»  National Review Online

May 27th, 2003

  Disenfranchise the Public Sector


NRO readers who patronize The Corner may have read my recent confessions in respect of heavyweight political science, viz., it sends me to sleep. I would rather remove my own gall bladder with a pair of rusty scissors than be obliged to read the collected works of Leo Strauss. However, while I can't handle the highbrow stuff, I am a fairly keen reader of pop-poli-sci books. In this respect I resemble a person who … let me see … what analogy can I use? … hmmm … perhaps … a person who, with no deep interest in or ability for higher mathematics, will yet run out and buy a really good pop-math book when one comes to his attention.

Reading pop-poli-sci books, you occasionally catch an idea that is floating in the air. I have read two books of this kind in quick succession: one for review, one because I have admired some of the author's magazine journalism. The first of these books was Amy Chua's World on Fire, the second was Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. These are two quite different books, writing about the large affairs of the world from two different angles, but they both share a common idea — one of those ideas I spoke about that is currently floating in the air, and can be spotted all over the place in political commentary and conversation once you become alert to it. That idea is a rising skepticism towards full-franchise democracy.*

Now of course skepticism about democracy is not a new thing in the world. Socrates and Plato both argued against democracy. Aristotle offered a tepid least-bad defense, but thought democracy impractical on any scale larger than a Greek city. (Though none of these gentlemen was using the word "democracy" in quite its modern sense. In their usage it meant something like "rule by the poor.") The subsequent history of Western philosophy offers both pro and con points of view, while Eastern philosophy did not bother with the topic at all, preferring to concentrate on the problem of how best to encourage virtue in the omnipotent ruler and obedience in his subjects, whose only power was the power to revolt.

We always tend to think that our present state of affairs is the End of History, the final perfection of a long historical process of trial and error. Probably most Americans have internalized the idea that full-franchise representative democracy is the best possible system of government, the end and summit of Anglo-Saxon constitutional development. If you talk to unsophisticated voters about the 2000 election, all of those on the Left and a even good portion of those on the Right agree that there is something absurd about a system in which the winner of the popular vote can end up second. Obviously, the party or person who gets the most votes from an electorate of all adult citizens (with the exception of felons and lunatics) should be the winner. Obviously!

In fact, there is nothing obvious about this at all. The Founding Fathers did not much care for the idea — which is why we have an Electoral College and occasional anomalies like the 2000 presidential result. Their descendants became better-disposed over time, but there are good reasons to think that they took us too far: that full-franchise democracy may not be the best system for a post-industrial welfare state. This kind of polity has its charms, but we have lost something in the bargain. In the words of Jerry Pournelle:

For a man to love his country his country ought to be lovely. And self-esteem begins with the pride of independence, of earning one's way, of being a citizen who can support his family and doesn't need charity or welfare and doesn't look for 'entitlements'; without that you cannot have a republic.

Or at least, if you are to have any chance of keeping your republic, you had better be ready to make some constitutional adjustments.

Fareed Zakaria, in The Future of Freedom, distinguishes carefully between, on the one hand, full-franchise voting, and on the other, constitutional liberalism, in which fundamental liberties are protected and basic rights guaranteed. The relationship between these two things is rather complex. I noticed this myself when, in my salad days, I spent a couple of years living in Hong Kong. There was nothing the least bit democratic about Hong Kong in the 1970s. Nobody (well, there were some trivial, very limited exceptions) voted for anything. Certainly ordinary people had no say in who governed them. Hong Kong was a British Crown Colony, governed by bureaucrats appointed by the government in London.

And yet the place was perfectly free — freer, in many respects, than Britain herself. There was an astonishing variety of Chinese-language daily newspapers of every conceivable point of view, and two or three titles in English. On October 1st, mainland China's National Day, communist sympathizers — I shared an apartment with one — hung huge five-star flags out of their windows. Nine days later came "double tenth," October 10, the National Day of Chiang Kai-shek's Republic of China in exile on Taiwan. On "double tenth" you saw the white-sun-on-blue-sky flag of the Nationalists everywhere, and instead of finding yourself gazing into the beatific countenance of Mao Tse-tung wherever there was space to hang a portrait poster, you were followed by the lugubrious eyes of Sun Yat-sen. People came and went as they pleased, though there were some restrictions on travel into China proper. Commercial enterprises rose and fell in an atmosphere of extremely pure Darwinian natural selection. (With the result, of course, that Hong Kong is now one of the richest places in the world.)

Conversely, at about the same time, the citizens of the U.S.S.R. were voting regularly in elections. Those elections are one feature of Soviet life that people have forgotten about, but at the time they were huge affairs. Armies of volunteers were mobilized to get the vote out; people got the day off work to ensure they voted; the government TV stations never failed to run footage of the dictator — Leonid Brezhnez at the time I am speaking of — casting his ballot at the polling station; everything was done to give the impression that the nation was waiting breathlessly for the result. Which was, naturally, a landslide for the Communist Party every time.

Those are extreme examples, but it is not difficult to come up with pairs of countries, the one an electoral democracy, the other a dictatorship, in which a sober person might very likely say, comparing the conditions of the two places, that he would rather live in the second than in the first. Juan Perón's Argentina or Franco's Spain? The Venezuela of Hugo Chávez or the Singapore of Lee Kuan Yew? Today's Russia or today's China? To a lot of places, as Zakaria shows, democracy has been a very mixed blessing. To some, it has been a horrible disaster. Every one of Adolf Hitler's steps to power, except the very last one, was accomplished by constitutional means and assisted by popular democracy. In the elections of March 5, 1933 the Nazis got a plurality of the vote, and very nearly a majority (44 percent). Robert Mugabe offers a more recent example.

