Reasoned Compromise

Commenting on the debate over ratification of the proposed U.S. constitution, James Madison observed:

…the diversity of opinion on so interesting a subject among men of equal integrity and discernment is at once a melancholy proof of the fallibility of the human judgement and of the imperfect progress yet made in the Science of government….Companies of intelligent people equally divided…[urge] on one side that the structure of the government is too firm and too strong, and on the other that it partakes too much of the weakness and instability of the Government of the particular states. What is the proper conclusion from all this? That unanimity is not to be expected in any great political question. [As quoted in James Madison: A Biography, Ralph Ketcham, 237.]

As bitter as the pill of compromise may be to swallow for those genuinely aspiring to achieve progress, as opposed simply to personal advantage, the existence of opposition from both extremes simultaneously may be taken as evidence that progress is indeed being made. Unfortunately, the sad tendency of humans to achieve compromise by first compromising principles in a shortsighted descent into lowest-common-denominator deals of convenience that undermine rather than facilitate genuine progress should give pause to one facing such temptation. Madison’s own crucial mistake of accepting slavery as the price of union, the horrifying bill for which came due four score and seven years later and continues in the 21st century to be paid by American society in its seemingly endless fight against the poisonous and still rampant closed-mindedness of the white South powerfully exemplifies the danger of such unprincipled compromises of convenience (rather than compromises of reason based on the modest admission that no one, it seems, is ever likely to understand things perfectly).

If humans are fallible, and every politician who has ever lived has demonstrated this eternal truth, then we should not just anticipate but welcome compromise; when all are fallible and all agree, then the chosen path can only be in error. The danger is not compromise, for the very existence of disagreement should but underscore the inevitable need for course correction; the real danger is the basis on which we find compromise. A reasoned compromise that offers fundamental benefit to both sides by means of creative redefinition of the problem should strengthen the moral foundations and practical durability of the adopted course of action. Madison’s breakthrough insight that a republic need not sacrifice liberty as it gained in size–because greater size would increase the likelihood  of having many factions balancing each other off such as to minimize tyranny of the majority [see Ketcham, 241]–illustrates the potential of a compromise of reason (instead of a compromise of convenience, e.g., agreeing to limit liberty or limit the maximum size of the new U.S. republic, devise a compromise of reason that accepts great size but with the strongest possible structural defenses of liberty, e.g., a powerful and independent Supreme Court, a bill spelling out the implied rights of citizens).

The debate every four years in U.S. presidential elections between those who aspire to elect a true reformer and those who cynically if accurately warn that failure to support “better than nothing” will simply give power to “worse than nothing.” Clearly, we are making very little progress toward the invention of a “Science of government.”



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