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Society and Higher Education Part 1
A Problem of Class
There is an inherent “class” problem in democracies. To see this problem assume everyone can vote and assume there is significant variation in wealth among the voters. Both assumptions would be the norm today in developed countries. Now line up the voters according to wealth, from highest to lowest. The lower half of the voters will have less wealth than the top half. The disparity between the two will be greater the more economic variation there is in the society.
The top half and the bottom half will have different interests. The bottom half can benefit if they use their voting power to redistribute wealth from the top to the bottom. The top half will benefit if they can resist this redistribution. Furthermore, if the top half can use their economic power to manipulate votes, they can benefit by redistributing wealth in the opposite direction from the bottom to the top.
Wealth is often redistributed from top to bottom by taxes that tax the rich more than the poor or by spending on social programs. Wealth is often redistributed from bottom to top by successful business enterprises that make profit from sales and services to the less well off or by public subsidies to business. In some cases this profit comes from services that some people argue should not be a matter (or entirely a matter) of profit making, but, rather, of justice and caring (e.g., health care, schools, shelter).
The bottom half may call redistributing wealth from the top to the bottom “justice” and the top half may call it “theft”. The top half may call redistributing wealth from the bottom to the top “capitalism”, the outcome of the social Darwinian struggle within free markets. No one will actually use the term “redistribute wealth” for what they do, but only for what the other half does.
Of course, in real countries like the US, this battle of the halves is often more realistically seen as a battle of a smaller top group (less than half) and a larger bottom group (more than half), though the logic is the same. So let’s just talk about top and bottom. Of course, there are people “in the middle”, so to speak, who might (and usually do) see their interests one way when they look down and another way when they look up.
In any society both the bottom and the top have incentives to support or oppose various sorts of redistributions of wealth. Thus, there will be a struggle between the “classes”. This class problem is resolvable if everyone in a society (or nearly everyone) sees redistributing wealth from top to bottom as justice. It is resolvable, as well, if they agree that redistributing from bottom to top is the inevitable result of free enterprise, that is, that the richer get richer because they have worked to deserve it. In the end, a society has to agree on how much and what type of redistribution of income is acceptable.
In society, the top half always has at least one incentive to support some degree of redistribution of wealth from top to bottom. If the bottom half gets too far below the top half in wealth, people in the bottom half are liable to rebel and engage in some form of assault on the top half’s interests. At the very least, society will become problematic even for the well off. Thus, the top half always has some interest in “amelioration”, so that the bottom half does not feel so oppressed as to seek redress in ways that could harm the interests or peace of the top half or society as a whole. Thus, besides justice, amelioration can be a motive for why someone in the top half would favor the redistribution of wealth from top to bottom.
In a democracy, the top half—especially when they are, in reality, much smaller than actually half the population—can fear voting because a majority could vote to redistribute wealth from top to bottom. The bottom half can fear voting, on the other hand, because they a minority of wealthy people could use their greater resources to manipulate the voting in their favor.
Let me be clear what I mean here by “justice” and “enterprise”. By “justice” I mean what some might call “social justice”. Social justice implies that everyone in a society, as a member of that society, owes some degree of help to less fortunate others in the society. This form of justice is a social obligation that flows from being a citizen and sharing citizenship with others. A citizen owes help to others in the society because such help makes the society better as a whole, healthier, safer, or more successful. Social justice is not a matter of charity, but of rights and obligations for the maintenance of a certain type of society.
There are those who reject such a notion of social justice. They argue that people ought to aid others only as individuals and as a matter of charity or morality. They should not be “forced” as a matter of state-sanctioned social obligations to help those less fortunate than themselves. Such people sometimes believe that government aid can turn into a “crutch” that ultimately deskills people. Thus, they believe that the aid people are offered in a society ought to be determined on personal, individual, family, moral, or religious grounds, not as a matter of law.
By “enterprise” I mean any form of endeavor that seeks to make a profit on something approaching a free market. Of course, in a country like the United States, there are many respects in which markets are not truly free, due to the power of monopolies, political interventions, dishonesty, and subsidies. But I will leave that aside for now. Ideally, enterprise means generating wealth through fair competition.
Some voters are what I will call “moral voters”. These are people who realize that society needs a workable solution to the struggle between “justice” and “enterprise”. Too much redistribution from top to bottom may kill enterprise and too much redistribution from bottom to top may unfairly punish the less well off or even cause them to rebel in the name of justice.
