Why you should not confuse sympathy with policy

by on June 24, 2014 at 6:21 am in Current Affairs, Philosophy, Political Science | Permalink

I was disappointed but not surprised by this passage by Gary Silverman:

What I like about Obamacare is that it shows some respect for “those people” – as Hudson called them in Giant – who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to see a doctor from time to time to make sure there is nothing wrong inside.

That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status.  Of course critics of Obamacare have their own versions of desired status reallocation, typically involving higher status for the economically productive.

Here is another example of the argument from sympathy, by Norman Podhoretz, applied to a very different field of discourse:

Provoked by the predictable collapse of the farcical negotiations forced by Secretary of State John Kerry on the Palestinians and the Israelis, I wish to make a confession: I have no sympathy—none—for the Palestinians. Furthermore, I do not believe they deserve any.

I am not in this post seeking to adjudicate ACA or U.S. policy in the Middle East.  The easy target is to go after these two authors, but I am interested in different game.  The deeper point is that virtually all of us argue this way, albeit with more subtlety.  A lot of the more innocuous-sounding arguments we use all the time come perilously close to committing the same fallacies as do these quite transparent and I would say quite obnoxious mistaken excerpts.  One of the best paths for becoming a good reader of economics and politics blog posts (and other material) is to learn when you are encountering these kinds of arguments in disguised form.

1 C June 24, 2014 at 7:08 am

Is the argument from sympathy a fallacy? Empathy is as you say one of the primary things that politics is about, and sometimes poor policy is the only politically available option when you must do something. To pass most major policy, you must utterly compromise it by the time it becomes law. Legislators both want something to be done, but know that an actual solution (which could possibly give the other party a win) is not politically possible. End result, we have poor policy but are addressing problems out of sympathy and often necessity.

2 Rahul June 24, 2014 at 8:22 am


e.g. Just last week, Tyler took a stand, and expressed his disapproval when we had all those obnoxious comments about LGBT issues & Deirdre McCloskey. Now I agree with Tyler on that specific issue, but wasn’t that yet a classic case of an “argument from sympathy” too?

I guess all of use the “argument from sympathy fallacy” from time to time. But we only make a fuss when the other side uses it to make a point we don’t much like.

3 a June 24, 2014 at 8:30 am

argument from sympathy ; good ?
argument from hostility ; bad?

4 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:49 am

Just becasue people are a subject of the policy under discussion doesn’t mean that empathy is a necessity.

In fact, the people arguing against Tyler were of a few forms including that McCloskey doesn’t deserve sympathy because of…her personal choices. I’m still not sure why I have to call her her any more than why I have to call Donald Sterling “racist.”

5 Tim June 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm

You clearly can be trans-phobic and racist. Both are allowed thanks to the 1st amendment.

What’s happening is that you’re receiving negative attention for it that you’d rather not receive. You’re not interested in changing your view; you’d just prefer not to receive negative attention. So you’re looking for an argument that will allow you to express your views without receiving unwelcome negative attention.

And it’s a good point. On this blog you continually advocate for continued higher political status for those who have traditionally received it, but you use the language of oppression to do so. You “have to” do these things (not be racist, not be trans-phobic) because you are being oppressed by those who have historically had lower status and are now trying to take your higher status.

6 Ian Maitland June 24, 2014 at 11:42 am

Doubtless we all are prone to make a fuss when the other side uses the “argument from sympathy fallacy” to make a point we don’t much like.

That doesn’t mean we should not do better, which I take to be Tyler’s point.

7 Colin June 24, 2014 at 1:29 pm

Not really, as someone also in agreement. There, he’s suggesting a change in behavior that he believes will have a positive net effect in the world. That it’s also sympathetic is a plus/motivation, but isn’t the same as putting forward questionable policy out of sympathy, which is what Tyler is accusing people of.

8 Z June 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

“and sometimes poor policy is the only politically available option when you must do something.”

The implication here is political elites are without agency of their own. They are tossed about like corks on a sea of public sentiment. That’s a good argument against democracy, but it is a weak argument for implementing poor policy.

9 mulp June 24, 2014 at 3:05 pm

So, was the general who refused to obey Federal law in 1961 requiring returning fugitive slaves acting out of sympathy for the property or acting out of rational economic expediency? Sure, the general’s forces were under attack by a rebellion,and the property would be used to build fortifications to attack him, but wasn’t his sympathy for mere property trumping reason?

Lincoln had sympathy for the property, but he was fighting a rebellion by a minority and did not consider a state of war to exist. He ended up NOT ACTING and not ordering the Federal law be obeyed by his officers under his command. His inaction, his dithering, led to more property delivering itself into the hands of the soldiers under Lincoln’s command. And even with hundreds of thousands of property burdening the US military.

Lincoln only belatedly agreed with his general that returning property to its owners in rebellion was not acceptable by military economics, so he warned those in rebellion that if they failed to end their rebellion, he would seize all their property in an overreach of executive power based on invented power of commander-in-chief.

It was sympathy for the property that led to increased support for Lincoln and urging for him to use more military force.

It was sympathy for property owners that led the South to turn a rebellion into a fight for a way of life. In the South, the majority who fought had no slaves so they were not defending their property from Lincoln;s confiscation.

Isn’t all defense of rights an action out of sympathy, not out of economic rational decision making?

Those fighting the Keystone XL are acting in sympathy of the property rights of those whose land will be taken by force to turn over to a private foreign corporation for private profit by foreigners. Like those in the South fighting Lincoln’s taking of property rights from the South’s plantation owners.

10 dbg June 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

“End result, we have poor policy but are addressing problems out of sympathy and often necessity. – See more at: http://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2014/06/why-you-should-not-confuse-sympathy-with-policy.html#comments

yes. +1

11 Michael June 24, 2014 at 11:59 am

Maybe when it comes to purely economic proposals, yes. However, politics is about much more than economics, so sympathy has a very significant and important role. Clearly, an argument from sympathy in arguments for abolition, civil rights, or physical assault has its place. Is the problem is those actors who conflate the various realms of public policy?

12 Aidan June 24, 2014 at 1:36 pm

“The genetic fallacy, also known as fallacy of origins, fallacy of virtue, is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context.”

Arguing that “X because I sympathise with A” is clearly fallacious, but arguing that “X” because I sympathise with A is in no way fallacious.

13 Zander June 24, 2014 at 7:16 am

Deciding whether or not sympathy is a relevant part of a policy conversation is not a itself value neutral. Sure these examples are particularly obnoxious and simplistic. But in many ways policy is about ore than efficiency – it is about the kind of society we choose to live in, or at least many policy positions are. And empathy is certainly a valid piece of making that decision. Is an argument from the vale of ignorance necessarily a fallacy of arguing from sympathy? I don’t think so.

14 albatross June 24, 2014 at 1:15 pm

It seems like there are two problems with the quotes Tyler used, above.

a. The first quote seemed to be basing its support on the ACA on the fact that it shows sympathy for people on the bottom. This is not a good way to evaluate a law–all sorts of laws are written with good intentions (or good-sounding stated intentions), which make their intended beneficiaries worse off in the end[1].

b. When I toss out a statement of my sympathies, I’m declaring my team membership. This tends to make the readers who are on my team start out more willing to listen and accept whatever I have to say.

I sometimes feel like this second point is a requirement to engage in a lot of online discussion. If you want to discuss some political issue, you almost have to state your sympathies up front to avoid being dogpiled by people who think you’re on the other side, because you dared bring up a topic that might be helpful to the other side in some context or another.

[1] An extreme case of this is the Iraq war. Much of its support came from people who are extremely sympathetic to Israel, and extremely unsympathetic to Iran. And yet, the result of the Iraq war was a more powerful and engaged Iran, probably leaving Israel in a *worse* position than before.

15 mulp June 24, 2014 at 3:11 pm

“This is not a good way to evaluate a law–all sorts of laws are written with good intentions (or good-sounding stated intentions), which make their intended beneficiaries worse off in the end[1]. ”

The 13th Amendment was and sometimes still is attacked on that basis.

Ie, the current plight of blacks, poverty, drug use, prison, today proves they were better off as slaves.

16 NPW June 24, 2014 at 7:22 am

I am stating in an undisguised form that I believe in higher status for the economically productive. This higher status is balanced by the idea that they should be economically productive in a society bounded by a rule of law that takes care of the less productive.

With the exception of the true believers in Utopia, where money no longer exists and everyone lives together in peace and harmony, it appears to me that most people demonstrate agreement, if not by their words but by their actions.

The publicly debated point of contention is the ratio of status/care.

I also think Tyler, that you may be missing the point. The goal of these arguments by Silverman, Podhoretz, and others is not to argue rationally, nor is it to appeal to our logic. It is explicitly designed to appeal to our emotional need. Ironically, it is our emotional need to feel that we are superior due to our rational logic.

It is rational to appeal to human emotion. It works. It is not rational to appeal to human logic. It does not work.

