I just suffered through a transit strike. I'm ticked off about
it. It didn't hurt me much, actually I ride a bike most days but New
York's Transport Workers Union tortured a million commuters by going on
strike. And going on strike for what? Their employer wanted to raise the
retirement age for new workers not even current union members, people who
haven't been hired yet to a ripe old 62, or make them pay more of their
Some 30 people apply for each of these jobs,
according to Steven Malanga of the Manhattan Institute. That says a lot
about whether those workers are "exploited."
It makes me want to call them "thugs." My mayor called them
that. Mike Bloomberg said union leaders were acting "thuggishly."
But are they thugs?
Suppose you want a raise. Your boss offers you less than you
think you're worth, so you tell him you won't work unless he makes a better
offer. He responds that if you stop working, he'll force you to pay him
thousands of dollars and maybe he'll send you to prison.
Who's the thug, you or your boss?
Your boss in the transit workers' case, the government is
Government is conceited. It thinks it's special. It makes laws
to protect itself from the unions of its employees. The federal government
and most states pass laws that forbid strikes. The transit workers were
threatened with fines of two days' pay for each day on strike, their union
with a fine of $1 million per day, and its president with jail time. This
The beauty of capitalism is that deals must always be win-win,
or they don't happen. You work for an employer if you think you're better
off working for him than not doing so; he employs you if he thinks you're
worth what you demand.
A strike is simply an organized refusal to work for less than
the strikers think they're worth. The principle is the same whether one
individual or a union walks off the job: It's the principle of
self-ownership, the underlying principle of the whole capitalist system, the
principle that we are all free individuals dealing voluntarily to mutual
advantage. As John Locke taught in the "Second Treatise of Government,"
"every Man has a Property in his own Person. This no Body has any Right to
but himself. The Labour of his Body, and the Work of his Hands, we may say,
are properly his."
Of course, just as workers have a right to strike, employers
morally, at least have a right to fire them. Under President Reagan, the
federal government dismissed striking air-traffic controllers and let eager
new employees take the jobs. That might have been a good response to New
York's transit strike. Bus drivers must be easier to replace than
air-traffic controllers. But replacing the strikers wasn't even discussed.
And neither was an even more radical solution: firing both the workers and
the public management, or in other words, privatization.
People think that mass transit must be a government function:
Who would build the subways? But did you know that private companies built
many of New York's subways and ran them until government forcibly took them
over? The private sector would do it better.
If private enterprise ran a city's buses, there would be many
different bus companies, with many different contracts with their workers.
If one bus company's workers walked out, trains and other bus lines would
still be available. This would make a strike much less harmful to the
public, but more dangerous to the company, which could find itself out of
business. Some London subway-station workers just celebrated the new year
with a 24-hour strike; London bus service, operated by private companies,
was not interrupted. Too bad New York government, instead of privatizing the
bus lines it runs, is taking over the lines operated by private companies.
The New York transit strike illustrated two of the dangers of an
overgrown government. When you let government monopolize something, you
invite stifling disruption when government fails, and you invite it to try
to force people to work and call them thugs for acting on their freedom.