Paul on Politics: Silly Sophistry of Consensus

Hoover Addresses Congress

President Hoover addresses joint session of Congress at bicentennial ceremony commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Washington.

My guest writer today is my uncle Paul.

Notion of Consensus

Today’s conventional wisdom touts consensus as the ideal for a congress or legislators to seek. However, conventional wisdom isn’t always right or wise, nor is consensus necessarily a noble goal. Consider this:

Consensus means average. Do you want our ambitions to be just average? In addition, the authors of our Constitution constructed Federal law as a system of checks and balances on government — not as a consensus building document. Our founder’s design for legislating dictated that concepts are to be brought before the separate chambers of Congress where discussion about elements described in bills occurs.

After receiving the bills, Congressional members make their most persuasive arguments for or against the bill. After all members that want to have had their say, the vote for supremacy follows. Based upon the vote, the bill is either accepted or rejected by the Congress. The agreed upon bills are referred to the President for his concurrence and signature before succeeding to become law.

No Requirement for Consensus

The foregoing is a simplification of the process but illustrates that there is no requirement for consensus at all. Attempting consensus connotes horse trading which leads to corruption. In the vernacular the products are called earmarks among other appellations.

Slavishly striving for consensus as a goal rather than good government is an aberration of Constitutional intent. Poor law deserves no confirmation. Why would a legislator agree to bad law for the sake of being recognized as one who grants concessions searching for affability, or worse — corruption? If there is merit to the bill and enough voting members are sufficiently convinced, then the bill becomes law. Otherwise the bill is rejected and good riddance. Compromise rather than rewriting the bill or rejecting it leads to bad law. Further, the collusion of legislators who engage in passing laws strictly to appropriate funds for special interests whom they are dependent upon for campaign contributions is an abomination on the noble act of making laws for a free people.

A Shoddy Rationalization for Corruption

“Bringing home the bacon” is a popular misconception about governing. What if the bacon isn’t needed and who pays for the bacon? For example, what is the public good of forcing the Armed Services to accept weapons systems because some legislator is skillful at under the table deals? Who can justify taking money from a struggling family and giving it to someone for purchasing services we don’t need? It follows the “bacon” is a shoddy rationalization for corruption. Thankfully that notion is being challenged by the Tea Parties. Moreover, our Constitution doesn’t require compromise or dirty dealing to pass laws. Law making simply requires a vote. Our Constitution is not designed to make passing laws easy. Passing bad law is supposed to be hard to do.

Experience show us that Legislators are conditioned to fear being labeled an obstructionist if they don’t compromise. My experience is that if one takes a principled stand he loses some votes and gains others. Then there is the oily legislator that refuses to take any stand fearing voters on both sides of the proposition. Where is the dignity arising from being mendacious?

Collision Between Parties

Where has consensus gotten us? Consensus got us into a national debt for one thing. After the Republican drubbing during the 2008 election, all the talk afterwards was that Republicans needed to be more like Democrats if they were to regain power — that is a false premise.

Getting along, loosely tabulated, since 1939, is what kept Republicans in the minority for thirty years. Republicans have held both houses of Congress only 14 years while Democrats count 68 years.

Best government depends upon Collision between parties. Without collision, we suffer collusion. On a collusive basis, why have parties at all? We don’t all agree about everything nor should a vibrant nation be a Johnny-one-note. Parties help us to avoid open civil warfare.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress


  1. Paul, you make some very important points. Thank you. I also wonder if one of the advantages of the two-party system is the ability to make compromises. I do not mean there should be “bad” law allowed in exchange for some “bad” practice, rather the checks and balances you speak of. For example, wouldn’t it be great if universal healthcare were made available, but not mandatory? That would be a good compromise (or maybe not, but just an example). I believe in opposition in all things, and in government more than anywhere else. This causes everyone to rethink society’s definition of “good”, and seek out what is really “good”, what works, and what doesn’t. Good post.

    • Let me give it a try.

      I will answer the easy parts here and tackle the hard part later.

      Your question connotes a moral outcome and a wish. Economics has no moral dimension. If we confuse the two, then results will be poor. The number of parties in the legislative process is of no consequence under our form of constitutional government. You speak your piece and everyone votes. The bill passes or is defeated.

      The efficacy of numbers of parties is a separate discussion and usually revolves around systems – parliamentary, etc.

      That brings us to the wish part:

      ” wouldn’t it be great if universal healthcare were made available.”

      That is a moral question worthy of a doctoral dissertation that I won’t address right now. I can give you the economics answer to costs of health care which is, the market is so distorted by government interference that it can no longer regulate the price of purchasing health care.

      The moral question about Universal health care must determine societal questions such as; what is the individual responsibility of each of us, who pays, and how much can our productive economy afford. And, who decides who gets what.

      That is something to think about. Many of the answers are contained in another essay on this BLOG entitled: “Market versus Government Economy.”

      To wit:
      1. Paul’s maxim: The demand for public services rises to consume all available resources.
      2. Introducing government into the market always distorts market value by adding costs
      3. Destruction of Our Collective Mettle
      4. Markets are business creatures and not social programs
      5. Collecting taxes for the benefit of a group is really a moral argument
      6. False work created from taking the wealth of productive citizens and given to slothful folks does neither any good. We end up with dependent people that weaken the collective mettle of our country

      • Accuse me of wishing, and I’ll show you a star. There is no harm in discussing an issue (when there really is an issue) in an effort to move something forward that when changed, is better than its predecessor. My point is this: voting does not determine whether something is moral or right. However, opposition to the cause raises the important issues, and spurs discussions that attempt agreements on what IS moral and right. For example, Alpha believes that healthcare should be provided to all, and no matter the cost. But Omega asks those very important questions: who is going to pay for it, is this economically feasible, and others. These questions are asked in order to find a better solution. Which then beg the question if there really is a problem to be solved. Opposition is important, because if we all agreed, then we would most definitely be destroyed.

