Column on The Anatomy of bona fide Compromises

Anatomy of the bona fide Compromise

Tibor R. Machan

On the current political front there is a lot of talk about whether to compromise on various issues, such as continuing or increasing the Keynesian economic stimulus, abortion, gay marriage, extending the debt ceiling, continuing the two–or is it three–wars America is involved in abroad, getting tough on illegal immigration, how to treat radical Muslims in the courts, etc., etc. The president’s stance, peculiarly, is urging compromise on all fronts and not sticking to any firm position based on principle but entering the discussion with a middle-of-the-road outlook.

Yet there is something basically amiss with Mr. Obama’s position and indeed with that of all those who insist that there is great virtue in compromise. The main problem is that a compromise is the outcome of discussions between those with basically different positions. So, for example, if you hold that injecting more stimulus into the American economy is a good idea and I believe that it is not, we might compromise by agreeing in the end that a bit of stimulus will be injected but not as much as promoters of the idea hope for. Thus, to take a concrete case, if Paul Krugmann of Princeton University and The New York Times believes that the government should inject massive amounts of fiat money into the economy, via public works and subsidies, and various make-work projects–one’s the free market would not fund but government officials believe might generate employment–and another economist, say Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and The Pittsburgh Tribune Review, argues for avoiding any policy of printing and spending any kind of fiat money to stimulate employment, the result of spending a modest amount of such fiat money might be a compromise.

Notice that in such a case the two sides did not enter the discussion with what the result turned out to be. Compromises, in short, are what come out of debates between people discussing what kind of public policy should be adopted. Just as the middle between two points is something that cannot be established without knowing where the beginning and the end lie, so a compromise is dependent on positions that aren’t themselves the results of compromises.

Anyone who argues like President Obama–and his cheerleaders such as CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria–that what is needed on all sides is more willingness to compromise haven’t a clear idea what a compromise is. If they did, they would start by laying out the two sides that they urge to reach a compromise and indicating what would it be given the base positions of the two sides. What is it, for example, that Krugmann and Boudreaux really want and then why should they give up their commitment to that position and go along with something else, namely, the proposed compromise the likes of Zakaria propose?

The bottom line is that in any important debate one rationally demand of the debaters that they compromise prior to the process that must preceded it, namely, the debate. Maybe in the debate one side will manage to demonstrate to the other that it’s position is better that the opposition’s. In principle this has to be a possibility. But if one starts with demanding that people who enter such debates start with compromises, one is asking for the impossible. After all, the reason people tend to have firm positions is that they believe them to be sound, to be the right solutions to problems. But because the problem faces groups of people who must come to some kind of common resolution, it is likely that they will not be able to succeed with having their firm positions accepted by all parties to the debate. So what is sensible to ask for is that everyone involved in the discussions will go slow and only accept changes if they see no other way to proceed. To put it differently, the result of a compromise is never desired by those debating issues. These results are grudgingly accepted at best and imply that neither side was successful in convincing the other of the soundness of its stance.

Bottom line is: Don’t urge people to compromise; urge them to debate seriously and intelligently. The resulting compromise will then be the best and only one that could be achieved among these people who have to make collective decisions.

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