As fiction authors know, compelling stories need conflict; readers love to root for good guys against bad guys. As college professors know, students perk up when academic topics are posed as conflicts. Sophomores love to hear each subject posed as a conflict between several possible isms, especially a long bitter conflict. To them, intellectual maturity consists largely of looking over a long menu and ordering one from column A, one from column B, and so on. But while I'd like to be a popular teacher, I'd rather be honest, and most subjects are just not well described as a conflict of isms.
When asked to evaluate a proposed economic policy, most students identify some winners and losers, and then favor or oppose the policy based on which group they like best. It takes a long time for students to learn to think in terms of economic efficiency, weighing the costs and benefits for all effected parties, and even then students usually find an even-handed approach much less inspiring. Some econ profs engage students by inviting them to join the few knowing insiders against the ignorant multitudes outside, but even that rings wrong to me.
Yesterday I discussed the tension between the ideals we often verbalize and the goals our usual choices seem designed to achieve. I tried to argue for compromise, for seeking "variations on common ideals which one can more easily admit serve ordinary non-ideal ends." But, most commenters did not want compromise; they instead wanted to take sides and seek better ways for their side to win the war. Generation after generation, the [added: some] old tell the young to seek internal peace; no internal side has the strength to win a clean victory, so all out war risks all out destruction. But the young will not hear.
It seems that one of humanity's strongest ideals is actually war, i.e., uncompromising conflict. In our culture we are supposed to oppose ordinary bloody war, preferring peace when possible there. But we do not generalize this lesson much to other sorts of conflicts. We celebrate those who take sides and win far more than we do peacemakers and compromisers. But the principle is the same; every side can expect to get more of what it wants from compromise deals than from all out conflict.
Added: Byran Caplan asks:
What makes Robin think that "every side can expect to get more" from compromise than conflict? Doesn't anyone have a comparative advantage in conflict? And all it takes to get a conflict is one willing combatant, no?
Deals are not always enforceable, admitting interest in a deal might send the wrong signal, and one may need to threaten conflict to get the best deal. Even so, there is some deal that beats each conflict for each party.
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