The Wisconsin union debate

RJ Snell, my very good friend from graduate school (Boston College), published an opinion piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the other day provocatively titled “Walker and the Unions: Libertarian twins?”  Read it here.  Snell’s argument, in brief, is that the unions have too often abandoned their communitarian roots and have adopted the libertarian conception of interest that their hated nemesis, libertarian Gov Walker, holds.  His piece, I suspect, has angered both libertarians and union defenders.  I think his point is spot on.

Here is his account of the two conceptions: “The popular understanding of American liberty is that of the rugged individualist. In this model, individuals bear rights prior to the formation of the state and subsequently contract with each other to make government for their mutual protection and betterment. But because individuals are sovereign, the state itself threatens liberty with its mere existence.

The rugged individualist model is not the only understanding of liberty, however. Another model could be named “communitarian” and doesn’t tend to think of people as isolated individuals but rather as members of communities with rather thick bonds of relationship and obligation. Instead of the unreasonable assumption that individuals choose to contractually form community, this model grasps that individuality arises from membership in existing community. In other words, I am the individual I happen to be because of my memberships – I’m a son, a nephew, a father, a neighbor and a Marquette alum.”

He concludes, “Unions serve a genuine and reasonable social good by seeking the good of the community. That is, unions serve the good of the community when they do not act like a mob of individuals.

If unions seek the financial good of their members at the expense of the broader, non-union community, then they violate the communitarian standards that ought to govern them. In fact, if they are willing to preserve the financial interests of members at the expense of the common good, then unions would appear not much different than those libertarians indifferent to the parks, schools and museums that exist for the benefit of all.”

Dr. Snell was then featured on Wisconsin public radio today.  Link here.  Select March 9 as the date, he was in the 6:00am hour.  You can play the audio by clicking a link on the right.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

2 thoughts on “The Wisconsin union debate”

  1. I happen to be in Madison right now (for spring break. Seriously.) and saw a protester with a sign saying:

    “From your freshman philosophy professor: Reread Plato, Thrasymachus was WRONG”


  2. Hi all,

    I have a few objections to Snell, and I hope you won’t mind if I post them here. First, I doubt that doing away with collective bargaining is an effective or necessary way to address any short-term problems with Wisconsin’s state budget. So I doubt that public sector unions are “disregarding budgetary crisis in their zeal for the benefit of individual members.” But set that aside. Assume that what the unions want is at odds with what is good for the community as a whole. I still see problems for Snell here.

    First, it’s hard to see how Snell is right about the history. Unions exist to benefit their members through collective bargaining–and they always have, as far as I know. A union that really existed in order to serve the interests of the “broader, non-union community” would be a charitable organization, not a true labor union. Perhaps unions provide an indirect benefit for the whole community, but that is a side-effect of their purpose. (Whether unions are always forthcoming about their aims is, of course, a different matter.)

    Second, it seems to me that Snell sets up a false dichotomy between an extreme “libertarian” view, which in his conception seems to be a crude form of egoism–and an extreme “communitarian” view, which apparently aims at the good of the entire community. There is a middle ground, which unions occupy. Unions, I’ve suggested, exist to benefit their members. Their members comprise a sub-community (of workers with common interests): i.e., a community within a larger community. This doesn’t make them “tools of radical individualism” in any meaningful sense, but it doesn’t mean they seek the good of the whole community, either.

    All best,



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