Other nations' affairs can be viewed with some detachment, but what about our own? While reading those two books I have been following the current fiscal and constitutional crisis in my state, which is New York. You probably know the story, at any rate in outline. The state government spent our money like drunken sailors during the boom years of the 1990s, establishing huge new entitlements and fixed costs. Now that lean times have arrived, none of this can be afforded, and my state is looking at a deficit of $11.5 billion on a $40 billion budget.

The remarkably creative solution offered by the state legislature is to raise spending. William Tucker supplied all the insane details in an article title "Spending Their Way Out of Debt" in the May 26 issue of The Weekly Standard (here … but I think you need to be a subscriber). It is not only the state legislature that is at fault, I should add. Our governor, George Pataki, gave away the store to powerful public-sector labor unions in order to get himself re-elected last year, when it was already perfectly obvious that the state was sailing into a crisis. Now he is pretending to have re-discovered his earlier fiscal-conservative principles, but nobody is much fooled.

Certainly the speaker of our state assembly (the legislature's lower house) is not fooled. This is a fellow named Sheldon Silver, and he is a conservative's worst nightmare, being (a) a business-hating socialist by inclination, (b) a trial lawyer by profession, and (c) a parliamentary tactician of genius. His life's work is to destroy private enterprise in New York State, having first transferred all its assets to the pockets of his colleagues at Weitz & Luxenberg, the firm of ambulance-chasers that keeps him on retainer. Silver has contemptuously brushed aside Pataki's vetoes, as has State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno. (Silver is a Democrat, of course. Bruno and Pataki are both Republicans, or what passes for Republicans in New York State. That is to say, they are a couple of millimeters to the right of Hillary Clinton.) The legislature will get its spending increases, and I and my fellow New Yorkers will get a huge tax hike to finance them.

What on earth accounts for this loony behavior on the part of my state's elected representatives? Have none of them ever read the story of the ant and the grasshopper? Don't they know that in good times you sock stuff away for when the bad times come? I suppose at some level they do, but their overriding political priority is to appease the interest blocs that keep them in office. Fareed Zakaria lays out the arithmetic:

If a group of 100 farmers got together to petition the government to give them $10 million, the benefit to each farmer is $100,000. The cost to the rest of the country is about 4 cents per person. Who is more likely to form a lobby, them or us? Multiply this example by thousands and you understand the central problem of American democracy today.

In the case of New York State, the biggest, most powerful and most destructive lobbies are the public-sector workers. That includes health-care workers: Medicaid and Medicare between them pay most of the hospital bills in my state — 80 percent in institutions belonging to New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation. These are the people who call the shots. Dennis Rivera, president of the local hospital workers union, goes up to Albany to visit Pataki in the spirit of a Chinese Emperor bestowing the light of his countenance on a provincial magistrate. He invariably returns to his membership with a huge sackful of taxpayer money.

The teacher unions punch at the same weight. Both health-care workers and teachers are perfectly unscrupulous about applying moral blackmail when they don't get what they want. On the rare occasions it looks as though one of their demands might be denied, our TV screens are flooded with commercials telling us that hard-hearted politicians seek to push helpless invalids out into the snow, or jam our kids sixty to a class in unheated schoolrooms.

And of course, both groups have demands that are unlimited. You can never have enough health, or enough education. A wealthy acquaintance of mine is delighted with the results of his Human Growth Hormone treatments, which cost him several hundred thousand dollars a year. Shouldn't those treatments be available to everyone? Of course they should! And if twenty students to a class is better than forty, wouldn't ten be better yet? Of course it would! One computer per classroom? Why not one per desk? A week's sabbatical every year for teachers to "improve their skills"? Why not a month? Appendectomies on Medicaid? Why not psychiatric counseling? Chiropractic? Acupuncture? Faith healing? Health care and education between them have the potential to absorb the entire contents of the public treasury, and still keep making claims. In New York State, they look set fair to do just that.

What can we do about this? I have already told you. Why don't you pay attention? We should disenfranchise nonmilitary government employees, including those like health-care workers who get most of their wages and salaries from the taxpayer. To repeat myself (come on, I don't do it often):

If you let public employees vote, what do you think they are going to vote for? For more public spending, more government jobs, higher government wages. Can you vote yourself a pay raise? No, and neither can I. Bill Bureaucrat and Pam Paperpusher can, though, and they do. Bill and Pam have no problem at all with ever-swelling public budgets, with ever-expanding public services, with the creeping socialism that is slowly throttling our liberties out of existence.

Please don't write and whine to me: "I'm a public servant. I've worked my buns off for 30 years at a demanding and essential job, for an unimpressive salary. Why are you being mean to me?" I'm not being mean to you. I like you. Thank you for your work, for your service to my country. I sincerely thank you. I just don't see why you should have a vote.

Working for the State, or the Nation, is a great privilege and an honor. It brings with it great security, since States and Nations very, very rarely go out of business. Let privilege, honor and security be rewards enough; let's not gild the lily with fripperies like voting rights.

Or we could just dismantle our legislatures and hand over their premises to the public-sector unions.

* For another example of this skepticism, though I think uttered in a not-altogether-serious vein, see British über-Lefty Jonathan Freedland interviewing She Whom I May Not Name in CounterPunch. She Whom etc. declares flatly that it was a mistake to give women the vote.