All Commentary
Friday, November 27, 2015

“Let’s Stop Trying to Control Each Other”

The right way to talk about politics with family

Every holiday season, pundits and politicians of all stripes weigh in on how to talk to family members who disagree with you. The Democratic National Committee even runs a website,, which gives useful talking points for your red-state benighted family members.

Here’s a different strategy for the holidays: Just say, “let’s stop trying to control each other.”

Here’s how it works:

– “These Republicans, they don’t know anything about how to run a health care program. I think they want people to just die, especially people who vote Democrat. People need low-deductible plans with broad catastrophic coverage and full coverage for all basic daily needs. Just read the studies.”

– “Okay Uncle Kevin, you might be right. Or, alternatively, we could stop trying to control each other and forcing others who disagree to comply just because they’re on the wrong side of 50.01 percent of the population. That’s inevitably going to create strife. Just think about how you would feel when you’re on the losing side of an election.”

– “These Democrats think they know everything. Whatever happened to the family? Whatever happened to good schools that teach good values? A school system that taught family, responsibility, and, yes, even religion would go way further toward solving this country’s problems than anything a Democrat has proposed in 50 years.”

– “Okay Aunt Jane, you might be right. But what if you’re wrong? What if you get your school plan passed, across the whole nation even, and it ends up that your curriculum doesn’t help, especially for families with different needs and goals? Then what? Well, then you’ve subjected the entire nation to your errors, and getting rid of those errors is going to be costly and painful. Alternatively, you could stop trying to control other people simply because your side is temporarily on the right side of an election. You wouldn’t want someone to do that to your kids, right?”

It’s all quite simple, seemingly deceptively so. One of the biggest virtues of limited government is that it places less emphasis on who happens to win a given election because fewer monumental things are at stake. And if we stop trying to control each other, it’s much easier to be friends with your political opponents. Politics makes us worse, and the more it matters the worse it makes us — in fact, it makes us primitive. Few people are at each other’s throats because of a difference of opinion about where the roads should go.

When we start saying “let’s stop trying to control each other,” we also eliminate the need to have public debates over private values. We don’t have a public political debate over Taylor Swift vs. Beethoven because no one is trying to force others to listen. That may seem like a ridiculous example, but that question is not too different from “what’s the best healthcare plan to have?” How can that question be answered when so many competing values and life goals are inexorably in the mix?

In Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, A.O. Hirschmann pointed out that there is a tension between exit and voice. With exit, you can vote with your feet, your dollar, or your radio dial. You don’t need to rise up and “make your voice heard” and deal with all the attendant problems of special interests and democratic mobilization. Instead, you just walk out the door. Markets work because of the right of exit, and politics often doesn’t work because it is so limited in how it can solve collective-action problems.

So many Americans are concerned with how “Washington isn’t listening to them,” and candidates like Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson are stoking that outrage. But maybe Washington isn’t listening because it is so big that only mobilized special interests have the resources and incentives to pay attention. Maybe big government will never really pay attention to the people. If this is so, then maybe people should stop trying to control each other so much.

So, the next time Uncle Kevin or Aunt Jane open their big mouths to opine about “how things should be,” maybe you should just suggest that 50.01 percent of the table should fill the plates of the minority. Maybe they’ll get the point. 

This post first appeared at Cato.

  • Trevor Burrus is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies. His research interests include constitutional law, civil and criminal law, legal and political philosophy, and legal history. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.