Full Employment, Motherhood, and Apple Pie

These are not good economic times for labor unions, whose membership continues a long decline in the private sector. However, they remain a potent force in politics, providing considerable funding and on-the-ground help (canvassing, get-out-the vote drives) for Democratic politicians.

Thus, it makes sense for organized labor supporters to argue for the value of unions in terms of politics and policy goals. Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum takes this approach, maintaining that unions play a vital role in pushing government to promote full employment.

[T]hat’s the point of a strong labor union: it forces the government to fight for full employment. It fights for lots of other stuff too, and that’s the whole virtue of organized labor. It’s true that they also produce a modest wage premium for their own members, but if that’s all they did then I wouldn’t care much about them and neither would most other liberals.

Unions have lots of pathologies: they can get entranced by implementing insane work rules, they can get co-opted by other political actors, and they can end up fighting progress on social issues, just to name a few. But they fight for economic egalitarianism, and they’re the only institution in history that’s ever done that successfully on a sustained basis. That’s what makes them so indispensable to liberalism and that’s what makes them the sworn enemies of conservatism.

Drum is right that unions, by fighting for redistributionist policies (which he terms “economic egalitarianism”) make up a key constituency in the overall left-liberal coalition — nothing controversial about that. However, his point about unions pushing for “full employment” seems forced. Has anyone ever heard of somebody openly promoting less employment?

More employment (with full employment its logical conclusion) is the domestic policy equivalent of a strong defense — everybody’s for it. Of course, how to employ more people is contentious, so much so that people of different ideological persuasions will argue for diametrically opposite policies to achieve it, with plenty of room for honest disagreement and debate.

More importantly, it’s worth considering what kind of employment unions want. Unions have a built-in incentive to sign up more dues-paying members. Therefore, they have an incentive to promote employment in industries and sectors where they have a greater hope of organizing workers.

In the marketplace, this gives unions very good reason to work to skew the playing field to favor unionized companies over nonunion ones. In politics, it gives unions an incentive to promote more government employment, because that is where their best organizing prospects lie. Taken together, that incentive structure — and the policies it promotes — indeed “makes them the sworn enemies of conservatism,” with “conservatism” taken to mean open markets and restrain on government

For more on labor, see here and here.