Sunday, May 23, 2010

Conflict Resolution: The Non-State Alternative

This is just an anecdote which probably won't be very convincing, but the point is it got me thinking. This morning I walked to my local deli to get breakfast. I placed my order and walked over to the cash register to pay. The total was $10.90. I handed the cashier a credit card only to find out that their machine was broken. She asked if I had cash and after searching in my pocket pulled out exactly $9. She then asked if I was willing to use the ATM machine to get enough to pay the bill. Knowing the ATM machine would charge me anywhere from 15% - 20% of the cost of the meal itself, I politely declined. We both stood there somewhat awkwardly while the chef continued to prepare my meal, unaware of the situation. After a few seconds I proposed giving her the $9 now, and paying the remainder in a week since I visit this deli for breakfast literally every single week. In fact, to make my offer more convincing, I told the chef (who knows me) that I would pay them an extra $1.90 next week when I'm back again, to which he immediately replied "no problem," and turned back to the grill knowing how minor of an issue it was since we see each other every week.

After everything was resolved, I walked out and thought to myself: how could the government possibly improve upon this situation?

I realize that many people believe the government is only useful in circumstances of serious conflict (which this clearly was not), but there are plenty of people who believe there really isn't any situation at all that could not potentially be improved by the government, hence my inquiry.

One action the government could have taken would be to institute a law requiring that if an individual is unable to pay the entirety of any bill at the moment of sale, that individual may not purchase the product or service at all. Under this scenario, my deli would end up not selling its food for less than it typically considers necessary, a situation which appears positive at first glance. But in addition, I would probably leave disgruntled, and the deli would probably have lost a considerable profit (even assuming I never came back with the extra $1.90). I might even decide never to come back there for breakfast again after being frustrated that a situation seemingly so easy to resolve in one of a million ways, instead had to be resolved with my walking out food-less and the deli remaining money-less.

Another action the government could have taken would be to institute a law requiring that if an individual is unable to pay the entirety of any bill at the moment of sale, the seller is required to negotiate a deal and is subsequently required to make the sale. Under this scenario, I would end up with my food after paying less than I normally would, which appears positive at first glance. But in addition, the store would resent my not bringing enough to pay the whole bill, and the store would also resent being forced to negotiate with someone that did not bring enough to pay the whole bill. The next time I return to the deli, the chef might decide to add something "special" to my food, if he were angry enough. Or if I were still willing to risk tainted food and come back to the deli again anyway, I might be incentivized to bring less than the total bill (this time on purpose) knowing the deli is forced to negotiate with me.

Think about what was achieved this morning without any laws: I had less money than I needed, the deli still made me my food, I will eventually make the deli whole, and both the deli and I will continue to do business with each other in the future. This might seem insignificant, but it is just one example of the many different types of conflict we face in society every day. It is also just one example of how people are perfectly capable of negotiating arrangements that allow for long-lasting relationships, without anyone else or anything else having to guide them along the way.

The most telling aspect of what happened this morning is the fact that the government could have instituted a law mandating to take place exactly what did actually take place without a law, and yet that mandated law solution would still be sub-optimal. The difference is that when nobody is forced to do something, there is greater potential for future friendly relations even if a somewhat unpleasant negotiation takes place. On the other hand, when one party is forced to do something against its will, the other party might benefit, but the first party might decide to never engage again with the second party going forward, or at the very least bear resentment forever more.

When the means employed is communication and negotiation, there is of course no guarantee that each party is as satisfied as it could be under the most ideal situation. However, there is a guarantee that each party leaves the encounter knowing it did its very best without anybody being forced to, and as long as the two parties leave the encounter without killing each other (which is most likely the case), there is a good chance they might interact with each other again in the future (or maybe they choose not to, but we surely don't need an institution to tell them to do so or not to do so). Only when force is used is there potential for eternal conflict. Is that what we want?