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The Sham of Political Compromise

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Writing on the New York Times op-ed page recently, new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle called for “a spirit of principled compromise.” The top Democrat presumably means compromise with the Republicans. He’s in luck. Compromise with the Senate Republicans is entirely possible — because they hold the same reactionary principles as the Democrats.

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 capitulation.

Now let’s move to Congress. Mr. 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. In each of these cases Mr. Daschle’s party favors government use of physical force to accomplish ends they favor. Is that too an 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 project: the legal authority to use violence against people who themselves have committed no violence against anyone.

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 Mr. 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 grants to the states should come with strings or not. But they do not question the premises that government may forbid certain peaceful conduct; compel other behavior, and spend other people’s money.

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 interference necessarily violates individual rights and the Constitution. Could he strike a compromise with Mr. Daschle? Of course not. Any “compromise” would be a surrender of principle. What does it mean for Mr. Daschle to compromise? Only that perhaps he trims his demand for how much the lives of Americans should be directed by government. Big deal.

There can be no compromise on basic principles. There is no middle ground between freedom and government usurpation. To pretend there can be is an insult to all intelligent Americans.

No doubt Mr. Daschle will get his compromise. And the principles embodied in 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.