America’s Biggest Mistake?

The ongoing debacle in Wisconsin brings to mind the problems of how best to govern when the U.S. Constitution was being debated. One of James Madison’s most powerful and persuasive arguments in defense of the principles underlying the Constitution was the idea that competing interests would limit the opportunities for one group or another to abuse the rights of others.

In The Federalist No. 10 and his "Vices of the Political System", Madison delineates this argument clearly. "The Society becomes broken into a greater variety of interests, of pursuits, of passions, which check each other". And further, "The great desideratum in Government is such a modification of the Sovereignty as will render it sufficiently neutral between the different interests and factions, to controul one part of the Society from invading the rights of another, and at the same time sufficiently controuled itself from setting up an interest adverse to that of the whole Society."

Madison, who understood all too well how democracies and republics had failed in the past worked to create a government with divided powers with checks and balances on each other. But beyond that he knew that powerful non-government interests would try to use government to protect and enhance their specific interests. Thus, his admonition that government not set up interests adverse to the whole Society.

Unfortunately, the decision to allow public sector workers to organize into labor unions represents the starkest possible violation of Madison’s admonition. The inherent problems with government worker unions were recognized by Franklin Roosevelt and were long viewed as antithetical to good governance. As we have seen where government workers are in unions, a massively unhealthy incestuous relationship between employees and elected officials has developed. The unions work to ensure the election of officials who will do their bidding. The officials make sure the workers are well taken care financially and have their jobs protected.

We can see the damage to state and local government finances that stem from that relationship. The question is, "can the problems be resolved without further serious damage to the economies and civility of the affected areas?" Sadly, none of this was necessary. Paying attention to the wisdom of James Madison would have served the nation well.