Is Free-Riding for Union Negotiations a Myth?

As the US Supreme Court is considering the case of Janus v. AFSCME on mandatory deductions for the purposes of union negotiations, I think it is time to truly question the argument underlying mandatory deductions: free-riding. Normally, the argument is that union members fight hard to get advantageous conditions. After taking the risks associated with striking and expending resources to this end, non-members could simply get the job and the benefits associated with prior negotiations and not contribute to the “public good” of negotiation. This is an often-used argument.  I come from Quebec in Canada where closed shop unionism (i.e. you are forced to join the union to get the job) still exists and mandatory dues are more stringently enforced than in the United States. There, one of the most repeated defense of the closed shop system and of the mandatory dues is the free-riding argument. As such, the free-riding argument is an often-used communication line.

That is, in essence, the free-riding argument. While it appears axiomatically true, I do not believe that it is actually a relevant problem. However, before I proceed, let me state that I have a prior in favor of consent and I only sign off on “forcing” people when the case is clear and clean-cut (I am what you could call a radical “contractarian”).

So, is free-riding a problem? The answer is in the negative (in my opinion) as the free-riding argument entails that unionism provides a public good. One of the main feature of a public good is an inability to exclude non-payers.  Think about the often-used example of lighthouses in public economics: the lighthouse provides a light that everyone can see and yet the owner of the lighthouse would have a very hard time to collect dues (although Ronald Coase in 1974 and Rosolino Candela and myself more recently have emitted doubts about the example).  However, why would a union be unable to exclude? After all, it is very easy to contractually “pre-exclude” non-payers. A non-member could obtain only 50% or 75% or 80% of the benefits negotiated of the union. Only upon joining would he be able to acquire the full benefits of the union.

As such, “excludability” is feasible. In fact, there are precedents that could serve as a framework for using this exclusion mechanism. Consider the example of “orphan clauses” which were very popular in my neck of the wood in the 1990s and early 2000s. Basically, these clauses “create differences in treatment, based solely on the hiring date, in some of the employment conditions of workers who perform the same tasks“. These existed for police forces, firefighters and other public sector workers.  Now, this was a political tool for placating older union members while controlling public spending. As such, it is not an example of exclusion for negotiation purposes. Nevertheless, such contracts could switch the “date of employment” for the “union status” in determining differences in treatment.

Another mechanism for exclusion is social ostracism. This may seem callous, but social ostracism is actually well rooted in evolutionary psychology. It also works really well in contexts of continuous dealings (see also this example by Avner Greif which has been the object of debates with Sheilagh Ogilvie and Jessica Goldberg)  Workplace relations between workers are continuous relations and shirkers can be ostracized easily.  The best example is the “water dispenser gossip” where co-workers will spread rumors about other workers and their behavior. All that is needed is an individual marginally inclined towards the union (who could even get special treatment from the union for being the ostracism-producer) who will generate the ostracism. As such, the free-riding argument has a solution in that second channel.

In fact, ostracism and contractual exclusion can be combined as they are in no way mutually exclusive. These two channels are the reason why I do not adhere to the “free-riding” argument as valid justification of compulsory payment for financing unions.

Pornography, virtual reality and censorship [I]: presidents and feminism

Oculus Rift, recently purchased by Facebook and partnered with Samsung, and HTC Vive, manufactured by HTC with Valve technology, have lead the 2010 wave in developing virtual reality headsets. These technologies, innovative by today’s standards but primitive by science fiction’s, mark the beginning of a differently structured society. They also mark a starting point for a new debate about privacy, the social affects of videogames, and especially censorship in media.

Virtual reality (in its not-too-distant actuality) offers an opportunity to behave outside of social norms in an environment that is phenomenologically the real world. The only comparable experience for humankind thus far is lucid dreaming, for which the rewards are less intense and the journey less traversible than the quick promises of virtual reality machines. One inevitable development for these machines is violent, sexually explicit experiences, available for cheap and accessible 24/7. To see how VR might be received, the closest industries to analyze are the videogame and pornography industries.

Interestingly, pornography has a very liberal history, in comparison to other “societal ills,” like drugs. Erotica dates back to ancient cultures — notably, the Kama Sutra, hardcore by today’s standards, is still a staple of contemporary sexual experimentation — and today’s perversions were common themes: bestiality, pedophilia, etc., although pornography with an emphasis on violence might be a more modern trend. This isn’t to ignore, however, the roles typically played by women in ancient Western folklore and mythology, which are degrading by today’s feminist standards.

The case could be made that today’s censorial views on pornography come from a far more malevolent or oppressive stance toward women than two millennia ago. The free expression that pornographic media once enjoyed was severely deflated over the 20th century. Only two years ago, a plethora of activities were banned from pornography in the United Kingdom. Reacting to the legislation, commentators were quick to criticize what was seen as policy that was specifically anti-female pleasure. Female ejaculation, fisting, face-sitting, and many forms of spanking or role-play were among the restrictions. There are puritanical, “moral outrage” elements to the restriction, but many noticed the absurdity of banning face-sitting: said one producer, “Why ban face-sitting? What’s so dangerous about it? … Its power is symbolic: woman on top, unattainable.” (There has been well-intended censorship as well. Los Angeles county passed Measure B in 2012 to require condom use during any pornographic scene with anal or vaginal contact, to combat the spread of venereal disease.)

