Column on The Price of Compromise

The Price of Compromise

Tibor R. Machan

Politics is sometimes said to be the art of compromise and this rings true enough, given the messiness of contemporary politics. Over the centuries those who aspired to rule and the later govern others had to contend with the fact that many don’t like to be ruled and when it comes to being governed, they hold that certain standards apply to those who would govern. So compromises became the norm between the two factions. (There is no necessary progress revealed toward a just and free world in human history although there has been some. Compromises may just give away the bit of progress that has been made.)

The most important standard for making progress in governance is to institute a legal order that amounts to the protection of the rights of citizens, to secure their individual human rights. However much matters may vary from time to time and place to place, so long as what is at issue is human community life, some matters remain the same and this is such a one, namely that human beings require for their flourishing in life to be free of coercion. Oppression, regimentation, forcible manipulation are all enemies of humanity, even when many people fail to acknowledge this and placidly submit. (In personal relations, too, people often refuse to assert themselves but this doesn’t make their subservience a good thing for them!)

The principles of human liberty, however universally valid for all individuals, are always under threat from people who would rather subdue others than deal with them on mutually agreed to terms. This is evident today in nearly all the controversies that dominate public affairs. Take that horrible war on drugs. Here is a cause that is mostly pushed by conservatives and it is a clear compromise of the principle of individual liberty. Or take such by now complied to policies as social security and Medicare. For the sake of some people running some other people’s lives to secure them certain apparent benefits–often promoted under the banner of the public or common good–freedom is tossed aside. 

Oh, there are numerous excuses for this, yes, but one thing is for sure. Once the compromise is accomplished, it is nearly impossible to recover the principle that is being violated. Consider, for example, that one argument in favor of a public option–that is to say, government provision of health insurance paid for by taxpayers whether they choose to or not–is that Americans have already accepted Medicare and many other government welfare measures, so how can they insist on rejecting government interference in this case? Surely not on principle! So why now, why here? 

Yes, perhaps the answer is that enough is enough but this just will not work. The logic of the slippery slope defeats it. Once you accept that government ought to take care of our personal, private, and social–as distinct from public–problems, there is no principled reason to reject the next step toward further government encroachment. It may cost too much but then it is always possible to soak the rich or something, since no principle protects them or anyone else whose resources can be confiscated to fund it all–or just borrow against members of future generations who aren’t around to even vote!

Republicans who protest that the public option is socialized medicine have no leg to stand on, given AMTRAK and the US Postal Service and hundreds, even thousands of other measures they accept which amount to robbing Peter to pay Paul in our society. That is the price of compromise–you have lost the argument since you have no principle on which to base it. Once you have accepted just a little slavery, a bit of involuntary servitude for the citizens of your community, why not go further? Why not conscript their labors and resources whenever you see something important to pursue, just go for it. The pragmatists say, you need to judge things on an individual basis but this is basically nonsense, like saying we should judge rape that way. 

Without principles there is no way to judge, to evaluate. All that’s left is power–do you have it to get your way or don’t you?

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