This year, for the first time, the general public is becoming aware that the huge debts of states and local governments are largely the result of public pensions and salaries that under collective bargaining have far outpaced inflation. As The Economist reports, they now are at a point that they probably cannot be paid back without bankrupting some jurisdictions. Facing freezes or cutbacks, it is no wonder the unions are among the most ardent proponents of tax increases.
What people are discovering, in this and other ways, is that the biggest special interest in government is the government itself. The part of the electorate that is never bored by an election campaigns and that never fail to vote are the public employee unions. Do you want to hold a rally? If you're on their side, they'll supply the crowd. Do you want someone to attack your opponent? Look to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee Union (AFSCME), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and their counterparts.
This year is different only in that the power of government unions finally are getting some media attention. The Wall Street Journal has reported that public employee unions not only are bigger than private sector unions, but are supplying more campaign cash than any other group.
How did the government unions get such power? A hundred years ago the study of government was not considered a "science" in any modern way. Americans and Englishmen studied "political economy" or "government," or just "history". Asked how to take a role in government, Churchill advised, "Study history! In history are all the secrets of statecraft."
But starting in the late 19th Century American college graduates found reasons to do advanced study in Bismarkian Germany, where universities had invented something called "political science." Like everything else in their government, the social democrats and social Darwinists of Germany wanted to turn what--since the time of Aristotle--had been regarded as a art or craft into "science", a predictable, testable field reserved to experts. The American graduate students came home to places like Johns Hopkins and Columbia and created "political science" departments.
Reformers of the Progressive Era saw in political science the opportunity to replace the spoils system of government hiring with the merit system. All good--up to a point. But over the decades the vast resulting bureaucracy became a force unto itself. Progressivism had not repealed human nature, and it was human nature to find compelling reasons to demand more and more of a free good--in government's case, taxpayer money. If there are government offices that have ever volunteered to cut their costs or to go out of business, I can't think of any. Instead, they always "need" more.
It takes political leaders--elected by the people and accountable to them--to rein in the all too human demands of the meritocracy. The trouble is, private citizens are not as politically active sometimes as are the government unions.
The seminal theoretician of bureaucracy, Max Weber, a German, visited American shortly after the First World War and wondered at the American public's casual distrust of government officials. One worker answered him, "We would rather have officials we can spit on, than have officials who spit upon us, as is the case in your country."
Still the average voter has little realization that the problem with government spending lodges largely in the continuous pressures of bureaucracies for more money. Instead, they imagine that the problem resides entirely with elected officials. For example, you will see many news stories about profligate spending--on overseas trips, for example, or the receipt of gifts--by Congressmen or political appointees. Often the stories are leaked by disgruntled government bureaucrats. Do you think that high placed bureaucrats themselves don't take similar trips or receive gifts? But how often do you see a news story about abuses of that kind?
Overall, American government is well-served by most government employees. i have had the pleasure of serving with outstanding individuals in the career service. But the political arms of the employees unions are becoming a serious threat to democracy. Even on the left, the producers of the film, Waiting for Superman, which focuses on schools, found that obstructionism by teachers unions is the greatest obstacle to reform.
This campaign season the government unions are spending more money than ever before, even taking out loans to back their candidates. It should raise red flags with voters.
We all know Lincoln's description of America's system as "government of the people, by the people and for the people." But I think I coined some time back the expression that one of the greatest dangers of the present time is "government of the government, by the government and for the government."