17 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:18 am

My arguments about the more economicaly productive amounts to arguing repeatedly, incessantly, tirelessly, and maddeningly that they are…more economicaly productive. I think I was born without the mood affiliation gene.

When I am frustrated that my wife won’t recognize a free car as a free car I don’t think it is because I want to feel superior.

Nuclear is nuclear. Aging is aging. Solar is solar. These are the sum total versions of all my arguments. And I’ll be able to keep making them as long as I live or maybe until we get rid of the two party system.

18 NPW June 24, 2014 at 9:52 am

andrew’, the idea in this post isn’t if a free car is a free car, but if the car is free then…. if the energy source is nuclear, then…. if the energy source is solar, then…..

The question isn’t if rain is rain. The question in this thread is if rain is wet, then……

From below, “Concentrated solar works because of physics, not group identity politics.” isn’t always true. Define “works”. Works to do what? Prove that concentrated solar can generate energy, then yes, group identity politics is meaningless.

But if I define “works” as concentrated solar to become a significant part of our energy supply, then I have to overcome group identity politics.

Andrew’, how do you maintain your energy level? Seriously, I’m a pot of coffee deep, failing to miserably to kick my Monster habit, and actually had more than 5 hours of sleep last night, and there is no way I can even fake your level of enthusiasm on any topic. My three year old might give you a run for the money if you were debating the merits of Dora the Explorer vs Olivia the pig, but damn brother, where do you get your motivation?

19 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:07 am

You will notice that I’ll go a week here and there without a peep. Actually, no one notices.

And I’m always amazed how I miss TC posts almost every day when I think I’m keeping up.

20 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:10 am

Rain is rain depending on who it makes wet. That is where debate is these days.

21 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm

When I say “solar is solar” I am referring to things like Krugman announcing that Solar PV is now ready for prime time. Well, it’s not. Now, Krugman is clever. He will wait until it is safely close enough to announce that even though it isn’t true. Putting the right carbon subsidy on Solar PV helps, but the price swings alone of PV are driving investments. So, in about 10 years, solar PV will be awesome. But it isn’t quite there yet. But Krugman’s purpose is not to be correct, it is to be politically effective.

22 yoyo June 24, 2014 at 9:41 am

“Higher” than what? Than the compensation the less productive receive, or than the very high compensation the productive already receive? The elision by rightists between current and marginal on this topic is ironic.

23 NPW June 24, 2014 at 9:59 am

yoyo, do you think that the guy who does nothing by choice and the guy who works 100 hours a week deserve the same compensation?

If yes, then I disagree with your position, but I have nothing further to add. If no, then I return to my earlier position that the question is the ratio, not the concept of status.

24 Urso June 24, 2014 at 10:11 am

Depends on what guy #2 is working on.

25 Tyro June 25, 2014 at 9:05 am

The flip side is that people are determined to protect that exalted social status at all levels. For many people, their exalted social status stems from having health insurance, which is only valuable if other people do not have it, meaning that they will engage in political initiatives to preserve their protected status at the expense of others.

26 Steve Sailer June 24, 2014 at 7:24 am

Policy is the handmaiden of politics, and politics is primarily about whose side you are on. Politics today is largely practiced by browbeating core Americans into believing that they aren’t allowed to have a side, only principles, while assuring fringe Americans that they don’t need principles because they have a side.

27 Rahul June 24, 2014 at 8:56 am

So long as you let me define “core” & “fringe” conveniently so that it fits my narrative.

28 Z June 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

Core and fringe are easy to define in absolute terms. One only need to watch cable news and read the Interwebs. No one from either party, for example, is advocating we seal the border with Mexico. That is a fringe position. The leadership of both parties, on the other hand, want to transport the populations south of the Rio Grande to areas north of the Rio Grande. That’s a core position.

29 Steve Sailer June 24, 2014 at 9:27 am

No, you’re missing the point of core and fringe, which goes back to the brilliant Obama campaign of 2012 that united all the fractious demographic fringes by stoking resentment of the straight white male homeowning taxpaying demographic core of the country.

30 charlie June 24, 2014 at 10:02 am

To be honest, Steve, Mitt did that himself.

I’d say the 08 campaign was a better example of what you are talking about, and what TC is talking about. Delibrate attempt to retake the core. You had the luxury of running that option against a very weak opponent and a terrible previous president.

31 Z June 24, 2014 at 10:25 am

I’d counter that a whole lot of straight white tax payers volunteered to help him pull the roof down. To use John Derbyshire’s formulation, American politics is about one group of whites trying to dominate the other group of whites. But, your point is well taken. The Obama coalition bound these fringe groups to that core to form an electoral majority.

Now, I wait for the usual suspect to call both of us racists.

32 Eli Rabett June 25, 2014 at 12:44 am

“No, you’re missing the point of core and fringe, which goes back to the brilliant Obama campaign of 2012 that united all the fractious demographic fringes by stoking resentment of the straight white male several mansion owning, tax avoiding demographic core of the country.”

Fixed that for you.

33 llbert June 29, 2014 at 10:52 am

This is a perfect illustration of Tyler’s point. It simply asserts that “straight white males” deserve sympathy and should have higher status, while we shouldn’t care about other non-white “fractious demographics”.

34 jimmy June 24, 2014 at 6:16 pm

I’m not trying to be snarky, but this kind of comment is made a lot, and I don’t understand your distinction between sides and principles. Surely differing sides have something to do with differing principles and/or the way those differences are to be handled by policy?

35 Claudia June 24, 2014 at 7:34 am

This strikes me a necessarily and desirable feature of policy debates. And I don’t think this is limited to public policy … distributional (or status) concerns are always there. We can no more evaluate policy separate from its distributional impact as we can market outcomes. A good point from interfluidity on welfare theorems:

“Choosing a distribution is prerequisite to good [market] outcomes. Distribution and market efficiency are about as ‘separable’ as mailing a letter is from writing an address. Sure, you can drop a letter in the mail without writing an address, or you can write an address on a letter you keep in a drawer, but in neither case will the letter find its recipient. The address must be written on the letter before the envelope is mailed. The fact that any address you like may be written on the letter wouldn’t normally provoke us to describe these two activities as ‘separable’.” http://www.interfluidity.com/v2/date/2014/06

We have to have these conversations.

36 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:20 am

No we don’t! Distribution is distribution

37 llbert June 29, 2014 at 10:55 am

And policy evaluation is policy evaluation.

and policy evaluation = analysis of outcome + distributional value judgement

38 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

Well, this part of the conversation is pretty much incomprehensible in any nation with universal health care – ‘That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status.’

Access to a doctor is not a matter of ‘status’ in any of those polities, and is not a matter of ‘sympathy’ for that matter.

39 Tom Awad June 24, 2014 at 10:03 am

Not entirely true. I live in Canada and, because healthcare is underfunded vs. the desires services (aging population and all that), it’s implicitly rationed. Except for extreme cases like cancer, the people who get access to healthcare are those who know doctors; the next in line are those who know how to work the system. These two groups are somewhat correlated with income and “status”, as you would expect. There is no free lunch.

40 Bill June 24, 2014 at 10:32 am


It sounds like what you are saying is that the majority of Canadians have elected or chosen a system or service level that doesn’t work for them, that they are unable to fund a level of service they desire, and that they are incapable of electing representatives to change the system to conform to their needs.

Are you saying Canadians are helpless losers.

Maybe Cruz should go back to Canada and run for office

41 Tom Awad June 24, 2014 at 10:41 am

Bill, your first sentence is a fair approximation of the situation. As you probably know from countless elections across the world, no politician ever gets elected promising cuts to services that his voters profit from. Since universal health care is enjoyed by all, it is a “third rail” in Canadian Politics. Since money is not infinite, the system simply gets overburdened. While I am often disappointed in Canadians’ electoral choices, I don’t think they’re any more helpless losers than voters in other polities. American Voters in the last 15 years have somehow managed to elect both a Republican and a Democrat who both blew holes in the Federal Budget the size of impact craters, the Congress is even more pathetic, and Spain, France, Italy and Greece have fared even worse.

42 Finch June 24, 2014 at 10:55 am

I wouldn’t say it’s underfunding – it’s misallocation of resources. I once had the fun experience of spending 8 hours in the waiting room of a Canadian ER after a car accident. There were other people their in pain, including one with a visibly badly broken arm.

The ER was lavishly equipped. It looked almost American. But nobody was working there. They were extremely short staffed. As far as I can tell there was no pressure on them to fix that problem.

Sure voters might care that Canada has lousy health care, but that’s not what they’re told by government PR, and the path from vote to better healthcare is a long circuitous one.

43 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

‘once had the fun experience of spending 8 hours in the waiting room of a Canadian ER after a car accident.’

Well, you should have had your accident on 95 in Virginia in Spotsylvania – the billboard off the the highway was advertising sometzhing like only a half hour wait for ER admittance (not treatment, presumably – just admittance to the ER – maybe someone can provide some more detailed information, however).

But then, you get what you pay for – shame that a number of people in Spotsylvania county can’t pay.

