“What good would politics be, if it didn’t give everyone the opportunity to make moral compromises?”

—Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain

Why do we have politics? Specifically, why do we have distinct political parties, and periodic elections in which these parties compete for power?

Competitions only exist when there is a zero-sum game. In a situation in which success benefits every party, no competition exists; only cooperation. Yet the reason that humans tend to congregate in groups—whether in families, tribes, villages, kingdoms, states, or nations—is that humans have much to gain from living with one another. That is, society is not a zero-sum game. Anyone with a friend attests to this fact.

Social groups persist because, most of the time, the personal interest of each member is aligned with that of every other. This is, of course, not to deny that there is exploitation and conflict within groups; it is only to assert that, broadly speaking, members have more to gain from staying within the group than from leaving it. For all the members of a durable group, there exists a sizeable overlap in their interest. (By “interest” I mean what is needed and desired.)

If we were to imagine a scenario in which there was no overlap in the interest of each member, then a group would never form, since cooperating would benefit nobody. In such a situation, we would expect to see a Hobbesian war of all against all, since every individual would benefit only at the expense of another.

If we were, on the contrary, to imagine a scenario in which the interest of each member overlapped completely, then this would be a true utopia. In such a state, no elections would be necessary because everyone would agree on what to do; no political parties would form because nobody would be argue; and coercion, exploitation, and conflict of every kind would be entirely absent.

Clearly, we are not living in either of these hypothetical worlds, but in a medium between these two extremes. Yet I think that we are much closer to the conflict-free utopia than the anarchical chaos; otherwise, stable nation-states would not exist.

Nearly all the citizens in a nation have much to gain from cooperation. By and large, what is good for my neighbors is good for me. When my neighbors are succeeding in the stock market and advancing in their careers, I probably am too. When they are living in peace and safety, so am I. When they are benefiting from clean streets, strong healthcare, good schools, safe products, and a fair justice system, I am reaping the same benefits. Since our interests are aligned, we have no reason to fight.

Political strife arises when interests are out of alignment. This can occur for a variety of reasons; but a major cause is demographics. Differences in sex, age, religion, race, class, career, and geography can translate into differences in interest; and differences in interest translate into political conflict. Any proposed policy that benefits men at the expense of women, city dwellers at the expense of rural farmers, the professional class at the expense of the working class, or any other combination imaginable, will almost necessarily lead to argument. This is so, because it is in these situations that the basic foundation of government—the overlap of interest—breaks down.

If these conflicts of interest were not addressed and instead allowed to grow, they could become existential threats to the state. Some mechanism is needed to resolve conflicts before they get out of hand; and this method must be deemed fair and legitimate by most of the group, or it won’t succeed. The modern solution is to have periodic elections in which political parties compete for power. This form of nonviolent competition is, by and large, perceived as fair; and the imprimatur of the majority lends legitimacy to the results.

Besides difference of interest, there is another reason that members of a state might come into political conflict: difference in preferred means, or methods, for achieving shared interests. That is, even if two individuals want the same thing, they might disagree about the best way to get it. Two Americans may want economic prosperity, for example, but disagree about which economic policy would most effectively promote this prosperity. They disagree about the how and not the what.

This type of conflict may be even more common than the former type. Luckily, these conflicts normally do not pose existential threats to the state. Even more luckily, unlike conflicts about goals, conflicts about means can be solved, or at least advanced, through rational argument. As our understanding of economic systems improves, for example, we can rule out bad strategies and develop better ones. Vigorous debate, scientific study, historical research, and the input of experts are all valuable resources when deciding questions of method.

But when a conflict is about goals and not means, when two people’s interests are opposed—when each of them will benefit at the expense of the other—then no amount of rational argument can resolve the conflict. Reason only helps us to determine the best way to achieve our interests; reason cannot dictate our interests.

Political conflict, therefore, primarily exists for two reasons: conflicts of interest, and disagreements about means of achieving shared interests. If this is true, then you should expect to see conflicts forming along certain, predictable lines. Conflicts of interest should form around demographic lines, since different demographic groups often benefit at the expense of one another. You would also expect to see different “philosophies of government”—strategies for accomplishing common goals—that concern themselves with questions of shared interest, such as healthcare, the economy, and national security.

It seems to me that this is exactly what we find when we look at the political situation. People divide themselves up into political parties along relatively sharp demographic lines, according to self-interest. Since no individual belongs to just a single demographic group, but to many at once, the way that this division plays out is quite complex. The policies that would benefit one group at the expense of another—like economic redistribution, protectionist tariffs, or anti-immigration policies—are usually the banners behind which the party’s supporters rally.

By contrast, goals that potentially benefit everyone, like economic prosperity, do not lead to this demographic splitting, but rather to differences in proposed strategies. These differences in strategy form the subject of truly substantial political debate (a rare thing). Yet because each party has different constituents, usually these different strategies would not benefit everyone equally, but rather one demographic group would benefit more than another. The conflicts of means and of ends, while separate in theory, are in practice hopelessly mixed up.

Seen this way, political conflict arises when there are conflicts of interest between major demographic groups, and the conflict is governed by the logic of self-interest. Political conflict is a competition like any other, a clash of self-interested parties using all the resources at their disposal to win the prize.

But if that is so, why is political discourse so intensely moralistic? That is a question for another day.


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