The anti-libertarian nature of right-to-work laws

Right-wing libertarians tend to have a hostile relationship with organized labor. Labor unions have a long history of endorsing socialism, communism, and anarchism, all philosophies that libertarian capitalists vehemently oppose. Unions are also, by their very nature, collectivist organizations that primarily act to move the equilibrium price for labor higher than it would otherwise be. These union behaviors and ideological tendencies certainly annoy libertarians, but they are not necessarily inconsistent with right-wing libertarian principles.

As long as individual workers form into unions voluntarily, and the owners that they contract with do so voluntarily, there is nothing non-libertarian about the collective bargaining process. What more clear-headed libertarians object to then are not unions, but government policies which coerce owners into recognizing and bargaining with unions when they do not wish to do so. Requiring bosses to negotiate contracts with unions elected by the workers is, for libertarians, a wrongful violation of property rights and the imposition of government force. On this picture, the National Labor Relations Act is a violent infringement on the rights of individuals to freely trade with whomever they want.

This all makes sense if you accept the first principles and axioms of libertarian philosophy. If you happen to think property rights exist, and then think further that they are absolute rights, the libertarian conclusions follow. Pragmatically speaking, the historical reason for the construction of labor laws was the existence of persistent industrial strife. That strife would boil up periodically and shut down entire industrial sectors which imperiled people across the country and negatively affected the economy as a whole. Nonetheless, in the narrow libertarian view, interventions even for those reasons are still unjust, and so they must oppose laws which protect union activity.

On the same note, however, libertarians should also be opposed to so-called right-to-work laws. These laws — which are on the books in 23 states — forbid unions and business owners from signing agreements that make union membership or payment of dues a requirement for those hired by the business. Government policies which prevent owners from voluntarily entering into an agreement to create a closed shop are as coercive and anti-libertarian as the union-friendly labor laws that typically attract much more libertarian ire.

Why should a union and a business owner be forcefully prevented from signing an agreement that requires prospective employees to join a union in order to be hired? It is not a violation of anyone’s freedom, not in the negative libertarian sense of the word. A worker looking for a job does not have a positive right to a non-union job. If this prospective employee does not want to join a union, she is completely free to avoid doing so by simply passing up the job. Government intervention in the form of right-to-work laws violates the property rights of business owners, dictating to them what they can and cannot contract for in the execution of those rights.

The anti-libertarian nature of right-to-work laws is pretty obvious which makes it a bit strange that libertarians focus far less attention on them than they do the National Labor Relations Act. One possible excuse a libertarian might provide is that although right-to-work laws violate libertarian principles, they are created to counteract other violations of libertarian principles. A libertarian who holds this view is tacitly endorsing the following preference ranking:

  1. No federal labor laws and no right-to-work laws.
  2. Federal labor laws and right-to-work laws existing simultaneously.
  3. Federal labor laws and no right to work laws.

It is clear that option 1 would be the preferred world for libertarians. In that world, there is no government intervention forcing businesses to recognize unions and no government intervention forcing them to not enter into certain agreements with unions. What is not so clear is why option 2 should be ranked above option 3.

In an additive sense, option 2 actually imposes two instances of forceful government intervention while option 3 imposes just one. In a more qualitative sense, both 2 and 3 are deviations from the libertarian ideal; they just attack property rights in different ways. As a theory that focuses on an ideal, libertarianism is incapable of determining which of the two non-ideal worlds is closer to the ideal than the other.

Despite this theoretical impasse, right-wing libertarians persistently attack union-friendly labor laws as unjust, while barely mentioning the business-friendly labor laws that are just as problematic in their worldview. If libertarians want to be consistent, they should be attacking right-to-work laws as adamantly as they attack the National Labor Relations Act. That they choose not to is somewhat telling.