Nowadays, there are plenty of porn directors that have learned to focus on both male and female pleasure, and reintroduced artistic merit to their directions. With the equalizing force gaining momentum in porn, it’s curious what the vehement, persistent condemnation springs from, when not focused exclusively on abusive sex scenes. In addition, the negative effects of pornography’s presence in society are still being debated. Just the other day, a study which led to headlines like “Porn doubles the risk of divorce” and “porn signifies a death knell for marriage” was criticized by Reason magazine for failing to address important underlying factors that more plausibly contribute to both pornography consumption and an unhappy marriage leading to divorce. There seems to be an obsession on behalf of the great majority of the public in assigning pornography to some sort of social harm.

Research on photographic pornography’s effect on society began early and aggressively. The Meese Report (1986), commissioned by Reagan and still frequently cited by anti-pornography advocates, determined pornography to be detrimental to society and family relations, and especially for women and children. Arguments built on similar reports attempt to connect sexually explicit material with rapes and domestic violence, alleging that the desensitization to rough sex carries over from the depictional world into the real one. Henry E. Hudson, the Chairman of the Meese Commission, alleged that pornography “appears to impact adversely on the family concept and its value to society.” The Meese Report, however, has been challenged extensively for bias, and is not taken seriously as a body of research any longer. One criticism by writer Pat Califia, concluding a traditionalist narrative embedded in the research, states that the report “holds out the hope that by using draconian measures against pornography we can turn America into a rerun of Leave It to Beaver.

The United States’ Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, preceding the Meese Report and commissioned by Lyndon B. Johnson and Nixon, was unable to find evidence of any direct harm caused by pornography. (Although Nixon, despite the evidence under his administration, believed porn corrupted civilization.) It is curious that a new federal study was requested only sixteen years after the first extensive one, but maybe not too unusual given the growth of porn with technology (from adult stores and newsstands to unlimited free online access; the internet just celebrated its quarter-centennial birthday); also not too unusual given the absurd and expensive studies already undertaken by the federal government. It is also worth pointing out that pornography, though often connected to feminism, is a divisive issue within 20th century and contemporary feminism: some thinkers, like Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as intrinsically anti-women; others feminists like Ellen Willis argued for pornography as liberating and its suppression as moral authoritarianism. The debate along lines of sexuality, online or otherwise, culminated in the feminist “sex wars,” with groups like Feminists Against Censorship and Women Against Pornography popping up. Thus, the debate is open across every ideological camp, and support of pornography is neither necessarily liberal nor necessarily feminist.

[In the next post, I discuss violent pornography’s cross-media transformation into videogames, more sociological research and the general point, and insecurity, of prohibitory measures.]

Courting Campaign Money

The Supreme Court has overruled 5 to 4 the previous limit on total campaign contributions in the US. In the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission case, The Court eliminated the limits on the total campaign contributions an individual could make to candidates and committees per election. Previously, in the Citizens United case, the Court struck down the limits on campaign funding and electioneering by corporations, labor unions, and nonprofit organizations.

Critics of these rulings say that they transform our democracy into a plutocracy, the rule by the rich, but the United States has always been a plutocracy, and the voters have used democracy to keep the system plutocratic. Wealthy donors could already finance Super PACs – political action committees. The amount of money spent in US elections had been escalating each election for decades.

American political culture has had a mixture of two ideals. The first is democracy, the rule by the people as equals rather than by a king or an aristocracy. The second ideal is liberty, especially freedom of speech. When the rich can influence candidates and elections by spending huge amounts of money, the ideal of liberty clashes with the egalitarian ideal of democracy.

Political speech is the most important of all, and the speech that most needs to be free of restrictions. Just as the government should not limit how many times one may give a speech, or how many editorials one may write on a topic, the government should not limit how much one spends to propagate speech.

Proposals to have the government finance campaigns also clash with free speech, if private financing is again limited. Governmental funding entrenches the established parties, and it forces the taxpayers to finance political ads which they may well detest.

Unfortunately, along with democracy and liberty there has been a third political idea in the USA. Economists call it “rent seeking.” In classical political economy, “rent” meant the yield of land. The classical economists knew that landowners receive rent in exchange for nothing, since the title holders did not create the land. They broadened the term to “economic rent,” which means any gains beyond what is needed to put resources to their most productive use.

Then economists in the branch called “public choice,,” which applies economics to voting and politics, recognized that the subsidies and privileges that special interests receive from government are economic rent, since it is loot taken from the public in exchange for less than nothing. Hence, when special interests seek favors from government, they are rent seekers.

The modern use of “rent” has become so far removed from its landed origin, and the land factor so much subsumed under capital, that economists no longer appreciate that the biggest rent seekers are the landed interests who obtain the implicit subsidy as the land rent generated by public goods paid for by taxes on labor.

Because superficial appearances trump the understanding of implicit reality, the reflexive reaction to the corruption of rent seeking is to limit campaign money. That then clashes with free speech. But the reason there is a clash between free speech and democracy is that we have inherited an antiquated 19th-century model of voting that is no longer appropriate to the 21st century world of mass democracy combined with great state power.

Public-choice economists such as Mancur Olson have recognized that the way to limit the rent seeking disease of democracy is to vote in small groups rather than in large groups. In a large country, the small groups should federate rather than become a large single group.

The demand for campaign money dissolves when people vote in tiny local districts. The district councils send representatives to a higher-level (or broader-level) council. With such a bottom-up small-group voting system, we would have much fewer political ads in the mass media.

The mass-democracy model has been grafted world-wide, and it has not brought social peace, as we have witnessed in place such as Egypt and Ukraine. But one day, mass democracy will be regarded as a relic like we today regard the former power of monarchs and aristocrats.

(Note: this article is also at http://www.progress.org)