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?

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26 Responses to Is compromise good?

  1. Compromise is very important.  But sometimes power hungry people use that word when they really mean they want you to submit to them so they can own you.  That’s how I feel about Common Core, the educational reform movement that has turned into a federal takeover of K-12 education.  They say these standards are a minimum that we can build on, but then they mandate that you can’t add more than 15% to any standard, effectively cutting our wings.  And they changed FERPA regs to make it easy for parental consent to get bypassed concerning accessing kids’ data after common tests.

  2. Compromise is very important.  But sometimes power hungry people use that word when they really mean they want you to submit to them so they can own you.  That’s how I feel about Common Core, the educational reform movement that has turned into a federal takeover of K-12 education.  They say these standards are a minimum that we can build on, but then they mandate that you can’t add more than 15% to any standard, effectively cutting our wings.  And they changed FERPA regs to make it easy for parental consent to get bypassed concerning accessing kids’ data after common tests.

  3. DeLynn Barton says:

    I’m now re-reading David McCulloughs’ classic book 1776. How thankful I am, and how thankful every American ought to be that there were a few strong leaders that were simply un-willing to compromise with King George III. We had plenty of loyalists in this country who believed in the crown and wanted to work out a compromise! Think of the really important ways our country would be different now if we had worked out a “compromise” with the King and Parliment in England. No military to defend our selves and our allies, no representation in the law making body, Every person subservient to the ruling class in England. All business regulated by a ruling body on another contientent. I agree there times when we have to make a stand and not compromise even when historically we have shown weakness and folded!

    • David Buer says:

      July 4th was a good reminder of your point! BTW, McCullough is an excellent author. I also highly recommend “John Adams” if you haven’t read it yet.

  4. DeLynn Barton says:

    I’m now re-reading David McCulloughs’ classic book 1776. How thankful I am, and how thankful every American ought to be that there were a few strong leaders that were simply un-willing to compromise with King George III. We had plenty of loyalists in this country who believed in the crown and wanted to work out a compromise! Think of the really important ways our country would be different now if we had worked out a “compromise” with the King and Parliment in England. No military to defend our selves and our allies, no representation in the law making body, Every person subservient to the ruling class in England. All business regulated by a ruling body on another contientent. I agree there times when we have to make a stand and not compromise even when historically we have shown weakness and folded!

    • David Buer says:

      July 4th was a good reminder of your point! BTW, McCullough is an excellent author. I also highly recommend “John Adams” if you haven’t read it yet.

  5. Bob Curtis says:

    After reading this post, I must say that I am ever so glad that James Madison did not adhere to this principle.  Madison went into the Constitutional Convention with the firm conviction that representatives in congress must be elected by popular vote and that each state(in the House and the Senate) should be represented by population.  He was adamantly opposed to equal representation in the Senate.  If he had not been willing to compromise on what he felt was a fundamental principle in favor of a more important principle, we would have no Constitution. 
    Again, what if John Adams and Ben Franklin had refused to compromise on the issue of slavery in the Declaration of Independence?  The Fourth of July would just be another day, because the Colonies would not have united. 
    Perhaps what Ms. Snowe meant was that there are too many people who are so sure they are always right, that they cannot conceive that those who oppose them can be intelligent, moral or honest.  Compromise means that we treat those who hold differing views as being as important to our Country as we are.

    • David Buer says:

      Great points, Bob. Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and the others were able to reason with each other, share their extensive knowledge, compromise, and create the best political system in the history of the world. Thankfully, today we can also use reason to come to solutions and expect that our elected officials will will do the same to solve the difficult problems that confront us. It’s sad to see that reasonable compromises seem to be harder and harder to come by, so we resort to other means…

  6. Bob Curtis says:

    After reading this post, I must say that I am ever so glad that James Madison did not adhere to this principle.  Madison went into the Constitutional Convention with the firm conviction that representatives in congress must be elected by popular vote and that each state(in the House and the Senate) should be represented by population.  He was adamantly opposed to equal representation in the Senate.  If he had not been willing to compromise on what he felt was a fundamental principle in favor of a more important principle, we would have no Constitution. 
    Again, what if John Adams and Ben Franklin had refused to compromise on the issue of slavery in the Declaration of Independence?  The Fourth of July would just be another day, because the Colonies would not have united. 
    Perhaps what Ms. Snowe meant was that there are too many people who are so sure they are always right, that they cannot conceive that those who oppose them can be intelligent, moral or honest.  Compromise means that we treat those who hold differing views as being as important to our Country as we are.

