Thursday, March 22, 2007

Strikes at Public Universities

Tibor R. Machan

In a free society when employers and employees negotiate on terms of trade, both sides are free to walk away from the table. Employers would then be left with the need to hire new staff, while employees would need to find a new job. Neither is a welcome prospect, so both sides try to avoid it. But customers can live with this because other sources of goods and services usually exists in the market place where they can purchase what the negotiating parties offer.

When one turns to public employment, however, the situation is markedly different. That’s because customers are not free to refrain from purchasing the goods and services public institutions offer. So, for example, if the teachers at the California State Universities, who are threatening to strike if their terms are not met by the university system, walk of their job, those who pay their salaries and for the schools operations must keep paying. The paying customers, namely, California taxpayers, aren’t legally free to walk, whereas teachers are. And this is unjust.

The entire notion of striking is at home only in a free market system where all parties have alternatives. In a public service industry, however, those who pay for the service lack the freedom to seek other ways to spend their funds. Their funds are confiscated, no matter what.

Now if it is OK, which it isn’t, of course, to force customers (mostly the parents of the students in the case of CSU) of public services to pay, it could be argued that it is OK to have providers put out the work for which these customers are legally required to pay. There is clearly an imbalance afoot—teachers may refuse to work but those who pay them are not free to refuse to pay.

The lesson, of course, is that there should be no public employment other than those required for the maintenance of justice—the courts, military, and so forth. And those should not be able to go on strike since their pay is secured by means of coercion and cannot be withheld.

In a free market of education, colleges and universities would be just like shoe stores or recreation facilities or weight loss centers—their provisions would be obtained with the full consent of all the parties involved in the exchange relationship. No one would be privileged, favored by government as against others involved in the provision of the service (in CSU’s case, education). Because no one’s resources could be obtained against his or her will, there would have to be serious, honest negotiations, with no one in the position to act like an extortionist.

With public service institutions, however, not all the parties are free to deal on their own terms. Taxpayers are stuck having to pay taxes, while teachers can refuse to teach. They can even shut down a university or the entire system while those who pay them will go to jail if they attempt to withhold payment of their taxes that go to the maintenance and administration of the system.

So, perhaps all this is moot since we do have a massive public service sector in this country, which is far from a free one the rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. What is the right approach given this plain enough fact?

Striking would have to be banned, just as refusing to pay taxes is banned. This is not a welcome option, of course, to anyone who believes that the flow of goods and services ought to be free. But when it isn’t free for customers, maybe it shouldn’t be free for employees either.

In some public service industries strikes are banned precisely for this reason. If a monopoly or near-monopoly has been established for the delivery of certain goods or services, so that it is nearly impossible to go elsewhere to gain what one wants (since resources for this are conscripted and one could go to jail if one failed to provide them), then no one ought to make it seem this is a free market in which all parties are free agents.

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