We are a society that praises idealism. Our ideals forged a new nation. Ideals act as our moral compass. And, ideals offer us a vision for the future. But, ideals also divide us and prevent us from making the compromises that benefit the greatest number by the greatest amount.
We were all taught that the Revolutionary War was fought over English economic oppression, and that the Civil War was a battle over slavery. While it is compelling for us humans to simplify complex phenomena and to recast history in a way that supports our own internal ideals, human conflict is rarely so simple.
However, when we cling to idealism as a compass to resolve conflict, we inevitably widen the gulf that makes compromise difficult. If this gulf becomes wide enough, wars ensue, inevitably at great cost to all. Among individuals, frustrations turn to resentments, and resentments turn to grudges that sometimes last a lifetime, or even generations. At their root are often individuals' insistence to cling to a set of assumptions or ideals in conflict or sharp contrast to the position of another.
Of course, there is a role for idealism. It often packs a complicated world view into a simple message. What it may sacrifice in nuance it makes up for in simplicity. An ideal can act as a compact premise that can be decoded and unpacked relatively easily. But the efficiency of an ideal can also limit an individual's thoughtful consideration, and can create artificial tensions among those with competing ideals.
Our ideals also act to anchor us artificially. We may choose to align ourselves with a sports team or a social movement or a political party that does not perfectly fit our individual preferences but nonetheless acts to align our own personal platforms.
What we sacrifice from our own thoughtful worldviews we gain by an alignment with a simpler and more broadly held premise. No longer do citizens harbor beliefs consistent perhaps only with their personal world views. We become Democrats or Republicans, Tea Partiers or Teamster Partisans. We align ourselves with a party platform and begin to mistrust those misguided, or plain wrong, folk who do not agree with us.
This tendency may only accelerate as the world becomes more complex. We now face an onslaught of information that seems designed to inform and educate us. Instead, we retreat to a simpler ideal or platform so that others smarter than us, or with a greater vested interest than us, can decide on our behalf what is right and wrong, what fits and what does not.
Of course, it is almost impossible to fully understand how these "ideals leaders" arrive at their rights and wrongs. In a recent survey, the majority of millionaires were willing to pay a little more in taxes to help balance our budget. But, the leaders of the political party most associated with millionaires is opposed to any such tax increase, even if it would help resolve their other ideal of a balanced budget.
Meanwhile, those in another party want to solve problems by simply taxing more without taking a serious look at how we can deliver services more efficiently and less costly, presumably with fewer employees.
To resolve these thorny issues, we must break down our ideals and instead determine if there are some universal values. For instance, we all agree that if we can become more efficient and do more with less, resources are freed up to do new things or to preserve resources for our children. Such a conservationist ideal probably has quite wide universal appeal. However, I may become hardened once I realize that it may be me that suffers the "less" part in producing more.
Skilled mediation toward a "middle solution" can help resolve the clash of ideals that, more often than not, preserve whatever privilege we feel we garner by holding firmly our ideals. At one time, our leaders were pragmatic idealists that may be card-carrying members of an ideal but were still able to forge compromises. Our politics and economics seem to have foregone the art of pragmatic idealism. Compromise is now seen as an undesirable value that sacrifices principle. All too often, this rigidity is not even designed to create a better world, but to undermine another competing ideal.
Even our own most notorious conflict over ideals, the wars we have fought dating back to the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, are ideological conflicts far more nuanced than we may know. And, either war could have been "resolved" in a much different way if the partnerships of idealists were forged just a bit differently.
These conflicts were not simply battles over economic freedom or slavery. Yet, like everything else, they have been distilled to a set of competing ideals so we can better understand.
I lament that oversimplifications of any sort results in solutions that do not fully remedy the underlying human problems and power struggles often lurking just below the surface of any conflict.
If we can avoid these pitfalls, ideals would be where compromise begins — not where it ends.
Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His seventh book, Great Minds in Finance — the Portfolio Theorists, has just been published. Continue the discussion at www.pressrepublican.com/0216_read.