Capitalism, unions, equality, the fallacy of the average and mediocrity

Photo by finsec

A short caveat: while this post is not totally unrelated to my regular line of writing, it does somewhat detaches from my usual subject matter and is focused more on personal doubts, questions and thoughts and less on practical implications.


I see myself a capitalist. I believe in its basic premises. And while my views have become less extreme in the last few years and I do think there is a need to rethink and change some of the basic practical behaviors we derive from the concept, it is still a part of how I define my world views.

Within this framework I have always wondered about the idea of work unions. On a very shallow level it seems incompatible with the some of the ideas I used to think capitalism represented, so in my younger years I immediately thought of unions as something wrong. However, over the years I understood the importance of mechanisms that will put some balance into the capitalist system so it will not undo itself. Having said that, maybe because of my biased viewpoint, wherever I looked I saw unions resisting change and progress, upholding stupid rules (see this Gates talk on TED for some examples) and keeping the interests of the top quartile of employees instead of those who actually need protection. This has always bothered me.

Lately, because of current political and economic issues in Israel, I have been thinking about this issue quite a bit. This week, while listening to a freakeconomics podcast about the negotiations between the NFL league and the players union (negotiations, many of the players themselves are not privy to) I came to a realization that what troubles me about unions is something that has been troubling me about other fields as well. The misuse of the idea of equality. I have written before (see also here):

Equality is an important concept in many aspects of life, especially in the legal field, I know so well, as a former lawyer. But in real life, because equality is intertwined into our thinking DNA it is used in ways that many times hinders excellence. All men are not born equal. Whoever tells you that is lying. All man should deserve an equal opportunity to excel, to be happy and to use their comparative advantage. That is the truth. And there is a big difference between the two.

In western societies, equality is part of the ethos. People fought for the right of equality for ages and it is so commonplace and understood (even if not completely practiced) we regard it as a given right. The quotation “All men are created equal” is arguably the best-known phrase in any of America’s political documents. And if all men are created equal, they should be treated as equal in the workplace as well. And they think as themselves as equal. And this creates problems. Because we are not equal. We are unique. Special. With different talents, skills, perspectives, life experiences, likes and dislikes. And that means that treating us as if we are the same is wrong.

In the case of unions, the idea of equality means that unions can act like all workers are equal. If they are equal, they can talk about the average worker. It is a classic case of the fallacy of the average. Because of everybody is equal and we are taking care of the average worker we are losing the individuality. And that is the fastest way to mediocrity.

In Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe write:

That’s what Aristotle meant when he said that practical wisdom as opposed to a universal rule was necessary because of the priority of the particular. A wise person knows how to do the right thing, in the right way, with this person, in this situation. To be wise, we need cognitive and perceptual machinery that picks up on similarities without being blind to differences.

I am not an expert on the issue of unions, their history and their contribution to society. I am also not against the idea that workers should be protected to some degree and have a right to be represented. I do resent the fact that some unions focus their attention on keeping the status quo and base their thinking on a misconception of equality that leads to a discussion of averages. In general, the work of any leader, political, business, union or other, is to balance similarities and differences. I am not sure that many of the union leaders or those that sit with them to the table of negotiations are actively thinking of this balance. What will happen if both sides of a labor dispute (or even better, prior to the dispute) will start doing just that? Isn’t it worth a try?


