Power contest versus negotiation

Differences of opinion can be settled by a power contest or by negotiation.

Winning a power contest is simpler and more satisfying, at least in the short run. Simpler, because we don't have to acknowledge the validity of opponents' opinions or think of creative ways to accommodate them. Power contests have well-defined rules (for instance, majority vote wins) to establish who wins and who loses. We feel validated and empowered when we win. We get to dictate the results to the losers. Even when we lose, we can easily preserve our sense of moral superiority. The more powerful or numerous winners are simply not as smart and moral as we right-thinking losers are. It was only a power contest. We'll get 'em next time, or next decade, or next century.

Negotiation seems unsatisfactory to people accustomed to power contests. We don't have the opportunity to prove our superiority and dominance over opponents. We have to acknowledge opponents' interests and opinions has having some standing, some formal equivalence to our own. We have to think creatively to bridge differences or create trade-offs that all sides can agree to. Everyone partially wins and partially loses, relative to their starting positions. We don't get to separate ourselves from our opponents. Instead we draw them toward us by creating an agreement with them. We reinforce our similarities rather than our differences.

So a power contest provides us with abundant drama, intense emotions, feelings of superiority and/or victimhood, and a final score that lets us know our relative position of strength compared to others. So what if it doesn't provide a stable long-term solution to the problem or conflict? Why have peace when fighting is so much fun?

Negotiation is obviously better for relationships, for stability, for cooperation, and for problem-solving. It just doesn't allow us to win and lose in the simple, direct manner that evolution has given us the taste for.

I don't think we can suppress or ignore our instinctive attraction to the thrills of competition. It's not even possible to confine it to the safest domains of sports and games. But we need to learn the advantages of negotiation and be willing to use it in the most difficult and important conflict situations. Political conflicts are very important, and that's why politics needs to be institutionalized negotiation rather than a succession of institutionalized power contests. Politics as war-by-other-means was an improvement over constant actual warfare, but it's no longer good enough.

We need a system of real representation because it's a prerequisite for negotiations that work. I will elaborate on the connections between negotiation and representation in future posts.

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