44 Bill June 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm


Don’t forget, if you didn’t have the Canadian system, you would have to buy health insurance. So, if you want the American system, but are unwilling to increase funding for the current Canadian system, you are in a bit of a dilemma, aren’t you: the American system costs MUCH more than the current Canadian system, and gives poorer results. So, plan for a BIG price increase if you want the American system and you want its quality.

45 mulp June 24, 2014 at 5:48 pm

“I wouldn’t say it’s underfunding – it’s misallocation of resources. I once had the fun experience of spending 8 hours in the waiting room of a Canadian ER after a car accident. There were other people their in pain, including one with a visibly badly broken arm.”

That scene is very common in US ERs. How is the US system, which costs twice as much per person, any better than Canada’s??

You seem to have sympathy for Canadians waiting for eight hours in an ER, but no sympathy for US citizens waiting for eight hours in an ER.

What is your rational economic policy for spending twice as much for the same result? Creating jobs? Creating high paying jobs? Creating high profits?

46 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:16 am

‘Not entirely true. I live in Canada and, because healthcare is underfunded vs. the desires services (aging population and all that), it’s implicitly rationed.’

Health care is always ‘implicitly rationed’ – the demand for health care can be considered essentially infinite, after all.

‘Except for extreme cases like cancer, the people who get access to healthcare are those who know doctors; the next in line are those who know how to work the system.’

So, an uninsured Canadian automobile accident victim is bankrupted by their medical bills when they are treated? This is the first difference between the Canadian concept and the U.S.’s. Further, to use the province I know best, you can check for yourself how the wait times are – http://waittimes.novascotia.ca/ In the U.S., for the uninsured, the wait times are until they died untreated – or used an emergency room as a substitute for actual health care. No Canadian faces this dilemma, in my experience.

‘These two groups are somewhat correlated with income and “status”, as you would expect. There is no free lunch.’

Of course the well off receive better care. The difference being that in Canada, no one is actually denied health care, apart from a subsequently billed emergency room visit that is likely to bankrupt them. And let us be completely frank – how many people in Canada would support a politician that rejects federal funds to expand health care coverage to currently health care uncovered citizens (of which, it must be noted, Canada has a grand total of zero)?

Non-Americans tend to have a hard time understanding just how exceptional America’s self-proclaimed best health care system truly is.

47 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:24 am

To clarify – ‘the difference being that in Canada, no one is actually denied health care, unlike in the U.S., with a subsequently billed emergency room visit that is likely to bankrupt them being their only option.’

48 Jay June 24, 2014 at 12:44 pm

I would say waiting 8 hours in an ER IS being denied care implicitly. You structured your sentence badly to make it sound like the U.S. denies care instead of arguing the U.S. actually makes you pay for it.

49 Tom June 24, 2014 at 6:13 pm

“I would say waiting 8 hours in an ER IS being denied care implicitly.”

In that case, care is being denied in the holiest of single-payer universal care systems. Glad we got that sorted out.

50 derek June 25, 2014 at 12:41 am

Nonsense. Access to a doctor depends on some stupid decisions that some bureaucrats made sometime in the past. Or if you can spend the time and money to go to the US. Or pay cash.

Tell me how having people wait 2-3 years for orthopedic surgery saves money? Empathy? Not wanting to hurt people?

These are hard problems, and when someone comes up with a sob story they are trying to sell me something that is ridiculous on the merits.

51 Bill June 24, 2014 at 10:26 am

I would argue that no one knows their future status, or even those of close relatives (children, parents), so that “empathy” is actually selfish in this context. It is simply purchasing an insurance policy for myself and the duties I may owe to others that has a side benefit of eliminating negative externalities that give me the selfish benefit of no pre-existing conditions.

Moreover, despite claims to the contrary by the libertarian right, we live in a society. So, if we don’t have rules, or services, and people leave their garbage on the street or defecate on the sidewalk because there are no sewers, I get sick.

Finally, look closely at Tylers comment…is he soliciting empathy for those who selfishly look out for themselves and would not contribute to the commons, but would be the first to use it if they had to as free riders.

52 albatross June 24, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Nobody knows their future status, but my knowledge about my future status can be represented by a probability distribution. If I’m honestly trying to maximize my future well being, I should be multiplying each possible outcome by its probability and maximizing my future expected well-being, right?

53 Bill June 24, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Right, and if you do, there will be tail distributions I can assure you that you will not be able to cover. Begin your nursing home stay at age 40 for life and report back.

54 Thomas June 24, 2014 at 8:25 pm

Bill, do you drive a tank as Milton Friedman suggested to the foolish graduate student who was appalled at “even one death” caused by the lack of tank-like features in cars manufactured by the private auto manufacturers?

Does your demonstrated lack of concern for tail risks which aren’t politically expedient betray your dishonest approach to this discussion?

This post of Tyler’s seems especially cogent. What are the odds that your dishonest approach here is the result of an emotional affiliation we already know you have?

55 Bill June 24, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Actually, I do drive a safe car, one which is only safe, not because the car manufacturers wanted to make it safe, but because they had to make it safe,. Market failure leads to laws, not vice versa.

As to Albatrosses assessment of future states, where he draws the line (I think I will not have catastrophic losses of X) benefits him in the short run (he doesn’t pay much insurance, and harms me in the long run as he is the free rider at the hospital and nursing home for his decision. That he doesn’t choose to pay for insurance for the tail risk doesn’t mean a risk never materializes.

56 Thomas June 24, 2014 at 8:15 pm

Bill, you mean to argue that that the politics of empathy – redistribution, special legal protections, affirmative requirements – are rooted in the selfish desires. Ayn Rand made the same argument in “The Virtue of Selfishness”.

57 Bill June 24, 2014 at 8:56 pm


First you create a category–“the politics of empathy”–and in that container you place whatever you don’t like. Funny. But empathy is more than that, no matter what creative containers you wish to create.

Second, my point is that empathy is not irrational, as tyler posits; moreover, even if it were, if it makes people happy, and is valued, it fits a utility function, which can be maximized across all persons.

It is not a disease

58 Thomas June 27, 2014 at 12:05 am

I agree, Bill, but that means that empathy/sympathy is not altruistic.

59 Mark June 24, 2014 at 7:42 am

Can we not include emotions such as sympathy/empathy as part of a utility function that is then maximized with respect to constraints, which may contain psychological components such as willpower or repugnance?

Or in game theory, can different players not have payoffs that tie in to to their (emotional) type?

You can argue that these passages overweight these factors (like some liberals feel that *every* externality should be counteracted with government action), but I don’t think you can toss those factors aside.

60 B Cole June 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

I find most macroeconomics is just politics in drag. I guess foreign policy too.

What I also find is what is often never discussed is important—for example, the VA disability and pension programs have become runaway welfare programs but it is not PC to mention it. Rural America has become a pinko-wonderland too.

61 Iraqi War Vet June 24, 2014 at 10:38 am

Welfare is something you receive from the government without having to give any money or labor in exchange. VA programs are payment for services rendered. You may feel that the government made a bad deal, and offered too much to servicemembers at the time they signed their contract. That is irrelevent to the claim of whether VA programs are “welfare”.

By the way B Cole are you a combat veteran? If not, why not? If the military is offering people such a sweet deal in exchange for possibly getting their legs blown off by an IED; then why haven’t you signed up?

62 msgkings June 24, 2014 at 12:31 pm

Well said, Mr. Vet

63 Thomas June 24, 2014 at 8:29 pm

What portion of disabled vets are combat disabled, and what portion are being paid for injury unrelated to duty or injuries they led about to join which were then claimed on exit? If you think the average recipient of VA disability is a combat zone amputee you probably didn’t spend too much time in the military.

64 Iraqi War Vet June 27, 2014 at 3:21 pm

“If you think the average recipient of VA disability is a combat zone amputee you probably didn’t spend too much time in the military.”

How at all is that relevent to the point that Veterans benifits are not welfare? Nice red herring.

65 Iraqi War Vet June 27, 2014 at 3:22 pm

*veterans benefits

66 You're not Spock June 24, 2014 at 8:03 am

This is a bad argument. The idea that “rational” or “apolitical” politics exists is absurd. Every appeal to a particular configuration of institutions involves empathy or sympathy for a particular groups of people. This type of self-congratulation that libertarians engage in is without a doubt the most annoying types of arguments that they make.

67 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:22 am

Nope. The free market distribution of status doesn’t rely on me turning on NPR. Concentrated solar works because of physics, not group identity politics.

68 NPW June 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

1. I agree that it is pointless to think that rational arguments will win in politics.

2. I am all for emotional, irrational, mind-numbingly stupid manipulations of the public that work to convince them to enact rational policies.

3. I see that as the only rational solution when rational methods are defined as methods that work.

69 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:07 am

And that isn’t who “those people are” not what they do not how insurance worksand not how medicine works.

70 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:09 am

I liked how kerry assured us that Obama reservs the right to attack anywhere in the world at any time. Good work guys.

