As a new Congress convenes with the parties increasingly polarized, many Americans wonder whether compromise is simply a thing of the past.

That's the wrong question.

Today's conflicts provide a basis for not the compromise of the past, but rather the synergy of the future.

In countless areas, conservative and liberal approaches normally viewed as conflicting are, in fact, necessary complements. Instead of today's zero-sum mindset — in which the other side must "lose" if ours is to "win" and compromise is unacceptable because each must give up some of its goals — in many areas, both sides' views can, and should, prevail because together they achieve what neither could alone. As, say, in a handshake.

Three such areas suggest themselves, which I'll call "carrots and sticks," "doing less with more," and "what's good for the goose is good for the gander."


The most obvious synergy lies in the metaphor of carrots and sticks: Most issues involving crime, welfare or other forms of behavior regulation spin pointlessly around a "conservative" position calling for punishment and a "liberal" one advocating help. In reality, the research in a wide range of fields shows that a combination of both sanctions and assistance is usually required for any policy to work.

For example, California's social services agency found it could move more families from welfare to work by combining a stricter sanctions policy sought by conservatives with such "liberal" benefits as expanded job training, assistance with transportation (because, surprise, it turns out people can't hold jobs they can't get to) and even programs that help with family stability (a conservative goal) through (liberal) counseling on substance and domestic abuse. Meanwhile, (liberal) drug treatment itself is indisputably the single most cost-effective action we can take to reduce crime — but only when accompanied by a (conservative) coercive system of increasing penalties. Newer approaches to government regulation have shown that judicious use of incentives for good corporate citizens combined with increased oversight and penalties for bad ones can reduce the government "burden" on businesses while producing stronger environmental and higher labor standards.

That brings us to the second synergy: doing less with more. Yes, you read that right — because the best way to cut government's spending is to do better, not less. Many problems drive up costs that, like it or not, eventually must wind up being paid either by governments or individuals and businesses in the aggregate, but which can be reduced by more intelligent spending upfront. In particular, all our human service systems are reactive, one-size-fits-all, early-industrial-age and large-institution-based — everything conservatives rightly despise in government, both costly and unproductive. This has become most obvious in corrections, where conservatives from state legislatures to Congress now are embracing criminal justice reforms previously demonized as "liberal." But it goes for our approach to healthcare, child welfare, senior services and even education, as well.

For instance, an array of states has found that increasing upfront services for at-risk children and their families not only reduces resort to the dysfunctional foster care and juvenile institutionalization systems — it also dramatically reduces costs to the taxpayers. Maine and Washington state both found savings of $2.50 for every $1 expended on preventive programs. Florida's Healthy Families program prevented child abuse and neglect — which cost taxpayers an average of $72,709 per year per abused child — in 98 percent of high-risk families at a cost of $1,800 per year per child. In sum, modernizing, individualizing and restructuring government programs to make them proactive — rather than just tearing them down — could actually get the results liberals say they want for the lower-cost and smaller government conservatives say we need.

As Rep. Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanPaul Ryan researched narcissistic personality disorder after Trump win: book Paul Ryan says it's 'really clear' Biden won election: 'It was not rigged. It was not stolen' Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (R-Wis.) and other conservatives have noted, many such services can be delivered by nongovernmental entities (though generally they must be paid for by governments). But what if we just dropped the increasingly artificial distinction between the public and private sectors and recognized that we are living in a world where governments simply represent one of a growing number of competing alternatives for achieving specific results? The third area for potential synergy lies here, in increasing both public and private sector competition — with each other.

If conservatives and liberals each had the courage of their convictions, they would let both "public options" that conservatives have rejected and private options that liberals oppose fight it out. Other countries allow their post offices to offer related services that make them successful and profitable; here, the best we can hope for is that Congress will allow the U.S. Postal Service to sell its own line of all-weather clothing. In Edmonton, Canada, a voucher system forced public schools to compete — and within two years, their quality had so improved that there were hardly any private or parochial schools left in the market. Many U.S. cities have allowed their existing public workforces to compete against private companies on privatization bids; the government workers usually win.

In short, if competition is good for the private sector, it can be just as good for the public sector, and vice versa. A more productive synthesis in the never-ending and mutually destructive war over ObamaCare would be to extend the competitive "exchange" model for the middle class to government-provided Medicaid for the poor, while adding income-based consumer subsidies — as moderate Republicans once supported until moderate Democrats did, too. Even "privatizing" part of Social Security is worth considering — if the combination of competing public and private options includes keeping retirement investments with the government, which actually offers most Americans the better, higher-return, lower-risk choice. Of course, forward-funding such a system is undoable until after the Baby Boomer generation passes — but that just means thinking about the long-term instead of today's ideologies.

Which ought to be the point: We don't need compromise between the current poles of left and right. Positions that appear far apart from one vantage can look much closer from another. The vestigial 20th-century gulf between today's left and right might not appear so wide if viewed from the perspective of the mid-21st century — as they ought to be.

Schnurer is president of Public Works LLC, a national public policy consulting firm advising state and local governments. He is a former gubernatorial chief of staff, and speechwriter or policy director for several presidential candidates. Follow him @ericschnurer.