Lessons From Wisconsin Budget Protests: Fiscal Common Sense in 2012 and Beyond


When Time magazine named "The Protestor" its 2011 Person of the Year, they curiously neglected to mention the recent protests in Wisconsin, which were among 2011's most influential and revealing. Republican Governor Scott Walker’s drive to close Wisconsin’s budget shortfall by curtailing some state employees’ collective-bargaining rights and requiring state employees to pay a bit more towards their health and pension benefits generated vehement political and ideological opposition. Protestors took to the streets and the State House, claiming that Walker’s bill was a civil rights issue.

In the last year, governments all over the world have faced the central political and economic issue of our time — ballooning government spending and the crushing debt it has wrought. It is clear that governments must act decisively to maintain good credit and financial stability, and return their jurisdictions to sustainable, responsible policies. 

Now, several months later, revisiting the Wisconsin debate provides an easy way of gauging where the American public stands on the critical government spending issue. Though much of the population is ready to embrace a serious drive toward fiscal responsibility, too many Americans fail to distinguish between contemporary policy-driven government spending and civil rights, and remain unwilling to seriously confront runaway government spending.

As debate heated up last February, Democratic state legislators brought Wisconsin’s government to a complete halt, fleeing the state in an attempt to prevent the bill from coming to a vote. Teachers called in sick en masse, in a not so subtle political statement that left some of Wisconsin’s school systems with no choice but to close for several days. Though legislators and public school teachers are supposed to work for the public’s benefit, both essentially said, “To hell with the public,” by refusing to work. 

Paying employees less, or asking them to pay more for their own benefits, are very reasonable ways of closing a budget deficit, yet much of the public actually applauded teachers for refusing to teach and legislators for refusing to legislate.

The bill’s opponents widely claimed that the bill sought to violate employees’ civil rights. Yet the thousands who Rev. Jesse Jackson led in a chorus of the civil rights rallying cry, “We Shall Overcome” did more than just a gross disservice to a song which is an important part of the civil rights movement’s sacred legacy — they demonstrated their own misunderstanding of civil rights, which the bill had nothing to do with. Rev. Jackson marched with Martin Luther King at Selma and Montgomery for civil rights and should know that there is no comparison between employees collectively-bargaining and racial equality. 

The bill did not erode anyone’s freedom or arbitrarily single-out individuals or groups for government mistreatment. No government employee is philosophically or constitutionally entitled to any job, salary, or benefits. The bill did not ban state employees from union membership. The state even agreed to continue bargaining with state employees’ unions on certain issues. Private employers are justly free to choose to not deal with unions in hiring employees, and government employers clearly have the same freedom of choice as any other employer. The idea that employees have a civil right to have their employers collectively-bargain with them is not only not viable — it is actually inconsistent with employers’ civil rights. Walker’s proposal did not restrict any natural, constitutional, or civil rights, but was simply a change to an existing policy that was legally pursued by a freely elected government.

Of course, the Wisconsin protests were about more than just government spending. Walker’s oft-cited phone conversation with a David Koch imposter showed that political motivations certainly influenced Walker. On a more personal level, it is completely understandable for employees to oppose developments that seem destined to erode their income.

Even so, Wisconsin’s passage of Walker’s budget repair bill responsibly saved 1,500 government jobs and closed a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall. Yet Americans widely condemned Walker and the bill’s supporters.

Government spending is based on contemporary policy considerations much more often than civil rights. Americans need to get better at making the distinction to confront governments’ spending excesses fairly and effectively. Yet the broad, misguided opposition to Walker’s reasonable deficit-closing proposal shows that many Americans still feel entitled to more government than they are willing or able to pay for. In 2012 and beyond, leaders should emulate Walker by standing firm in the face of opposition and insisting on making the necessary cuts to bring long-term viability to the economic system.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons