Of Libertarians, Unions, and Democracy

February 1, 2015

Last weekend the brothers Charles and David Koch assembled their billionaires’ club in Rancho Mirage, California, after which they announced that they would be raising and spending $1 billion in the next election cycle.  The billionaires’ club that the Kochs orchestrate will therefore have as much, or more, money to give away in the upcoming presidential elections as either political party. They have in effect created a third, libertarian party, controlled in all probability by fewer than 500 donors, a party that is not based in popular support in precincts and congressional districts, is not founded in organizations of workers or teachers or small businesses, but is grounded entirely on the ideological passions of Charles and David Koch.  Theirs is therefore not a party rooted in democracy. Theirs is a party to nurture, promote, and sustain great wealth, or more precisely, the fortunes of an established American aristocracy. In the last election cycle these aristocrats only spent $400 million. This time they intend to more than double that. And now they intend to create their own precinct-based organization that will launder and dispense with a billion dollars of anti-government, pro-plutocracy propaganda so that they, too, can say that they are supported by the masses.  The money is “laundered” in the sense that it originates from billionaires but will be packaged with deceptive names like Americans for Prosperity, or Freedom Works. 

The Kochs’ libertarian conviction is that a free market will solve all the country’s problems.  Leave aside the contradiction that a “free market” for them includes tax breaks for their oil and gas industry in the millions of dollars and that they do not deny the role of government if it means receiving from that government millions for themselves.  In the libertarian view, freedom for the poor is that they can do without welfare and can sleep under the bridges; freedom for the Kochs is that they can persuade the government to give them more millions. 

Within the libertarian ideology, “freedom” means that practically all government except for defense, fire and police, and perhaps immigration, should be dictated by the commercial market.  Health, schools, forest preservation, worker safety, foreign trade, fire arms, —you name the subject— should be created and controlled by commerce, and commerce alone. If it is good, it will make a profit.  If it is bad for profits, it is not needed and should be done away with. Libertarianism does not provide for school lunches, welfare assistance, laws against discrimination, media fairness, work place safety, union members’ right to bargain, college education for the non-elite, or any other such thing.  Except for tax subsidies for themselves, libertarians believe that the market should be free from government interference.

This is a philosophy with which they intend to not only unravel the New Deal of FDR, but to take us back even further and unravel the antitrust, worker, and environmental protections that have grown steadily since Teddy Roosevelt at the beginning of the 20th century. A billionaires’ political party does not need to test its theory in the reality of conditions at work, does not need to worry about desperate conditions in the mines, jobs lost through outsourcing, discrimination against women or people of color, or declining income of the 99%.   The Kochs’ massive propaganda campaign, which will now be twice what it was in 2014, does not mention that an unregulated market has resulted in the greatest income inequality this country has seen, perhaps ever, but at least since the Gilded Age of the early 20th century. Libertarians believe that if everyone would just work as hard the Kochs or Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch we all could all be rich. That is, we could be really, really, rich if we could gain the support of Congress to not tax billions in foreign income, or to exempt Social Security taxes on incomes above $106,000, or persuade the FCC to allow media monopolies. We could all be really, really, rich, if we would all just use tax havens available to us in the Cayman Islands.

In the last ten years, libertarian propaganda has invaded and become dominant in political American culture. Libertarian propaganda guides Republicans in the U.S. Congress in their attempts to cut back on welfare and health care, to privatize Social Security, to undermine unions, to allow the consolidation of American media into six combines. Six corporate boards effectively decide what information is to be fed to 90% of all Americans.  Libertarian slogans undergird the Supreme Court of United States as it turns American election campaigns into a gaming field for billionaires. Perhaps even more than all these attempts to wipe out the compassionate gains of the 20th century, the biggest current danger is the massive libertarian attempt to deny global warming. Seas are rising, deserts are burning, tornados are descending, and the best hope for survival should be to engage the problem head on with comprehensive regulation.  The Kochs and their friends, however, on the authority of Adam Smith and Ayn Rand, condemn all regulation, even regulations that might save civilization.

Nor does the backsliding end there. The Koch brothers for the last several decades have financed an attack on state legislatures through an organization that they have substantially financed called the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC.  ALEC carries the libertarian assault into every legislature in the country including prominently into New Mexico. The recipe is to suppress voting among minorities, women, the elderly and the poor; it is to break down Medicaid and to promote the dilution of the Affordable Care Act. Nor does it end there. Chief among the opponents of the billionaires, and one of the few organizations with sufficient funds to be able to play this game, is the organization of labor. Unions promote higher wages, health benefits, pensions and a degree of security for the middle class. To do away with unions would be to further increase inequality in America and political impotency amongst all but the 1%.  If you are a libertarian, that is a goal that simply results from the free market and is a demonstration of rich peoples’ superior talent. 

Make no mistake: the billion-dollar effort authored by the Koch brothers this week is an effort that is coming to New Mexico and in this case under the misleading and deceptive moniker of "right to work." With a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives, Governor Susana Martinez is following the lead of libertarian governors in Wisconsin and Michigan hoping to push this union busting provision through the current legislature. "Right to work" is, however, a misnomer. Everyone already has a right to work in a union shop or a nonunion shop. Current law allows a union that has bargained for better wages and health care to charge its workers, whether union or non-union, a proportionate share of the cost of collective bargaining. Non-union workers may stay nonunion and still work at that place, but if they are to enjoy the benefits of the bargaining they can be asked to share in the costs of that bargaining.

Libertarians want to allow these free riders to benefit from the union efforts and not pay their share of the cost that produced their benefits. They say that to require a nonunion member to pay a portion of union dues is "to force them to join the union." That is what the Rio Grande Institute is telling New Mexico legislature and it is patently false.  There is no requirement that a nonunion member join a union; that requirement has been proscribed by federal law since 1947. In sum: current law allows a union to prevent free loaders; libertarians would promote free loaders and in so doing, undermine any reason to join a union. Legislation being offered in the legislature this session is called "right to work;" it should be called "right to bust unions."

If, today, billionaires are successful in their efforts to bring down unions there will be no significant organizational power in the United States that can resist their takeover, and takedown, of American democracy. This is therefore not a side issue to be fought only by union supporters; it is a part of the larger struggle to retain for the middle class some effect in their battle to maintain wages, healthcare, pensions, and safety in the workplace. When representative government fails to deliver these basics the whole idea of democracy is discredited. In today’s chaotic world, the very idea of self-government is everywhere being challenged.  But the battlefields are not just in Europe or the Ukraine or the Middle East; they are local, and the issues are particular, as in this fraudulently named “right to work” legislation.

This is one more way that the Koch brothers have put democracy on trial.