        I agree that it is important to take a stand. Make a decision on an issue, and move forward. I disagree that compromise means leaving behind one’s principles and morals. If a politician, I might argue: “I do not agree with universal healthcare, but I see that it is going to pass a majority vote, therefore I am going to propose, until the day it passes, that there be certain changes made that do not damage our economy and that protect our constitutional rights. The compromise? I will even vote for it, IF certain changes are made. IF however, those changes cannot be made, I will not vote for it, and I will oppose it, even after it passes because I believe, as it currently stands, it is not worthy of our nation.” Again, this is just an example. I’m really good at hypotheticals, which often leads to some accusing me of wishing. Indeed, I am in favor of a perfect world, which, as some may have it, requires opposition, which leads to compromise.

        • Derek,

          Don’t get me wrong, I like wishing. I wanted to isolate your statement to the specifics. After all, dreamers conceive ideas and promote action.

          Here is an example of my approach to project development, in most spheres, be they civic organizations or engineering projects.

          We dream in Blue Skies for concepts and design for practicality. This means:

          We look at all the ideas that further our goals and add them to the pot. After we are satisfied our concept is whole, we begin to design to a practical conclusion. Bear in mind if the concept is wrong, you cannot fix it. One must re-conceptualize it. However, a bad design can be fixed.

          The recent war about the so called “Obama care” law that was passed is a good example of failure of both concept and design. The proponents never advanced past Blue Skies and rammed the costly bill through Congress on a power play.

          Then, just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should do it. See my previous writing on this BLOG about evaluating social need versus individual need and the morality of taking taxes.

          I hope that clears up my half of the conversation but I want to hear your approach to Blue Skies (universal health care) to practicality. How would you do it?

          • As far as healthcare reform, I agree with Rickety in a previous post: “I like the health care I have and I believe many millions feel the same way about their health care. Hence my view is that the answer to our current system is not a massive disruption but a gradual change to build on what works and implement improvements that are tried and tested over time.”

            A system that is consumer driven, unshackled from laws and regulations that produce false demand and restricted supply. The balance in supply and demand will drive down prices, discourage overuse and wasted medical service, and allow consumer shopping. More people would have coverage, because it would be affordable. Utah has a program pretty close to this.
            (HA! I’m still in the Blue Skies phase, aren’t I? Would I make a good politician?)

            I did not intend this discussion to be on healthcare, rather compromise. I think your point is valid, however, that compromise is useless on a bad program.

  2. Now that American’s have resoundingly rejected President Obama’s agenda, he is suddenly talking consensus. Many of us do not want compromise and would be rather happy to have Washington deadlocked.

  3. Let me see if I understand how consensus works in Washington. A bill is crafted. It is a good bill. But in order to get the bill passed the author agrees to load it down with items that are of dubious worth and increase the cost of the bill. Now we have turned a potentially good law into a bad law.

    So presumably the members of Congress should be crafting the bill such that it can stand on its own merit. If it cannot stand on its own then let it die, for now. Don’t bribe others with compromise.

    There is another point that is important. Maybe the bill should not be legislated at the Federal level at all. The Federal government has certain enumerated powers. The tenth amendment tells us what is to be done with concerns that have not been specifically and clearly given to the Federal government:

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

    Therein is the real problem. The Federal government has exceeded its constitutional powers. Even as we speak the States are trying to correct this overreach by Washington. So when Congress finds itself having to make heavy compromises perhaps it should ask itself first if it should be even legislating this or that particular issue at all.

    • Good point RIckety. When a compromise means adding other items “of dubious worth,” it is no longer a compromise, rather as Paul mentions, “horse trading.”

      In many cases, you’re probably right: State’s have the power to legislate with regards to issues dealing with the State. My questions would be, are we any happier with the ways State government intervenes? Probably not, but based on current State action with Federal strings attached. Let them rule themselves.

      • State and local laws usually are tailored to local conditions. Hence Utah is stricter on alcohol laws than many states. Utah has less debt than most states and have a better business climate resulting in lower unemployment.

        I am happier overall with the state making laws than the Federal moving in where they don’t belong.

  4. Great points and comments, let me see if I can summarize to make sure I understand.

    – Good law is not created by focusing on consensus.

    – Good law is created by focusing on law that will inherently make consensus based on its merits alone. (i.e. even opposing parties agree that it is a good idea and both agree on how to implement it = good law)

    – The above point is extremely rare, and that is desired because the constitution intentionally made it hard to pass law.

    These points lead me to say that deadlock in congress is a good thing. The President is granted powers over those things that need quick decisions in the constitution. Good work Paul!

  5. Another point of note is the difference between compromise and consensus. When I hear of compromise I think of someone giving up something and getting an inferior product. When I hear of consensus I think of two (or more) people discarding their original plans and getting a third option that is superior.

    That is the way I think about those two words. However, consensus is still bad if the third option is loaded down with unnecessary spending just to get a bill passed.

  6. Horse trading in this context needs to be highlighted. The horses being traded by Congress aren’t theirs, they are our horses.

  7. Mrinalini Sarraf says

    When I originally commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get several emails
    with the same comment. Is there any way you can remove
    people from that service? Cheers!

    • I wasn’t able to find your email in the the subscriber list. Is the email you used to post this comment the same email as you used in the original comment (where you clicked to be notified)?

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