An Uncompromising Look at a Bit of History

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 92 (August 2006)

Photograph courtesy of Elan Sun Star

From time to time, correspondents mention “compromise” as the way to settle confrontations and disputes. The context usually suggests that the writer meant “compromise” in the sense of splitting the difference between the two positions.

There is a problem with “compromise” as distinct from other ways to settle issues:

In a confrontation between A and B, their actual positions may be represented thus:


where A wants the resolution to be at point A and B at point B. However, if A expects compromise to be the outcome, his incentive is to exaggerate his position so that the split difference will fall close to his actual position. Hence:

A’ – – – – – – – – – – —————————B

Similarly, if B expects compromise in the split-the-difference sense, he is similarly constrained:

A’ – – – – – – – – – – —————————– – – – – – – – – – – – – -B’

Thus, to the extent that “compromise” is the expected outcome and custom, the contending parties are actually driven toward more extreme positions and fall farther away from settlement.

Where “horsetrading” is instead the practice, A offers to give up a little bit of what he can most afford to give up in order to gain some concession in what he most hopes to gain:

– – – A”——————–B

Similarly, B concedes a little of what he can most afford to, in order to gain some of what he most wants:

– – – A”———–B” – – –

and by an increment of steps the two approach each other until settlement is reached. Each has come out ahead by the agreement because he has been conceding what he could most afford to give up, and gaining what he most wants. Nor are disputes very rancorous, because each wants to be able to make a favorable deal in order to come out ahead, and doesn’t want too badly to put off his potential trading partner.

Another way to get to settlement, which avoids the bitter extremes that the method of “compromise” leads to, is for both sides as quickly as possible to move on from what divides them to some of what unites them, to some of the things they both want but which will require their alliance to be able to achieve.

Conversely, at all costs, avoid allowing the kind of condition to set in where people are chronically in the same dispute over and over, anticipating settlement by compromise. When that happened between the northern and southern states from 1828 to 1860, the U.S. Civil War became inevitable despite all the wonderful institutions America had pioneered up to that time for resolving disputes and expressing public will democratically. I wonder how many divorce cases stem from that same chronic dynamic?

Back in the 1960s when I was still teaching high school civics, among other things, the texts were still blathering about the virtues of “compromise” in the sense of splitting the difference. Are they still? In any event, this writer felt that this needed to be said.