What I call “immoral voters” seek only their own self interest. They will support a strong emphasis on justice or enterprise not because of their real beliefs or morals, but because this just gives them more wealth or power. For example, are media commentators who oppose all tax increases sincere in the belief that this is economically sensible or are they just trying to increase their ratings or their influence among people who resent government? If they are sincere, they are moral voters; if not, they are not. However, it probably won’t do to ask them if they are sincere.
So people in a democracy must come up with a theory about how to resolve the struggle between justice and enterprise. The theories proposed by immoral voters will be versions of self pleading and are not of interest to us right now. The theories proposed by moral voters will be of interest.
Conservatives and Liberals
There are two large classes of theories about how to resolve the struggle between justice and enterprise and other significant problems in society. One class we can call conservative and one class we can call liberal. Within each class there are many different and sometimes conflicting specific proposals. But at the level of “world views” we have two approaches here. The liberal wants to solve society’s problems and dilemmas through “engineering” and the conservatives through “tinkering”.
Engineering is an approach that says that society is made up of a number of large systems (e.g., schools, health care, the military, etc.) each of which is itself made up of many interacting forces. These systems compose a larger system (society). To improve society we need to change some of these systems as a whole or, at least, in substantive ways. Small changes will just be co-opted by the system to make little difference. When systems are not as good, we can and need to make them better.
Tinkering is an approach that agrees that society is a system of systems. This system (society) and each of its sub-systems evolved slowly and unevenly over history. Social systems are so complicated that any large changes are quite likely to lead to unintended consequences. We need to be careful and change things in small and incremental ways, otherwise our interventions could make the system worse not better. The systems we currently have are not necessarily good, and certainly not perfect, but they may be the best we can do for now or, at least, we may be able to make them worse far easier than we can make them better.
Take schools as an example of one complex system within society, a system that interacts with many other systems in society. Today, liberals and conservatives in the United States (and in many other counties) often agree that the school system is “broken”. The liberal argues that we need to create a new paradigm of schooling. Any incremental innovations will just be co-opted by the “system” and eventually just help re-produce the status quo.
The conservative argues that we need to be careful. We need to make and test small incremental changes. Otherwise our sweeping innovations may have unintended consequences that will make the system even worse. After all, the system evolved slowly over time to solve certain problems and we must be careful not lose the historical “wisdom” (or at least practicalities) of the system in our urge to change it.
Conservatives will call liberals “arrogant”. They will claim liberals are too trusting in their knowledge and wisdom in the face of great complexity and the inherent limitations on human knowledge. Liberals will call the conservatives “selfish”, seeking to maintain the status quo because it favors their own interests.
Of course, these theories, engineering versus tinkering, are so abstract that they are world views and not really “provable”. Each side will read history to support themselves. The liberals will point to big system-wide changes that worked (e.g., The New Deal, The Great Society). Roosevelt’s New Deal arguably helped save America during the Great Depression and later motivated a battered working class to fight World War II. Johnson’s Great Society eradicated working and elderly poverty and lessened segregation.
The conservatives will point to those big system-wide changes that did not work or they will claim that the ones liberals think worked did not (e.g., the New Deal, the Great Society). The top-down planning and control in the old Soviet Union is an example of a system-wide change that had disastrous results, though it is arguable whether it was worse than the days of the Czars for many. In the United States, the swift and nearly wholesale movement (in the midst of two wars) by the Bush administration to turn over many military services to outside for-profit contractors (“privatization”) had many unforeseen consequences. It is an example, too, that many real world conservatives (e.g., Bush) do not always eschew engineering. The well-intentioned desire to spread mortgages to the less well off, interacting with “moral hazards” created by deregulating finance (both system-wide changes), helped lead to the 2008 recession.
Tinkering has the down side that the people suffering social ills often must go on suffering them. Engineering has the down side that speaking to the social ills of a large group of people in a big policy change can make things worse or just change who suffers.
People who highly value enterprise need not, of course, be against social justice (though they might). They may well believe that enterprise is a route to justice. People who highly value social justice need not, of course, be against enterprise (though they might). They may well believe that social justice is necessary for successful and fair competition or even for truly free markets.
