Compromise is no virtue

According to the editors at the NY Times, pledges that candidates make to not raise taxes “undermine the basic principles of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.”

I’m wracking my brain to think of what type of political theory supports the notion that compromise is a principle.  A strategy, yes.  A necessary evil, sometimes.  But a principle?

To compromise is to sacrifice one’s principles in one area in order to achieve a greater good that is consistent with one’s principles in another area.  Pragmatists and utilitarians can usually compromise without causing themselves painful cognitive dissidence.  Kantians, on the other hand, are not well-suited for compromise since they are governed by imperatives that are, well, imperative; they prefer to let the perfect kill the good.  But I don’t think any sensible political theorists would say that compromise is a bedrock principle of democratic government.  To do so is to deny that there are bedrock principles that one should fight for in a democracy.  The Times claim is the ultimate in political cynicism, in which nothing matters except political expediency.

Many of those who make the claim that compromise is a principle are really just centrists using disingenuous rhetoric to advance their policy views.  Instead of justifying and arguing for a centrist position, they tout a supposed moral authority by claiming that compromise—in itself—is the goal, something that responsible statesmen do to serve the public interest.  Certainly centrists are allowed to promote their policy agenda, but I wish they would spare us the noble-sounding nonsense about “putting aside differences” or “working for the common good.”  The danger of this rhetoric is that it promotes a view among the public that government doesn’t get things done because of petty squabbles or childish tiffs (OK, sometimes that is true) rather than the real reason agreements are hard to reach, which is differences in principles.  So, go ahead and argue for a centrist position, just don’t pretend that that position is the best one because it comes about through compromise.

Given how often the public becomes disillusioned by broken campaign promises, shouldn’t we be lauding those who have principles and stick to them.  If they are not the principles shared by voters, then the voters can put someone else in place with different principles.  Grover Norquist shouldn’t be blamed for trying to get politicians to make and keep their pledges.  He should be criticized for making up a dumb pledge.  Believers in a just and limited government should be chomping at the bit to close down tax loopholes that are simply welfare programs for monied interests, especially if this comes with the added benefit of reductions in government spending.  That is what is known as a twofer.

I don’t know what kind of compromise will come out of the current fight over the debt ceiling.  The Republicans seem to be folding, thereby strengthening a weak president.  But let’s judge the resulting policy on its merits and skip the silly idea that compromise is a virtue.

3 thoughts on “Compromise is no virtue

  1. Somehow I don’t think the NYT would be opposed to a pledge, say, to vote against voucherizing Medicare. Ed Koch is demanding just that, and he’s been getting nothing but fawning admiration from “mainstream” journos.

  2. I see compromise as a principal only in the sense that people working to balance competing interests in any organization need to accept the fact that they probably won’t get to have everything their own way all the time. If you can’t accept that principal, you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership role.

    That said, I agree that those who tout compromise as a virtue are often using it as a cynical tool to get their own way.

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