By Ethan Hollander, Wabash College
Conflict is an inevitable part of living in society, and that’s why politics is, too. Sometimes we disagree about a public good, not because anybody thinks it’s a bad thing, but because we attach different priorities to it. So, how does politics resolve these conflicts? Read on to find out.
Toning Down the Rhetoric
Nobody likes pollution, and nobody hates the environment. But people disagree about how much we should sacrifice to protect the environment. And some disagree about how much peril it’s already in. In other words, even when everyone agrees that something—like a clean environment—is valuable, we still have disagreement about just how valuable, and about how much we should sacrifice other good things to protect it.
As a society, we could tone down the rhetoric of our differences if we don’t see these things as either-or, but instead as disagreements about how much we’re willing to pay for them.
It is interesting to note that many conflicts aren’t about the provision of public goods, but about their distribution. The controversy isn’t about whether we should have a certain public good, but about where it should go, and who should have access to it.
Everyone wants these things to be near enough to be useful, but far enough away that someone else has to deal with the inconvenience. Interests are going to be in conflict whenever people live in close contact with one another. This is why Aristotle saw politics as an unavoidable aspect of human society.
Diffuse and Concentrated Interests
Debates about political processes are particularly intense when they involve a face-off between diffuse and concentrated interests. A diffuse interest can be understood as a situation where a large group of people want something, but they don’t feel particularly strongly about it. A concentrated interest, on the other hand, is the interest of a small group of people, who nonetheless feel very passionately about it.
In order to understand this better, let’s take the example of free trade. Most economists agree that free trade is a good thing, on the whole. Free trade has a tendency to lower consumer prices, and since everyone’s a consumer, everyone tends to benefit from free trade, at least a little bit.
The problem is that free trade can destroy certain industries. And if one loses their job because the company they work for went out of business, well then, they’re likely to oppose free trade.
Majorities Versus Minorities
Conflicts tend to be emotional and wrenching because both sides have such legitimate claims for why they should get their way. It’s certainly reasonable for majorities to want to get their way most of the time. But it’s also reasonable for minorities to want to get their way when the issue at hand affects them so intensely.
What group should get its way in a situation like this? Should it always be the majority? When does the intense pain of a few outweigh the moderate benefit of the many? And are there things that are so important that everyone should have them, and pains so great that no one should suffer them, no matter how powerless or outnumbered they are?
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Though the particular issues we debate about differ a lot from place to place. But anywhere we go, the most intense debate is likely to be about a basic problem that every human society shares—How are we going to make political decisions in the first place? How do we resolve disputes?
When it comes to resolving conflict, there are three broad strategies. Two of these strategies are, broadly speaking, democratic: One is based on majority rule, the other on consensus. The third strategy is dictatorial. However, there’s no perfect system. Even the democratic systems are subject to very real limitations. To illustrate this, let’s go back to a very contentious political process that each of us has been involved in at some point in our lives: ordering a pizza.
Giving the Majority What They Want
When five people get together to order a pizza, the conversation that follows can involve a whole host of passionate interests, having different priorities when it comes to what toppings they want, and how much they want them.
So, how are we going to decide on a selection of toppings? How are we going to decide on one public good, when each of us wants such very different things? Well, we could vote on it. That would be quick. And let’s face it, most of us probably agree that most of the time, the majority should get what it wants.
But that could also be unfair. What if the three meat-eaters got together and voted for a pepperoni pizza? That would leave the vegetarians with nothing. We could vote on a second pizza, of course. But what would stop the meat-lovers from ordering a meat pizza again and again? What would prevent a situation from arising where the vegetarians were essentially locked out of the system, with no chance at all of ever getting their fair share?
Tyranny of the Majority
This illustrates a fundamental problem of democratic politics—something called the tyranny of the majority. Tyranny of the majority is a situation where a majority of the people are able to prevent a minority from having any influence whatsoever over a decision about a public good. And while a lot of us would agree that the majority should usually get its way, many of us would also agree that this sets up a potential for abuse—the potential for a situation where a minority’s basic human rights are violated just because they’re outnumbered.
Many of the most lamentable events in human history—from slavery to genocide—can be viewed through this lens. They’re examples, not so much of democracy’s failure, but of its unchecked success.
And that’s why many democratic communities strive for something more than just strict majority rule. They strive for consensus.
Common Questions about Conflicts in Politics and How to Resolve Them
A diffuse interest can be understood as a situation where a large group of people want something, but they don’t feel particularly strongly about it.
A concentrated interest is the interest of a small group of people, who feel very passionately about it.
Tyranny of the majority is a situation where a majority of the people are able to prevent a minority from having any influence whatsoever over a decision about a public good.