The isolationist right and the organized-labor left appear to concur that U.S. government spending should go to U.S. citizens. Money spent rebuilding Iraq is money misspent. This is the message to take away from John Kerry's speech at the convention last week. It is a message that one commonly associates with Pat Buchanan. The moral good is best accomplished by helping Americans. Actions that help residents of other countries, it would seem, should not to be undertaken if they impose costs on Americans. There is a strange moral calculus here: Only Americans matter. I say "moral" because Buchanan motivates much of his discourse in Christianity and organized labor espouses an explicit moral doctrine I will describe shortly.
Christopher Hitchens writes a riveting column on Kerry's speech:
...in the last few weeks I have been registering one of the sourest and nastiest and cheapest notes to have been struck for some time. In a recent article about anti-Bush volunteers going door-to-door in Pennsylvania, often made up of campaigners from the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU—one of the country's largest labor unions—the New York Times cited a leaflet they were distributing, which said that the president was spending money in Iraq that could be better used at home. The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, recently made the same point, proclaiming repeatedly that the Bay Area was being starved of funds that were being showered on Iraqis... These are only two public instances of what's become quite a general whispering campaign....on Thursday night, Sen. Kerry quite needlessly proposed a contradiction between "opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America." Talk about a false alternative. To borrow the current sappy language of "making us safer": Who would feel more secure if they knew that we weren't spending any tax dollars on Iraqi firehouses?
...The worst thing about John Kerry's parochial line on the firehouses was the applause it got, with cameras even focusing on firefighter union jackets adorned with Kerry-Edwards buttons. The great thing about firefighters is usually their solidarity: They will send impressive delegations to the funerals of their fellows not just in other cities but in other countries, too. Solidarity and internationalism, indeed, used to be the cement of the democratic Left. So, do we understand the nominee correctly? Is he telling us that Iraqi firefighters are parasites sucking on the American tit, and that they don't deserve the supportive brotherhood that used to be the proudest signature of the labor movement?
I thought about Hitchens article as I drove past striking workers at an office building near my home. Their signs said "Labor Dispute: Shame on _________". The blank is the name of the company against which they were picketing. Striking workers rely on the cooperation of the public at large. Join us in this moral endeavor. Help us because it is the right thing to do. The evidence goes beyond anedoctal. Some recent empirical work in economics suggests labor unions are more successful when preferences of the local public (not just among workers in their particular industry) support them.
But the labor movement has fled whatever moral high ground it may once have occupied. Presently, it squats in a lowland swamp of greed and xenophobia. Don't get me wrong. Organized labor has every right to pursue its own narrow interests, as does Phillip Morris or any other corporation, group, or individual. But it has forfeited any moral authority or expectation that the rest of us pitch in. During the California supermarket strike last year, we were asked to avoid shopping at our neighborhood stores, to voluntarily inconvenience ourselves, and to support compensation demands that may have led to higher prices for consumers. These actions were not in our self-interest. Fine. There are reasons that go beyond self-interest (economists have a coronary if you say this, but most sane and un-indoctrinated people know it's true). Labor's only justiification for the request: "Support us because it is morally right." A company that does not want to pay us as much as we want to earn is a "shameful" company, an immoral entity. So side with us. Labor seeks to use moral authority (moral bullying, some might say) to achieve its goals. Here it differs from, say, Phillip Morris and other organizations that seek their own self-interest, unabashedly.
(Can you imagine the new cigarette ads: "Buy cigarettes. It's the right thing to do." Or how about this one: "Shame on you, non-smokers!")
Organized Labor is now about greed and inequality. Increasingly, its demands are that Americans, who are comparatively well off, receive resources and opportunities at the expense of destitute persons overseas. Martin Luther King argued that the power of the civil rights protests derived from ther moral authority. By eschewing the tactics of their violent opponents, non-violent demonstrators showed the pubic who held the moral high ground. How effective, how laudable, would King's efforts have been if his speeches went as follows:
"Make us free at last, O Lord Almighty, make us free at last. But don't lift a finger for Africans in Africa. Ever."
There is, of course, a moral argument for spending U.S. resources on U.S. residents. Just as a household that gave away ALL its resources to the less fortunate would either starve or otherwise cease to function, so a nation that gave away a large share of its GDP might cease to be able to continue producing goods and services (which would help no one). This argument is almost never made. The subtext of labor movement arguments--indeed, the tone of Kerry's speech and of the pamphlets--is not that we can better assist the world if we are strong ourselves. Rather, it is that resources should go to Americans first. Period. To paraphrase an argument made by a CEO of General Motors some time ago: "What's best for unionized American workers is best for the world." But they don't make this point. (And anyway, the argument would be almost as disingenuous as GM's was: "Let us help you, you poor Bangladeshis, by closing factories in Bangladesh and taking away your jobs.")
Put aside arguments of enlightened self-interest. (Arguably, it was in our own self-interest to help rebuild Europe and Japan after WWII, just as it might be in our self-interest to help create an island of relative freedom in the Middle East.) Put aside arguments that organized labor usually opposes helping OTHER AMERICANS. (Best evidence suggests that global trade adds more American jobs than it takes away, and that job loss due to outsourcing is very small indeed.) The thing that disturbs me most is the increasingly ugly rhetoric against all those hardworking, and often destitute, "foreigners."
I have spent a lot of time working overseas in the Pacific Rim and I have an enormous respect for those "foreigners." I am concerned for their welfare and am convinced that trade benefits them. It is one of the reasons I became an economist.
As an economist, of course, I respect that groups act according to their own self interest. Hell, we celebrate that. Most groups, however, do not rely on fraudulent arguments about the public's moral obligations. When GM or Phillip Morris try to get something done because it is in their own self-interest, they don't usually try to convince us to act against our self-interest by claiming it is our "moral obligation" to help them make higher profits. These arguments would be denounced as absurd, and rightly.
And so, as one rather unimportant voice in the blogosphere wilderness, I say to the labor movement critiqued by Hitchens' column: Pursue your self-interest. Do what's best for you and you alone. Do it proudly. But if you pursue your self-interest, then I will pursue mine and ignore your insistence that I inconvenience myself on your behalf. Your attempts to cloak naked self-interest in the fabric of moral authority will be resisted. Vigorously. And your adherence to policies driven by greed and xenophobia will be denounced.
The have been heroic figures in the labor movement's distant past. The movement still has some sympathy among the public, sympathy generated by accomplishments from many decades ago. But if the current posture of greed, selfishness, arrogance, and xenophobia persists, there will come a time when that sympathy disappears entirely, when the man on the street concludes, with ample justification, that to cross a picket line is a moral act... and that the "shame," if their be any, is in respecting one.