On Tuesday, April 29th, the College Democrats and the College Republicans met to debate before an audience of their peers about their partys’ policy positions. Specifically, they debated on three topics – existing and proposed voter ID laws; the role of public and private sector unions, and whether modern unions help more than they hurt; and a broader topic, where each side presented their vision for a sustainable economic future, and discussed the political actions they would take to achieve it.
From a libertarian perspective, the debate was too narrow. Both sides argued for why their policy ideas were good, but failed to open a dialogue about the ideological differences between them that ultimately gave rise to their different solutions to political problems. Below, I will briefly summarize the arguments given by each side, and then describe the libertarian approach to the issue.
Voter ID Laws
This is one of those issues that is only an issue because Democrats and Republicans are political opponents. If they had stepped back and thought about what an election is, both sides should come to the reasonable conclusion that failing to validate the identity of a voter is an obvious breach of the integrity of a democratic election. The Republicans got at least this far, but they were unable to resolve the legitimate criticism that laws similar to these have been used in the past to disfranchise young, low-income, and minority populations, and that the types of photo IDs specified in proposed Voter ID laws – drivers’ licenses and gun licenses – require the owner to own some piece of (expensive) property. The Republican gave a weak response. One attempt to show that the pool of acceptable IDs was larger failed when the Democrat brought up the fact that they were talking about registration rather than actual voting.
The Republicans should have acknowledged the potential for disfranchisement if the law were implemented incorrectly. Furthermore, they should have confronted the allegations by the democratic debater, Daniel Firoozi, that certain high-ranking members of the GOP have been recorded saying that Voter ID laws were, in fact, designed to disfranchise opposing voters. They should have questioned Firoozi’s source, and the fact that they didn’t grants him credence by default. And they should have seized an opportunity to show that the new generation of republicans is radically different from the preceding generation.
If they had done that, they would have had a much better chance at convincing the audience that there is a solution to the integrity holes in our election process that does not disfranchise voters. Such a solution might be to provide a free photo ID for all voters who registered, which would probably not add a significant amount to what it already costs to run an election.
Public and Private Unions
This part of the debate wasn’t as antagonistic as the other parts. Both sides made important and valid points about the benefits and harm that unions can do. However, in terms of actually taking a meaningful position on unions, the Republicans definitely took charge of this debate. The Democrats kept repeating the points that “unions protect workers”, and that “everyone should be able to join a union”. This position is weak because it is uncontroversial. The Republicans were quick to acknowledge these truths, and move on to the more complicated question of the negative externalities that come from modern unions.
The first controversy discussed was the modern practice of coerced unionization in “closed shop” trades. Many unions have negotiated deals with their companies which make unionization a condition for working for the company. Such agreements, argued College Republican representative Austin Peters, are necessary for the survival of unions, because as union demands become steeper, union members become less competitive workers. Eventually, it becomes economically feasible to only hire workers which will work for less than what the union demands, and the unions die a slow death of attrition. However, when a union manages to negotiate a closed shop deal with the business, the business is not able to hire workers which it would have otherwise, and thus the productivity of the business suffers. Austin Peters also pointed out that the net effect on the number of people employed is negative.
The solution proposed by Peters were “Right-to-work” laws, which prohibit unions and businesses from agreeing to contracts in which union membership is a requirement of employment. Workers in these states would be free to negotiate contracts with their employers independently of unions. Peters argued that states with such laws exhibit a higher rate of economic growth.
While this does address the immediate problems, it is not an ideal solution. Even if these agreements tend to produce these positive side-effects, a law prohibiting them violates the spirit of the free market by failing to distinguish between voluntary and coerced contracts. In a free market, businesses and employees are allowed to conclude whatever contracts they desire, according to their mutual interests. A law abridging this freedom is only acceptable as a short term solution, where the long-term goal has to be aimed undoing existing legislation which confers advantages to unions that they could not obtain in a free market. The most important body of legislation exemplifying this is the National Labor Relations Act, which compels businesses to negotiate with registered unions. Certain parts of the NLRA are reasonable – reaffirming an employee’s right to belong to a union, for example – but the requirement that businesses negotiate with unions, even when it is not in their interest, is more responsible for the harm unions do than the unions’ actual actions. If laws like this were not around, unions would be far less able to negotiate closed-shop contracts.
