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State Employees Strike to Hold Colombia Ransom

By: Javier Garay - @Crittiko - Apr 23, 2015, 9:51 am
Colombia's public-sector workers want still more compensation for the little value they add.
Colombia’s public-sector workers want still more compensation for the little value they add. (CRE)

EspañolColombia finds itself paralyzed by a general strike once more. But on this occasion, the halt of activities and the associated annoyances come courtesy of state employees.

The first thing that calls one’s attention here is the lack of transparency in information. The leaders of the walkout claim that over a million public-sector workers have joined picket lines. Although no state body indicates how many public employees there are in total, if we assume that the strike involves 10 percent of the total, it would indicate that over 10 million people are hired by the state. According to the World Bank, Colombia’s economically active population is little more than 23.5 million people.

Thus, in this rendering, half of all employment is provided by the Colombian state. From such speculations, albeit doubtlessly incorrect, who could possibly argue that the Colombian state has been diminished or that it has stopped intervening and distorting the functioning of the free market?

In any case, for over a million people to go on strike today means that there’s at least a million people who aren’t contributing to productive, intellectual, artistic, or creative tasks, but putting the brakes on all of them: trying to regulate such professions and take from them part of the profits that they generate. What a waste!

The strike of so many unionized workers brings home other truths. It shows that public-sector workers, far from being enthusiasts for statism in a philosophical sense, merely seek to serve their own particular interests, and not the general good, in two senses.

On the one hand, because all their petitions are related to salary increases or economic benefits, disregarding the fact that any financial perk they receive will come from the labor of other Colombians — the state will pay them off by taxing others. On the other, they pursue their goals not through independent activity, but by affecting all citizens trying to work and move around, as a means of putting pressure on the government.

Public workers are no angels. Quite the contrary.

State employees, like any other human being, act according to a combination of interests. A normal worker, in a private company, will also defend his own interests. But in the context of a private firm, to do so requires personal effort, greater productivity, efficiency, and, in the final instance, the worker’s contribution to the achievement of the firm’s goals.

In this way, paradoxically, by defending only his own interests, the worker ends up unintentionally contributing to the general good. This has been demonstrated by authors such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek.

In the state sector, the incentives are the opposite. To remain in his post, the worker doesn’t have to strive to improve his efficiency or productivity. To defend his own interests, all he has to do is maintain the reason as to why his job was created, and when he considers his salary “unfair,” to paralyze production. His objectives? Government taxes on all citizens, diluting responsibility for his own self-improvement.

This constitutes a grave problem of incentives.

Those who are on strike in Colombia are no angels, and they respond to perverse incentives. But moreover, in every aspect their work is deficient, to put it mildly. Teachers provide poor-quality education, health workers give substandard care. Judges contribute to the high levels of impunity and corruption that characterize the judicial branch in Colombia. As a consequence, those who go on strike are shameless: they do less and less, and they want more in return.

In Colombia, marches and demonstrations have once more become an everyday event. This doesn’t only remove the logic of protest, making it a banal affair, it also affects and traumatizes the normality of social transactions and the ability of businesses to grow and fulfill their objectives.

This situation has to change. Public-sector workers have set their goal as nothing less than extorting the state. Some private employees, including transport workers, farmers, and taxi drivers, have joined them. The same happens with demonstrations encouraged by local governments, like the feeble march supposedly in favor of peace backed by progressive sectors and supported by the equally feeble former mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro.

These are Colombia’s state workers. Hands up if you want to work for those who live at the expense of the rest of us.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

Javier Garay Javier Garay

Javier Garay is a professor at the Externado University of Colombia. He has written two books on international issues, such as development, after his doctoral dissertation focused on the same topic. Follow him on Twitter @crittiko and through his personal blog, Crittiko.