In the midst of yet another post on unions, Tyler Cowen observes: “By the standards of labor economics, it does not suffice to note that the 1950s had both a more equal income distribution and more unions, or to call Western Europe a kinder, gentler place. Those citations don’t sort out cause and effect, and in fact we do have more advanced ways of scrutinizing the data.”
Obviously, that is true. Equally obviously, it sounds bad to speak in a disparaging way about empirical studies. That said, the result of my meta-survey of the empirical economics literature on unions is that it’s . . . rather murky. Under the circumstances, I’m really not sure there’s anything wrong with the heuristic methods Cowen disparages here. High levels of unionization are associated with politico-economic orders that are congenial to those of us of a certain political persuasion. Strong unions are simply part of the social democratic issue suite; social democrats support strong unions, strong unions support social democracy, and strong unions are partially constitutive of social democratic politics and policies.
Efforts to empirically disentangle the precise nature of the interrelationships here are, of course, an interesting scholarly endeavor and I don’t begrudge anyone for spending their time looking into it. As a matter of political commitment, though, there’s great wisdom in the example of anti-union semi-liberal Mickey Kaus who wisely recognizes in his book that he’s abandonned egalitarian politics as they are traditionally understood. Consequently, I’m not sure it’s in any real way worthwhile for non-specialists to engage in this debate since I assume we can all do an adequate job of Googling to try to find papers that support our conclusions or asking readers with access to superior specialized search tools to help us out.