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Contentions

Putting Our Contentious Debates in Perspective

As so often happens during an intense political moment, like we’re now experiencing with the debt ceiling debate, there is exasperation from all sides of the political class about the unreasonableness of others. Meanwhile, the public, whose life is not focused on politics, scratches its head, bewildered and angry. Why the acrimony? Why don’t members of both parties set aside their political differences and strike a reasonable deal in the best interest of the nation? Why is the national interest so often subordinated to partisan interests?

Those are fair questions worth addressing.

Perhaps the first thing to point out is that compromise in the abstract is easy; it’s compromise over the particulars that are difficult. What is a reasonable concession for one person is a surrender of principle to another. A liberal might believe raising taxes by $1.5 trillion is a grand idea; a conservative might believe it’s a pernicious one. One person might insist in good faith a truly balanced package would include an equal combination of tax increases and spending cuts; another person might insist in good faith that after a two-year, head-snapping spending binge, reining in spending, not raising taxes, is what’s necessary to restore balance.

It’s always simpler for those on the sidelines to insist parties who hold fundamentally different views arrive at a solution. Often they do, but the path to the deal is rocky, contentious, and at times, infuriating.

There’s another matter worth taking into account, having to do with the nature of man.

“Happy will it be,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist No. 1, “if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”

In Federalist No. 2, John Jay expands on this point, arguing that the proposed constitution “affects too many particular interests, innovates upon too many local institutions, not to involve in its discussion a variety of objects foreign to its merits, and of views, passions, and prejudices little favorable to the discovery of truth.”

And in Federalist No. 10,  James Madison said factions — which he defined as action “adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community” — are “sown in the nature of man.”

All of which led the scholar Edward Banfield to write that throughout The Federalist, we’re told “why it cannot be expected that a good government will be established by reflection and choice: it is the nature of men to have divergent opinions and interests, and to subordinate the common good to their private and particular interests… the harsh fact is that American society — any society– is not a band of brothers but a set of competitors. Man is a creature more of passion than of reason; he is vain, avaricious, shortsighted.”

The founders believed the common good existed and was worth aspiring to. They conceded some people  of “superlative virtue” can be expected to set aside their interests for the interest of others. But above all they knew this: the nature of man — “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good” — ensured factional struggles were inevitable.

That is what we see played out in politics, and in life, every day. Sometimes it’s more apparent (and more frustrating) than others. But the genius of the founders is that they built a system of government based on what human beings are rather than what we wish them to be. They also understood, in their more enlightened moments at least, the human failures they saw in others also resided in themselves, that few of us are unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good.

Every day we’re reminded the American system of government is far from perfect. But so, of course, are we.

 


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