Small-government Democrats? Wishful thinking

Prof. Stephen Bainbridge quotes one  Will Wilkinson, who together with Brink Lindsey, author of “Against the dead hand”) is trying to sell Democrats on the idea that “more market-oriented policies do a better job of achieving liberal goals than do the more heavily centralized, technocratic policies favored by current Democratic opinion elites.” He then comments:

This sort of naivety is so cute.The philosophy of political parties is, at best, only partially a product of ideology and understandings of the good. As Amitai Etzioni explained in Capital corruption: the new attack on American democracy, strong political parties historically tended to moderate interest groups. As political parties become weaker, however, interest groups become stronger. Since the 1960s, political parties in the United States have become weaker and weaker.

Today, the Democratic Party is dominated by a handful of interest groups. At or very near the top of the list are public sector unions, as Daniel Henninger recently observed:

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy planted the seeds that grew the modern Democratic Party. That year, JFK signed executive order 10988 allowing the unionization of the federal work force. This changed everything in the American political system. Kennedy’s order swung open the door for the inexorable rise of a unionized public work force in many states and cities.

This in turn led to the fantastic growth in membership of the public employee unions—The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the teachers’ National Education Association.

They broke the public’s bank. More than that, they entrenched a system of taking money from members’ dues and spending it on political campaigns. Over time, this transformed the Democratic Party into a public-sector dependency. …

There’s no way out for these Democrats. They made a Faustian bargain 40 years ago with the public unions.

Need evidence? Over the last 20 years, public sector unions have donated over $186 million to political parties. Over 90% went to the Democrats.

The NY Times recently took note of the phenomenon, reporting that:

For the first time in American history, a majority of union members are government workers rather than private-sector employees, the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced on Friday.

Fred Siegel, a visiting professor of history at St. Francis College in Brooklyn and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative research organization, said, “There were enormous political ramifications” to the fact that public-sector workers are now the majority in organized labor.

“At the same time the country is being squeezed, public-sector unions are a rising political force in the Democratic Party,” he said. “They depend on extra money for the public sector, and that puts the Democrats in a difficult position. In four big states — New York, New Jersey, Illinois and California — the public-sector unions have largely been untouched by the economic downturn. In those states, you have an impeding clash between the public-sector unions and the public at large.”

The math is simple. Public sector unions love big government. The Democrats need public union support. Hence, as long as the Democrats remain in thrall to the public sector unions (and, for that matter, lawyers), they will be the party of big government. It’s a matter of simple rational actor political economics.

So if you want me to take seriously the proposition that “an organized effort to articulate a moderate libertarian philosophy in terms attractive to liberals” will do squat, explain to me how it changes the interest group dynamics. Otherwise, it’s just wishful thinking.


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