The Challenges Facing Conservatives Who Support Public Safety

Edward Ring
Edward Ring is the vice president of research policy for the California Policy Center.

Everyone supports public safety, but conservatives are a special case. In modern times, it was conservatives, reacting against the rebellious sixties and the lawless seventies, who supported law enforcement when it was fashionable for liberals to see them as pawns of a discredited establishment. It was also during the 1960’s and ’70’s that we saw public safety unions acquire far more political power and influence, a rise fueled in part by an entirely justifiable resentment they felt at how they were treated by the media and in popular culture.

It’s a different world now. The riots of the sixties and the crime waves of the seventies have been replaced by new threats. Now we have global terrorist groups with access to new technologies that can unleash destruction at a scale unimaginable a generation ago. We have organized crime of unprecedented sophistication; drug cartels, cyber criminals, modern-day slavery networks. The United States, statistically, is a safer place than it’s ever been, but it doesn’t feel that way, and continual reminders at home and abroad reinforce these feelings of insecurity.

Conservatives have traditionally focused on prioritizing law and order for good reasons. They understand that when crime directly affects an individual, often with tragic consequences, all the statistics that prove we are safer than ever become meaningless. Conservatives understand this without having to necessarily have personally experienced the trauma of crime or conflagration. Their empathy, powerful and enduring, extends both to the victims who need protection, and to those individuals who risk their lives to perform jobs in public safety.

Along with supporting law and order, however, conservatives also cherish the values of financial sustainability and organizational efficiency. Moreover, conservatives are as zealous as conscientious liberals when it comes to supporting individual rights and fighting corruption. And for these reasons, while conservatives may support the institutions of public safety and the individuals who work in public safety, they can find themselves objecting to the power and influence of the unions that represent public safety.

The challenge facing conservatives who support public safety comes down to this: The unions that represent police and firefighters have the same problematic essence as every other union representing government workers. They use massive amounts of taxpayer-sourced money – more than $1.0 billion in dues collected each year by state and local government unions just in California – to elect the politicians who they then “negotiate” with. There are no natural checks on how much they can ask for in pay and benefits, because unlike unions in the private sector, they don’t work for organizations that have to earn a precarious profit by convincing consumers to voluntarily buy their product in a competitive market. They are a monopoly. And, of course, they can use government itself to intimidate their critics, especially business interests who might otherwise oppose their agenda.

It’s hard to do, but conservatives who want to get taxes and spending under control in the cities and counties where they live are going to have to differentiate between their respect for men and women in uniform, and the agenda of the unions who represent them. They will have to confront a fundamental union premise, that pay and benefits must always rise, and can never fall to reflect economic realities and other service priorities.

If conservatives want to fight corruption, they are going to have to stand up to the unions who make it difficult if not impossible to discipline or fire that small minority of public safety employees – inevitably found in any large organization of any kind – who are criminals or incompetents.

And if conservatives want to slow the growth of government and the growth of burdensome regulations that have made California among the most difficult states in America to run a business or afford a home, they have to recognize that more laws means more law enforcement – for things that go well beyond public safety, yet represent more power and influence for public safety unions.

For their part, members of public safety unions, and their leadership, might try to remember that the issues where some conservatives may disagree with the union agenda are not as significant as the issues where they agree. And they might acknowledge that opposition to parts of their political agenda, or calls to restrict the bargaining scope of their union, or even calls to abolish their union altogether, do not signify a lack of respect, support or empathy for the men and women of law enforcement.

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