Thursday, May 19, 2011

Teachers are not welfare recipients


Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


Doctor John Zmirak, writing for the resurrected Crisis, has proposed an interesting fallacy for our use in pro-life apologetics: Frédéric Bastiat’s “broken window”.

The “broken window” fallacy fixates on the more obvious, concrete aspects of a problem and asks us to ignore or discount the less obvious, more abstract aspects. For instance, an example would be the pro-choice demand that we focus on the pain, outrage and trauma suffered by the victim of rape or incest; by the light of what we can see (the suffering of the mother), the claims of what we can’t see (the unborn child) appear to be so much theoretical fluff. And yet the suffering and death of the unseen, unborn victim of abortion is just as real; if Johnny Unborn’s claim to a right to life is so much ivory-tower blather, so is his mother’s.

But in the process of making this excellent argument, Dr. Zmirak passes through economic territory, using the plight of the Wisconsin teachers as an example of the seen/unseen problem:

We can see the bedraggled, outraged schoolteacher picketing the statehouse, and hear his concrete, specific claims of why he needs more money. To quote former President Bill Clinton, we can feel his pain. We do not typically see the millions of taxpayers who share the cost of employing these teachers [emphasis mine] and literally can’t imagine what else they might do with the money the government didn’t confiscate.


Doctor Zmirak did not say that the Wisconsin teachers shouldn’t be paid more, and I’ll be the first to defend him against such a charge. But in the course of coming to a very pertinent question — “Is it just to force this taxpayer over here to fund the benefits of that tax-taker over there?” — we risk lumping government employees together with welfare dependents under the “tax-taker” category.

And that would be a grave injustice. Teachers, soldiers, cops and firemen aren’t welfare recipients. Neither for that matter are IRS auditors, state attorneys, lieutenant governors or the guys that drive the snowplows up north.

It’s always appropriate to ask whether the government should take on a particular task at any level, whether local or federal. And it would certainly fall within the parameters of the “broken window” fallacy to encourage bureaucracy in the name of creating jobs. In reinforcing the distinction between government employees and welfare recipients, I’m not attempting a defense of socialism or statism.

However, the question of whether the government should perform a particular social task (say, youth education) is separate from the question of what the government should pay the individuals it hires to perform that task (teachers). If we’re willing for the government to take on the task, then we should be willing to pay fair-market wages to the people the government must hire to carry it out.

The welfare presents himself to the taxpayer as an individual with no real claim to any funds we’re not willing or able to give; the Christian ethic of providing for the poor is voluntary and conditioned by the givers’ own needs and responsibilities. But the teacher, the cop, the administrative assistant to the Undersecretary for Silly Walks, whatever, is providing a service in exchange for the tax dollars she receives as wages; ironically, since they are wages, those wages are taxed just as are private-sector workers’ (the State giveth, and the State taketh away).

The relationship between the teacher and the taxpayer is analogous to that between the employee and a shareholder in the company that employs her. The state, as the employer, does have the obligation in strict justice to pay fair wages to those it employs for the services rendered. Since payroll expenses come out of profits, the shareholder bears the cost in loss of profit, which a private-sector business tries to minimize by greater volume of sales or by increase of purchase price. The closest the state can come to that is by increasing tax income by one way or another.

It’s at this point that talk of government coercion falls a little flat, like putting a bandit mask on Uncle Sam. If Joe Schmuckatelli can earn $X per year teaching for a private school, to argue that he must accept $2/3(X) for teaching at a public school because it’s publicly funded is to argue an irrelevancy: Why are his teaching skills worth less because they’re being paid for out of taxes? The same can be said for the bureaucratic secretary, the state’s attorney, the lieutenant colonel who manages a military unit the size of a medium business: Are their skills less valuable for being at the government’s service?

Again, I don’t believe Dr. Zmirak was intentionally lumping state employees with welfare recipients; I simply go down the rabbit hole in order to close it off from the rest of his article, which is otherwise thought-provoking and useful. As a Catholic, I do believe in subsidiarity: nothing should be done at a higher level of government or society which can be better done at lower levels; nothing should be done by government at all that can be done better by the private sector or private charities.

At the same time, as a disciple of Chesterton, I do believe that “what’s worth doing at all is worth doing badly”. That’s to say, sometimes the government needs to step in to do what the private sector is unwilling to do (like regulate itself), even if said government makes an unholy mess of it. So long as we continue to ask the government to step in where businessmen fear to tread, we have to be willing to pay — and pay well — for the services of government employees.

Do we have better things to do with our money than to pay teachers with our taxes? Then let’s not have public schools; for as long as we do, the answer to that question is “no” by default.