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Contractortopia

By Matthew Yglesias  

"Contractortopia"

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I understand and, indeed, agree with the argument that public sector labor unions often use their political clout to advance the interests of service providers relative to the interests of service beneficiaries. This is often a source of bad public policy. What I don’t understand at all is the view that if we eliminated the unions the problem would go away. Consider, for example, the fact that alongside anti-union proposals Scott Walker’s budget would allow him to sell off state assets via no-bid contracts.

Of course people will still bid it’s just that they’ll be bidding to bribe Walker and his political allies rather than bidding to give money to the taxpayers.

And this is the general shape of the river. People claiming to be shocked to discover special interest politicking in the administration of the public school system might be interested to learn that military procurement decisions aren’t immune to political influence. Or that the orthodox conservative opinion has become that for-profit colleges are entitled to federal subsidies irrespective of the quality of services provided. Similarly, the orthodox conservative opinion was that federally subsidized student loans should be required to pass through the hands of bankers who take a cut along the way. Whatever cynical and pernicious things teachers’ union leaders can do can also be done by charter school leaders, and for the exact same reasons. Indeed, thanks to Citizens’ United, government contractors will be able to engage in unlimited anonymous campaign spending.

Any government empowered to collect taxes and spend money will be subject to possible interest group capture. Capture by the workforce of a public agency is no better or worse than capture by a private firm. If you look around the world at the best examples of efficient provision of public services (oftentimes through privatization) what you find is a list dominated by Nordic countries with extremely high levels of unionization.

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