71 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:32 am

BTW, doesn’t anyone else see the irony in comparing those people who are “good enough” to work fields entitling them to services from the highest specialists in the general economy? First off, it has nothing to do with “good enough.”. Maybe field workers need field worker doctors.

72 wiki June 24, 2014 at 8:08 am

If I’m not misunderstanding Tyler, the two examples may not be comparable. In the first case, the author may find that Obamacare does not have the intended consequence of assisting those in need. Good motives behind its implementation should not blind one to the success or failure thereof. And if Silverman cared to really help those he favors, he might not support Obamacare. In contrast, Podhoretz is basically saying that whatever the “correct” outcome for the negotiations, he would not be willing to concede any point to be “fair” to the Palestinians who (in his view) do not deserve consideration. Realpolitik may require one to take their preferences into account but he would have no qualms of forcing an uneven bargain on them. One doesn’t have to agree with either Silverman or Podhoretz to see that those are different sorts of rhetorics with different potential fallacies.

73 NM June 24, 2014 at 8:17 am

A Straussian reading of this post:

“My economics blog is so much better than Paul Krugman’s.”

74 rayward June 24, 2014 at 8:27 am

Now we are back to discussing the distinction between sympathy and empathy, the former an understanding between like people based on commonality and the latter an understanding between unlike people based not on commonality but the ability to place oneself in another’s circumstances. To be an effective advocate (my occupation), it’s necessary for me to have empathy (not sympathy) for my adversary. To have an effective health care policy, it’s necessary to have empathy (not sympathy) for those least able to afford health care. To be an effective diplomat, it’s necessary for the diplomat to have empathy (not sympathy) for the opposing side.

75 Rahul June 24, 2014 at 9:02 am

Great observation. I think in your examples (law, diplomacy, health care policy) empathy has utility precisely because there’s effectively a (human) third party that has a major role in deciding how things turn out. And humans seem programmed to reward empathy and penalize a lack of it.

And the party in an argument that is perceived to show a lack of empathy often loses the favor of whoever is deciding an argument (juries, voters etc.).

76 Urso June 24, 2014 at 10:16 am

This is not quite right. Empathy is important because it helps you figure out, “If I say say or do x, what will my adversary say or do in return?” Being able to understand why the other person is acting as he is is crucial even if you take the third party out – perhaps especially so – I’m thinking of settlement negotiations. If you don’t understand what your adversary wants and why he wants it you’ll never settle.

77 Rahul June 24, 2014 at 10:49 am

Your point is true but I’m not sure if I call that version empathy.

e.g. Does a cheetah on a hunt possess empathy with his prey?

78 jimmy June 24, 2014 at 6:54 pm

Exactly. Thus empathy doesn’t really seem to be quite so clearly distinguished from sympathy to me. What makes it possible to put yourself in an unlike person’s circumstances other than some more general likeness? If we were so unlike as predator and prey, no empathy would be possible.

79 Rahul June 24, 2014 at 11:40 pm


My point is that empathy is more than just being able to strategically imagine how your adversary might act. Empathy involves feeling for your adversary.

IMO sympathy is different because sympathy usually involves some condescension or at least a hierarchical relationship. In empathy you are a peer, in sympathy somewhat superior. I may be wrong.

80 jimmy June 25, 2014 at 12:31 am

@rahul, gotcha.

FWIW, the greek roots of sympathy would mean “feeling with” or “suffering together,” and that literal meaning wouldn’t imply any hierarchy.

My comment was probably better directed at Rayward, who seems to think you could have empathy without sympathy. If there’s a real distinction between the two, I don’t think it falls quite along the lines he drew.

81 ThomasH June 24, 2014 at 8:35 am

One way to minimize this risk is to argue as much as possible about results of policies an not the intentions of those who favor them. I do not subjectively doubt that the evil intention of people who favor new forms of voter ID have the intention of reducing voting by people thy think will vote against them. But I still think that the proper way to oppose such policies is to ask supporters for a cost benefit analysis of their proposal in terms of numbers of fraudulent votes prevented and numbers of otherwise eligible voters discouraged. Likewise, I do not doubt that people who favor an increase in that minimum wage have the intention of shifting more income to low income workers even though some low income workers will lose/not get jobs because of it. But I still think that the proper way to oppose that policy is to ask why a minimum wage is preferable to an increase in the EITC

82 Brian Donohue June 24, 2014 at 9:00 am

very good comment.

83 Bill June 24, 2014 at 10:34 am

+1 This comment shows no empathy.

84 Spencer June 24, 2014 at 12:08 pm

The proper way to oppose minimum wages is not to ask why it is preferable to the EITC.

The proper way to oppose the minimum wage is to lobby strongly for an increase in the EITC.

When I see that i will take those opposing the minimum wage seriously.

85 albatross June 24, 2014 at 1:19 pm

And your good opinion (or perhaps your sympathy) is really the gold standard of truly opposing the minimum wage.

86 Aaron June 25, 2014 at 12:03 am

Perhaps you should subjectively doubt the evil intention of voter ID proponents. It does not require evil intent to want elections to be the will of the electorate rather than the will of whoever can defraud the system the most. Given the extremely narrow margins of victory in our polarized era it does not seem like a terribly unlikely possibility.

Cost-benefit analysis is ideal but assumes you have a reasonably accurate means of assessing costs and benefits. I would argue that for voter ID we have very poor understanding ,much less quantified metrics ,for the most relevant costs and benefits. What is the cost to society of a rigged election? How much fraud actually occurs, given our extremely limited efforts (and perhaps ability) to find and study it? What is the cost to society of dissuading someone from voting because the one-time process to get a photo ID is inconvenient? How do different approaches to ID rules change voter incentives, fraudster incentives, and overall costs? What is a reasonable burden to transition to more secure system, both at the individual and societal level, and how much fraud are we willing to tolerate during a transition so that we deter existing voters less? We lack good data on these questions, which is perhaps why these debates often devolve into posturing and accusations of ill intent.

87 david June 24, 2014 at 8:40 am

nearly exactly 140 years ago, Bismarck triggered a massive war between France and Prussia over a telegram modified to seem as if Wilhelm I had insulted the French ambassador – a war which wound up with a million dead and the French Empire broken. If anything the value of status battles in politics seems to have only ebbed since.

88 Art Deco June 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Deaths on the battlefield and in internment camps amounted to about 80,000 during the Franco-Prussian War. The French Empire persisted until 1962.

89 t. gracchus June 24, 2014 at 8:41 am

The Silverman quote offers an argument from respect and equality, albeit in very brief form. It is not an argument from sympathy. The Podhoretz quote offers an argument, if at all, from personal authority (Podhoretz states his lack of sympathy and that is the end of it.) Neither then is an example of the fallacy Cowen says he is interested in.

90 ricardo June 24, 2014 at 12:35 pm

Yes. I’m still scratching my head over this post.

91 Thomas June 24, 2014 at 8:36 pm

‘Respect and equality’. Give up the charade, we know you are an emotional supporter of ACA. Your semantic argument betrays you just like it would have if you’d have said ‘it’s not about empathy, it’s about stealing from the rich’.

92 Becky Hargrove June 24, 2014 at 8:44 am

“Those people”? Some may think that sounds respectful but I don’t.

93 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:51 am

I am one of “those people” right now and by next year I might be in the 2%.

94 Becky Hargrove June 24, 2014 at 9:58 am

Yep, people from all walks of life are “those people”. The designation wouldn’t even exist if people actually had the right to make the products and services which make the most sense for their own survival. And if people had the right to do so, there is precious little which would need to be redistributed.

95 Michael G. Heller June 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

Interesting point on the distinction you perceive as an advocate. Maybe you can’t win against someone unless you can empathise with their perspective (which is sort of play acting?). But there’s also an argument against both sympathy and empathy, i.e. cultivating an ability (skill, training, knowledge, party politics) to rationalise the ‘fair’ and the socially ‘optimal’ outcome from a variety of perspectives. Ideally this is what professional policymakers do daily.

96 Michael G. Heller June 24, 2014 at 8:46 am

drat, that was meant for mr rayward a few comments above…

97 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:52 am

I’ll field it. It seems like if you argue with logic against someone appealing to emotion, it is an arms race that you will lose…but not because you should lose.

98 Michael G. Heller June 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

I guess I’m thinking in terms of ‘roles’ or functions. Rayward needs to advocate. But someone else — this could be the public as a whole — needs to ‘arbitrate’. Ah, but then there’s the good ‘leader’ who also needs to arbitrate. I don’t know who Podhoretz and Silverman are, but I hear Podhoretz speaking like a would-be-leader who is about to lose an advocacy and whose emotions drive him to sympathise rather than lead. Still, its real politick. In real politick sympathy and empathy are just toys you’re forced to play with. Hopefully there’s room for compromise, and good compromise is pure rationality.

99 Art Deco June 24, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Podhoretz speaking like a would-be-leader who is about to lose an advocacy and whose emotions drive him to sympathise rather than lead.

What could you possibly mean by ‘lose an advocacy’ re Near Eastern politics?

