Complementary and Conflicting Values

Interdependencies in Multi-Value Systems

When people pursue various fundamental values Opens in new window concurrently, as they normally do, they may discover a complex interdependence between them. Sometimes, there are complementarities between values, which means that an advance in one fundamental aspiration also advances the achievement of another.

In this sense, two fundamental values (or goals) are in conflict when the promotion of one detracts from the other (example: greater security coming at the expense of freedom). They are complementary when the promotion of one value also furthers the attainment of the other (example: more freedom promotes prosperity).

Relationships between fundamental values are not static but depend on the means chosen to attain them and on the time horizon over which the values are pursued.

With longer time horizons, conflicts frequently turn into complementarities.

The trade-offs between the various values are often hard to assess because they change with circumstances and because the interdependencies are many and complex. It is therefore important not to single out one particular value as superior to all others.

Admittedly, a single-value approach may often be appealing and easier to understand, which makes this tempting in political action. However, this only leads to the total neglect of the other values, and ultimately a worsening of the human condition.

If, for example, the preservation of peace were given absolute priority, individual freedom, material progress and widely shared notions of justice would in all likelihood soon be violated.

Likewise, the claim to accord absolute priority for environmental conservation over all other fundamental values is bound to lead to the neglect of freedom, prosperity and justice Opens in new window.

This would sooner or later lead to a backlash and a costly reversal of policy. The pursuit of specific aspirations is therefore always circumscribed by trade-offs between the costs and benefits in terms of the multiplicity of other values.

One good example of complementarity between fundamental goals has played a big role in the literature:

Adam Smith and other economists and philosophers have argued for the freedom to trade. They focused not only on the efficiency and welfare gains that result from the exploitation of comparative advantage Opens in new window, but also on the civilizing characteristic of trade.

It promotes peace and satisfies other fundamental aspirations. After all, the Greek term for exchange—catallaxy—also means turning a stranger into a friend.

As Voltaire famously argued, the Jew, Gentile and the Muslim may violently dislike each other, but they meet in the market place cooperatively to exchange goods and services. This ability to realize cooperation in anonymity is one of the great, beneficial mysteries to be explained by the logic of economics. This is the moral of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil” Opens in new window.

The power of self-interest can overcome ethnic, linguistic and geographic distance. The Liberal International Order of free trade Opens in new window is built on Kant’s dream for a system of “Strangers Nowhere in This World”.

Rather than allowing differences to divide, they are the source of the great gains to be had from exchange in terms of goods and services that are realized through peaceful and cooperative trade.

It is the vision of peaceful social cooperation among diverse and distant individuals that has animated the arguments for free trade from Adam Smith to Mises, Hayek, and Friedman.

Conflicting values tend to be more frequent when one thinks short-term.

What is a conflict over the short run may fortunately turn out to be a complementarity over the longer run, for example:

This has the practical implication for public policy that a long-term time horizon promotes conflict-avoidance and a better realization of people’s aspirations and that it pays in short-term conflicts to plead for a measure of tolerance.