Holman Jenkins on the Role of Organized Labor in Blocking Policy Initiatives in the Democratic Party

Mancur Olson , an economist who studied   The Rise and Decline of Nations

Last Saturday, Holman Jenkins had a very interesting op/ed in the Wall Street Journal: “Hey Mitt, Voters Aren’t the Obstacle.” What is the obstacle in Holman’s view? The political influence of organized labor.  The theory Holman bases his analysis on is from the brilliant economist Mancur Olson, who focused on the forces that change institutions over time. Holman:

Mancur Olson, the late and admired social thinker, described the lobbying incentives created by policies that concentrate benefits on the few and disperse the costs to the many. Recipients of federal entitlements aren’t highly motivated to oppose the kind of long-term reforms actually required by our fiscal dilemma. Organized labor is.

I encountered Mancur Olson through his book The Rise and Decline of Nations. Here is wikipedia’s summary of The Rise and Decline of Nations in its article on Mancur Olson:  

In 1982, [Mancur Olson] expanded the scope of his earlier work in an attempt to explain The Rise and Decline of Nations. The idea is that small distributional coalitions tend to form over time in countries. Groups like cotton-farmers, steel-producers, and labor unions will have the incentives to form lobby groups and influence policies in their favor. These policies will tend to be protectionist and anti-technology, and will therefore hurt economic growth; but since the benefits of these policies are selective incentives concentrated amongst the few coalitions members, while the costs are diffused throughout the whole population, the “Logic” dictates that there will be little public resistance to them. Hence as time goes on, and these distributional coalitions accumulate in greater and greater numbers, the nation burdened by them will fall into economic decline. 

The most interesting thing in Holman’s piece is his list of bipartisan and Democratic initiatives that were thwarted by union lobbying. I have added bullets and combined three different quotation blocks here, but the words are Holman’s:

  • When a flurry of bipartisan health-insurance proposals failed in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including a stillborn Kennedy-Nixon compromise and 1974’s promising Long-Ribicoff bill, all were defeated because labor rejected anything that wasn’t single-payer. (Ted Kennedy later called it his greatest legislative regret.)
  • When liberals like Rep. Jerrold Nadler proposed investing the 1990s Social Security surpluses in the stock market so the money wouldn’t be squandered on unrelated federal spending, labor killed the idea.
  • When Dick Gephardt, Tom Daschle and Rick Santorum voiced support for Social Security supplemental accounts, and when President Clinton said a bipartisan reform would be his No. 1 priority in 1999, labor snuffed the burgeoning consensus.
  • When Democrats gathered to nominate Al Gore in 2000, public-employee unions contributed a record number of delegates—at least 20% of the total. One of labor’s biggest aims, according to a lobbyist for the union-backed Fund for Assuring an Independent Retirement, was throwing cold water on any Democratic enthusiasm for Social Security and Medicare reform.
  • Think uninsured voters had any hand in designing ObamaCare? ObamaCare was largely designed by organized labor. Labor beat back attempts to curb the regressive tax subsidy for employer-provided insurance. Labor plumped for the incentives that will soon cause many employers to shift their health-care costs to taxpayers.
  • [Michelle Rhee, a Democrat] was the break-the-crockery D.C. schools chancellor, whose mission came to an end when Mayor Adrian Fenty was booted by a local electorate straight out of the latest Romney gaffe. To put it bluntly, voters in D.C. sided with the teachers union that Ms. Rhee was fighting over the students she was trying to help.

Holman summarizes as follows:

We don’t dismiss the power of AARP, but organized labor dominates the Democratic Party on Capitol Hill. Organized labor has been the force, decade after decade, carefully tending the creation of the many liabilities and excesses that now threaten the Republic.

Let me say this on my own behalf. No one should blithely assume that unions will support liberal policies, if by liberal policies one means policies to help the poor and the suffering. Most unions are middle-class organizations that in their political activities are ready and willing to sacrifice the interests of the poor to benefit their members and their leaders. (Here I am distinguishing the political activities of unions from the wage-and-benefit-raising and worker-voice activities of unions that I discuss in my post “Adam Ozimek on Worker Voice.”)