By Eric Criss, JMI Member and Guest Blogger, Chairman of The Policy Council, & Doctoral Student in History at Florida State University
Filmmaker Michael Moore descended upon Wisconsin this week with a proclamation that neither the federal government nor the state government is “broke.” This in spite of a national debt that has increased by more than $4 billion per day since 2007 and now stands in excess of $14 trillion. Moore’s fabrication causes one to wonder if there are more credible voices on the current debate, including the question of new “rights” claimed by union bosses.
The manufacture of “rights” is significant because their adoption, either formally or informally, impacts the integrity and authority of government. James Madison, the father of our Constitution, understood this fact. When Madison submitted the proposal for the Bill of Rights to Congress on June 8, 1789, he was careful to note that the revisal of the constitution should be “a moderate one.” This was important, he said, because he was “unwilling to see a door opened for a re-consideration of the whole structure of the government, for a re-consideration of the principles and the substance of the powers given; because I doubt, if such a door was opened, if we should be very likely to stop at that point which would be safe to the government itself.” Madison is not a lone voice from history.
In, A Disquisition on Government, John Calhoun described how human nature causes an individual “to have a greater regard for his own safety or happiness, than for the safety or happiness of others.” Calhoun, having held the titles of Congressman, Senator, War Secretary and Vice-President, knew about self interest. When individual or group interests oppose one another he said, they would naturally be prepared to surrender the interests of others in the hope of fulfilling their own. This, Calhoun said, creates a state of constant tension and conflict and generates “suspicion, jealousy, anger and revenge — followed by insolence, fraud and cruelty.”
Such passions are on full display in Wisconsin today, where lawmakers face both physical and political intimidation by labor unions as they struggle to plug a gaping $3.6 billion hole in the state budget.
The extortive strategy employed by the unions offers a false compromise: take temporary pay and benefits cuts but insist on the right to renegotiate. In a year or two, when states get their fiscal house in order, the bosses will return, collective bargaining hammer in hand, to begin anew the process of bankrupting the system. This is why collective bargaining is sacrosanct to the unions. They are willing to patch the sinking ship but not to fix it. To do so would require permanent elimination of bloated salaries and benefits in places like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where big labor has secured compensation of $100,000 per year in salary and benefits for the average teacher.
During a recent appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten identified collective bargaining as part of the worker’s “right” to the “American dream.” She described the union’s campaign to preserve collective bargaining in the soaring language of “economic dignity” and “income inequality.” Apparently, Weingarten’s version of the American dream is based on household income.
But the idea that some magic dollar figure can satiate individual needs and desires is inherently flawed. William Graham Sumner addressed this ineffectual concept nearly 100 years ago in an essay entitled, Examination of a Noble Sentiment. Published in 1914 by Yale University, where Sumner was a highly acclaimed professor, the essay poses this profound question: “What is an existence worthy of a human being?” The answer, according to Sumner, is that there is no answer. A man making a dollar a day will ask for two, the man earning two dollars a day will say it costs three and if a man’s income is a thousand dollars he will say it costs $1,500 to have a worthy existence. The same simple principle holds true today. Ask the average person how much money they need to be perfectly content and they will probably give you a figure roughly double their current salary. For most people, the idea that it will take “just a little more” to be happy is not uncommon. This is true not just for Americans and not just in the West but everywhere civilization has developed beyond basic levels of subsistence.
Thus, Weingarten’s reasoning contorts the American dream into the functional equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses.” In her parallel universe, the modern labor boss is no longer responsible for preventing the exploitation of children in factories or fighting for a 40-hour work week. Instead, she is responsible for stacking the deck in favor of her members, who represent only a small fraction of the total workers in our nation. This is special interest politics at its worst.
The American dream is an open door. It is the “pursuit” of happiness, rather than a guaranteed outcome. The individual is free to build a business, write the great American novel or invent a better mousetrap; he may also attempt these things and fail miserably, or make no attempt at all. It’s up to him, or her. This is the only realistic alternative to the false promise of income equality. Such a “right” would require unsustainable levels of social and economic engineering. Financial woes in the states and our federal debt lay bare the fatal errors of this so-called “right.”
The American Dream is also deeply personal and different for all Americans. Defining the Dream, as Weingarten does, in unexceptional and universal terms, smacks of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Instead, the Dream is an opportunity, a process with ground rules that allow unprecedented numbers of citizens to compete on equal footing, using their gifts in a way that will benefit society and help a person to meet their own basic needs and the needs of their families. If one pursues excellence, he or she might fulfill more than basic needs. With hard work and a few breaks a person might reach a personal pinnacle of their own definition. Such an outcome is not a “right” that appears in the U.S. Constitution or anywhere else.
Furthermore, if the American Dream were a “right,” it certainly would not require any individual pay protection money to big labor in the form of monthly dues. Such a right, if it existed, would necessitate what John Calhoun described in A Disquisition on Government as a legitimate, “controlling power” – a functioning state government. This is something currently denied the people of Wisconsin by legislators who scurried away under the glare of lights turned on them in Wisconsin’s capitol dome. Proclaiming a mythical “right” to the American Dream, these duly elected, sworn representatives deserted their constituents to protect union bosses who contributed massively to their campaigns.
In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker should take comfort in the words of Madison, Calhoun and Sumner and allow them to further strengthen his resolve to stand up to the tactics of the unions. The “right” to an American Dream as defined by Randi Weingarten is not an innocent myth but a dangerous deception perpetrated for the mutual benefit of big labor and its legislative allies.
Writing seventy years after Calhoun, Sumner said, “A criminal becomes a martyr if he can put his crime under some great generalization about rights.” Manufacturing a “right” to the American Dream constitutes just such an attempt by big labor. It stands as the epitome of self interest described by John Calhoun, and requires that government act as the “controlling power” in order to prevent the destruction of the bonds of society.