Richard Epstein on Wisconsin Recalls

The Wisconsin Recall As Harbinger of Increased Political Strife: The Polarization of the Electorate is not Confined to Blogs and Speeches
Richard A. Epstein
August 9, 2011

The intense recall elections that are taking place this week and the next in Wisconsin are in my view a harbinger of further levels of political dislocation in the United States. In the ordinary course of politics, it is rare that voter dissatisfaction is so intense that citizens are prepared to overcome the arduous procedures needed to force the issue.  But the sad truth about the United States is that there are ever greater levels of polarization in the electorate than at any recent time.  

The movements have come from both sides.  The conservative wing has become more libertarian and thus has little patience with the power of unions which they (and I) regard as contracts in restraint of trade that prevents the orderly provision of goods and services. Yet, as the Wisconsin struggle over public unions reveal, the rapid decline of unions in the private sector is perceived as a mortal threat to the entire structure of labor relations that was put into place with great fanfare in the 1930s for the private sector, and which was extended to public service unions in the 1960s.

What is so clear is that there are no obvious compromises that allow the two sides to get together.  In more recent times, the battle between the pro- and the antiunion forces took place within the existing legal structure, such that the usual solution was to lower (or raise) a wage, reduce (or extend) holidays, and so on down the line.  But today the battlefield is over the legitimacy of the structure, not the deals made under it.

Richard A. Epstein