Why we're a divided nation

Walter E. Williams
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Posted: Nov 10, 2004 12:00 AM

Recent elections pointed to deepening divisions among American people, but has anyone given serious thought to just why? I have part of the answer, which starts off with a simple example.
 
Different Americans have different and intensive preferences for cars, food, clothing and entertainment. For example, some Americans love opera and hate rock and roll. Others have opposite preferences, loving rock and roll and hating opera. When's the last time you heard of rock-and-roll lovers in conflict with opera lovers? It seldom, if ever, happens. Why? Those who love operas get what they want, and those who love rock and roll get what they want, and both can live in peace with one another.

 Suppose that instead of freedom in the music market, decisions on what kind of music people could listen to were made in the political arena. It would be either opera or rock and roll. Rock and rollers would be lined up against opera lovers. Why? It's simple. If the opera lovers win, rock and rollers would lose, and the reverse would happen if rock and rollers won. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena.

 The prime feature of political decision-making is that it's a zero-sum game. One person or group's gain is of necessity another person or group's loss. As such, political allocation of resources is conflict enhancing while market allocation is conflict reducing. The greater the number of decisions made in the political arena, the greater is the potential for conflict.

 There are other implications of political decision-making. Throughout most of our history, we've lived in relative harmony. That's remarkable because just about every religion, racial and ethnic group in the world is represented in our country. These are the very racial/ethnic/religious groups that have for centuries been trying to slaughter one another in their home countries, among them: Turks and Armenians, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jew, Croats and Serbs. While we haven't been a perfect nation, there have been no cases of the mass genocide and religious wars that have plagued the globe elsewhere. The closest we've come was the American Indian/European conflict, which pales by comparison.

 The reason we've been able to live in relative harmony is that for most of our history government was small. There wasn't much pie to distribute politically.

 When it's the political arena that determines who gets what goodies, the most effective coalitions are those with a proven record of being the most divisive -- those based on race, ethnicity, religion and region. As a matter of fact, our most costly conflict involved a coalition based upon region -- namely the War of 1861.

 Many of the issues that divide us, aside from the Iraq war, are those best described as a zero-sum game, where one group's gain is of necessity another's loss. Examples are: racial preferences, Social Security, tax policy, trade restrictions, welfare and a host of other government policies that benefit one American at the expense of another American. You might be tempted to think that the brutal domestic conflict seen in other countries at other times can't happen here. That's nonsense. Americans are not super-humans; we possess the same frailties of other people in other places. If there were a severe economic calamity, I can imagine a political hustler exploiting those frailties here, just as Adolf Hitler did in Germany, blaming it on the Jews, the blacks, the East Coast, Catholics or free trade.

 The best thing the president and Congress can do to heal our country is to reduce the impact of government on our lives. Doing so will not only produce a less divided country and greater economic efficiency but bear greater faith and allegiance to the vision of America held by our founders -- a country of limited government.