We are used to people who highly value enterprise being conservative and advocating incremental changes, what I have called tinkering. We are used to people who highly value justice being liberal and advocating systemic change, what I called engineering. But it is certainly possible to be both an activist for justice and an advocate for tinkering. Such people are in danger, though, of being called “sell outs”. And, of course, it is possible to be both an advocate of enterprise and for engineering. Such people are in danger, though, of being seen as a threat to the market status quo.
In any case, we have four features: a focus on justice, a focus on enterprise, a focus on engineering, and a focus on tinkering. They give us four possible political orientations: justice/engineering (a classic liberal); justice/tinkering (a conservative liberal); enterprise/engineering (a liberal conservative); enterprise/tinkering (a classic conservative). In reality, a person might be one of these for one issue (e.g., health care) and another one for another issue (e.g., school reform), though many people are fairly consistent across issues.
What I am calling conservative and liberal are tendencies rooted in a person’s genetics, upbringing, and life experiences. Below I summarize a number of contrasts between these two ways of seeing and being in the world socially and politically:
- At risk of the sin of greed/ At risk of the sin of pride
- Oriented toward past/ Oriented toward future
- Focus on human fallibility/Focus on human perfectibility
- Favor a republican form ofgovernment/Favor a democratic form of government
- Favor an authoritarian form of parenting/Favor a more permissive form of parenting
- Favor status quo/Favor change
- Distrust human knowledge/Trust human knowledge
- Trust tradition/Distrust tradition
- Favor free markets/Favor regulated markets
- Focus on family/ Focus on society
- Focus on charity/ Focus on social welfare/justice
- Focus on liberty/Focus on justice
- Focus on merit/Focus on equity
- For small government/For larger government
- Focus on society’s winners/ Focus in society’s losers
These are tendencies. As I said above, a conservative need not (though some do) disavow social justice. However, the conservative will see enterprise as a route to, or crucial element in, social justice. A liberal need not disavow enterprise. However, the liberal will see social justice as a force to mitigate and, when necessary, “trump” enterprise.
A person could be on one side of the above chart for some items and not others. There are people who “pick and choose”. But many people tend to be much more heavily on one side than the other. And, of course, these choices can change with education, experience, and age.
I have been talking about conservatives and liberals in ideal and abstract terms. However, in the real world—more today than before, perhaps—there are not many ideal (one could say “real”) conservatives and liberals. Conservative politicians sing the praises of the free market and yet legislate favors and subsidies for the rich and powerful who help fund their campaigns (creating a form of welfare for the rich and warping the workings of the free market). Liberals claim to stand for social justice and then desert the cause of working people to curry favor with corporations and financiers.
Today there are people who call themselves “social entrepreneurs” or “double-bottom line capitalists”. These are people who want both to make profit and do social good. There are also “triple-bottom-line capitalists” who want to make profit while doing social good and helping the environment. These are people who see enterprise as a potential force for social good and justice, but not all by itself left to its own devices. For them, melding enterprise and justice takes a special approach to enterprise and justice.
In fact, traditionally many business people and many conservatives have argued that enterprise should be a source of justice. They have argued that businesses do not have just stockholders (those who own the business), but also stakeholders. The stakeholders are everyone on whom the business impacts. Business has an obligation to help and not harm these people. It is their “social” or “community” duty. This view, though traditional in many respects, is often disputed today based on the logic that a business’s moral obligations are primarily (some would say only) to their stockholders, the people who have put their wealth at risk for the company.
Aside from the focus today on raising stock prices as the core moral obligation of business, there is a significant change in what constitutes enterprise. Enterprise used to mean producing physical goods and services some of which people actually needed and not just desired. These are things like food, clothes, shelter, and safe bank accounts. In this case, enterprise and possible social good or ill are clearly closely interlinked. There have been and still are arguments over how fairly enterprise, left to its own devices, distributes these needed products and services. Some argue that free markets lead to the best possible such distribution and others that it does not.
However, today enterprise often means producing and selling non-physical instruments of speculation, not physical goods and services. People can buy stock in a company because they believe the company makes high quality goods and, thus, that it will be a successful company over the long haul. Indeed, this is how a person like Warren Buffet invests. But they can also buy stock in a company because they simply believe that the stock price will rise regardless of the quality of the goods produced or the long-term prospects of the company. A company’s executives can manipulate the short-term price of a company’s stock by short-term policies that have little to do with quality or long-term survival. People who invest in such companies or on such grounds are speculating. They are playing a certain sort of game. They are betting on the short run and hoping that they can get out before the long run turns things sour, as eventually it will when a company is not making intelligent long-term decisions.