100 jimmy June 24, 2014 at 7:07 pm

If I replace “not because you should lose” with “not because you deserve to lose,” do you think I have changed the meaning of the sentence?

If not, do you see the problem with this kind of “logic”?

101 mavery June 24, 2014 at 8:47 am

So is the point that, “This policy makes me feel good” is a “bad” argument, while “This policy helps certain people that I think deserve to be helped” is a “good” argument? Because that’s not clear from the post.

102 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 8:57 am

I think the point is focus on the “policy,” “deserve,” and “helped.”

ACA does basically 4 things. It sort of helps “those people” who are advertised as “deserving” “help.” That it does…meh. What it does awesome at is allows people to think they are helping them. It also kind of hurts the people who don’t deserve help and maybe even deserve to be hurt. And it sticks it to the people who are bad guys standing in the way of helping the deserving people.

But as “policy,” it sucks. Same for banning coal plants before carbon sequestration is ready.

103 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

‘It sort of helps “those people” who are advertised as “deserving” “help.”’

This way of looking at health care is incomprehensible in all the other nations with universal health care.

Health care is not about ‘deserving,’ nor ‘help.’ And ‘those people’ are everyone. At least everyone who is not blessed with being able to live in the exception that is the U.S.

104 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 10:59 am

Tell me PA. What is healthcare about? It seems the fact that we’re even discussing allocation of scarce healthcare resources is appalling to you, and the general populations of all countries of which you approve.

Healthcare is not about x, y, or z.

So tell us, what is it ‘about’.

105 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:33 am

‘It seems the fact that we’re even discussing allocation of scarce healthcare resources is appalling to you, and the general populations of all countries of which you approve.’

Ever lived in Germany (or France)? Particularly after living in the U.S.? They manage to provide health care to essentially all citizens (not to mention a fair number of non-citizens – tourists tend to be surprised at how they are treated for typical complaints at no charge) at a cost that is at least a third less than America’s, and at a level that is, to be charitable to the U.S. (/which does quite poorly in many international comparisons), no worse than American standards.

‘So tell us, what is it ‘about’.’

Those who have lived in a country with essentially universal health care already know – it is Americans that are exceptional in this regard. And to use borth Germany and France as personally experienced examples – there are no in or out of network doctors, for example. Nor is there any paperwork to fill out of any variety before treatment – along with no employees in a medical practice whose sole job it is to deal with insurance companies.

106 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:37 am

‘There is no such thing as universal health care. ‘

Tell that to the British.

‘We have much closer to universal health care.’

Befiore replaying, are you actually a different commenter from andrew’ If yes, then you should be embarassed at your ignorance.

‘As for cost containment, other countries have an entire spectrum of methods. Their #1 method is having a very low GDP per capita compared to the USA.’

Again, you should be embarassed at your ignorance.

107 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 11:41 am

You are incredibly skilled at belaboring what healthcare isn’t. Let’s try this again…

Healthcare is about… [PA complete the rest of this sentence].

Thanks in advance.

108 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

‘Healthcare is about…’

..preventing situations that lead to greater cost (vaccination being a public health example, and regular dental check ups being an example at a personal level), and treating people to handle illness, accident, and such normal health events as pregnancy and infancy, with the goal of promoting the general welfare. (Why yes, those last four words might seem familiar to Americans.)

This isn’t hard – after all, there are a number of models to choose from, all which are at least a third less expensive than that of the system currently used in the notably exceptional United States.

109 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 12:05 pm

That’s interesting. You seem to be taking a utilitarian view of healthcare – maximizing returns while minimizing costs.

Your sentence completion ran pretty long and got pretty specific – but do I have the gist of it?

110 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 12:32 pm

‘That’s interesting. You seem to be taking a utilitarian view of healthcare – maximizing returns while minimizing costs.’

Well, I think it is fair to say that all of the essenitally univeral health care systems that cost a minimum of a third less than America’s while delivering equivalent (being charitable to the U.S.) health care find no distinction between utilitarian and moral when it comes to providing health care to all citizens, from before birth to death.

This is another of those exceptional American perspectives that literally no one in Germany I have ever talked to understands.

111 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:27 am

You are simply wrong Prior_approval.

There is no such thing as universal health care. That is a marketing name. We have much closer to universal health care. As for cost containment, other countries have an entire spectrum of methods. Their #1 method is having a very low GDP per capita compared to the USA.

What no one has is the ability to afford top-of-the line medical services to every member of their society. Here we call the attack on top end healthcare things like “cadillac plans” and in some other countries they simply don’t try.

112 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:37 am

See above.

113 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:49 am

The British are reforming their health care and have NICE.

Universal means something.

It does not mean what it means when you are using it.

This is the point.

114 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:50 am

Universal in the actual meaning of the term would be everyone gets every bit of healthcare they want/need.

That can’t be.

What you are doing is defining “universal” as the full extent that the government provides. So, by your definition, the VA qualifies as providing “universal” healthcare because it meets some standard of provision.

115 prior_approval June 24, 2014 at 11:58 am

‘Universal in the actual meaning of the term would be everyone gets every bit of healthcare they want/need.’

No, it does not.

Except in that ever so exceptional framework found in American health care debates. The rest of the industrial world recognizes that infinite demands can never be met with finite resources.

116 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 1:11 pm


Everyone getting to wait the same poor wait times and getting the same poor care is not “universal” health care.

117 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 1:14 pm

It appears someone else beat me to the point:


Bevan noted in a 1948 speech in the House of Commons, “we shall never have all we need… expectations will always exceed capacity”.

118 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

“Until they have issued guidance on the cost and effectiveness of new or expensive medicines, treatments and procedures, Primary Care Trusts are unlikely to offer to fund courses of treatment. ”

Universal is universal. This ain’t.

119 randomworker June 24, 2014 at 9:06 am

Sympathy: I feel sorry *for* you.
Empathy: I feel sorry *with* you.

120 T. Shaw June 24, 2014 at 9:10 am

They ran out of other people’s money. How will they pay for helping their voting bloc?

Orwell: Politics are essentially coercion and deceit.

Charity/sympathy are religious concepts. Separation of Church and State!!!

Politicians deceitfully use concepts like state-sponsored poverty and class to grab power. ACA could give the state control over one-sixth of GDP.

Some critics of the so-called New Deal saw it as changing class/power dynamics.

Walter Lippman, New York Herald Tribune, May 16, 1939, regarding the thrust of the New Deal, “ . . . one group is interested primarily in social reform and the other is interested in the control of the economic system.”

Obama’s great recession will drag along the bottom as long as FDR’s Great Depression.

121 C June 24, 2014 at 7:40 pm

Your comment reminds me of another Walter Lippmann quote, “It requires wisdom to understand wisdom: the music is nothing if the audience is deaf.”

122 Wonks Anonymous June 24, 2014 at 9:23 am

Silverman’s view seems somewhat old-fashioned in these days of declining working-class employment. Other lefties like (the late) Jerry Cohen & Chris Bertram recognize that.

123 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 9:25 am

Hey, Tyler, the guy upthread is right – you aren’t Spock, and our whole side of politics is about covert appeal to emotion. Voters in the US find the idea that the poor are undeserving losers an emotionally appealing one to a far greater degree than do voters in the rest of the Anglosphere, to say nothing of the First World in general. I wonder why that would be?

124 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 11:15 am

The culture promoted in the US circa 1800 focused on promoting self-reliance and demonizing sloth and lethargy. It was propaganda and it worked. That is why.

That thrust has worn off, however , and some sort of 2nd-class envy seems to have set in, both internally (I want to be more like my neighbor [or it’s variation, my neighbor doesn’t deserve that) and externally, (we ought to be more like Sweden).

I will be the first to argue that America’s golden-age prosperity was a byproduct of the destruction of world production capacity. But that is not to say that American exceptionalism was never a justified concept – just not justified by our stratospheric rise through the 1900s. The puritanical ethos that drove people to break their backs to farm their lands and to feed their families enabled a level of individual ‘freedom’ that is historically exceptional.

125 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 11:32 am

Most cultures promote self-reliance and demonize sloth and lethargy. Scandinavia, Canada and Australia are all about quietly doing your bit. What’s unusual about America is the assumption that some guy working three minimum-wage jobs is slothful and lethargic.

126 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 11:54 am

I agreed with your initial point. I was explaining to you why the US has a particularly strong version of those values.

I disagree with your simply idiotic statement that everybody in the US assumes that “some guy working three minimum-wage jobs is slothful and lethargic”.

I would say it is much more likely in the US to find people who would say that guy is not slothful, but stupid, as he could likely being doing just as well by hopping on the government dole. Frankly, that trend is much more concerning imo.

127 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Yes, it couldn’t be a good idea to read “the assumption” as “the relatively widespread assumption” instead of “the universal assumption”, just as it couldn’t be a good idea to see the three-jobs guy as quite likely unlucky.

