Embattled partisans can’t compromise in Congress because they disagree so profoundly on the core question facing any society: how do you get people to behave constructively? The left wants to shape conduct by regulation and force, the right by incentive and choice. Liberals rely on punishment; conservatives emphasize reward. These differences cut so deep and permeate so many issues that it’s nearly impossible for the two sides to locate that elusive common ground.
The debate over health care reform provides an obvious example of the contrasting world views. Democrats demand a national “mandate” that would force every American to secure government-approved health insurance. President Obama himself admitted under questioning that anyone who failed to get the required coverage, and then refused to pay the appropriate fines, would ultimately go to jail. The essence of this approach is compulsion—using the power of government to force citizens to take action that politicians deem necessary for the public good.
Republicans agree that it’s beneficial to see more Americans purchasing health insurance – especially when that expanded coverage applies to young, healthy families that will put few expensive demands on the system and help lower premiums for everyone. But the GOP approach seeks to encourage the desired behavior through a system of incentives and rewards: providing tax deductions, and even refundable tax credits, for struggling families to buy insurance and allowing more choice by facilitating purchase across state lines.
Democrats insist that some citizens will fail to respond to any proffered benefits, but conservatives point out that some members of the public will also defy all bureaucratic dictates and threats. Liberal schemes, in other words, will inevitably leave a few Americans uninsured, while reducing liberty for everyone else.
The left and the right may largely agree on desirable choices for the public—like buying health insurance, or selecting fuel efficient cars, or creating new jobs. But liberals want to dictate such choices while conservatives seek only to encourage them – and that difference represents the essential contrast between socialist and free market economies.