Who's the thug?

John Stossel

1/4/2006 12:05:00 AM - John Stossel

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 pension costs. Big deal. 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 the thug.

 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 was wrong.

 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.