Is compromise good?

The announcement by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) early this year that she would not run for re-election to the Senate, and her subsequent op-ed in the Washington Post, gave me a chance to think about compromise.

To oversimplify her editorial, she said that she decided to leave the Senate because its members are no longer willing to compromise in order to get things done. The explicit premise is that compromise is good, and necessary, in order to do the nation’s business. As is almost always the case with public figures (and the media who cover them), she has failed to articulate precisely what she means, and therefore can only make a superficially satisfying argument for her point of view.

At one level, she is clearly correct. When people of disparate views come together to do business, they often must compromise in order to get things done because they have different backgrounds, expectations, judgments, priorities, etc. But there are some things on which an official shouldn’t compromise, even if failing to do so means that nothing gets done. 

Examples of good compromise would be an argument over how much money to spend on fighter planes vs. aircraft carriers, or aircraft carriers vs. roads, or many similar tradeoffs where relative value judgments have to be made, and there’s no applicable absolute standard. When revenues need to be raised, officials could sensibly argue about which form of tax would be most effective in raising money, and least intrusive in reducing productivity. These discussions involve good, necessary, productive compromises.

But do we really want our representatives compromising on fundamental principles? If every congressman and congresswoman agreed that it would be best if all individuals had health insurance, but some of them believed that the federal government has no power under the Constitution to mandate such a requirement, would we really want the latter group to compromise its principles (which, in this case, should be ours as well) and vote for an insurance mandate in order to achieve a “good” compromise? To quote an age-old saw, do the ends justify the means?

In an example of a different kind of bad compromise, U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts compromised logic in his upholding of Obamacare’s constitutionality in saying that while the Constitution forbids Congress from mandating that people buy health insurance, it allows Congress to tax people who don’t do so, for the sole purpose of pushing them in the direction of making the purchase.

People will differ on how important a principle needs to be before one should refuse to compromise it, but isn’t that the discussion we want our officials to have, rather than a discussion that assumes that principles don’t matter, and that what does matter is collective action, regardless of legitimacy or efficacy?