by Chidem Kurdas
Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is in the extremely unusual position of facing a recall vote less than two years after he was elected in 2010. The recall is orchestrated by unions that have gone all out to reverse his valiant effort to contain the growth in state and local spending. This vote has wide implications beyond the state of Wisconsin, implications for all government budget making and the question of whether taxpayers can be protected at all against predatory interests.
Mr. Walker’s supposed crime is to be on the taxpayers’ side. He made state employees contribute more to their pension and health care costs – something private sector employees have done for a long time – and helped bring about a law that restricts collective bargaining for most state employees.
Obviously the public unions want to freely pick the taxpayer’s pocket as much as they like. Any official that opposes them faces a powerful threat—hence very few dare to oppose and taxpayers are robbed. Not only present but future generations are saddled with immense financial burdens, with public pension and health care liabilities ballooning everywhere.
At some point long-suffering citizens try to resist further encroachment on their pocketbook and then we have the impasse of deficits and potential insolvency of local governments. This also affects the federal government, which takes over the pensions of insolvent entities. Therefore taxpayers are nationally under threat, not just at the state and local levels.
The unions’ power is a classic case study in the economics of political choice. Unions are highly organized and concentrated interests. Public union leaders and members get large, immediate benefits from controlling the political system. Members are concentrated in the same workplaces and can be easily organized and taught to act as a collective body. They have all the incentive in the world to do so.
Hence they turn out in large numbers to protest Mr. Walker and wave their signs energetically for the media. Of course they signed the petition that led to his recall being put on the June ballot.
Taxpayers are victimized because they are hard to organize. There are multiple reasons for this. For one thing, taxpayers are many, diverse and dispersed, compared to public union members. Citizens have myriad other matters to attend to in their daily lives, in which politics is peripheral and therefore receives passing attention, if at all. And so the interest of the organized few trumps the well-being of the many. This is just one example of what the pioneers of public choice economics, James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock and Mancur Olson, showed decades ago.
Only when conditions get really bad, say when all the goodies past governments have given to public unions cause property taxes to go through the roof, do citizens as a body react. Such a reaction brought the Republican Mr. Walker to the Wisconsin governor’s office.
He has a good chance of staying there—the WSJ reported that a poll found him leading his potential Democratic opponents. But the struggle against the special interests of public unions is not just politically tough, it’s also long term. No doubt this is one in a long series of skirmishes.
The battle has to be fought, difficult as it is. Otherwise we’re all sitting ducks.