Thursday, February 10, 2011

The public employees that conservatives love

This article was originally submitted as a comment in response to an article thread posted in The Daily Dish last December.  It was not chosen for publication there, so I'm belatedly writing it here instead edited slightly for article format, given the recent prominence that public employee unions have had here at DHT.

With all the discussion on the problems of the nation's educational system, and the amount that factors such as teacher compensation systems, school administrations, teachers' unions, and the culture at large have on our underperfoming schools--I think it's worthwhile to draw a parallel between teachers and another class of educated public sector professionals.  This profession is one which is ubiquitous, typically ran at local levels of government, generally unionized, considered to be vital to a prosperous civilization--and one which is also frequently subject to heated public disputes about its conduct and competence, into which public employee unions are frequently drawn.  It is also a profession that, unlike teachers or transit workers, is generally beloved by the conservative side of the political spectrum.

I speak, of course, of police officers.

The Thin Blue Line

Big-city newspapers are filled with accounts of incidents where a cop has an unpleasant encounter with a member of the citizenry (up to and including deadly force).  In many of these encounters, the pretext for the police's conduct is found to be questionable, frequently resulting in community outrage--and the cop in question is invariably protected, seemingly no matter the circumstances, by the local police union.  This is especially the case in places (such as Portland) where the civilian government overseeing the cops generally does not tolerate police misconduct.  But the same behaviors which many on the political right deride in many public professions, particularly in teaching--workplace rules that make it difficult to fire bad teachers, seniority-based promotion and retention policies, and a workforce allegedly more interested in professional solidarity rather than in public service--are routinely praised when observed in law enforcement. 

Law-and-order politicians and activists are often more than willing to sweep abuses of power aside on any number of grounds: the perp had it coming, officers have a tough job, etc.  Praises of the the "thin blue line" are frequently sung.  Many of the excuses which prompt calls of "cry me a river" when uttered by teachers (deplorable conditions, insufficient support from higher-ups) find a sympathetic ear when invoked by the police.  And to be fair, many liberals who are quick to denounce abusive cops are in many cases far less eager to denounce bad teachers--instead blaming the environment, the parents, a lack of funding, etc. for failings in the classroom.

Geese and ganders

Other similarities exist between the police and the public schools.  Both are professions, jobs requiring college degrees, and lots of professional judgment on the part of practitioners.  Both careers involve extensive dealings with the public, including many members thereof who don't appreciate the service.  Both careers also are challenging to manage--the quality of an individual practitioner cannot generally be measured with simple metrics, and attempts to do so frequently produce undesirable results.  And both professions pattern themselves after similar institutions, namely the armed forces and the academy.

Law enforcement in the US is modeled in many ways on the military.  Command structures and ranks are military in origin, and many departments include paramilitary tactics as part of their training (whether warranted or not).  It's not uncommon to hear officers working bad neighborhoods describing the environment as a "war zone".  On the other hand, the severity of the discipline is far less in civilian law enforcement   (Can you imagine a commanding officer trying to discharge a problem soldier being overruled by an arbitrator?) 

Likewise, public education likes to fashion itself in the robes of academia--the teaching staff of a school is called the "faculty", and concepts such as tenure and academic freedom are lifted wholesale from the university context, despite the fact that college professors are generally not unionized (and thus are not protected by collective bargaining arrangements) and public schoolteachers aren't typically engaged in research programs which might be controversial and subject to political interference, the justification for tenure in higher education in the first place. 

I think that a useful political compromise might be this:  What is sauce for the goose ought to be also sauce for the gander.  What's good for teachers ought to be also good for cops.  If someone suggests that we should try to bust teachers' unions and/or abolish other personnel practices which are (arguably) more appropriate for factory workers rather than skilled professionals; ask them how they feel about doing the same to the local police force.  If someone says that teachers are overpaid, ask what they think of the salaries of cops.

And vice versa.


  1. As if to prove the point, the state of Wisconsin is on the fast track to enacting punitive anti-public-employee legislation, basically designed to cripple the state's public employee unions. Exempted from the provisions?

    Police and fire unions.

  2. Strong conservative here, but you have agreement coming from me. You can count me among the growing list of conservative/libertarians that have a great skepticism of the police and their abuses.

    I do, however, want to point out where this favoritism comes from. Conservatives don't hate government (as the number of people who elected George Bush clearly demonstrate). They hate when government meddles where they think it doesn't belong.

    In the case of teachers unions, you will find many conservatives that believe in a government role of funding education (vouchers!), but that its role in operating educational facilities is not necessary.

    Take a quick look at the bill of rights. If you notice what they protect the people from, there is a very clear perception that the people only needed to be protected from the police and the military. Why? Because that is what the government was! There was no infrastructural component beyond simple ports for trade. A road was a road because people traveled on it, not because the government built it. There was no public education, public health facilities, public parks, public transportation, etc.

    It is obvious that conservatives also believe in a different role for government in our times than in the days of the founding fathers, or else they wouldn't be clamoring for roads everywhere. But the reason why they don't express the same level of disdain for a corrupt police department that they would for a corrupt transit union, is that they see a legitimate role for police work in government, but see no need for a transit agency, let alone a transit union, in government.

  3. @saosebastiao,

    Thanks for your remarks. We obviously disagree about the proper size and scope of government; I consider things like infrastructure and education to be legitimate functions of government, and have no issue with taxes to pay for them. Which doesn't mean, of course, that I can't (or won't) complain when the quality of service is low.

    While public education isn't mentioned in the Constitution (a document which, while limiting the power of the Federal government, granted broad powers to the States), it's been a staple of American society for the better part of two centuries--conservative attacks on it as an illegitimate function of government seem to be a recent phenomenon. And many government functions beyond "police and military" (both of which were generally presumed to be matters for the states in peacetime) were given to the federal government, including the mails and related infrastructure ("post office and roads"), customs and immigration, and such. Readings of the Constitution as a document enshrining modern libertarianism are most certainly in error.

    Corruption in the police ought to be more troublesome than corruption (including for conservatives) in the schools for the reasons that a) schoolteachers don't carry guns and shoot people as part of their job, and b) law enforcement is an area of government where outsourcing to the private sector isn't an option. Unfortunately, the demographics which often bear the brunt of malfeasance in law enforcement are ones which many (certainly not all) conservatives seem to hold in contempt.


Keep it clean, please