Op-Ed: Civility is good, but politics sparks rancor. Market-based health insurance reduces rancor.

Op-Ed: Civility is good, but politics sparks rancor. Market-based health insurance reduces rancor.
November 16, 2018

Civility is good, but politics sparks rancor. Market-based health insurance reduces rancor.

By John Garen

November 15, 2018 04:33 PM

In these times of conflict and rancor, we hear pleas to improve our civility. Good advice, indeed.

Though civility is important, that alone is not enough to resolve many underlying conflicts. It’s critical to voice our differences, but also to let one another do things differently.

The late Milton Friedman noted that getting along with each another is easier if we have “agreement-without-conformity.” Conversely, settings with “conformity-without-agreement” breed discord.


Actually, agreement-without-conformity is common. I buy black shoes and you buy brown. I have no problem with your shoe color and you have none with mine. We agree that we can do things differently. Similarly, I might prefer country music to opera, chicken rather than fish, and reading novels instead of history. You may be the opposite. But we agree that we each pursue our own desires, which often means non-conformity.

This outcome is characteristic of market-based transactions. We each use our money as we wish and, by and large, let others do the same.

Conformity-without-agreement is the usual outcome of political solutions. These generally impose one-size-fits-all policies on everyone. Agree or not, your tax dollars pay for the politically determined outcome. Here, minorities usually lose. Special-interest lobbying can overcome this, but then special interests win. Losers must conform and will go away unhappy.

To obtain what one wants requires engaging in the political battle to impose your preference on everyone by defeating others’ favorites. No amount of civility changes this. Indeed, political competition exacerbates conflict. When important issues are involved, discord is sure to follow. This contrasts starkly with market outcomes. It’s remarkable how much people vary in their purchases of cars, books, food, houses, clothing, etc. with barely a complaint.

Compromise in a political conflict is possible, but then neither party gets what suits them. A political compromise over shoe color might give us black-and-brown striped shoes.

A high-stakes example is health insurance. Some argue for politically determined health insurance and health care through single payer or “Medicare-for-all.” Others advocate a market-oriented system. The former allows essentially one insurance plan where government agencies determine coverage for treatments. It’s paid by your tax bill.

Discontent would emerge similar to that seen in the individual insurance market (the “exchanges”) from Affordable Care Act mandates. Elderly couples often want a high-deductible without maternity benefits and the converse for young couples. People desire varying deductibles, co-pays, and coverage for vision, dental, chiropractic, contraception, prescription drugs, etc.

Regardless of your individual desires, you pay taxes for the politically determined collection of coverages. This is significant conformity-without-agreement. No wonder it’s so contentious.

With market-based insurance, we agree that we can buy different plans. This agreement-without-conformity greatly reduces the rancor.

Moreover, a health-care safety net for the needy is a widespread aspiration. Though we want varying insurance coverages for ourselves, people of most political views desire to help the needy. Recognizing this commonality and working toward it can unite us. Imposing conformity on all health insurance and health care is not needed. That serves to divide us.

For some goods, conformity is unavoidable. For example, we all have the same U.S. Army. The road system is identical for everyone. Insect abatement from the city spraying is the same for all. It’s impossible for you and me to have different national armies, different levels of insect abatement or different road systems.

However, these are special cases. Nonetheless, political solutions by their nature generate conflict through imposing conformity-without-agreement.

When more is decided by political means, conflict intensifies. This is worsened when strong interest groups fight for the status quo. With the escalation of government/political involvement in the economy during the Obama years and the current pushback, this is where America is today.

Though civil discourse is crucial, no amount of it can overcome the fundamental conflict that conformity-without-agreement entails. With civility, we say what we wish. With agreement-without-conformity, we do what we wish. There’s a big difference.

To lessen conflict, it’s critical to stop forcing conformity-without-agreement and politics where they need not go.

John Garen, BB&T Professor of Economics at the University of Kentucky, is also senior fellow at the Pegasus Institute.