Instruments of speculation are things like stocks, bonds, and derivatives when people are using them as ways to “bet” and not ways to support the production of high quality goods and services for all people in society. When financers risk large amounts of money on financial instruments—like betting whether a stock or commodity will rise or fall within a given time—we well know, from the 2008 recession, that they can enrich themselves but, if their “bet” fails, they can cause great harm to people who were never really in the “game” (e.g., taxpayers).
Such speculative enterprise practices can be toxic to society if someone or something does not ensure that “innocent” people (e.g., taxpayers) do not pay for the sins (unacceptable risks) of the financiers. My main point here is that such game-like speculation (really a form of gambling) is a form of enterprise in which the gains and risks to society are quite unpredictable. Such speculative practices sever any close tie between enterprise and social good, because they do not supply needed products and services. Rather, they are forms of legalized gambling for wealthy people. Nonetheless, they are part of a larger trend today to stress short-term gain over long-term gain and to focus on stockholders (and owners of financial instruments) over any stakeholders who might be harmed by such enterprises.
The 2008 global recession was, in my view, primarily caused by “moral hazards” built into these gambling sorts of financial speculation. A mortgage broker sold a mortgage to someone who could not really afford it and might well default on the mortgage. The broker collected a fee, but sold the mortgage to a bank, thereby passing on the risk of the buyer defaulting on the mortgage to the bank. The mortgage broker’s “risk” (on the buyer defaulting on a mortgage he could afford) was no risk at all for the broker. He could not loss. He collected a fee and passed the risk along to someone else (a bank).
The bank that bought the mortgage then bundled lots of mortgages (many of them mortgages that were in danger of default) into bonds that they sold to rich investors and investment institutions. The bank made money from the sale of these bonds (as well as fees for rolling the mortgages into bonds) and again passed on to others the risk of default. In the end, the bank, too, could only win and not lose.
When the bonds went bad because so many people defaulted on their mortgages, many of the investors and big players in the whole scheme claimed to be “too big to fail” and demanded to be bailed out by the taxpayer. Thus, for them, too, the risks they took were no risks at all for them. Someone else paid for them when their risks failed, namely taxpayers or society at large.
There were many other examples of moral hazards in the financial system that ended in disaster in 2008. Moral hazard is any case where someone takes a risk (makes a bet), but can really only win and not lose, since someone else is set up to pay the price of failure. Mortgage brokers had a massive incentive to give anyone a mortgage, since they got paid no matter what and the risk that the mortgage would default was passed on to someone else, who also passed it on. In the end, someone else paid the price of failure.
It is a rare—and moral—human being who will not take a risk when facing a risk where he is guaranteed to win at least something (a fee, for example), but will not have to lose anything if the bet turns bad. Aside from morality, one reason not to take such risks is that they could endanger society and so harm the risk taker eventually as a member of that society. In the lead up to the 2008 recession too few people considered morality or even the possible damage they could do even to themselves. They acted in their short term and morally-suspect self interest.
Now, moral hazard of this sort is something that one would expect both liberals and conservatives would disavow. They may disagree on how to control it, but they would, one would think, see moral hazard as both a moral and an economic ill for society. I would suspect that failing to condemn moral hazard is a sure sign of an immoral voter.
I want to broaden the notion of moral hazard a bit. I want to define moral hazard as making decisions that in the long run damage others in the name of one’s own short-term interests. Moral hazard in this broadened sense is today more and more built into our economic and political systems.
A CEO who knows that a decision that will harm his company in the future but will raise its stock price in the present (ensuring a big bonus for himself and a rise in his own stock options) is liable to make the decision and eventually leave the company (often with a “golden parachute”) to let someone else clean up the mess in the future. The moral hazard here is caused by an obsession on short-term stock prices over long-term results or quality in goods and services.
A President who knows a policy will greatly benefit the economy or society in five years, but cause short-term suffering, cannot push the policy. The benefit will come too late for his or her re-election in four years. The moral hazard here is caused by an electorate and politicians who cannot delay gratification or sacrifice short-term gain.