Much better to simply start flinging poo…

128 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 12:27 pm

PS I wasn’t really asking why the US has a ‘particularly strong version of those values’. I think we all know the answer. It has to do with not wanting to be taken advantage of by ‘those people’…

129 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Good idea what?

130 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

It would only be a good idea only if the poor really were by-and-large shiftless con-artists (as opposed to ordinary decent people on the receiving end of blind economic fluctuations). I’m going to go out on a limb and say that that assumption is, erm, debatable…

131 C June 24, 2014 at 7:49 pm

Why? Elements of the Republican party essentially inverted the populist anger about the worst economic period since the great depression away from the bankers and policy makers who created the crisis, and are having them cut their own throats in a fit of nihilistic fury by telling them that somehow destroying government will make them more free (to be exploited by massive corporations), that the poor caused the recession and not the rich, and that the Democratic party wants to institute Sharia law and make them live in caves to stop global warming (which doesn’t exist). These elements are funded by massive corporations whose interests they serve. They’re loosely affiliated in a group called ‘The Tea Party’.

132 Nattering Nabob June 24, 2014 at 9:33 am

*your* whole side of politics…

133 Philo June 24, 2014 at 9:39 am

“[M]ost of politics is about . . . which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status.” But political debate concerns *government action*; and social status, while very important, ought to be determined outside the compulsory nexus of government. Unfortunately, government seem destined to continue to be an important instrument for enforcing social status.

134 Rational June 24, 2014 at 9:59 am

I find it odd that someone who performs menial service work is not “economically productive”, whereas someone who profits from say, high-frequency trading presumably is. I think the more clear dividing line is between those who think that certain forms of wealth reallocation (i.e. social services such as welfare) represent a cost rather than a benefit whereas others (carried interest exemption for hedge funds) are beneficial.

135 AlanH June 24, 2014 at 10:19 am

I laugh at Silverman’s interpretation of what Obamacare is about. It isn’t about sympathy for the economically fringe people. It’s about providing large companies with a set of tax-payer supported ‘exchanges’ into which corporations can dump their legacy health care burden for retirees and part-timers.

And then there’s this: I know a woman with approx. $9 million in short term treasuries on which she is earning roughly zero income, the result of selling off equities to beat the cap gains rate rise. She has a ca. $1 million house, paid for. She has no other income. This year her Blue Cross private-purchase policy was cancelled and she was forced into the Obamacare exchange. The income calculation is causing her to be subsidized approx. 50%. Some ‘fringe.’

Obamacare isn’t about sympathy. It’s about transforming the distribution of health care costs and growing government.

136 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 11:17 am


137 msgkings June 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm

That lady is pretty dumb. Her equities would be a LOT higher now if she’d just held on to them. Far more than she ‘saved’ in tax.

138 msgkings June 24, 2014 at 12:46 pm

And the dividend income would be a lot higher than her current income.

139 bon_supp June 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

So this means she has no income whatsoever? I hope she’s on food stamps as well or she’ll be dead of hunger very soon — perhaps she’s subsistence farming on her estate… Not to mention the cost of capex and property taxes on the $1mm home and any other spending whatsoever she might need to make.

Your carefully tailored example seems to not be tailored carefully enough.

140 AlanH June 24, 2014 at 4:06 pm

She was dumb enough to run from the market and into 10 yrs’ in the late fall of 2007. She was dumb enough to jump back in with both feet when she realized on March 6, 2009, that either no asset would be worth much in a year, or that the Fed was going to do its thing. Getting out suited her sense of security, perhaps. You should be so dumb. I should be so dumb. Winning two out of three rounds with a high score is like batting .400, or so I conclude.

141 Eli Rabett June 25, 2014 at 12:40 am

Not in the case of equities. If the third, or fourth time, or the tenth time, they go to zero, there is no coming back (Which is why you balance a portfolio). The only time that counts is the last one.

142 Brandon June 24, 2014 at 4:57 pm

Fringe cases of independently wealthy people getting some subsidies on the exchange proves that Obamacare is all about growing government? How about the substantial Medicaid expansion portion of Obamacare, which was written to be much larger before the SCOTUS came along?

143 byomtov June 26, 2014 at 9:31 pm

I agree. The country is just full of people like this.

144 Aaron Sheldon June 24, 2014 at 10:28 am

We have no other measure to judge ourselves by then how we treat each other.

145 Albigensian June 24, 2014 at 10:36 am

There is indeed much to be said for making myself feel good by giving away my neighbor’s income.

But reasons not to do so include (1) government’s inherent inefficiency, and (2) the potential to break the incentives that produced the income to begin with.

Do we still recognize distinctions between those who can’t take care of themselves, and those who can but would prefer to live off of someone else? Is redistribution a hand-out or a hand-up: i.e., is there any reciprocal obligation to the recipient? Do we recognize the dangers of “a government that can give you everything,” and of creating equality by ensuring that everyone is equally miserable? Do we recognize the psychological cost of being “on disability” (even if one is not particularly disabled) instead of productively employed- even if disability pays better?

Or does all just dissolve in the oozy solvent of Oprah-emotion?

146 Stan June 24, 2014 at 11:18 am

Economic inequality is needed because without it there is insufficient incentive to study, to work hard, and to manage one’s finances prudently. But when inequality becomes excessive consumers can’t maintain their spending and extremist political beliefs flourish. I think we’ve reached this stage. If we’re to compete in the present world economy and maintain a civilized political system we have to improve our infrastructure and do a better job of educating our workers. This will take money, which should be raised by increasing the taxes of people at the top, both the wealthy and the upper middle class. The insistence of people like Cowen that an unfettered free market will cure all our ills strikes me as wildly unrealistic.

147 chuck martel June 24, 2014 at 10:16 pm

” do a better job of educating our workers”

That same old cliche’. Is the education that workers need some kind of a secret? If a worker, or perhaps pre-worker, wants to be a productive member of the economy doesn’t he have some obligation to seek out the required education? If “we” are doing a poor job of educating “our” workers, how is this made manifest and what are the options to remedy the situation?

148 B.B. June 24, 2014 at 10:59 am

I agree that sympathy and empathy and pity cannot and should not replace clear analysis. For example, sympathy for the working poor does not allow us to raise the minimum wage, regardless of its disemployment effects.

At the same time, policy thinking without sympathy or empathy is devoid of values. The heart gives values, the head understands reality. It is part of what has always disturbed me about Ayn Rand, the utter lack of care she has for suffering humanity. It is why she hated Christianity, she could not not stand the notion of agape in Christian thought.

Finally, there is no reason to discuss what one does or does not have sympathy for, even if it has no applications to policy.

As for Norman P., what is wrong with exposing the hypocrisy and double standards of the critics of Israel? It is legitimate to ask why so few seem to care about the horrors in Syria and Iraq and Sudan while they care so much about the much smaller trials of the Palestinians. The subtext is clear: Norman is accusing the critics of being anti-Semitic rather than pro-Arab. Ancient hatreds can hide themselves as sympathies.

149 John Smith June 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

Ancient hatreds can hide themselves as sympathies.

For more, see Chief Justice Sotomayors views on affirmative action.

150 lemmycaution June 24, 2014 at 11:13 am

It has always been acceptable to make sympathy based arguments for policy. It isn’t some sort of fallacy.

151 glasnost June 24, 2014 at 11:19 am

Your argument, as it stands, appears to be an attempt to argue that empathy is universally a lie and that appeals based on it are intrinsically invalid. That would be a disgusting and discrediting argument. Another possibility is that you’re making, or trying to make, a confused and misconstructed argument to the vague effect of “making policy decisions solely on empathy or lack thereof for a subset of people *without considering* things like effectiveness and other consequences”, is not a good way to make decisions. If so, you wrote it badly and no one is sure what you’re trying to say.

Empathy is important, and if you try to tell us to write it out of our policy preferences, we have no interest in listening to you.

152 CM June 24, 2014 at 11:24 am

This is TC at his most annoying. Let me count the ways:

(1) Concern trolling the manner in which other people argue rather than addressing the substance of their statement or argument.

(2) Alluding to a point without actually stating it. This post takes these guys to task for making fallacious arguments without actually articulating the nature of their shared fallacy. Is the fallacy that they don’t accept TC’s (grossly insufficient) view of government and politics as a zero sum status competition? That they conflate their personal preferences with desireable public policy? FYI, neither of these alleged “mistakes” constitute a logical fallacy.

(4) Assuming the truth of novel propositions without any analysis or citation. The assertion that politics is simply a battle over social status is an astonishingly inadequate view of the world.

(5) Implicitly equating someone who favors a center-right plan to help the poor obtain medical care (Silverman) with someone who proudly declares his indifference to the fate of an entire people (Podhoretz). Yeah, these jerks are just alike.

153 Rational June 24, 2014 at 1:35 pm


154 mwbugg June 24, 2014 at 11:26 am

Once again Kevin Drum gets to the heart of the matter:

I’m stumped. What’s obnoxious about this? There are certainly technocratic arguments to be made for and against universal health care, as well the particular implementation details of Obamacare. But the core reason most of us have for supporting Obamacare is exactly the one Silverman makes here: we think everyone, even the poor, should have access to decent health care. A great many conservatives prefer to simply turn their heads away from this human suffering, often because they prefer to keep their taxes low. A great many liberals prefer the opposite.

