Government unions: the Praetorian Band of the government

September 11, 2015 | By TIMOTHY SANDEFUR

America’s founding fathers knew their ancient history well. The experiences of Greece and Rome were almost the only guides they had when fashioning a government that wasn’t a monarchy. And one thing they feared was what they called “Caesarism”: the tendency of a popular government to devolve into competing teams, each grasping for power and wealth stolen from their adversaries. The collapse of free, republican Rome into dictatorship had been aided by the rise of a powerful cabal of insiders who used their positions of influence to enrich themselves at taxpayer expense, while constantly controlling the government’s decisions by manipulation, promises, favoritism, and threats. Foremost among these was the Praetorian Guard, which began as Caesar’s bodyguards, but grew so powerful that ultimately they began choosing the emperor: they assassinated Caligula and chose Claudius as his replacement, killed Galba and replaced him with Otho, and in the year 193, they actually auctioned off the Roman imperial throne.

These ancient precedents haunted America’s founders: they could foresee that if a group of people became on one hand so politically influential that they effectively chose the political leadership, and on the other so powerful that they reaped the private benefits of that power, the new nation could go down the same road as Rome. This worry came to the fore when Alexander Hamilton proposed a series of measures that threatened to reward politically influential members of the government: how to handle the debts left over from the Revolution? how to make good on the promissory notes paid to the soldiers? and in particular, what to do about the new Bank of the United States? Hamilton’s answers promised great wealth to political schemers who could manipulate the system to their benefit. Congressman James Madison opposed Hamilton’s ideas, and in August, 1791, he wrote to his friend, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, that Hamilton and his “stockjobber[]” friends “will become the praetorian band of the Government, at once its tool and its tyrant; bribed by its largesses, and overawing it, by clamours and combinations.”

Today, we see an even more insidious version of this phenomenon: public employee unions. Unlike private sector unions, which must always balance their demands on behalf of their members against what the employer can afford to pay, public sector unions face an employer that can never go out of business—an employer that pays its bills, not with its own money, but with money taken by force from citizens. In their collective-bargaining negotiations, public sector union representatives face, not true adversaries, but other government officials, and the demands they make are not merely private-interest questions about increasing wages or improving working conditions, but inherently political demands to increase the size of government programs or spend more treasury funds. On one side of this “bargaining table” stands public employees—and on the other side, stand more public employees. Taxpayers are not represented at all. And efforts to reform the system are often met with illegal strikes, violence, and political and physical retaliation.

The danger that public employee unions would form a “praetorian band,” able to “overawe” the government “by clamours and combinations,” while simultaneously enriching itself through government’s “largesses,” is just what led Franklin Roosevelt—no wild-eyed right-winger—to denounce the idea of government employee unions. While it was reasonable for government workers to desire “adequate pay, reasonable hours of work, [and] safe and suitable working conditions,” he wrote, there was a crucial difference between the private and public sectors, in terms of the “relationships and obligations of public servants to the public itself.”

The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer…. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives…. Accordingly, administrative officials and employees alike are governed and guided, and in many instances restricted, by laws which establish policies, procedures, or rules in personnel matters…. Upon employees in the Federal service rests the obligation to serve the whole people…. This obligation is paramount. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.

In short, public employee unions represent a ruinous innovation in democratic government: a coalition of people whose private interests in government power overwhelm the public’s capacity to control that government. Such a “praetorian” principle is a danger to the safety and freedom of citizens—whatever their political persuasion. Yet, as we explain in today’s brief in the Friedrichs case, government unions now dominate the political landscape, particularly in California. Thanks to precedents like the Abood decision—which the plaintiff in Friedrichs is asking the Supreme Court to overrule—these unions enjoy special power to seize earnings, even from non-members, which they use to advance their private, political agendas in countless ways. This system is not only unjust, it’s fundamentally undemocratic.

As Jefferson wrote during the Revolution,

Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them; distinguished too by this tempting circumstance, that they are the instrument, as well as the object of acquisition. With money we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money. Nor should our assembly be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes, and conclude that these unlimited powers will never be abused, because themselves are not disposed to abuse them. They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price.

Our constitutional system is designed to keep careful democratic controls over the government, to prevent the system from devolving into a machine for generating wealth for the influential at the expense of citizens. Sadly, it has fallen short in that regard many times. Corporate welfare, Great Society entitlement programs, and the welfare state that FDR himself implemented, have helped create a system whereby the politically influential are given plentiful opportunity to enrich themselves through political plunder. Among the worst of these abuses is the Public Sector Union Complex, which enjoys a special power to seize workers’ earnings directly from their paychecks—and then uses that money to lobby the government for still more power, in a vicious cycle of exploitation and control. As our brief explains, the Friedrichs case represents an unusual opportunity for the Supreme Court to take one helpful step toward stopping this abuse.