Civility is Important, But We Really Need "Agreement-Without-Conformity"

It is critical not just to hear one another’s differences but also to let one another do things differently.

It is often noted that we live in times of much conflict and rancor, and we frequently hear pleas to raise the level of civility and thoughtfulness. Good advice, indeed. Perhaps the recent election will usher in better manners for political discourse—we shall see. Though maintaining civility is important, that alone is not enough to resolve this underlying conflict. It is critical not just to hear one another’s differences but also to let one another do things differently.

The Market vs. Politics

The late Milton Friedman noted that getting along with our fellow citizens is relatively easy if we have “agreement-without-conformity.” Conversely, settings with “conformity-without-agreement” are ripe for discord.

How do we gain more of the former and reduce the latter? Actually, agreement-without-conformity is quite common. I buy black shoes and you buy brown ones. I have no problem with your shoe color, and you have none with mine. We agree that we can do things differently. Similar outcomes are common. I might listen to country and you to opera; I may prefer chicken to fish and you the opposite; I may read detective novels and you ancient history. But fundamentally, we agree that we each pursue our own desires, which often means non-conformity.

This type of outcome is characteristic of market-based transactions. We each do with our money as we wish and, by and large, let others do the same.

The nature of political competition exacerbates conflict. Losers are precluded from doing as they wish and go away unhappy. 

Unfortunately, conformity-without-agreement is the usual outcome of political solutions. These tend to impose one-size-fits-all policies on everyone. Agree or not, your tax dollars pay for the politically-determined outcome. In this setting, minorities usually lose. Special interest lobbying can overcome this, but then special interests win. Losers must conform even though they object to the outcome. To obtain what one wants requires engaging in the political battle to impose your preferred outcome on everyone by defeating others’ favorites. No amount of civility changes this. Indeed, the nature of political competition exacerbates conflict. Losers are precluded from doing as they wish and go away unhappy. If the issues involved are substantial, discord is sure to follow. This contrasts starkly with market outcomes. It’s remarkable how much people vary in their purchases of cars, music, food, houses, clothing, books, etc. with barely a whimper of complaint.

Compromise in a political conflict is possible, but then neither party gets what suits them. A political compromise over shoe color might give us black-and-brown striped shoes.

Health Care: Conformity-Without-Agreement 

A high-stakes example of these ideas is health insurance. Some argue for politically determined health insurance and healthcare through single-payer or “Medicare for all.” Others advocate for a market-oriented system. The former allows essentially one insurance plan where a government agency determines coverage for treatments. It’s all paid for in your tax bill. Discontent would emerge similar to that seen in the individual health insurance market (the “exchanges”) from the Affordable Care Act mandates. Elderly couples often want a high-deductible plan without maternity benefits and the converse for young couples. People desire varying deductibles, co-pays, and coverage for vision, dental, chiropractic, contraception, prescription drugs, and so on. But regardless of your individual needs and desires, you pay taxes for a politically-determined collection of coverages. Many will get more coverage of things they don’t value and less of things they do. This is conformity-without-agreement in a big way. It’s no wonder why it’s so contentious.

In a market-based system, we agree that we can buy different plans. This agreement-without-conformity greatly reduces the rancor.

With market-based health insurance, rather than paying taxes for the mandated plan, people use their money to buy a plan that suits them. Carefully choosing a plan is important, but prudent people vary widely in the insurance plan that is suitable for them. In a market-based system, we agree that we can buy different plans. This agreement-without-conformity greatly reduces the rancor.

Moreover, a healthcare safety net for the needy is a widespread aspiration. Though we want different types of health insurance for ourselves, people of most political views feel a desire to help the needy with private and government assistance. Recognizing this commonality and working toward it can unite us. There is no need to impose conformity on all health insurance and healthcare. This serves only to divide us.

Conformity in Public Education

Another important illustration of the contentiousness generated by politics is public schools. Localities regularly engage in harsh political battles regarding public schools over a host of issues. Prayer in school, dress codes, school attendance zones, sex education, emphasis on sports versus academics, support for various extracurriculars, lunch menus, items in school vending machines, curriculum content, textbooks, and school disciplinary methods is a short list. Many parents, dissatisfied with the political outcomes of these disputes, are saddled with a choice of sending their kids to an inappropriate public school or suffering the financial burden of paying private tuition plus the taxes for the public schools they do not use. This is bound to produce tension in the community and, instead of serving as a unifying force as advocates of education schools contend, the school system becomes a source of friction.

As with healthcare, there is a general desire to help low-income families with the schooling of their children. This is readily accomplished with voucher programs, charter schools, and educational savings accounts targeted toward the poor.

A wider embrace and availability of private schooling options avoids this problem. Parents choose schools for their kids, and there is no forced conformity everyone must pay for. Also, as with healthcare, there is a general desire to help low-income families with the schooling of their children. This is readily accomplished with voucher programs, charter schools, and educational savings accounts targeted toward the poor. In such systems, each family chooses their school, and agreement-without-conformity is attained.

Political Solutions Generate Conflict

For some goods, “conformity” is unavoidable. For example, we all have the same US Army. Locally, the road system is identical for everyone. Insect abatement from the city spraying is the same for all. It’s impossible for you and me to have different national armies, different levels of insect abatement, or different road systems. Here, there is little alternative to government/political determination. However, these are special cases.

The overarching point is that political solutions, through imposing conformity-without-agreement, by their nature generate conflict. With more outcomes decided by political means, conflict intensifies. This is worsened when strong interest groups, used to getting their way, face uncomfortable changes. They fight hard to maintain the status quo. With the escalation of government/political involvement in the economy during the Obama years and the current pushback, this is where America finds itself now.

Though civility and polite discourse are always important, no amount of it can overcome the fundamental conflict that conformity-without-agreement entails.

Though civility and polite discourse are always important, no amount of it can overcome the fundamental conflict that conformity-without-agreement entails. Civility allows us to say what we wish. But agreement-without-conformity allows us to do what we wish. There’s a big difference.

Thus, for conflict to lessen, it’s critical to stop forcing conformity-without-agreement and political solutions where they need not go. As noted above, there are cases where there is no good alternative. Stick to limiting government/political action to these cases. Work to establish laws and find public officials who enable “agreement-without-conformity” rather than imposing more “conformity-without-agreement” on society.

Further Reading

{{article.Title}}

{{article.BodyText}}