3 Responses to “Capitalism, unions, equality, the fallacy of the average and mediocrity”

  1. Says:

    Having been raised by a father who was a dedicated union member… I grew to resent his support for the union… That feeling started in 1st grade when I wanted a hat soooo bad but it was made in India so was not permitted in my house. Yes, he was a union man all the way… It had to be American made “period”. I assure you when anything entered our home it’s label was checked… This was during the buy American campaign… So my resentment of the unions started in 1st grade… Silly reason for those feelings to begin… This would be followed by several years my father was unemployed… Of course I was a child and only understood my personal wants… In truth my personal needs were met even during the years of my fathers unemployment…
    Yet my bias developed through my personal experience of growing up with a “PRO union” father…
    My father was a very intelligent man who belonged to the pipe fitters union. During his years of work he advanced his professional education continually… Yet I still regarded him as one of those blind mice…
    Now at age 45 I have a greater understanding of the union… I’m not a union member nor has my husband of 22 yrs ever been a union member… Both my husband & I have worked in the hospitality industry for the last 25 years… My husband having a supervisory position responsible for approximately 25 employees daily. I have worked in the front line not wishing to advance. My reason for not wishing to advance is while my children were young they were my primary responsibility and with that I did not have any desire to develop any conflicting responsibilities… This was an agreement made between my husband & I early on in our marriage. I am happy with the agreement we made. It was not a burden to me as I still believe in traditional parental roles. More importantly my husband & I are a team… Meaning any benefits to one benefits both… Our children are in their 20’s now and both in college, one for psychology & the other veterinary medicine. So as a family I feel we have been successful… Yet my husband & I have had extremely different employment experiences…
    My husband had more responsibility and was available to attend his responsibilities 100%. This enabled him to develop lasting relationships with his employees over a period of 11 yrs. I have watched him handle union organization along with manage the union environment among his employees. I’ve watched him grow over the years and have to say he has evolved into a very ethical employee/employer. Yet about 3 yrs ago my husband was forced to report unethical behavior of his immediate manager… He attempted to deal with the issue within the company as he was a company man and believed them to be above board… Unfortunately this was not the case… Ultimately he was fired…
    As for myself I have had a very different experience… I am very good at my job and often above average.
    Being above average has created additional obstacles for me… during the last 20 yrs I have worked for various companies both small & large. Yet I have worked for many… why? It was never acceptable that I not hunger for advancement. In truth it was looked down upon to retain a traditional family role. This is something that existed in both small & large corporations… Once you are deemed leadership material it is unacceptable to remain in a lower level position even if your good at it.
    Leaving out all the details I can tell you my only option when it reached this point was to move on because I had no conflict of where my responsibilities were. Yet it has amazed me over the years how management can let a good (competent) employee get away when they don’t conform to what management thinks their goals should be. Surprisingly it was women who resented this more… I harbor no resentments as I’ve said it has been my choice… I have no regrets…
    Now after giving you some background you would think I am a union supporter, I am not… On a very personal level I don’t feel I need anyone to speak for me… I have never had a problem speaking my mind and have never felt I needed representation. I do however understand when someone does not feel confidant in representing themselves… I have come to respect the original thought behind the union ideal… Which in my humble opinion represented a pursuit of impartiality, honesty, non prejudice, and non favoritism. Yet I don’t believe the union ideal has lived up to it’s original pursuit… again in my humble opinion I feel it has just turned into another corporate mind set…

    Ultimately we exist in an atmosphere of
    management vs. labor.
    Who can win with this mind set,
    better yet who has been winning….

    It seems we need some truly neutral ground that guarantees “fair dealing”… Where this will appear I’m not sure… Maybe it will surface while management & labor are battling, because I feel this continued battle will inevitably result in a loose/loose situation… I think the pursuit should be simply “fair dealing”…

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Wow Anne. Your response is longer than my post. I am not sure if my writing evoked the thinking or are these just things you have been thinking about for a while and just did not find an outlet to express them. I thank you very much for sharing.
    I think you raise some excellent points. Your account resonates with the same doubts my post expresses. I have also written in the past about different promotions paths that are not managerial and their importance for both moral and skill. Marcus Buckingham writes about these issues in the book: “First, break all the rules”.
    The issue of finding balance (or as you call it “neutral ground”) is important and I have come to realize how encompassing it is. I will probably return more to it in the future.
    Thank you so much for engaging. For me, this is a big part of writing a blog and every comment you make re-fuels my passion!

  3. Says:

    It is your article that got me thinking…
    I love when that happens…
    Considering my personal experiences I have developed a better understanding of how easy it is to just react to situations… Opposed to deciding how to react…
    Although I am not perfect I am glad most of
    my experiences have been deciding…

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