Walker Had No Choice

To refloat the state budget and to save education, he had to break the power of the unions

By Richard Esenberg


I once argued that Gov. Scott Walker and President Barack Obama were the same type of politician. It’s not that they aren’t from Venus and Mars on policy, but both wanted to get something done. Their ambitions — or so I thought — were not only personal but also programmatic. They could think big.

Those days seem to be gone. While Obama may still dream of making the world anew, the reconstruction is clearly not shovel-ready. Chastened by the midterm elections, he now plays small ball. His case for re-election rests on a demagogic rant against a small number of wealthy people who should, damn it, pay another 4.6 percent of their income in taxes. That increase, along with the so-called Buffet rule, would reduce the deficit by less than 5 percent.

If our president has bold plans for the economy, the looming entitlement crisis, the smoldering Middle East or anything else, he’s not telling. While I have no doubt he still longs for Stockholm on the Potomac, all he currently has to offer are more active truancy officers and a renewed commitment to solar panels.

This is not, to say the least, the case with our governor. His attempt to fundamentally restructure state government has certainly stirred a whirlwind of opposition, but he’s sailing head to the wind. No tax increases, no collective bargaining and no apologies.

The governor has been criticized for moving too fast and too far. Some of his critics suggest that, in this, he has failed to be truly conservative. They invoke the English statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke who, they say, understood the complexity and organic nature of change. Burke, they say, would never have countenanced such revolutionary change.

I am generally amused when progressives cite Burke, because progressivism is a decidedly un-Burkean project both in its ambition and optimism about the capacity of elites to restructure the world and in its tendency to reduce society to the state and individuals on whom the state acts and to whom it ministers. For the left, Burke is a firewall, someone who is invoked to make past gains permanent but who has nothing to say about extension of progressive ambition.

But do they have a point? Did Walker try to get too much too quickly?

Such criticisms of the governor point to collective-bargaining reform. Why did he have to go after the unions when they said they would make financial concessions? Why was it necessary to end compulsory financial support of unions and state facilitation of the collection of dues? Why not proceed incrementally?

There is an old saying, said to have originated with Ralph Waldo Emerson but recently stated most succinctly by the character Omar on HBO’s award-winning drama The Wire.

“If you come at the king, you best not miss.”

Public-employee unions had become one of the kings of state politics. While they certainly did not win every battle, they had come to control the Democratic caucus in a way that public-choice theorists and midcentury skeptics on public-employee unionization such as Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia would have come to expect.

The unions were intensely interested, highly motivated and well-funded, stemming, in part, from legally compelled dues from state and local employees. And they had become an enormous obstacle to reform.

Public employees are not synonymous with their unions. The latter inevitably increase the cost of labor (that is their purpose) and, in the public sector, this can only increase the cost of government services over what they would otherwise be. In a high-tax state facing a huge budget deficit, that was a problem.

But it was not the only problem. Particularly in the area of education, unions — at least as presently constituted — had become an enemy of reform, protecting poor teachers, hollowing out education budgets and preventing new and innovative techniques. Just as unions had helped turn the American auto industry into a lumbering dinosaur, they served as a significant obstacle to bringing an analog government into a digital world.

The battle was essential and the opponent well-entrenched. You can sit down with an 800-pound gorilla to negotiate its surrender, but it is generally a bad idea to let it leave the table. If Walker wanted fundamental change, he had to act swiftly, decisively and comprehensively. Organized privilege does not go easily or gradually.

If you don’t like the governor’s reform,  fair enough. But the problem cannot be that he went too far and too fast. Anything less would have been incoherent, ineffective and doomed to defeat.

What remains to be seen is the political wages of comprehensive and bold reform. Obama is chastened and, at least for now, absorbed in trivialities and parlor tricks.

He may win re-election.

Walker faces recall. I don’t think it will succeed, but, if it does, we will not soon see his like again — on either the left or the right. If we don’t usher in an era of frequent recalls, it will be because future governors will go along to get along. The future of our state may be triangulation — Jim Doyles all the way down.

Richard Esenberg is president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and an adjunct professor of law at Marquette University. He blogs at Shark and Shepherd.