Ultimately, businesses don’t have a right to cheap labor; employees don’t have a right to any particular benefits package; unions don’t have a right to closed shop trades; and children don’t have a right to effective teachers (this last remark in regards to the attention spent by the debating parties on the effect of teachers’ unions on the quality of public education). Even if the result of union bargaining is that the business they work for becomes less competitive or less profitable, that doesn’t mean the government is obligated to interfere with this arrangement. (The case may be different in the case of certain public professions, such as the police and firefighters, but for the majority of private and public sector areas, this holds true.) Only when those arrangements were achieved by violence or coercion is government intervention appropriate.
The Libertarian Utopia: Radical Anti-Statism
When it comes to visions of the future of the economy, the Republicans are definitely closer to libertarians than the Democrats, but their vision is still a bit distant from the “anarchy” advocated by libertarians. I’ll briefly summarize each side. The Republicans argued that free enterprise is the most reliable economic system for improving the standard of living for all members of society, and that the government should reduce unnecessary regulation on businesses and simplify the tax code to incentivize business activities and investments. Furthermore, they said, the government should get its budget under control by reforming and drastically cutting entitlements spending, and should begin paying down the debt. The Democrats argued for raising the minimum wage; continuing the implementation of Obamacare; maintaining tuition assistance programs; immigration reform; and public investment in green energy research.
There are positions on both sides which mesh reasonably with libertarian ideology. Obviously, reduced governmental interference with the free market is a libertarian position, as is reducing and simplifying taxation. The latter, though, are just the first steps to realizing a truly free market. For the Democrats, immigration reform is a topic that libertarians largely sympathize with – it is wrong to arbitrarily impede the migration of people who wish to better their lives by moving to the U.S. And while we don’t sympathize with the minimum wage, the fact that inflation has risen faster than the minimum wage is an important problem – but one for which the Democrats have mischaracterized the problem, and whose proposed solution treats symptoms rather than illnesses.
Although the Republicans are more in line with libertarians, the ideas advocated by both parties are still essentially statist. Both give credence to democratic statism, the philosophy that we need a state – a body with a monopoly on the use of force – to provide essential services for us, and that this body must consist of democratically elected representatives. The problem with this is that in modern democracies, majorities have the power to vote resources away from minorities and to themselves. This is both unethical and economically destructive – the first because it requires uninitiated force to achieve, and the second because eventually, as Margaret Thatcher points out, “you run out of other peoples’ money”, and have to start borrowing from abroad and racking up debt. If a government does not have mechanisms built in that prevent this kind of redistribution, the kinds of reforms the republicans are hoping to achieve will proceed slowly at best. As we can see, most democracies tend to favor this kind of redistribution.
Many readers might ask, “if not democratic statism, then what?” People need some form of government, after all, and they need to have a say in who governs them, right?
Yes and yes. A government – a group which uses force to enforce laws – is necessary for protecting people against aggression and theft. And if people do not have some influence over the people who are in a position to invoke force against them, the state can oppress them. But a “state” – an entity with a monopoly on the use of force in a given geographic area – is not the only form that a government can take, and democracy is not the only system that allows people to control their governments. In fact, while democracy is better than its predecessors at maintaining rule by the people, it is still non-ideal, because people are competing to choose each others’ rulers.
The libertarian ideal looks like a government in which individual citizens are not assumed to be citizens until they have signed a contract saying so. This ensures that people are governed by rulers of their own choice, and not the choice of the majority. Only in this context can a free market really take off and allow people to pursue their own economic interests without arbitrary interference. While modern states do technically allow citizens to renounce their citizenship, this procedure is deliberately made costly and difficult in majoritarian democracies, because ultimately modern states rely on involuntary taxation to function.
In the future, the libertarians will be making efforts to participate in the debates. Its not enough that the College Republicans approximate our viewpoints. We believe we have unique ideological insights to offer during debates between the two major political parties. In general, debates between democrats and republicans are focused on particular policies. Libertarians approach problems more broadly, attempting to tease out the root causes of political differences and the issues facing our time, and solve them in a way that prioritizes individual freedom and individual rights.