not violate people's rights, but not having unions violates people's rights. So we need unions. And that would be the case regardless of the consequences. So even if it were true, that unions don't contribute to the common good. We would still need unions. Because if there's a right to unions, that trumps whatever consequentialist argument might apply. And this is how the right has managed to get unions. So on the so backpedaling for so many years, right, because their argument is that unionization is an infringement of liberty liberty is a right so it really doesn't matter what the consequences of this are the anti union folks when I'm turning that argument around and say no, unions actually protect rights. And therefore it doesn't matter what the consequences of unionization is, we need unions. It just happens to be the case, in my view, and in view of many people that the consequences are also good. But my argument is an argument from right, not an argument from consequences.
And so that means that if if we point to a union that, you know, the garbage Workers of America is, is secretly funneling or not so secretly funneling money to the mafia, or if there's fixed elections or things like that, these are things that are wrong that need to be resolved. But that doesn't take away the right to a union any more than someone who cheating on their welfare getting double dipping in their welfare doesn't take away people's rights to welfare check, right? That the rights argument basically says, if you find problems, we have an obligation to fix the problems. It doesn't take the right away.
Exactly. Those are post institutional problems. And so we work on prohibiting the abuse with specific regulations the same way I mean, firms are corrupt all the time firms give money to the mafia. Firms steal people's money, they commit fraud, but no one argues that because of that, we should get rid of firms altogether. What they argue is if if this is an abuse by firms, then we should prohibit it, and we should do a better job of enforcing those rules and preventing those abuses. same thing would apply for unions. Unions are comprised of human beings just like firms are and so they are naturally going to do some things they shouldn't do. And we should prevent those things. And we should provide adequate resources to ensure that unions are not allowed to do things which are abusive. But that doesn't amount to an argument that we should get rid of unions altogether.
In closing, and I know that you're, you're a political philosopher, not a politician. But can you make the pitch, right? Among, in addition to all of our podcast listeners and listeners across the world, on Prairie Public, this radio show goes, reaches every radio in North Dakota. And so there are North Dakota legislators listening, their voters listening, they're there, they're all sorts of people. What's your pitch? To a right to work state? What's your pitch to our general audience? Now, start thinking about unions positively thinking about think about joining a union think about making unions universal and compulsory, what do you say to all the people who are listeners to convince them of your point of view,
I guess I would put it in, in these terms, that if you're going to engage in relationship with someone who's got a lot more bargaining power than you, you're going to get abused on some number of occasions. And maybe very often, if you don't want to be abused, then you have to foresee the chance of this. And organize yourself in a way that equalizes the bargaining power of the parties involved. And the only way to do that really are the best way to do that is to have a union. Now, if you object to something that you didn't does, in particular, you would have the the normal remedies for doing that doesn't mean you're bound to everything that union wants to do. But it does mean you have some protection. And it also means that your partner in this the employer, the public agency manager, has something to take account of, and, and a reason to behave better and not to abuse you. So a right to work state is really not a right to work state, it's a right to be abused by your employer state. And by not being a member of the union or by not having unions in all firms and agencies. We're just encouraging a kind of abuse that most people I think, would object to when given particular the particulars of it. So that's my pitch.
That's, that's a good pitch. I think that that's a good pitch. And I think that it's It's always fascinating in these conversations, when we move from the theoretical to the practical and now you come along with a political and very, very strategic argument, but but we have a strong philosophical foundation to explain and justify it while we're having the practical argument as well. Mark, thank you so much for joining us on why this is a conversation that should happen much more often and happens shockingly rarely. So thank you for taking the time to join us.
Thanks for having me.
You have been listening to mark reef and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein. We've been talking about unions with Mark reef and at the end, he made a pitch for everyone listening to the show, to support and join a union. And you know, one of the things we didn't talk about is that almost universal experience of having a really stupid boss. Lots of us have stupid bosses that make bad decisions that make our lives worse that make our jobs harder, that make poor decisions in both the short and the long run, but they're our boss. And there's not a lot we can do. This is a silly way of getting into the question of justice. Why should someone who was stupid, make decisions for you? Just because they have more power than you? Why should someone who doesn't know what's best for you make decisions for you, just because they have power over you. It doesn't make any sense. And in the work world, in the employment arena, all we have to protect ourselves from arbitrary power is each other. And that's what the union does. The Union lets workers look at each other, talk to each other coordinate, strategize and say, We will not agree to arbitrary power. And we will fight with our own power to make sure that our jobs are good, safe, responsible and productive. And our business is good, safe, responsible and productive. And that is why this is an argument for justice, not just for a better workplace, because only by having that balance of power, will we ever have a truly fair, capitalist system? Only when the workers have as much say, as their employers? Can we negotiate the tension between fairness and profit? The language of unionism is full of words like labor that sounds socialist or camaraderie that sounds communist, but all of that stuff is red herring. The fact of the matter is that we need each other to make the world a better place. And the nurses know how to do that in the hospital. The construction workers know how to do that in the construction site. And the professors know how to do that in the university. Unions allow you to work with people who share your experience, to challenge the power of people who will exploit you. That's the argument for unions. It's better for us, it's better for companies, it's better for our society, and it's better for the world. It's a matter of justice. First and foremost. With that said, if you've been listening to this episode on Sunday evening on Prairie Public, please know that a longer version with almost 30 more minutes of discussion is available online and as a podcast visit why radio show.org to listen and subscribe. Rate us on iTunes and Spotify to help spread the word about the show. And please help us continue to broadcast by contributing it why radio show.org Click donate in the upper right hand corner. We exist solely based on your donations. I'm Jack Russell Weinstein signing off for why radio Thank you for listening as always, it's an honor to be with you.
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