    • David Buer says:

      Great points, Bob. Madison, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson and the others were able to reason with each other, share their extensive knowledge, compromise, and create the best political system in the history of the world. Thankfully, today we can also use reason to come to solutions and expect that our elected officials will will do the same to solve the difficult problems that confront us. It’s sad to see that reasonable compromises seem to be harder and harder to come by, so we resort to other means…

  7. Matthew Hailstone says:

    I would like to add to this thread of thought that a “good” compromise is only “good” if both sides of thought agree with and genuinely embrace the new thought that is born in the creation of the “good” compromise. Or, at least they agree that the approach is an excellent attempt to a solution that was not realized previously and is worth the merits of exploring. I think in all of the previous posts, this line of thinking could be adopted.

  8. Matthew Hailstone says:

    I would like to add to this thread of thought that a “good” compromise is only “good” if both sides of thought agree with and genuinely embrace the new thought that is born in the creation of the “good” compromise. Or, at least they agree that the approach is an excellent attempt to a solution that was not realized previously and is worth the merits of exploring. I think in all of the previous posts, this line of thinking could be adopted.

  9. ThinkForYourself says:

    So you want Congress to “get things done”?  I like to ask people what exactly they want done.  Constitutionally, Congress shouldn’t be doing any of the things it’s doing!  99.9% of the legislation of the last century is not only terrible but outside their jurisdiction.  They should be repealing, repealing, repealing.  Sadly, neither side of the imaginary aisle supports repeal.  We’ll never regain our limited, Constitutional government until people realize that their senators are the problem and that the president can do nothing without their open or tacit support.  And yes, yours needs to go.  All 100 have voted for unconstitutional legislation, even Paul and Lee.  Yet the re-election rate in the senate is 84%.  Wake up and oust your senators, or continue to focus on the meaningless presidential race and watch government grow.

  10. ThinkForYourself says:

    So you want Congress to “get things done”?  I like to ask people what exactly they want done.  Constitutionally, Congress shouldn’t be doing any of the things it’s doing!  99.9% of the legislation of the last century is not only terrible but outside their jurisdiction.  They should be repealing, repealing, repealing.  Sadly, neither side of the imaginary aisle supports repeal.  We’ll never regain our limited, Constitutional government until people realize that their senators are the problem and that the president can do nothing without their open or tacit support.  And yes, yours needs to go.  All 100 have voted for unconstitutional legislation, even Paul and Lee.  Yet the re-election rate in the senate is 84%.  Wake up and oust your senators, or continue to focus on the meaningless presidential race and watch government grow.

  11. ThinkForYourself says:

    I just realized my comment looks like it’s attacking the author for wanting Congress to get things done.  I don’t necessarily believe that he does.  The question is directed at the many people (of both parties) who lament that Congress is unable to get anything done right now.  And to reiterate, they should not be doing anything other than what Section 8 of the Constitution says they can do – which is precious little.

  12. ThinkForYourself says:

    I just realized my comment looks like it’s attacking the author for wanting Congress to get things done.  I don’t necessarily believe that he does.  The question is directed at the many people (of both parties) who lament that Congress is unable to get anything done right now.  And to reiterate, they should not be doing anything other than what Section 8 of the Constitution says they can do – which is precious little.

  13. Steve Lewis says:

    Any compromise worthy of consideration occurrs when parties with differing strongly held views become willing to sacrifice a portion of what they believe is right and/or valuable in order to achieve something that they mutually recognize to be of greater value.  Mr. Curtis cites two outstanding examples of painful compromises that were essential to the formation of these United States.  While compromise must be considered with great reluctance, as appropriate to the value of what might be sacrificed, the obvious unwillingness to compromise in our Congress, whether motivated by principle, or selfish gain, is now achieving even more than the fondest desire of “ThinkForYourself.”   It is truely becoming impossible to get even the most basic “things done,” like paying the financial obligations we’ve agreed to, as provided explicitly in Section 8. For over two centuries this country has struggled, progressed, and grown through countless compromises in every legislative session.  Ideology, and/or the simple, raw struggle for power, has now become more important than effective governance, which does, as Senator Snow says, require compromise.  If we continue to fail to address through our elected representatives the dozens of problems that threaten to unravel this republic, both our material comforts, and ultimately the priceless gifts of “freedom:” equal rights under the law, and the ability of each of us to determine our fate through our own efforts are in grave jeopardy.

