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The Empathy Gap, Part III – Discussing Objections (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature has considered The Empathy Gap, a 2009 book by J.D. Trout. Thursday we discussed what cognitive science reveals about human willpower and human weakness. Yesterday we discussed why and how to include that science in public policy. Today we conclude with responses to common libertarian and conservative criticisms.

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy and psychology at Loyola University in Chicago. His chief interests include the nature of scientific explanation, the psychology of human judgment, scientific realism and intellectual progress, and social/political issues bearing on well-being. He also writes “The Greater Good” blog at Psychology Today.

The Empathy Gap is a fascinating read, packed with scientific evidence that reveals subtle but important limits in human empathy and even free will. Equally important for progressive Democratic activists, he also offers excellent arguments for better policy based on that scientific evidence. We can include Dr. Trout’s ideas when we discuss policy with friends, family members, neighbors, coworkers, candidates, and elected officials. But we should expect and be prepared to meet the common objections.

“That should be a personal choice.”

This is the first objection, most often raised by libertarians. Privatizing Social Security, Medicare, education, and the like will give people more choices, and it is almost an article of libertarian faith that more choices means more freedom. In 2002, Cato Institute writer Alan Reynolds warned that “Big Brother Wants to Run Your 401(k).” The issue was a bill in Congress that would forbid 401(k) plans to place more than 20% of an individual’s assets in a single stock. This bill was offered after the Enron scandal, which cost thousands of employees their life savings. Like many employers, Enron pushed employees to invest their entire 401(k)s in company stock. Enron then forbade them to sell that stock and shift their 401(k)s to other assets as the company collapsed. The bill would have been a sensible response, consistent with advice from the independent Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. Reynolds argued that “More choices are better than fewer, and that includes the choice of how much risk you take with a single stock,” concluding:

If pension reform gives individuals more choices over how to invest their own money, then it might deserve to be called a reform. If it leaves individuals with fewer choices, it will just be arrogant meddling.

From private charity to care for the needy to private school vouchers to privatizing Social Security and Medicare, libertarians insist government should let individuals make their own choices. Yet as we saw this week, research shows there are many choices we don’t make very well. A 2009 report by the Employee Benefits Research Institute concluded that Americans don’t save nearly enough for their own retirement goals. That’s the reason we created Social Security, a mandatory savings program. Similarly, we tried private charity as a solution to poverty for most of our nation’s history, and it was not enough. President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs did not eliminate poverty, but they did reduce it by almost half. Conversely, as Dr. Trout notes, there is no evidence for the conservative claim that robust GDP growth alone will reduce poverty in the U.S.

As progressives, we want government that works, and that means we have to follow the evidence.

“But I know a guy …”

This objection introduces an anecdote that supposedly proves the social science research is wrong. Research says we discount our future selves and don’t save enough, “But I know a guy who saves so much he can barely afford to live now.” Research says private charitable gifts are not enough to care for the needy, “But I know a guy who got help from his church.” You can find variations of this objection in the reader comments below almost any news story about social science research.

Social science research rarely finds “all” or “none.” If a study finds 85% of us do That, you probably “know a guy” who doesn’t. His existence does not disprove the research; he’s one of the other 15% in the finding. As Dr. