Political Harmonies

How can the Left and Right come to peace?

I do not think that it would be that contentious of a claim to say that this election has been acrimonious, more so than in cycles past, although I will readily admit how limited my frame of reference is. Why is it that politics, which should be the peaceful method of solving social problems, has devolved into, while not an outright violent struggle, a conflict which has become deeply personal and particularly tense? Certainly some of the blame can be placed on the candidates themselves, who, owing to their markedly negative perceptions, have decided to campaign against their opponent rather than for themselves. Without a vocabulary for how Trump’s policies will help workers or how Clinton’s policies will build jobs, such statements will not be made. Instead, there exists a language of personal attacks, and so supporters of the candidates speak in similar terms, turning civil discourse into vulgar shouting matches.

However, there is also an intrinsic quality to politics that makes political disagreements much more intense than disagreements in other areas. Why is this so? Stated simply, it is because politics is zero-sum. If A gets legislation passed that B did not want, then A wins and B loses, and if they decide to compromise, then both win some and lose some, but neither is completely happy about it. But why compromise if you have a majority or such compromise would not go over well with one’s constituents? Because of this, political disputes necessarily have to be tense because losing is not just losing a debate or an argument, it is losing the ability to decide the course of the country, of solving social ills. For political disputes, there is no positive sum game where both sides benefit, for all benefit in a political system necessarily comes from someone else’s loss. In a system of limited government, these disputes might not matter as much, since many people (the present author not included) at least agree that the government should provide roads, some education, and public defense, and so such disputes would not be fundamental disputes about the role of the government but would be disputes about relative amounts of spending on infrastructure and private goods. Moreover, these disputes would not be as bitter because they did not constitute as much of one’s life as they do in a larger government. For example, even if the government decides to introduce tolls on roads that one would have preferred to not go into place, one still has autonomy and liberty in every other area. To put this in the context of a representative democracy, suppose that one party wants to increase spending on the few aforementioned public goods and one party wants to decrease spending. The difference here between the parties only concerns a few goods that do not constitute most of one’s life, and so these differences are not as rancorous. There would still be disputes, but because they are not as important to one’s ability to act in society, they would not be nearly as contentious.

The situation is different in the sprawling state that we have today since each election represents access to a much larger pool of power. Elections are not about gaining control over national defense, schools, and roads, but they are about gaining control over a labyrinthine bureaucracy that oversees everything from firearms to carbon emissions, from raw milk to interstates. Of course, I am not referring solely to federal government, although that is where a great deal of the anger is occurring. Because of this, each election matters much more than an election in a limited government. Each election is a battle for the direction of the nation as a whole and the character of the United States. As more and more of one’s life is impacted by the rules of Washington and (in my case) Harrisburg, the more one will care about who such rule makers are and what legislation they should be drafting. Stated bluntly, the more the government concerns itself with us, the more we will concern ourselves with the government, and the more fervently we will oppose those who want a different government than we do. This is the root cause of our bitter political climate. So much of our lives has become a zero sum political game that we have no choice but to strongly oppose those who want to win at our expense.

Is there a solution to this? Can we escape this spirit of political animosity and achieve harmony between conservatives and liberals, socialists and libertarians? I would argue that we can, and the way we can is not by simply reducing the scope of government, as that would serve to inflame the angers of advocates of a more active state, giving them a loss at the benefit of those in favor of limited government. The way we can is to make politics a positive sum game. But how is this to be done? The answer is to look at markets, since market exchanges are voluntary and positive sum, since each person gains through the exchange. We must create a market for laws just as we have a market for shoes or cars. While there may be debates over which car is better, they do not descend to the same depths as political arguments, and the reason for this is that my preference for a Tesla does not prevent someone else from preferring a Toyota or a Ford. We do not take a vote on which car to buy and then are all subject to the ruling. Perhaps this sounds, at the very best, far fetched, and at the worst an invitation to lawlessness and chaos. My intention is not to offer a rigorous defense of voluntarism or polycentric law, but rather to invite one to think about the possible benefits of a political system based purely off of voluntary interaction.

What would such a system look like? It would be entirely disconnected from geography, instead being based around voluntary agreement to be bound by different sets of laws. Two economists, Murray N. Rothbard and David Friedman, have sketched out conceptions of such a society in For a New Liberty and Machinery of Freedom, respectively. These societies would encourage harmony by allowing those who wish to share in a common rule together to do so. In this way, those who buy into a common vision may build a society in their vision without coercing dissenters into joining. Conservatives and liberals could live side by side under different rules and so may both have the governments that they want without having to engage in the bitter disputes of politics. Should disputes arise among different regimes, it would be up to neutral third party arbitrators to rule justly so that no one is forced to submit to unjust political machinery. This is not to say that companies could chose to live under rules that do not bind them to not pollute, since in a previous article I covered how pollution was aggression against property rights, which means that that would be a conflict between two sets of people who might be living under different rules and thus would go to arbitration, meaning that no one could freely pollute and harm others. While I recognize that this invites criticisms, the intention of this piece is, again, not to provide a long and detailed defense of polycentric law or anarchy as such; For New Liberty and Machinery of Freedom are fuller accounts of what such a society would look like and how it would function in the face of conflict. There is only so much I can accomplish in 1500 words, after all. All I would like to get across is that there is something deeply beneficial about eliminating the zero-sum aspect of politics and that peoples of all political ideologies could live more harmoniously in the absence of such conflicts.

The only true way to achieve political harmony is to make a market for politics so that choices may be freely made, not forced upon those who do not consent to them. In this way, the choice is not between Trump or Hillary, but those who prefer to partake in a progressive society may freely choose to do so, and those who wish to move in Trump’s direction may do so too, but neither would have the right to impose his views on others. This, of course, would make both of their platforms incredibly difficult to implement, but I struggle to see how that is a negative outcome.