  14. Steve Lewis says:

    Any compromise worthy of consideration occurrs when parties with differing strongly held views become willing to sacrifice a portion of what they believe is right and/or valuable in order to achieve something that they mutually recognize to be of greater value.  Mr. Curtis cites two outstanding examples of painful compromises that were essential to the formation of these United States.  While compromise must be considered with great reluctance, as appropriate to the value of what might be sacrificed, the obvious unwillingness to compromise in our Congress, whether motivated by principle, or selfish gain, is now achieving even more than the fondest desire of “ThinkForYourself.”   It is truely becoming impossible to get even the most basic “things done,” like paying the financial obligations we’ve agreed to, as provided explicitly in Section 8. For over two centuries this country has struggled, progressed, and grown through countless compromises in every legislative session.  Ideology, and/or the simple, raw struggle for power, has now become more important than effective governance, which does, as Senator Snow says, require compromise.  If we continue to fail to address through our elected representatives the dozens of problems that threaten to unravel this republic, both our material comforts, and ultimately the priceless gifts of “freedom:” equal rights under the law, and the ability of each of us to determine our fate through our own efforts are in grave jeopardy.

  15. Doug Heaton says:

    Ideas can safely be compromised, but principles cannot. I define principles as those underlying truths upon which liberty or any other great blessing rests. They existed before we were born and will continue after we are gone. Identifying principles has become a great and intensly satisfying interest for me. Principles can be really inconvenient to those who don’t understand how vital they are to the blessing they support, but they can never be violated without consequence. Someone much wiser than me said that there is a law, irrevocably decreed before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated and when we obtain any blessing… it is through obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. Break the law (principle) – lose the blessing.

  16. Doug Heaton says:

    Ideas can safely be compromised, but principles cannot. I define principles as those underlying truths upon which liberty or any other great blessing rests. They existed before we were born and will continue after we are gone. Identifying principles has become a great and intensly satisfying interest for me. Principles can be really inconvenient to those who don’t understand how vital they are to the blessing they support, but they can never be violated without consequence. Someone much wiser than me said that there is a law, irrevocably decreed before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated and when we obtain any blessing… it is through obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. Break the law (principle) – lose the blessing.

  17. Garry says:

    Olympia Snowe is a liberal and should have been a Democrat. Most likely she’s just reading the tea leaves and fears getting the boot. What will her sidekick, Susan Collins, do without her?

    While Republicans have contributed to the mess we’re in, almost every time there’s a compromise with with the Democrats, we move closer to a European society and lose more of our freedom.

    The only times I feel somewhat at ease with regards to our Federal government, is when things are “not” getting done, the president is playing golf, Congress is in recess and the Supremes are not deliberating.

  18. Garry says:

    Olympia Snowe is a liberal and should have been a Democrat. Most likely she’s just reading the tea leaves and fears getting the boot. What will her sidekick, Susan Collins, do without her?

    While Republicans have contributed to the mess we’re in, almost every time there’s a compromise with with the Democrats, we move closer to a European society and lose more of our freedom.

    The only times I feel somewhat at ease with regards to our Federal government, is when things are “not” getting done, the president is playing golf, Congress is in recess and the Supremes are not deliberating.

  19. Bus Gillespie says:

    In the movie 1776, Franklin makes the comment that a rebellion is only a rebellion in the third person, such as their rebellion.  I would add that compromise is only valued by the side that doesn’t have the majority.  The majority has no need of compromise, they can just push through any bill they want (note Obamacare, and many other things that happened between 2009-2011).  Now that the Democrats have lost control of the house they want compromise, but I notice that the Senate and Administration doesn’t even bother bringing up bills that have passed the house.  Thus the whole concept of compromise is a sham by the minority party to try and shame the majority party into not yielding its full power.

  20. Bus Gillespie says:

    In the movie 1776, Franklin makes the comment that a rebellion is only a rebellion in the third person, such as their rebellion.  I would add that compromise is only valued by the side that doesn’t have the majority.  The majority has no need of compromise, they can just push through any bill they want (note Obamacare, and many other things that happened between 2009-2011).  Now that the Democrats have lost control of the house they want compromise, but I notice that the Senate and Administration doesn’t even bother bringing up bills that have passed the house.  Thus the whole concept of compromise is a sham by the minority party to try and shame the majority party into not yielding its full power.

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