Front Page Titles (by Subject) FREEDOM TO STRIKE OR RIGHT TO STRIKE? * - Political Economy, Concisely
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FREEDOM TO STRIKE OR RIGHT TO STRIKE? * - Anthony de Jasay, Political Economy, Concisely 
Political Economy, Concisely: Essays on Policy that does not work and Markets that do. Edited and with an Introduction by Hartmut Kliemt (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
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FREEDOM TO STRIKE OR RIGHT TO STRIKE?*
Keep using the same word for two different meanings, and after a while the effect on public attitudes can become momentous.
The freedom to strike and the right to strike mean two different things, just as freedom and right mean two different things. Failure to distinguish between them generates a confused understanding of what is at stake. The confusion facilitates public acquiesence in practices that have two deep vices. They clearly violate the freedoms and rights of the passive victims of these practices, and they can lead to costly and painful breakdowns in the functioning of entire societies unless one party to some pending negotiation bows to the will of the other.
The more advanced and complex a civilization, the more vulnerable it becomes to certain, often very small, groups that are thought to be exercising their “rights” when they interfere with the liberties of others in order to get their way. The current strike of truck drivers in France, the second in two years to involve the blockade of crossroads, fuel and other merchandise depots, and cross-border goods traffic by road, is a case in point. The last one is estimated to have cost 0.4 percent of gross national product. Whatever the present one will cost is too much for France, whose chronic unemployment problem renders it more vulnerable than most to such blows. Yet French public opinion accepts that what the lorry drivers are doing is the exercise of the right to strike.
The dividing line between a freedom and a right is crystal clear and there is little excuse for the sloppy usage that confounds the two. A person is free to perform an act, and therefore to engage in a practice involving such acts, if no other person has a sufficiently strong cause to object to it. To reduce the scope for subjective argument about what is a sufficient cause, society has evolved conventions. These are widely accepted, and in some cases have been formalized and elaborated into laws. A free act, then, is one that no one else has a right to stop.
A right, in sharp contrast, enables one person to require another to perform some act, or to stop performing some other act. I am free to enter or leave my house as I please. However, if I have rented it, the tenant can require me to let him have the keys and stop me from entering it except as authorized in the rental agreement. He has rights and I have obligations which I must fulfill if he chooses to exercise his rights.
The freedom to strike means that there is no sufficient cause for one person, or indeed for society as a whole or its supposed representative, the government, to stop another person (or group) from withholding its labor. When there is a sufficient cause—the maintenance of certain public services and valid employment contracts may count as sufficient—there is no freedom to strike. Otherwise, however, it is generally taken as incompatible with our civilization to force someone to work or punish him if he will not.
The right to strike goes further than the freedom to strike. But how much further? It involves some degree of legitimate power over what others must, or may not, do. The problem is precisely the degree of this power, and it is a very slippery slope. The right to station pickets at factory gates, who should be able peacefully to explain to would-be strikebreakers that it is wrong to be a blackleg, is a small degree of power. How could one object to it on the grounds that it requires the strikebreaker to listen to the strikers? From here, however, very small steps lead to increasingly more robust forms of exercising the “right” to strike. From moral suasion to covert intimidation, overt threats, and secondary picketing of employers not party to a dispute, the slippery slope eventually leads to violent interference with the free conduct of the daily life of ordinary citizens and to blackmailing the government to give the strikers what they cannot get by the mere threat of withholding their labor.
The tragedy is that society usually will not meet such violence with violence because public opinion, especially its literate and idealistic half, would think it wrong to do so. It considers the right to strike as almost sacred because it confuses it with the freedom to strike, and it interprets that right as obliging innocent third parties obediently to submit to whatever the strikers need to make their strike successful.
[* ]First published in the Wall Street Journal Europe, November 4, 1997. Reprinted by permission.