18 May 2011

Is compromise good?

The question, from a backbencher: "Is compromise desirable for its own sake?"

The answer: Of course not. A compromise is only preferable given the range of other plausible outcomes.

You may object that this question is a little bit one-sided, and indeed it does come from the Government's bench (so to speak). But on the other hand I have never understood why liberals love compromise so much. This has never been a problem with conservatives, who long ago embraced A Choice, Not An Echo as a pithy summary of why their party would never succumb to what was equally pithily referred to as "me-tooism."

(There is a strange affinity among both the American right and the global left for catchy slogans that convey entire programs in a few syllables. Granted, the American right has nothing as good as "peace, land, bread." But given time ... )

That the Republican Party has increasingly become firmer in its consistent advocacy of a set of policy positions is something of a triumph for what is known as "Responsible Party Government," an argument that political scientists first put forward decades ago. It was, essentially, a repudiation of the simple-minded high-school civics class bromides that politics is about "solving problems" or "coming together" or being bipartisan for the sake of bipartisanship. Given that very serious people used to mouth such bromides (remember the "vital center"?), the assertion that parties ought to stand for different things, and that voters should hold incumbent parties responsible for their conduct in office and then replace them with people who held different views, was viewed as something radical.

And it remains so today, at least for adherents of the Democratic Party. Managerial liberalism is out of fashion everywhere but in the White House, whose incumbent is resolutely committed to negotiating with everyone--with Republicans, with foreign governments, and with himself. In many cases, this is not a bad thing. In many other cases, his unforced willingness to give up policy positions as a show of "good faith" is merely weakness. (And I say "unforced" because the typical reaction is to say that structural factors somehow required the president to make every choice that he has made. That, however, seems doubtful, given his pre-election rhetoric and given his enthusiasm for obvious dry holes like the Baucus deliberations.)

On the other hand, the consistency of the Republican Party has made manifest two problems with the RPG doctrine. The first is that responsible party government requires responsible and unified government, to keep accountability clear. Yet the Republicans' dogged success at advancing their positions in the House--not even the full Congress!--means that the beautiful theory has been assaulted by a gang of vicious facts. One would have to be a real enthusiast for sausage-making to know what the Republicans are responsible for--which is to say, a graduate student in political science. Obviously, this is less a failing of the Republicans and more of American constitutional theory, which was designed less to instantiate the will of the voters (as RPG assumes) and more to consistently thwart it.

The second problem is that, as Duverger's Law assures us, America will always only have two parties. Let's think of a world in which there are two parties, A and Z, and that voters mostly prefer A's policies to Z's. Yet if A's incumbents somehow screw up badly in the implementation of their policy positions--under, say, president Ajimmy Acarter, or even Agerald Aford--then RPG says that voters should vote in the Z party next time (under president Zwarren Zharding, or perhaps equally president Zwoodrow Zwilson). This obviously is not optimal, since now voters are choosing a party that may be skilled at implementing policies that are the precise opposite of what voters would prefer. Yet that is what the RPG model dictates; there is no way to vote for, say, party A1 over A2, because you can only choose between A and B.

In such a world, of course, compromise with party Z may become desirable for party A, so that they can implement their policies more skillfully. Yet party Z will have no incentives to cooperate, and every incentive to screw up compromises--to be the Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown at every incentive. If party A's partisans understood that, the dynamic would shift. But hope seems to triumph over experience every time.

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