The Politics of Balance – January 9, 2011

I make a poor partisan and a lousy fanatic because, more than any single position, I favor the “politics of balance.” I understand that all serious human questions have proponents on both sides. While people can sometimes be carried away by emotion and mob action, most people who adopt a stance and stand ready to fight for it do so for reasons that seem good and true to them.

It’s also an article of faith with me that, as a smart man I know once said, “People ain’t stupid.” Just as no one wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I will be a villain,”1 no one wakes up and says, “Today I will be a gullible, small-minded fanatic.”2 Everyone thinks he’s right, and a lot of them are pretty bright.

While I lean toward fiscal conservatism, generally favoring free markets and personal enterprise over most government programs, I also know there are many things the government must do and provide that private enterprise cannot. For instance, I get nervous when military security is farmed out to private companies. And I’m not sure I would want to pay a new toll every time “Bob’s Road” changes to “Bill’s Road.”

At the same time, I lean toward social liberalism, favoring personal choice in matters like selection of adult sexual partners, abortion, and racial equality, but I also know that people need to respect and keep limits—through self-restraint if possible and through social restraints when necessary. I think our “anything goes” culture has gone about as far as it can.3

At heart, then, I believe in a kind of “creative tension.” I believe that the best life, the best society, the greatest advances, are achieved when the two sides of a question—which will always arise and which define every issue that actually becomes a question—are held in an unresolved tug of war.

Consider the marketplace. If the seller has all power, he restricts quality and availability of goods, sets a non-negotiable price, and so dominates the transaction. The buyer might bear with this situation for a while, but soon the market will die out as the buyer finds an alternative supplier, learns to make the product himself, or decides to do without. And if the buyer has all power, he demands an infinite supply of choices, a rock-bottom price, and dominates the transaction. Then the seller will comply for a while, but soon the market will dry up as the seller finds alternative outlets or decides to go into another business. Only when the two are held in a state of tension, sometimes one winning on price and the other winning on quality, does a market exist. Both sides have to feel that the trade was fair and equitable. Both have to compromise a bit. Both have to live.

The same can be said for almost any other transaction, economic or political. When management of a company is all-powerful and labor is totally subdued, then internal cooperation and innovation suffer. When labor is all-powerful and management constrained, then productivity and efficiency suffer. Only when there is ongoing negotiation and compromise over firmly held objectives does the enterprise function best. When one party dominates the legislature or the public affection, alternative ideas and solutions disappears. Creativity dies.

Creativity, in the artistic sense, is the bringing together of two ideas and holding them in a new relationship. As written in Ecclesiastes 1:9, “there is nothing new under the sun.” So the way to make something new is to join two ideas that no one has thought to join before, to find a way to make them work together.

Now this is nothing like the Hegelian dialectic, “thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis.” In the dialectic, each side destroys the other to create something new. In the realm of academia and philosophy, that new thing is usually a higher level of understanding of the situation, but in the process the originally opposed theses do not survive. But I am not looking for such eternal resolution.

The point is not that labor and management destroy themselves and a new form of enterprise emerges. Nor that politicians of the left favoring big government and the right favoring big enterprise destroy themselves so that a new and enlightened dictatorship emerges. I don’t value the ultimate resolution, the great ka-boom, so much as the tensions that precede it.

I’m a fan of the political and economic process more than a partisan of one side or the other. I know that two people or groups will never have the same idea, the same purpose, the same aims and objectives. There will always be conflicts in the market, in society, in politics. Sometimes one side must gain the upper hand for a while to move the discussion in one direction, sometimes the other side must take back the dialogue and push it in the other direction. This will continue until one of two things happens.

Either the positions solidify, baselines are established, and “we can agree to disagree” and meet on a field of ongoing compromise. This is what appears to have happened to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries: today the Protestants are no longer trying to reform the Catholic church, and the Catholics accept the existence of an alternative form of Christianity in their midst.

Or all traceable boundaries disappear and conflict no longer exists, because there are no longer two sides to the question. This is what has happened in the western world to the issue of divine right of kings and all the willpower exerted by monarchs like Henry VIII, Louis XIV, and Wilhelm II. There are no monarchs today, except for cherished figureheads without political power. “Royalist” and “revolutionary” are simply not opposing loyalties anymore.

But until the opposing positions either freeze or disappear, I favor the scrum. Everyone gather around the issue, lock shoulders, and push.

1. Well, except maybe for Adolph Hitler. But the number of evil sociopaths in the world has been greatly exaggerated.

2. And except for Hitler’s Nazi followers. Occasionally mass hysterias do grip the minds of disorganized thinkers. At such times I try to make myself scarce.

3. So, if you want to know where I stand politically, I’d say “center right”—along with most of the country.