This isn’t a secret, or a hidden agenda, or anything like that. It’s always been the primary motivation for universal health care. More generally, our values are the motivation for a large share of human activity, especially including political activity. What’s wrong with that?


155 Lee A. Arnold June 24, 2014 at 11:34 am

This, plus Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments.

156 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 11:35 am

“we think everyone, even the poor, should have access to decent health care.”

What is obnoxious is it makes people make nonsense statements. There are no paramilitary guards at our hospitals keeping out the poor. What there is are a ton of people who can’t afford their basic healthcare using the emergency room as a clinic. Now if you want to discuss making basic healthcare cheaper that would be amazing. But there is no politically feasible way to have that discussion.

157 BenK June 24, 2014 at 11:43 am

Lots of people are talking about this. It is behind the push to allow physicians’ assistants and nurses to practice many kinds of medicine; to give more freedom to pharmacies; to allow generics. It is behind many kinds of health maintenance and preventative medicine, public health, and home diagnostics. Even charities providing basic health care – for free – in specific communities.

One does not have to support single-payer comprehensive insurance to advocate for affordable basic health care. Also, one need not conflate free triple-bypasses for everyone with basic health care.

158 Andrew' June 24, 2014 at 4:05 pm

While we do it we’ll hear a lot about substandard care. Then it will just be. And it will be accepted as the new standard and people will act like it had always been that way.

159 BenK June 24, 2014 at 11:37 am

You put forward some simple truths and some common fallacies; along the lines of ‘what’s the matter with kansas’ and other pedantic, patronizing pablum. Some people believe that the ills of the current system are because the government has insufficient control over all aspects of health care, education, family life and employment. Some of them believe that society has gotten more complex faster than the government has been able to generate complex regulations; thus the world is getting worse. Others believe that the government has been growing more involved and more complex, which is why things are getting better. Both prefer more government.

Other people believe that the continual generation of complex regulations is part of the cause for the current problems; that other systems and mechanisms are more helpful, more humane, or even more efficient. That they motivate people better, regulate activities better, respond to crisis more robustly, promote freedom and independence, and so on. The people advocate a variety of strategies other than centralized control of all human activities through a sprawling bureaucracy funded through coercive taxation.

You can choose your rhetoric to be honest about both sides.

160 chuck martel June 24, 2014 at 12:35 pm

” we think everyone, even the poor, should have access to decent health care. ”

No argument there. But why should a stranger be taxed to pay for the appendectomy of the child of parents decorated with hundreds of dollars or more in tattoos that are puffing away two packs of Marlboros a day and tooling around town on an Electraglide with a bottle of Southern Comfort in the saddle bag? If you think that’s the way it should be, personally donate part of your income to the daily maintenance of the local emergency room.

161 Stan June 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

I see that we’re back to the concept of the deserving poor.

162 Andrew' June 25, 2014 at 10:16 am

This (not you) is an example that illustrates what (I think) TC is talking about and how quickly policy can devolve into choosing teams. We can note signals that people who are in a state of “poor” got that way through poor choices. It is very easy to not get a bunch of tattoos and from what I hear they are expensive. It is not that we wish to deem people deserving and undeserving (at least at first) but that in a world of limited resources, they should be applied towards ends that are not wasteful. And in a world of limited information, inferences must be made. Then, the heuristics get squeezed through the two-party plurality system and those people get bucketed and in order to claim that they are still deserving they must be victims of circumstance or oppression. And this may be true. For example, you get tagged for marijuana, end up in prison, get tatted up to affiliate to survive the gang culture, and your employment opportunities are already toast so why not?

163 The Other Jim June 24, 2014 at 1:02 pm

>”But the core reason most of us have for supporting Obamacare is exactly the one Silverman makes here: we think everyone, even the poor, should have access to decent health care.”

Once again, Kevin Drum wallows in delusional non-sequiter. I hope he never finds out that we’ve had Medicaid for fifty years. I think the dissonance might kill him.

>A great many conservatives prefer to simply turn their heads away from this human suffering

And strawmen. Don’t forget strawmen!

164 Brandon June 24, 2014 at 5:00 pm

I hope you never find out the requirements for actually getting on Medicaid, because it sure isn’t a catch-all safety net for the poor. Even in the states that have expanded it.

165 Brian Donohue June 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

“A great many conservatives prefer to simply turn their heads away from this human suffering, often because they prefer to keep their taxes low.”

Kevin Drum evinces a lack of understanding about where the tax revenue in this country comes from.

166 4runner June 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

“That is in fact what most of politics is about, namely debates over which groups should enjoy higher social status and which groups should receive lower social status. Of course critics of Obamacare have their own versions of desired status reallocation, typically involving higher status for the economically productive.”

Wow. ALL “economic productivity” is by definition a governmental allocation. The places without government on this planet look like Somalia, where life is nasty, brutish, and short. The only inherent “economic productivity” that is valued in these places is capability for violence and the propensity to use it.

Since you are presumably not arguing for rule-of-the-jungle resource allocation, the “economically productive” that you so proudly laud are nothing more than those who have benefited from government policies that reallocates resources away from violence-prone warlords.

Stop deluding yourself that the “economically productive” in our current society are somehow ordained from on-high.

167 chuck martel June 24, 2014 at 12:14 pm

You nation/state advocates just can’t get past the “Somalia as hell-hole” argument in justifying the iron fist of the modern bureaucracy. That must be the result of a public school education and reading the book and watching the movie “Lord of the Flies”. Do you really think that every disagreement in a tribal society results in maiming and murder? The various Somali sultanates were going concerns in the region until the imperialist British and Italians arrived to foul things up. And they didn’t do it through the art of persuasion. Yet these people that have lived there for thousands of years still manage to swap cattle and qat just as they always have, despite lacking an all-encompassing leadership made up of pointy-headed Harvard grads who couldn’t load a rifle or dig a ditch. Their leaders stay in power through ability and earned respect, not phony elections managed by a state-compliant media.

168 4runner June 24, 2014 at 12:56 pm

What’s your point?

That there once was a working indigenous government in Somalia?

That this indigenous government provided conditions that promoted economic growth (or at least security)?

That the people who were most economically productive under this indigenous government were different from the people who were the most economically productive under British/Italian/warlord rule?

If that is the case, you and I are on the same page.

Mr. Cowen looks at poor people and sees the “economically unproductive.”
Mr. Cowen looks at rich people and sees the “economically productive.”

He deludes himself into thinking that this is somehow independent of the government that sets the rules for the marketplace– that it is a natural order of things or a God-given right.

It is not.

169 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 6:09 pm

What if the rules are just no force?

170 4runner June 24, 2014 at 6:43 pm

Imagine how successful you would be if the official language of this country were Spanish. Would it impact your economic productivity?

Any excess economic productivity of native English speakers in the US is a function of the US govt’s choice of official language– not some God-given right.

171 Andrew' June 25, 2014 at 10:17 am

Are we being funny? Let me know because I can try to be funny. If we are being funny.

172 Brian Donohue June 24, 2014 at 6:39 pm

You have cart/horse issues. Prehistoric Australians, to take just one example, established trade networks spanning hundreds of miles. I suppose you figure there must have been some Big Brother overseeing it all.

A dose of Hayek might help.

173 4runner June 24, 2014 at 6:47 pm

I have no idea about the prehistoric Australians, but I’m pretty sue that they didn’t have dental care.

I’m partial to dental care. When I look around, it looks like a government that sets rules for the marketplace is a necessary precondition for dental care.

Those same rules determine who is and who isn’t economically productive.

174 4runner June 24, 2014 at 6:58 pm

Oh– I’m sorry– I see where you are going with this.

Let me give you a different answer.

Have you ever heard of “God(s)”?

An overseeing Big Brother(s) is so essential to forming complex human societies that humans went out and MADE THEM UP.

175 Brian Domohue June 24, 2014 at 10:30 pm

Thank you for your candid, bleak, and (thankfully) inaccurate portrayal of human nature.

176 gab June 24, 2014 at 5:51 pm

I’m sure the Somalis would welcome you with open arms…

177 prior_approval June 25, 2014 at 1:13 am

Well loaded arms, actually.

178 Tyro June 25, 2014 at 9:01 am

Do you really think that every disagreement in a tribal society results in maiming and murder?

My family comes from one of those isolated, mountainous regions in the Mediterranean known for its violent vendettas, so as you can imagine, my answer to this is “yes.”

In the 20th century struggle between communism and liberal society, libertarianism was neither the victor nor ever a viable competitor. Why should people support a system or a philosophy that could not protect them or save them when it was needed?

