Watershed Moment in Wisconsin

Watershed, n. . . . 3. A critical point that serves as a dividing line.

What’s happening in Madison, Wisconsin, is not your ordinary blip in the news cycle.  It is, as a headline in our former paper of record put it, “A Watershed Moment.” But it’s not (to continue with the rest of the headline) a watershed moment only “for Public-Sector Unions.” It’s a watershed moment for America’s self-understanding.

“These kinds of high-profile public-employee battles have enormous stakes,” said Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor law at Harvard. “We’re still feeling the consequences of President Reagan confronting the union in the air controllers’ strike. For anyone interested in union rights, the fight in Wisconsin couldn’t be more important.”

Right you are, Benjie. And its importance is something that resonates far beyond those interested in union rights. What’s happening in Madison is one front in the battle for the soul of America.

Does that sound like an exaggeration? It isn’t. One thing for which we must be grateful to Barack Obama is the way he has dramatized a basic existential choice facing this country. That choice can be posed in various ways depending on the vantage point you assume.  If you look at the evolution of the country from the time of the Founders, you might say that we face a choice between being custodians of freedom, on the one hand, or superintendents of security, on the other.  If you consider the issue in terms of politics, in terms of how we choose to govern ourselves, we face a choice between limited government, which ensures greater individual freedom while also demanding greater individual responsibility, and  unlimited government, which promises greater security while also requiring greater government control over the levers of economic life.

What a pile of abstractions! “Limited government,” “greater security,” “levers of economic life.” Those are indeed possible names for some of the realities we face, but they are like coins worn smooth by overuse.  The stark outlines of their significance have been nearly effaced in the hurly-burly of intellectual exchange and commentary.

Nearly effaced. Not quite. We can still discern the faint trace of what’s at stake behind those anodyne phrases. It’s a matter of the sort of life we are choosing for ourselves and our children. Hence the heat of the rhetoric that both sides are bringing to bear on the drama unfolding in Madison (and percolating elsewhere). "Walker's Cruel Union-Smashing Tactics" screams one headline. "Unions & Dems vs. the People in Wisconsin" counters another.

The news Friday emanated mostly from one side: thousands of disgruntled (yet overpaid) teachers, many with students in tow, had skipped work to go to Madison to protest Governor Walker’s bill. The 14 Democratic state senators had also skipped work: they fled Madison and holed up in Illinois to forestall a vote (there are 19 Republican senators, a vote requires a quorum of 20). The truancy was not playing well and yesterday saw a  dozen or more doctors abetting fraud by brazenly handing out sick notes to all and sundry. (I see that some nanny state morons in California are tracking truant students with GPS devices: I hope they have some left over for the teachers who play truant, and encourage their students to follow suit.) Yesterday also saw thousands of tea party activists join the mêlée in Madison.  Now signs saying “Don’t tread on me,” “The gravy train is over,” and “Sorry we’re late, we work for a living” joined the “Don’t tread on DC” and “Kill the bill” signs.

One of the most disturbing features of the protests in Madison is the involvement of President Obama. He may have dithered, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of political calculation when Egypt exploded,  but when his own political fortunes are at stake he is Mr. Decisiveness. The president of the United Stakes has involved himself personally, declaring that Scott Walker’s bill is an “attack on unions.” And, more ominously, he has involved himself politically, deploying his reelection campaign group, Organizing for America, to help mobilize the public-sector union activists in Madison. A pertinent comment from the Reason blog:

Just think–there once was a time (for more than a century, actually), when the president of the United States thought it too imperious to deliver the State of the Union via a speech to a joint session of Congress, since that would smack of telling a co-equal branch of government what to do. Now we have a president not just taking rhetorical sides in a state issue, but actively mobilizing his political organization to affect the outcome(s), even though (to my knowledge) nothing that Gov. Walker or any other belated statehouse cost-cutter is doing has a damned thing to do with federal law.

Obama is so keen to preserve and nurture public sector unions because they are the lifeblood of the contemporary Democratic Party. To an astonishing extent, the unions are the government in many locales.  They elect officials and then sit down to bargain with them over their salaries and benefits. Since they are essentially bargaining with themselves, they generally make out quite nicely. It’s a corrupt and ultimately unsustainable practice. Sooner or later, as Margaret Thatcher observed about socialism, they will run out of other people’s money. Many of us believe that day is nigh, but the unions and their enablers apparently have calculated that there is at least a little more ruin they can inflict.

Still, the issue in Madison is not just the future of public-sector unions. In my view — it’s one thing I agree with FDR about — they should once again be declared illegal, as they were in all states until the 1960s (currently about 40 percent of government workers are unionized). No, important as the fight over public-sector unions is, that battle is only one aspect of a much larger battle: the battle over the fate of individual freedom in a neo-collectivist age. As I said above, Obama has done us the great service of dramatizing the stark choice that faces us. At least since LBJ and his preposterously misnamed “Great Society” programs, the United States has been lurching down the collectivist path. The government has intruded itself in one aspect of life after the next, always with ruinous results.  It is ironic, I suppose, that a crossroads should be reached in Madison, Wisconsin, a city named for that great patron of limited government James Madison. “The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined,” Madison wrote in Federalist 45.

Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

What happens in Madison concerns not only the fate of some whining school teachers, fraud-abetting doctors, and the left-wing activists who are their enablers. It concerns the shape of this country, its hospitableness to liberty, economic growth, and individual autonomy. It was a battle Madison fought and won in the 1770s. But the price of freedom, as Madison's rival and colleague Thomas Jefferson observed, is “eternal vigilance.” Our stupendous affluence and power has lulled us into complacency and public profligacy.  It is time to wake up. “Two roads diverge in a yellow wood”: you cannot, as Frost put it in his famous poem, take both and be one traveller. Which will it be?