- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Recent elections indicated deepening divisions among Americans. Has anyone given serious thought to why? I have part of the answer, which begins 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 ‘n’ roll. Others have opposite preferences, loving rock ‘n’ roll and hating opera. When was the last time you heard of rock ‘n’ 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 ‘n’ roll get what they want, and both can live in peace with one another.

Suppose instead of freedom in the music market, decisions on what people could listen to were made in the political arena. It would be either opera or rock ‘n’ roll.

Rock ‘n’ rollers would be lined up against opera lovers. Why? It’s simple. If the opera lovers win, rock ‘n’ rollers lose, and the reverse if rock ‘n’ rollers win. Conflict would emerge solely because the decision was made in the political arena.

The prime feature of political decisionmaking 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, politically allocating resources increases conflict while market allocation reduces conflict. As more decisions are made in the political arena, the potential for conflict increases.

There are other implications of political decisionmaking. Throughout most of our history, we have 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 for centuries tried to slaughter one another in their home countries. Among them: Turks and Armenians, Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Jews, 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.

We have been able to live in relative harmony because, for most of our history, government was small. There wasn’t much pie to distribute politically.

When the political arena decides who gets what, the most effective coalitions are the most divisive — those based on race, ethnicity, religion and region. Our most costly conflict involved a coalition based upon region — the War of 1861.

Many of the issues dividing us, aside from the Iraq war, are those best described as a zero-sum game, where one group’s gain is necessarily 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.

You might be tempted to think the brutal domestic conflict seen in other countries at other times can’t happen here. That’s nonsense. Americans are not superhumans; we possess the same frailties as other people in other places. Were there a severe economic calamity, I can imagine a political hustler exploiting those frailties here, just as Adolf Hitler did in Germany — blaming it on Jews, blacks, the East Coast, Catholics or free trade.

The best the president and Congress can do to heal our country is reduce government’s impact on our lives. This would not only reduce divisions and improve economic efficiency but bear greater faith and allegiance to our Founders’ vision of America — a country of limited government.

Walter E. Williams is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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