Public employees ruined Rome. In the 2nd century BC, the general Marius wanted to turn Rome’s citizen army, then a troop of part-timers, into a professional fighting force. To entice men to sign up for lengthy stints far from home, Marius promised his soldiers cash bonuses and — more importantly — land on which they could settle after their terms expired. It was one of the world’s first government pension plans.
Unfortunately, Marius’ reform turned out to be a recipe for civil conflict and, eventually, economic collapse. Roman soldiers began to look to individual generals, rather than the state, as their benefactors, and began to serve for financial reward rather than patriotic duty. Roman military leaders were forced to promise more and more public resources to maintain the loyalty of their troops, until one day there was no more money — by the 3rd century AD, the army cost more than tax receipts collected, an unmistakable sign that the end was near.
Public employees are now ruining the American republic, though our malefactors come not from the army but from the legions of unionized workers laboring in government service. For decades, public-sector unions have used their influence to help elect their own bosses and demand lavish pension and health care benefits. The result is 44 states facing an estimated budgetary shortfall of $125 billion.
Wisconsin is just one state finding that the cost of its employees exceeds its tax revenues. If something isn’t done to put the state’s finances on sound footing, a $3.6 billion budget shortfall looms. Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to do just that. Among other things, he’s asking his state’s unionized employees to contribute more to their health and pension plans. Those workers, especially teachers, responded with massive protests against Gov. Walker and his plan.