Commentary

Madison, Wisconsin: The Athens of the West

College towns used to call themselves “the Athens of the West.” In Nashville, home of my alma mater Vanderbilt University, they built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon. But these days Madison, Wisconsin, has the best claim to the title.

Lots of national media have been comparing the protests against Gov. Scott Walker in Madison to the protests that ended Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign. And the protesters themselves have reveled in the imagery, waving signs comparing Walker to Mubarak. Union activists want Americans to associate them with the immensely popular protests in Egypt and other Arab countries.

But how much similarity is there really? Time columnist Joe Klein says not much:

Revolutions everywhere — in the middle east, in the middle west. But there is a difference: in the middle east, the protesters are marching for democracy; in the middle west, they’re protesting against it. I mean, Isn’t it, well, a bit ironic that the protesters in Madison, blocking the state senate chamber, are chanting “Freedom, Democracy, Union” while trying to prevent a vote?

Indeed. The protesters in Egypt, many of them young and unemployed, finally found the courage to defy a brutal regime and demand freedom and democracy. No national unions supporting them, no President of the United States and his political machine.

The Madison protesters, on the other hand, are well-paid government employees skipping work and turning out to oppose a budget reform bill that would require them to pay about 5.8% toward their pension (about the private sector national average) and about 12% of their health care benefits (about half the private sector national average) and restrict the collective bargaining powers of government-employee unions.

But the Madison protesters could still look abroad, to a historic and inspiring city, for a protest much like their own. In Athens, Greece, once the cradle of democracy, we have recently witnessed repeated protests in the streets against austerity measures designed to stave off national bankruptcy. George Will mocked “what the media described as ‘anti-government mobs.’ Anti-government mobs composed almost entirely of government employees going berserk about threats to their entitlements!” A year ago, the Greek deficit was estimated at 12.7 percent of GDP, the national debt approaching 120 percent. Banks stop lending to countries at points like that, and even the spendthrift Greek government was forced to try to trim spending. The Greek journalist Takis Michas told a Washington audience last summer that the Greek political economy

is a form of capitalism where the bureaucracy and its allies consider the state their property, and use its mechanisms for personal enrichment.

In Greece, the fundamental principle that has been dictating economic and political development since the creation of the Greek state in the 19th century is political clientelism.

This is a system in which political support is provided in exchange for benefits.

In this situation, rent-seeking — the attempt by various groups and individuals to influence the location of political benefits — becomes paramount.

That sounds a lot like the relationship between government employee unions and state governments. In Wisconsin, the state that first gave government unions the right to bargain collectively, the Greek disease has reached crisis levels. Wisconsin faces a deficit estimated at $2.2 billion or more. Wisconsin and Greece have both used accounting gimmicks and fiddled statistics to conceal the state’s real fiscal condition, though Greece’s fraud reached stratospheric levels.

The protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya are against tyrannical governments; the protesters seek freedom and democracy. The protests in Athens and Madison are against the long-suffering taxpayers; the protesters seek to continue a political system that allows them privileged access to the public fisc.

Eat your heart out, Nashville and Lexington and Berkeley. Madison, Wisconsin, is truly the Athens of the West.

David Boaz is the executive vice president of the Cato Institute. He is the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, the editor of The Libertarian Reader and other books, and the author of the entry on libertarianism in Encyclopaedia Britannica.