Compromise and Priorities
By Bryan Caplan
I’m steering clear of the Cato-Koch dispute. But these remarks by Will Wilkinson are intriguing at the meta level:
[I]n actual large-stakes political fights in Washington, Cato is
generally on the Republican side. It would not be strange to spot a
Catoite at Grover Norquist’s infamous Wednesday morning meetings.
Because Cato functions as part of the right.
It’s tempting to think that Cato almost never does anything to help
the Democrats largely because it’s just too far to the left of the
Democratic Party on foreign policy and civil liberties. Yet Cato is
equally far to the “right” of the Republican Party on economic policy,
welfare policy, education policy, and lots more. Social Security
privatization is a forced savings program. School vouchers and/or
education tax credits are taxpayer-funded education. Lower income-tax
rates concede the income tax. Again and again Cato finds a way to settle
on non-ideal, “second-best” economic, welfare, and education policies,
and argue for them in away that provides “ammo” to the right. But it very rarely
develops compromising second-best policies on foreign policy or civil
liberties that would be of any practical use to dovish or
civil-libertarian Democrats. Why not? Why was coming out in favor of gay
marriage more controversial at Cato (the state shouldn’t be involved
in marriage at all!) than coming out in favor of school vouchers (the
state shouldn’t be involved in education at all!)? Why not a bigger
institutional push for medical marijuana as a second-best,
nose-under-the-tent alternative to outright legalization?…
Cato staff tend to use their principled intransigence on certain “left” issues as proof of their partisan neutrality. We’re the furthest thing from conservative! We want to legalize drugs and prostitution! We’re anti-war!
I spent years saying this sort of thing. But now it strikes me that it
is precisely this hesitancy to seriously commit to non-ideal,
second-best policymaking on “left” issues — in the realms of foreign
policy and civil and personal liberties — that makes Cato a de facto
institution of the right. The issues on which you’re prepared to
compromise and politic are the ones about which you’re most anxious to
see the world move in your direction.
Most people’s presumption, I suspect, is that willingness to compromise is a sign that you don’t take an issue seriously. Imagine a pro-life advocate crusading for a “15% reduction in the abortion rate.” But once you understand expressive voting theory, Will’s story is fairly plausible. Unwillingness to compromise clearly reveals high priority if you have the strength to actually get the extreme outcome you want; see e.g. the Allies’ “unconditional surrender” policy in World War II. For everyone bargaining from a weaker position, however, unwillingness to compromise often means you won’t make any headway at all.
Still, I’m not entirely convinced by Will’s account. Many people, myself included, rarely bother to offer compromises because we realize that we speak only for ourselves. And when I do offer compromises, I don’t think I’m appreciably increasing the probability of good policy prevailing. My motive, rather, is to hold up a mirror to the world – to convince the undecided by showing that my opponents’ true objections to reform are uglier than their professed objections.