A for-profit college that can only survive through ever increasing numbers of students paying for courses has every incentive to assure students they will learn, but never to give them a bad grade, since then they will not come back as consumers. In the long run this is bad education; in the short run it is profitable. The moral hazard here is caused by the conflict of interest between short-term need to keep students as consumers happy and the long-term goal of offering students as learners a high quality education.
For business and politics, the struggle between short-term gain and long-term success (which some short-term gains can imperil) has always been intense. Obviously no business person or politician likes losing in the short term in order to achieve long-term success, since they may lose their jobs before the long-term success is apparent. Of course, moral business people and politicians, nonetheless, make decisions based on both short-term and long-terms interests and considerations. Sadly, there are less of these today, I believe, though, perhaps, there were never a great many.
Society had two institutions that were meant ideally to be separate from business and politics, however much historically they have not been. They were meant to consider long term gain over short term gain and even to mitigate the possible short-term thinking and excesses of business and politics. These two institutions were churches and universities. Churches are meant to take the long view because they were supposed to about more than this life. Universities were meant to take the long view because they were supposed to be about knowledge developed over long periods of historical time, knowledge that may have implications stretching for into the future.
Today, of course, in the United States and many other developed countries, churches and universities operate more and more like businesses. Furthermore, they are heavily embedded in local and national politics as they seek government funding and subsidies of all different sorts. TV and radio are full of preachers seeking contributions and living the life the rich and famous. Mega-churches compete for “consumers” with sermons and Starbucks in their mega-churches. University deans and presidents spent most of their time raising money for universities that themselves often compete for “consumers” with each other in terms of how good their amenities are (things like food courts, fancy dorms, and a plethora of available young bodies and beer). The fact is that today the laity and students are both more and more treated as species of consumers.
Ideological Conservatives and Liberals
In their daily lives, sane people know there are situations where a conservative mind set is called for and situations where a liberal mind set is called for. Imagine someone who has a garden in a desert. The garden is lush with green grass and water-hungry plants. If there is plenty of water available, the gardener, once having gotten the garden into good shape, will take a conservative mind set to the garden. The gardener will tinker, making small changes so as not to undo the efforts made in establishing the garden in the first place.
But if there is a severe shortage of water, the gardener will know the lush garden is no longer sustainable and that it will eventually die. The gardener will now take a liberal mind set to the garden. He or she will make a big system-wide change. The gardener will engineer a new garden, a garden made up of dessert-based, drought-resistant plants.
If we are playing on a competitive sports team, we expect every team member to gain rewards (status, praise, or money) from his or her own efforts (enterprise). We do not, in competitive sports, let people win or score points as a way to motivate them to play or to make up for their previous problems in life. We take a conservative mind set and stress enterprise. But when hard working players get hurt or are facing a personal crisis, we do all we can to help them, including cutting them slack and covering for them when they are in the game. We see this as a matter of justice, what we own them as fellow team mates. We take a liberal mind set.
Sane people also realize that in some situations, where conservative and liberals have to work together, there has to be compromise. There are times where we have to be pragmatic. The liberal wants the lush desert garden to go away in order to preserve water for others. The conservative wants the lush garden to stay in the name of individual freedom. But they have to live next to each other. So they compromise: the conservative pays a special “tax” for extra water use; or the conservative designs a better way to capture and use rain water; or the liberal accepts a mixed garden with desert plants shading water-needy plants; or the liberal buys the conservative’s garden, changes it, and the conservative moves to Wisconsin.
But here is the problem: The garden problem is solvable if the conservative and liberal see it as a matter of both of them getting some of what they want. It is not as readily solvable if the garden and water are viewed as less important than the moral principles for which the conservative and the liberal stand. If the conservative sees individual liberty as uncompromisable in any circumstances, even if he doesn’t really care about the garden, no pragmatic solution is possible. If the liberal sees social justice as uncompromisable (for example, believes that individual freedom or the market should never trump other people’s needs), no pragmatic solution is possible.
Of course, liberty and justice are, indeed, moral matters. There are situations where, for any sane person, one should not compromise the one for the other. But there are people who so strongly believe that one trumps the other that no compromise is really possible. These are ideologically-driven conservatives and liberals. They may, indeed, be morally sincere, but, in the end, they cannot really live with each other in society, save for one circumstance, namely that they agree to live by the outcome of democratic elections. If they are not so willing, then there cannot be a society, just conflict and, for “true believers”, a battle to the death.
