- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 20, 2010

I was a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union for about seven years. In high school and graduate school, and for a couple of years thereafter, I loaded trucks, moved pallets and honed the fine art of rapidly throwing cans into paper bags.

So, when I suggest that the U.S. Department of Labor should be abolished, I do not do so with the airiness of an ideological theoretician. Working for hours in icy freezer-lockers, on the one hand, and on sweltering loading docks, on the other, tends to temper uninformed zeal.

First things first: The existence of the Labor Department has no basis in the Constitution. The Founders never envisioned a federal agency that “fosters and promotes the welfare of the job seekers, wage earners, and retirees of the United States by improving their working conditions, advancing their opportunities for profitable employment, protecting their retirement and health care benefits, helping employers find workers, strengthening free collective bargaining, and tracking changes in employment, prices, and other national economic measurements.”

Got that? It’s Labor’s formal mission statement. It means that Uncle Sam is going to intrude endlessly into every facet of American private enterprise. And while some of Labor’s purposes are noble ones, they (a) lack constitutional support and (b) are better done at the state and local level.

This, fundamentally, is a point of departure between left and right: Liberals believe that the federal government should superimpose itself on American society at large, and conservatives don’t. The latter, of whom I am one, believe that the Founders were right in their argument that the functions of the federal government should be few and targeted. A gigantic, controlling and threatening federal employment bureaucracy was not one of them.

Second, state governments actually do serve a purpose. That’s a shocking assertion to my friends on the left, certainly, but James Madison - aka the “Father of the Constitution” - was characteristically correct when, in 1794, he said, “The government of the United States is a definite government, confined to specified objects. It is not like the state governments, whose powers are more general.”

States have the authority to enact minimum wages, to subsidize private industry and regulate its behaviors, to hear complaints by employees against employers and ensure workplace safety. The federal government, constitutionally, does not. And it should not: It’s too big and cannot do these kinds of things with particular efficiency or without arrogantly disturbing myriad local and regional entrepreneurial efforts and regulations.

There are 54 departments of labor (or the equivalents thereof) in our states and territories and the District of Columbia. Are they so incompetent, so heartless and so simply stupid that they cannot address issues of employee health, racial or religious discrimination, medical insurance, etc.? This is, evidently, the underlying if unspoken presumption of the governing elite within the Capital Beltway.

Third, consider some basic issues of efficiency:

c Why does Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (backwardly acronymed ILAB) have a human-trafficking division when such a division already exists within the State Department? For that matter, why does the United States have an ILAB to begin with? Aren’t Iceland and Ireland and Angola and Andorra capable of working with their own work forces?

c Why not consolidate Labor’s Wages and Hours Division and Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs? Are the functions of these and other duplicative bureaus, agencies and offices really so profoundly distinct that they justify separate fiefdoms?

c Why do we need a Small Business Administration and a Labor Department Office of Small Business Programs? Can’t states handle their own small-business matters? And, for the sake of argument, if we grant that Uncle Sam needs his own small-business agency, why have two of them?

c Do we really need 13 distinct training programs within the Department of Labor? Why does Labor have a National Veterans Training Institute - don’t we already have a Department of Veterans Affairs?

Inefficiency goes beyond programmatic repetition. The Los Angeles Times reports that the Department of Energy asked the Department of Labor to calculate what a prevailing wage for weatherization work is “in every single one of the more than 3,000 counties” in the United States. Labor has worked on this vital project for roughly a year.

Why? Because one of Big Labor’s favorite regulatory clubs is the Davis-Bacon Act, which mandates determinations of “prevailing wages” in local areas. As a result of this yearlong tie-up, just 9,100 homes of an eligible 593,000 have thus far been weatherized under the Obama administration’s stimulus plan.

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