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The trade-off triangle (or: Culture wars explained) December 11, 2016

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Freedom, Politics.

I think many of our worst political and social conflicts are caused by failures to recognize the trade-off between two values that are both important.

Let’s start with an easy example: the relationship between the efficiency and safety of our transportation systems. We naturally want our transportation systems to be both efficient and safe; and while it’s obviously possible to have a system that is both inefficient and unsafe, it’s less obvious that it’s not possible to have a system that is both maximally efficient and maximally safe. There’s a tension between the two: once we reach a certain level of efficiency and safety, further improvements to one will necessarily come at the expense of the other. Consider speed limits, for instance. We could doubtless save many lives by reducing all speed limits to 10 mph, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable loss of efficiency; conversely, we could save many lost hours by abolishing all speed limits, but we don’t do so because of the intolerable risk to safety.

Clearly we need some reasonable balance between efficiency and safety. One problem, however, is that as humans we tend to be biased by our own personal experiences (among other things), which can cause us to focus too much on one side of the equation at the expense of the other. If you have not had any firsthand exposure to traffic deaths and injuries, for instance, but you have experienced many annoying traffic regulations and delays, you might consider safety concerns overblown and advocate against onerous safety precautions in the name of increased efficiency. If that path is followed too far, however, traffic casualties will inevitably rise; and someone who loses a loved one as a result may come to demonize the pursuit of efficiency and advocate for increasing road safety at any cost. Finding (and maintaining) an optimal compromise is not easy, but if we want to make progress while avoiding the harmful extremes we must recognize that efficiency and safety are both important, and also understand that there is a trade-off between them, so that whenever we increase one we are mindful of the impact on the other. There is never going to be a silver bullet that maximizes both.

Transportation safety versus efficiency is really just a special case of a more general dilemma: how to build a civil society while maintaining individual freedom. In this context, “freedom” refers to an individual’s ability to express themselves, make their own choices, and pursue their own goals without interference; while “civility” refers to a society’s cohesiveness and inclusiveness, the extent to which it affords equal opportunities to all its members and treats them all with justice and compassion, leaving no one behind. Unfortunately, there is a tension between freedom and civility, as illustrated by this graph:

Freedom vs Civility

At the bottom left, we have no freedom or civility, which is the lowest humanity can sink: think Nazism. (This, I believe, is the explanation for Godwin’s law: all discussions that go on long enough end up with a comparison to Hitler.) Notice, however, that it’s not possible to achieve maximal freedom and maximal civility simultaneously: we cannot escape the trade-off triangle. A world with complete freedom is a world with no civil society at all: law of the jungle, dog eat dog, every man for himself, might makes right. On the other hand, attaining perfect civility would allow no freedom: it would require enforced orthodoxy, suppression of individuality, intolerance of criticism and dissent, groupthink — a benign dictatorship, a “Brave New World” dystopia.

Most everyone agrees in principle that both freedom and civility are important and that both extremes are bad, but I think our personal experiences and other biases can lead us to focus on one axis exclusively while ignoring the trade-off implications for the other. For example, someone whose current position in society is more secure, who belongs to a more privileged class, or who has had personal experience with authoritarianism, might tend to consider freedom all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more civility as whining and weakness. Whereas someone whose current position in society is less secure, who belongs to an underprivileged class, or who has had personal experience with a failed state, might tend to consider civility all-important, and might too easily dismiss calls for more freedom as greed and callousness.

It’s not my intention to suggest that there are no right or wrong answers to specific policy questions, or that the correct point of balance always lies at the exact center between the two extremes: as I’ve said, there are no silver bullets. And sometimes the person disagreeing with you actually does have bad intentions. But I think there are some principles we can adopt to help keep the conversation productive, and hopefully move us closer to the optimal part of the trade-off triangle:

Recognize that both freedom and civility are important; that more of one can sometimes mean less of the other; that we need voices on both sides to stop us from going too far in either direction. Don’t live in a bubble or an echo chamber, don’t automatically take the side of your preferred axis on every issue, don’t demonize the other side or dismiss their concerns out of hand. Try to understand the point-of-view of those who have had different life experiences than you.

And always remember that despite our differences, there’s one thing we can all proudly agree on: At least we’re not Nazis.