Mitt Romney Talks Fairness

The following comes from the Economist:

MITT ROMNEY isn’t surrendering the rhetoric of fairness to the president. A CNN piece on Mr Romney’s general-election repositioning efforts show him framing Republican priorities as matters of fairness:

“We will stop the unfairness of government workers getting better pay and benefits than the very taxpayers they serve,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “And we will stop the unfairness of one generation passing larger and larger debts on to the next.”

It is all part of a concerted strategy to try to reverse perceived campaign weaknesses for Republicans as the general election campaign launches.

Jamelle Bouie of the American Prospect argues that the purpose of Mr Romney’s adopting the language of fairness is to sow confusion:

I doubt this will convince anyone other than true believers, but that’s not the point; the idea is to muddy the waters when it comes to coverage of Romney’s message. By attacking Obama on “fairness,” Romney can force the press to bring a horse race dynamic to the opposing claims—“Mr. Obama says that it’s unfair for multi-millionaires to pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families, but Mr. Romney says that what’s really unfair is the burden of debt.” The issues aren’t actually sorted out, and Romney walks away with minimal scrutiny.

May the good Lord strike me dead if I’m a conservative “true believer”, but I happen to agree with Mr Romney that it is unfair for government workers to be compensated more lavishly than their private-sector counterparts. People who are equal in all relevant respects ought to be treated equally, and it’s unfair if they aren’t.

Rather than deny the fact of unequal compensation, as progressives seem wont to do, I think they would do better to argue that this bit of unfairness ought to be addressed by ensuring that private-sector employees enjoy equally generous wages and benefits. The reason public-sector employees do so well, the argument should go, is that labour unions really work. The enviable economic security of government workers proves unionisation works. Private-sector workers suffer in comparison because the long Republican jihad against private-sector unionisation has succeeded. Mr Romney isn’t wrong that there is an inequality between private- and public-sector workers, or that this inequality is unfair. His appeal to fairness in this case seems so shady because Republicans are the ones who made things unfair. To suggest that this can be put right by also stripping public workers of the protections of unionisation is just perverse. Or so one might argue.

Perhaps it would be better to say that Mr Romney is insincere about fairness, but I don’t think this is called for, either. There is obviously a deeper question about fairness here, a question about the role of labour unions in ensuring fair compensation. Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree about this, and I think they disagree honestly. I think Mr Bouie is correct that Mr Romney’s fairness talk will lead to an “equal time” dynamic in the media, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong or obfuscatory about it. The media ought to try to tease out and clarify the lines of sincere disagreement. I can see how this might seem annoying to a Democrat who felt certain that Democrats truly and deeply care about fairness, while Republicans only pretend to care. But Republicans care, too.

So while I think Mr Bouie’s idea that Mr Romney is trying to muddy the waters is interesting, there’s an alternative interpretation that is simpler, more persuasive, and more charitable: people disagree about fairness. When we try to fairly account for the disagreement, it may not be so clear who’s right.

The bolding was my doing, because it highlights a very important point: it’s not that public sector workers are “unfairly” treated better, but that their private sector counterparts are unfairly treated worse. That disparity stems from the fact that unlike privately employed laborers, government workers are still far more likely to be unionized (44% of them are, versus only 7% of employees in the private sector). This allows them to bargain for better pay, treatment, and benefits, something that used to be standard practice among many private workers too (union membership was as high as __% a few decades ago).

Granted, unions aren’t flawless institutions, given that such a thing doesn’t exist. They can be hierarchical, resistant to change, and corrupt. They can also get in the way of necessary reforms and cause a long-term decline in productivity – then again, so can low pay or mistreatment. A lot of the most economically productive countries in the world, most notablyGermany, have higher unionization rates.

Unions may have their problems in practice, but they shouldn’t be outright dismissed in principle. Some of the most prosperous periods in this country, for both average workers and corporations, were during high levels of collectivized labor. It’s only fair that workers and bosses, regardless of the organization, should sit down together and hammer out a compromise, rather than leave it to one or the other (usually the latter) to dictate terms. Why shouldn’t the people who help keep a company running have a democratic say in how said companies are run? Why can’t these values be extended into private business?