179 BenK June 24, 2014 at 11:29 am

If society is a meaningless machine that spews out more of itself – and should be judged solely on the ability to persistently and robustly perform that very function – then sympathy may or may not be utilitarian, as a neurochemical mechanism for manipulation of individual biochemical actors. It certainly is no substitute for ‘policy’ – a higher-order mechanism for manipulating the behavior of groups. Instead, it should be subservient to ‘policy.’

The premise and resulting conclusions are part of a secularist, nihilistic mess.

180 Tyler Fan June 24, 2014 at 11:31 am

Determinations of status are “most” of what politics is about? I’m not sure if that statement is mostly wrong or 100% wrong.

181 DMS June 24, 2014 at 12:05 pm

My understanding of what Tyler is saying is that thinking like an economist, Who cares if we have sympathy or empathy? It’s not relevant.

We make decisions about our own self-interest (enlightened self-interest sometimes) — what is good for us.

My own support for Obamacare is not _primararily_ because I care for the poor but because it is a program which serves my interest as a capitalist — it is better for USA (and thus me since I have a long term stake) to have universal portable health care.

182 Bill June 24, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Tyler isn’t even thinking like an economist if you are a behavioral economist and recognize that persons are social and that empathy may be a social trait that people wish to maximize just as any other social trait.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, empathy may be selfish as well. You have a current self and a future self. Setting up policies or programs for others, when you may become a member of the OTHER in the future, is perfectly selfish as protection for a possible contingency, and when there are negative externalities (e.g., preexisting condition limitations based on others being outside of the system) such that a market could not work.

Its all how you define being human.

Does being human include being empathetic. Does it include thinking of your future self.

183 chuck martel June 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Sympathy and empathy are emotions or thoughts that have no physical being. No thought or emotion has any real meaning until it’s translated into action. That’s why the role of academics in their ivory towers isn’t as important as they assume. Their days spent pondering issues aren’t productive until their recommendations are adopted and put into motion. Judges slap a tougher sentence on convicted defendants that show no remorse. Why? Unless the defendant offers to wash the victim’s dishes and clothes or perform some other service, remorse, like sympathy and empathy, is an empty, meaningless gesture.

184 The Other Jim June 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm

You start out with a good point that legislating via sympathy is a bad idea, but unfortunately your knee-jerk reaction to claim that “both sides do it” shows that you don’t really understand it.

The lefty version is: I don’t care for those people. We should use the State to take away their money, their items, and their jobs. (Wealthy people, white people, males, Americans, coal miners.)

The righty version is: I don’t care for what those people are doing. We should discourage that behavior, or at least stop encouraging it and apologizing for it. (Unlimited life on the dole, launching mortar attacks on schoolchildren.)

The irony is that when a righty states such behavioral objections, the immediate outcry from the left is that the righty hates the people — in these examples, inner city minorities and Palestinians. They do this because this is the only way lefties can think. And it’s very unhealthy.

185 Rational June 24, 2014 at 1:40 pm

A balanced and nuanced description of left versus right. Now while mortar attacks on schoolchildren are frowned upon exclusively by the right, mowing down school children with assault weapons requires no policy response. Do I have that right?

186 HL June 24, 2014 at 5:46 pm

Only if they are made in the USA

187 Art Deco June 24, 2014 at 3:59 pm

The post strikes me as oddly non sequitur. Policy is in the service of aims. Aims ultimately rely on normative arguments (which are influenced by sympathies). If you fancy you’ve a better set of aims than Podhoretz, put yours and his on the table and we’ll see.

188 nominal June 24, 2014 at 4:28 pm

I’m super sorry that your policy preferences show you to be the sociopath you wish you weren’t.

189 nominal June 24, 2014 at 4:31 pm

I’m sure the millions of people who suffered for lack of medical care before the ACA are very concerned about your poor fee-fees. After all, if your theories worked out, the free market would have brought them awesome health care. Eventually.

Sympathy IS a policy. If you see someone starving and you don’t feed them, you’re an asshole. No amount of free market ideology changes that.

190 andrew' June 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm

It is about 1.7 million. So it isn’t “millions”.

And you didn’t understand.

191 Eli Rabett June 25, 2014 at 12:31 am

No, it is millions.

192 Brian Donohue June 24, 2014 at 6:41 pm

Ideally, you take money from nominal and feed them with that. Otherwise, morality can pinch uncomfortably.

193 nominal June 24, 2014 at 4:33 pm

Unless of course this is your version of A Modest Proposal? Is your blog a clever satire that we’ve all somehow misunderstood? Are you really trying to push policies so hideously mean-spirited and cruel that eventually this sort of theorizing will be dismissed as the pseudo-fascism that it is?

194 Tom June 24, 2014 at 7:59 pm

I don’t see anything outrageous or obnoxious or even wrong about Silverman’s sentence. Extending an expensive service like health care to people whose own economic output wouldn’t leave them enough extra after food and transportation and shelter to pay for health care is something we do out of respect, and if you like, sympathy. What other words do you propose we should use? Are you seriously proposing that neither mutual respect nor sympathy should play any role in politics? That’s extremely childish.

On the other hand Podhoretz’s paragraph is more than obnoxious. It’s evil. No sympathy even for children growing up in refugee camps? What a vile man.

195 Tyro June 24, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Those taking issue with Tyler’s post Just. Don’t. Get. It. If you have sympathy for the plight of other’s, then you’re just a wimpy bleeding heart weak-minded person, not a manly, awesome conservative. So you think people who don’t “deserve” it by dint of their economic superiority like Cowen here? That’s means you’re just a weak-minded bleeding heart loser who doesn’t understand what America’s all about. Cowen and people like him are the only ones manly and conservative enough to make the cold hearted tough decisions to ensure that other people will die so that he won’t have to wait 30 minutes at the doctor’s office or pay a few extra dollars in Medicare taxes. The rest of you don’t have the stones to do what Cowen can do.

196 Dan June 24, 2014 at 9:12 pm

These sound like arguments over how much weight various people will get in the social welfare function that is used to determine policy. Silverman is claiming that “those people” have been given unusually low weight in policymakers’ social welfare function and we should cheer the ACA because it’s the kind of policy that we’d get if we gave them something closer to the average weight. Podhoretz is claiming that Palestinians should get zero weight in the social welfare function.

197 Eli Rabett June 25, 2014 at 12:27 am

Wrong target, the issue is not what Gary Silverman wrote, but what Tyler Cowan wrote. Cowan does not like it when the ethical and practical implications of his politics are discussed.

198 prior_approval June 25, 2014 at 1:07 am

Well, he is man who has written on this web site that the Nazis were a mere bump in the road to the better future that eugenics promises. Of course he does not want anyone thinking too deeply about the ethical or practical implications of such opinions.

Especially in Germany, because there is no way that any respectable publication would ever interview him again as a serious figure.

199 Nathan W June 25, 2014 at 3:14 pm

Who said which what when where now?

200 Nathan W June 25, 2014 at 3:24 pm

The trodden upon class of the heavily taxed wealthy. Suffering from the vantage point of their BMWs and penthouse suites. Oh, that we can reduce the oppression of taxation. The downtrodden class. The class which suffers. The class which cannot represent its own interests, whether through the courts, in politics, or directly in the economy.

The suffering and oppression of wealthy peoples in so-called democratic societies should lead us to all shed a tear, or two.

For those people of little load, the ones with no income or property to tax? The freedom of no income. Freedom from the chains to property. Oh, that these wayward souls could understand the suffering of the wealthy.

201 Jonathan June 25, 2014 at 7:11 pm

This who thread is making me feel stupid. Would someone please stoop to my level and identify explicitly what exactly is the fallacy under discussion? Please? I’m serious; I really don’t get it.

The claim “the fact that the ACA benefits a group I feel sympathy for is a point in favor of the ACA” seems to me entirely innocuous. I guess I’m supposed to realize that it’s fallacious but I don’t. I really really don’t. What am I missing?

202 Eric June 27, 2014 at 8:04 am

Access to health care is a basic human right. It’s not a matter of “status”. This post brings new life to the old expression, “dumb as a …”

203 Brad June 30, 2014 at 12:29 am

I’m afraid that most of the posts here miss the point entirely. The fallacy being considered is of the following form: if you have sympathy for A, you are justified in acting to benefit A at B’s expense, regardless of whether A has any legitimate claim on B.

In reality, your sympathy for A may motivate you to do something to benefit him at your own expense, but it does not create a right for you to force B to pay for your sympathy.

N.B. In defense of Norman Podhoretz, his point is not merely that he lacks sympathy for the Palestinian Arabs; rather, he thinks that no one’s sympathy for them is warranted, since the conditions that evoke sympathy are of their own making, i.e. that they have consistently chosen to continue their battle against the existence of a neighboring Jewish state in preference to making peace with it.

204 Floccina July 2, 2014 at 4:08 pm

It could have been written like this:

What I do not like about PPACA is that it shows no respect for “those people” – as Hudson called them in Giant – who are good enough to work the fields and mow the lawns, and build the roads and sew the clothes, and diaper the babies and wash the dishes, but somehow aren’t good enough to decide for themselves weather to take a risk of going uninsured.

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