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The Sham of Political Compromise

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WRITING IN THE NEW YORK TIMES OP-ED PAGE RECENTLY, new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called for “a spirit of principled compromise.” If the top Democrat means compromise with the Republicans, he’s in luck. Compromise with the Senate Republicans is entirely possible, even easy — because they hold the same reactionary statist principles as the Democrats.

Daschle is widely praised for his seeming willingness to compromise with his supposed political adversaries. (I’m reminded of the late Walter Karp’s perspicacious title for his book about the Republicans and Democrats: Indispensable Enemies.) Yet there is an interesting conflict in the American culture. At the same time that compromise is lauded, men of integrity are supposedly admired. Do we want integrity or compromise in our politicians? It might help to get ourselves clear on a few things before we try to answer that question.

Compromise is mutual concession-making in search of agreement. Implied in the concept is that the two parties share common ground. When a buyer and seller of real estate bargain and settle on a price somewhere between the asking price and the offer, that is a compromise. They share some basic premises: that the seller, as the owner, is justified in asking to be paid for his property, and that the buyer does not have a right to the property except on terms agreeable to the owner.

Now imagine a “negotiating” session in which the party seeking the property does not share the premise that the other party is the owner with a right to demand payment for his property. Is any compromise possible? No. Is it not the case that one or the other must capitulate? If the landowner settles for the theft of only half his property, one would hardly be tempted to call that a compromise. It would be surrender.

Let’s move to Congress, where they surely know a lot about theft of property. Daschle hopes for compromise with Republicans on education, energy, the environment, health care, and Social Security. He’s proud of the bipartisan compromise on campaign-finance reform (McCain-Feingold). In each of these cases Mr. Daschle’s party favors government use of physical force to accomplish the ends it favors. Is that too extreme a formulation — or simply too frank for polite company?

As George Washington reputedly said, “Government is not reason. It is not eloquence — it is force!” That has not changed in 200 years. Government brings one thing — and one thing only — to any endeavor: the legal power to threaten and use violence against people who themselves have committed no violence against anyone. Stripping away the shroud of euphemism around government is the first step toward limiting its power.

Take campaign-finance reform. It is a euphemism for government power to punish people who give their own money to candidates or political parties above an amount limited by the law or who place television ads at the wrong time saying the wrong things as defined by the law. Note that offenders need not commit violence against anyone before they are subject to government violence. (Try not paying a fine and see what the government does.)

And so it is for all the issues Daschle fervently wishes to compromise on. Government would forcibly take money from the taxpayers (taxation equals fiscal force) and give it to government schools, energy-related projects, health-care providers, and retirees. It would also forbid certain peaceful activities, such as drilling for oil in Alaska on land the government has forcibly kept from becoming private property.

Notice that the Republicans accept the premises of every program on Daschle’s list. They favor government activism in education (so much for these “free-enterprise” enthusiasts), in energy (read the Bush plan), in health care (why haven’t they repealed the 1973 law that created and subsidized HMOs?), in the environment (there go the champions of private property), and in retirement pensions (they’re all New Dealers now).

They quibble over details, such as: whether education grants to the states should come with strings; how much land the government should own in the name of the environment; whether government should use the tax system to push for energy production, conservation, or both; what kind of prescription-drug program the government should operate; or whether government should compel workers to put some money in a private retirement account rather than in the U.S. Treasury.

But they do not question the premises that government may forbid certain peaceful conduct, compel other behavior, and spend other people’s money.

When was the last time you heard a Republican leader criticize government for threatening coercion against peaceful individuals? Name one important difference in principle between Republicans and Democrats.

That’s why compromise is possible and even likely. Imagine a member of Congress who believed that government should not interfere with education or health care because such interference necessarily violates individual rights and the Constitution. Could he strike a compromise with Daschle? Of course not. Any “compromise” would be a surrender of principle. What does it mean for Daschle to compromise? Only that perhaps he marginally trims his demand for how much the lives of Americans should be directed by government. Big deal.

Washington politicians are fond of saying that the people didn’t send them to the capital to engage in partisan bickering. If that means the sort of petty squabbles that occur, then that statement is surely correct.

What we don’t know yet is whether people would relish a real debate over principle: freedom versus statism, individualism versus collectivism. All they get rhetorically from the two major parties are watered-down bromides that mask government intervention to one degree or another.

Frankly, no one knows how people would react to a principled debate if it were presented by prominent political leaders and taken seriously by the news media. Then again, what prominent political leaders are capable of engaging in such a debate?

One thing we do know: when politicians talk of compromise they are up to no good.

Compromise and principles

There can be no compromise on basic principles. There is no middle ground between freedom and government usurpation, just as there is no middle ground between the burglar and the homeowner. To pretend otherwise is an insult to all intelligent Americans.

When F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom in 1944, he dedicated it to “socialists of all parties.” Viewing today’s political landscape in America, we should have no difficulty seeing what he meant. Government is dedicated to doing what we were all taught as children not to do: use force when persuasion fails. Why is it that if Tom Daschle wants people not to drill for oil in Alaska, he doesn’t buy the land (with his own money) and close it off, or at least offer the oil companies money not to drill? The obvious answer is that he couldn’t afford either option. So he resorts to force. (More precisely, he asks others to threaten force.) What would his mother say?

I’m not being flip. I’m simply pleading for consistency. It is past time that political rulers identify the point at which the use of force against nonaggressors becomes permissible. I may not physically prevent my neighbor from modifying his land, and I’d be jailed if I tried. But politicians and bureaucrats do the equivalent all the time and are praised as enlightened leaders.

If an apologist for the political way of doing things says that “the people” authorized such conduct by voting, one response should suffice: immorality doesn’t become moral merely because a plurality of voters says so. I’d like to hear Daschle and his ilk argue the converse.

No doubt Daschle will get his compromise. And the principles signified by the concept “America” will be despoiled once more.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.