Monday, May 26, 2008

The Best Compromise That Never Was?

"All government, indeed, every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter." Edmund Burke, Second Speech on Conciliation with America. The Thirteen Resolutions, March 22, 1775.

In the mediation of most civil disputes, the stakes are not as high as they were for England and its American colonies in 1775. The Boston Tea Party and other acts of defiance had resulted in retaliation by the mother country. The port of Boston was closed, additional troops were assigned to Massachusetts, and public dissatisfaction was at a fever pitch. Colonial resistance was met with indignant intransigence by the Crown and Parliament. The situation was clearly escalating toward armed conflict when Burke gave the speech from which the above-quoted passage was taken. He recognized the effort as an eleventh hour attempt to heal a dispute that was fast reaching irreconcilability. Of course, less than a month later at Lexington and Concord, any chance for a peaceful solution was lost.

There are those today who might argue that the issues facing Parliament and America were so important that — like, perhaps, the later disputes over slavery — no compromise was either possible or desirable, and the bloody conflicts by which these issues were ultimately resolved were cathartic. The difficulty faced by the holders of such views, however, is that we will never know. Would we have been worse off if Burke’s views had prevailed — or if the Civil War had never been fought? Or was the suffering faced by the hundreds of thousands of families who lost husbands, sons and fathers inevitable and more than offset by the good that came to society as a whole from the violence?

Regardless of one’s views on the subject, Burke’s speech is a classic in the annals of political theory, and clearly shows that there can be an approach to the resolution of disputes that is at the same time both pragmatic and principled.

Photo of Burke statue in Dublin, Ireland, uploaded to by Chris Bertram.

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