There is no particular consensus on who was responsible for the current financial crisis. Credit was definitely involved somewhere along the way. But was it the people who lent it, borrowed it or regulated it who are culpable? Nobody seems to know, though some people have some pretty strong opinions. But there is one group of people who would seem to be in the clear. Organised Labour don’t advance loans, issue credit ratings or set the rules for banking operations. So whatever else you think about your local union, you have to at least concede they didn’t wreck either Wall Street or the EU.
Or you might think so. But it turns out that there is a senator in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, who has decided to crack down on organised workers by forbidding state employees from belonging to a Union. I suppose the good news for the supporters of American unions is that they are at least getting some attention. The last time I remember any reference to them in the UK press was about 25 years ago when a fraudster audaciously tried to sell the Sunday Times Jimmy Hoffer’s shoes. And Jimmy Hoffer went missing from his job leading the Teamsters’ Union in the sixties, so that wasn’t exactly a current story even then. It was, to be completely honest, something of a surprise to be reminded that unions even exist in the US.
But although I don’t know anything about the details of this particular case, I think there might be an interesting parallel with a period in the history of Ancient Rome. The Romans conquered the world by virtue of having some particularly impressive infantry made up of doughty small farmers. The symbol of this was Cincinnatus;who famously led the army to victory and then returned to his farm where his plough was still in the same place he left it, and proceeded to carry on ploughing.
But it wasn’t the small farmers who made up the army of the republic who benefitted. While they were at the front fighting the Romans’ enemies it was the wealthy senators who were grabbing the bulk of the spoils. The ordinary people ended up in the city reliant on bread and circuses from central government. The land captured by the army ended up in the hands of the wealthy who became even wealthier. They created what they called the latifundia. These were huge land holdings owned by the elite and run by slaves. There are guides that survive on how to get the most income out of your estate. It was a good example of how the free market maximises resource allocation. One imagines Mr Romney would have approved.
This process was quite visible and understood by the people at the time. The Gracchi brothers were a couple of radical politicians who attempted to get a fairer division of the wealth of what was the richest and most powerful state in the world. They got short shrift from the establishment and both of them ended up getting killed and their characters maligned. Is this what is happening in Wisconsin right now? There are some intriguing parallels. The US, like the Roman Republic, is powerful enough to fear no enemies. Wealth is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. The bail outs appear to have accelerated the process. The Occupy people seem to be playing roughly the role of the Gracchi. The Labour unions don’t seem to be playing much role at all to be honest, but still end up as the targets of the powerful.
Of course, the latifundia were managed efficiently. This did enable the Romans to get their bread and circuses, even if they ended up without any political freedoms. I am sure Scott Walker can make a case that says Wisconsin will be better off with slightly lower labour costs and more flexibility in its workforce. I am a bit of a romantic and I have always regretted that the Gracchi failed to save the republic. I am not optimistic things will be any different this time round.