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Friday, September 16, 2022

Politicians Agree on Far More than It Seems

Politicians might look like they disagree on just about everything, but even those considered polar opposites have a lot in common.

Image Credit: OFL Communications Department - Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Last Saturday, the Conservative Party of Canada elected Pierre Poilievre to be their new leader. With 68 percent of the votes on the first ballot, Poilievre’s win was decisive, and Conservatives are optimistic that he can lead the party to victory against Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next general election, which will most likely take place in 2025.

As usual, the leaders of each political party took to Twitter to congratulate Poilievre on his win. One such leader was Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP), which leans further left than the more centrist Conservatives and Liberals.

In many ways, Singh and Poilievre are on opposite sides of Canadian politics. While Poilievre has been running on a relatively small-government, free-market platform, Singh is very much in the progressive, big-government camp. Singh has pushed to expand Canada’s public healthcare system to include dental coverage, for example, and has advocated for higher taxes on “Big Oil,” while the Conservatives have opposed these initiatives.

Unsurprisingly, Singh took the opportunity to highlight his differences with Poilievre in his message.

“I know we will disagree on a lot and rarely find common ground,” Singh said. “It’s time Canadians have leaders that tell the truth and refuse the destructive politics of division.”

Polar Opposites or Partners?

While Singh and Poilievre certainly have their differences, I have to confess I found Singh’s word choice rather humorous.

“We will disagree on a lot and rarely find common ground.”

Really? I beg to differ. The two politicians may have areas of disagreement, but there are plenty of policies they agree on. In fact, most of their disagreements are over relatively minor differences.

The thing we need to keep in mind is that there are many starting positions that every politician needs to be on board with just to be considered a “respectable” candidate. They can deviate slightly from these tenets, but as Tom Woods says, there’s an “index card of allowable opinion,” and it’s pretty small. You’re allowed to disagree on finer points, but questioning the basic premises everyone takes for granted will get you barred from the debate. Consider the many basic assumptions Poilievre and Singh share:

  • Both support socialized as opposed to free-market healthcare.
  • Both are in favor of income taxes in some form (and many other taxes).
  • Both believe education should be provided by the State and be compulsory.
  • Both believe roads and highways should be publicly owned and operated.
  • Both support government-enforced health and safety standards for workplaces.
  • Both support government building codes.
  • Both want government oversight and approval of pharmaceuticals.
  • Both support occupational licensing.
  • Both support various kinds of gun control.
  • Both believe in mandatory seatbelt laws.

To be fair, these leaders haven’t exactly articulated their positions on all these topics. But you can be sure if they believed anything different from these status-quo positions, the media would have a field day pointing it out.

There are perfectly reasonable cases for opposing all of the above positions. Indeed many of these “standard” stances would have once been considered extremist in the “free world.” And yet, there is so much unity on these questions, that the similarity of candidates with regard to them goes entirely unnoticed.

American politicians are also remarkably similar to one another. Republicans and Democrats like to highlight their differences, of course, but the areas where they agree far outnumber the areas where they differ.

Beyond Trivialities

The fact that politicians are so similar to one another tells us something important about our current political culture. It tells us we live in a time where the Overton window—the range of acceptable political opinion—has become extremely narrow.

This wasn’t always the case. Politicians used to have much more fundamental disagreements. But in recent decades, ideological diversity has all but vanished from government.

In the past we debated issues like the New Deal and the constitutionality of zoning laws. Now we debate 2 percent tax cuts and the size of corporate welfare checks. We used to ask big questions about the role of government. Now, politicians take the role of government mostly for granted, and the only real debate is over how the government can best fulfill that role.

Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if the policies they all supported were good and helpful. But it is a problem, because many of the things the politicians all agree on are the very things that need to change if we want to improve society.

This presents us with a challenge, one that’s easy to miss if we’re not looking for it. The challenge is to avoid debating policy on the terms set by the politicians. If the things that need to change are the things all politicians agree on, simply taking a side on debates between politicians will get us nowhere. Remember, politicians largely debate trivial differences. If we want to effect real change, we need to step out of the framing they set up and ask the big questions nobody else is asking.

Should we end the Federal Reserve? Should we abolish the FDA? Should we eliminate compulsory schooling laws? Politicians rarely discuss these questions. But if we want to make serious progress on social and economic issues, these are exactly the kinds of questions we need to be asking.

So don’t let politicians—or the media for that matter—determine what’s “up for debate.” Don’t concede the framing. Don’t let them dictate what the issue is and what the sides are.

The politicians win when they can convince us to pick a side in their squabbles. But if we can step out of their framing, if we can raise the bigger questions, then we might have a chance to make genuine progress.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.