Levelling down

The authors of the famous "equality is everything" text "The Spirit Level" argue in CiF that Margaret Thatcher failed to realise that equality is good for business:

International studies of OECD countries suggest a close relationship between the decline in trade union membership and the rise in inequality. From a peak of 13 million in 1979, trade union membership had declined by 30% by 1990, and is now not much more than half what it was. In a world where most media talking heads come from the top few percent of income earners, unions are not only important in wage bargaining, they also provide some of the few well-informed voices whose job it is to speak on behalf of the less well-paid.
Good gravy, I hate this kind of reasoning. Let's take it apart, shall we?

Trade unions benefit the below-average at the expense of the able. Given a free hand and a reasonably well-functioning employment market - the latter is important - an employer would rather pay his better employees more, and his lower-performing employees less, or indeed just fire the lower performers. This would be to the benefit of the employer and the benefit of the better-performing employees, but the detriment of the below-average employees. As it stands, the employer can only really pay his workers according to the amount of work he or she expects to get out of a below-average performer; otherwise, since the employer pays better than his competitors, he will attract poorly-performing employees like flies to jam. Such poor performers are remarkably hard to identify at interview; by the time they've been in the job several months, it's too late and the union won't let them be fired. So they're happy, but the employer (saddled with them) is not, and neither are their co-workers who have to cover for their inadequacies.

Now, we may argue that the welfare of the poor performers is more important than allowing employers and good performing employees to thrive, but let's be honest that this levelling-down is what we're doing. I've worked in unionised government and industrial workplaces where unfireable drones infested the environment, and it was terribly depressing to see the dragging-down effect on those workers who could have otherwise done well and risen rapidly. I've also worked in union-free brutal capitalist firms which hired and fired at the drop of a hat, and the ever-present threat of being fired was hard on people - but then, the firm thrived and made profits which yielded rather good bonuses for the hard workers. You may think that a unionised private firm is "safer", and it is - right up to the point where it fails completely and goes under, and everyone is fired. At this point all the union can do for you is stand around and blame "the management" for mismanaging the firm. They are suddenly completely irrelevant, just when you need them the most.

As for the argument that the media voices the concerns of the rich, and the well-informed unions are needed to counteract this advantage - bollocks. Union leaders spout just as much claptrap as journalists in the Guardian, Daily Mail, BBC or Telegraph. I can't remember the last time I saw the Beeb or Grauniad making an anti-worker, anti-union point. Why would they? Journalists and BBC employees are unionised too. Union leaders have the right to be heard, and indeed I'm all for getting Bob Crowe and Dave Prentis on the air as often as possible in order to shred the claims they use to rabble-rouse, but let's not kid ourselves that they are any better "informed" than anyone else.

I was also surprised to see authors such as these trotting out the standard misquotes:

Thatcher's infamous failure to recognise the existence of society was a double failure. A growing body of research now shows that the quality of social relations is among the most powerful influences on the happiness, health and wellbeing of populations in the rich countries.
Interesting that they don't reference the original Thatcher quote source (an interview with Woman's Own magazine). I wonder why that is? Possibly because its actual content and context doesn't quite fit their narrative:
... and so they [people who expect the Government to help them with a problem] are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then also to help look after our neighbour and life is a reciprocal business and people have got the entitlements too much in mind without the obligations, because there is no such thing as an entitlement unless someone has first met an obligation....
It sounds to me as if Thatcher was correctly pointing out that there is no one entity you can point to and say "this is society"; as such, the onus is on the authors to prove that such "society" as she referenced actually exists as a meaningful entity. Waving around an abstract and undefined concept such as "quality of social relations" is a rather weak refutation. For allegedly academic authors, this is fairly poor work. If this was a conference paper under review, I'd reject it out of hand for poor sourcing and unconvincing arguments. But this is CiF where "facts are sacred"...

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