Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Eric Cantor’s Misunderstanding of Compromise

The 60 Minutes interview with House majority leader Eric Cantor broadcast on January 1, 2012 had a number of moments that revealed the causes of the current dysfunction in Congress. One particularly revealing response occurred when Leslie Stahl asked him about compromise. He said:

"Comprising principles, you don't want to ask anybody to do that. That's who they are as their core being."

Stirring, noble words, but deeply misguided when the issues that Cantor is being asked to compromise on are considered. Somehow, Cantor has pulled off the ultimate misdirection when it comes to governing. Instead of debating the morality of what the government does, he has re-framed the debate to be on the morality of having a government.

Cantor is part of a loud contingent in Congress who refuse to compromise on budget and tax policies because according to their narrative, government itself is the problem. The constant refrain from Republicans, like Eric Cantor, that the normal activities of government are immoral, leads me to question why they even want to be a part of an institution that they abhor. If their idea of a utopia is a place without a government, maybe they should consider moving to Somalia, a country where a functioning central government ceased to exist many years ago. Of course the results have been far from utopian. With no government, Somalia has been racked by widespread famine and constant civil war, and its chief industry is international piracy.

The preamble of the U. S. Constitution sums up the reasons for the existence of the federal government: "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,.." Obviously for the government to exist and carry out its mission, Congress must appropriate money through taxation, enact laws and regulations, and appoint judges and executive officials. There is nothing inherently immoral about any of these activities.

However, by framing the normal activities of government as immoral, Cantor gets to have it both ways. He can avoid the tough moral choices that actual governing involves. He can say that his failure to effectively govern is the better outcome. In short, he can avoid responsibility for doing his job. But, this approach is dangerous and destructive because it paralyzes government, poisons relationships, and worst of all cheapens morality.

When even the most basic functions of government are subject to debate, it becomes impossible for the government to operate at all. When Congressmen and staffers are denounced for doing their jobs, it becomes impossible to foster productive, cooperative relationships between people who need to work together. When all disagreements are framed as battles between good and evil, it becomes impossible to recognize real moral issues.

In fact, the vast majority of disagreements people have with their co-workers, business associates, friends, and family members do not have a moral component to them. Most disagreements are about the best choice of action from a menu of equally moral choices. Since none of us are omniscient, disagreements with the people around us are a normal part of life, which is why at a young age (kindergarten) most of us learn how to compromise.

The government is a necessary institution; it must be funded through taxes, and in the interest of the common good, it must to some extent curb individual freedoms. Reasonable people will of course disagree on the best courses of action to accomplish the goals of government, and that means compromise is necessary.

Framing normal disagreements in terms of moral absolutes, clashes between good and evil, heroes struggling to prevail against villains, makes for compelling narratives. But, the stories told are fraudulent. The only morality tale I see in the 60 Minutes interview with Cantor is the one of his hubris, self-aggrandizement, and intellectual dishonesty.