Today in the United State there is an important asymmetry between “real world” conservatives and liberals. Many right-wing conservatives in the United States believe that all liberals are “traitors” and that the outcome of any election liberals win must be contested at all costs, even up to and including active resistance and maybe revolution. At the same time, most liberals believe that many or most conservatives are at worse misguided patriots, not traitors. They seek to defeat them in elections whose outcomes they currently contest in much less militaristic and revolutionary language. Far right conservatives do not see any liberals as a legitimate opposition, while liberals do see many conservatives in such a light.
This situation exists in the United States because in reality there is no politically viable “far left”, only a politically viable “far right”. The far right, of course, often labels every liberal as a “far left”, an insane position for anyone who knows any history or anything about other countries. The reality is that liberals in the U.S. have a stronger belief in enterprise and markets (mitigated by social justice) than far right conservatives have in social justice. As such, liberals in the United States already, in this respect, lean further to the right than many conservatives do to the left. All this is an impossible ground on which to sustain a democracy.
When a society faces major existence-threatening conditions, as we do in the world today with global environmental, population, economic, and religious problems, it is not, in the end, helpful that ideological and non-democratic versions of conservative and liberal world views become themselves existence-threatening conditions for the society. But that is where we are. In the United State, the impasse is made deeper by the close connections between fundamentalist religion and some conservative thought and policy, which further moralizes all issues, removing them from pragmatic solutions.
Paradoxes at the Heart of the Conservative and Liberal World Views
There is a paradox at the heart of the conservative world view. On the one hand, conservatives value individual liberty, free enterprise, and small unobtrusive government. On the other hand, they see humans, human institutions, and knowledge as fallible; value tradition and the historical wisdom built into current long-evolved practices; and support a republican form of government that constrains the forces of total democracy. Thus, they often support a top-down authoritarian view that demands a strong tradition-backed leader, institution, or state to enforce behavior, stop social disruption, and mitigate the moral failings of weak individuals. They end up valuing liberty, small government, and a moralized top-down authority all at the same time.
This paradox does not mean that conservatives are “wrong”. It just means they have a dilemma with which they must deal. They must always balance strong individual liberty (and democracy) with strong (even moralized) authority and this can be a hard balancing act at times.
Liberals tend to believe in more direct democracy than do conservatives. Thus, for them, in ideal terms the government represents an authority freely chosen by the voters. That authority exists to ensure that social obligations and social justice are enforced, not to restrain the fallible moral natures of humans. Liberals tend to focus on balancing individual liberty and social obligation, a balance that tends to be supported by direct democracy, since at least half the voters will have less than the other half, and, thus, will have some incentive to socially redistribute wealth as a form social justice.
Liberals do have a paradox of their own, however. What I have called engineering (large scale, system-wide change) today requires a good deal of social and/or technical expertise. Such expertise can often and easily run well ahead of the viewpoints and knowledge of the majority of voters in a society. Thus, liberals can find themselves demanding that voters accept transformations that they do not, in fact, really understand or necessarily support based on their own non-expert experiences and knowledge. The voter is asked to defer to the “greater knowledge” of the liberal engineer (a paradox of sorts in a direct democracy, where the experts are in the minority) and this is potentially risky. Further, it is easy to lose the voters’ trust when some such transformations don’t work as planned.
I have treated conservative and liberal worldviews evenhandedly because I have been describing “ideals”, not real world positions. In the real world these idealized pictures of conservatives and liberals take on specific configurations that are much more complex, inconsistent, variable, and even contradictory than are my idealized descriptions. In the real world, too, self interest and greed, as well as ignorance, play a strong role that I left aside in my discussion thus far.
My point has been that my idealized descriptions of conservatives and liberals are meant to capture two different ways of being in and seeing the world. These two ways exist, at some level, in most societies and even other human groupings. For some people and some societies, they are ways that are both used though for different purposes and contexts. For other people and societies, they are seen as uncompromisable viewpoints that must remain consistent, pure, and applicable across the board. In this case, we do not need self-interest or greed to get implacable conflict, because, then, even in the case of relatively mundane problems—let alone much more significant ones—pragmatic compromise will be out of the question.