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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Forget “Unity”: We Need the Freedom to Disagree  

People need more space to go their own way

America will soon approach its biennial peak in “unity” rhetoric. 2016 offers no shortage of candidates claiming to unify us, unlike their “divisive” rivals. Once nominees are selected, they will repeat those claims about themselves and their parties and their opponents.

Unfortunately, unity — agreement on the ends we want — is not only absent, but unattainable.

Our electoral process demonstrates Americans’ disunity. The circular firing squad of attacks on “divisive” rivals proves that agreement is very limited, even on very broad questions, even within parties. After dividing and conquering their respective party rivals, the nominees will both claim that the other is a “divider” — providing more proof that they are both correct.

More importantly, once we move beyond vague and aspirational language, expressed in feel-good generalities, it’s clear that Americans disagree on almost everything. Not only do our goals differ: they are at odds.

Of course, we all want food, clothing, and shelter. But we want different types and amounts. Further, we do not want them at the same time, in the same place, or for the same persons. We also vary in the tradeoffs we are willing to make among what we desire. Once we actually get to the relevant choices, scarcity requires that our ends conflict, rather than conform.

The issue is not then implementing the specific ends we agree on, but how best to mutually achieve our different and conflicting ends. Sadly, politics fails in that task.

When people pursue their ends through politics, their “success” consists in taking others’ resources. Since the threat of expropriation can only decrease the incentive to produce, it creates a negative-sum game. The losers are harmed, as well as many of the supposed winners. “Unifying” political initiatives are just ways to control what people will be forced to do, and for whom — hamstringing truly cooperative arrangements and squandering the wealth they create. And the greater the diversity of preferences, the more divisive is political determination.

There is one thing we can agree on, however — equal freedom to peacefully pursue our own goals. As Lord Acton put it, “liberty is the only object which benefits all alike, and provokes no sincere opposition,” because our freedom to choose for ourselves is always the primary means to our ultimate ends. That is why the traditional functions of government are to protect us from abuse by our neighbors and foreign powers. It is also why the greatest threat from government comes from supposed protectors becoming predators. That is why Acton recognized that liberty requires “the limitation of the public authority.”

Despite differences in our personal goals, all individuals gain from “the mutual preservation of their lives, liberties and estates,” as John Locke put it, for our “pursuit of happiness,” in Jefferson’s words. This means defending people’s personal freedom and property rights, along with the rights to trade and contract. As David Hume noted:

The convention for the distinction of property, and for the stability of possession, is of all circumstances the most necessary to the establishment of human society… after the agreement for the fixing and observing of this rule, there remains little or nothing to be done towards settling a perfect harmony and concord.

Once property rights are established and uniformly defended, all subsequent arrangements are voluntary. No one can impose their will by violating others’ rights. The traditional definition of justice — “to give each his own” — is met.

Because we disagree on our specific ends, when government overrides people’s choices instead of protecting them, it imposes domination rather than allowing cooperation and mutual consent. That is why the rhetoric of political unity generally means the imposition of injustice on some to feather others’ nests.

Grand claims that “we are united” are actually shorthand for “we disagree about many things, but are unified against others’ preferences — and we mean to get our way, regardless of their well-being and desires.”

That kind of unity is actually something very different — tyranny.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

  • Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network.

    In addition to his new book, Pathways to Policy Failures (2020), his books include Lines of Liberty (2016), Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014), and Apostle of Peace (2013).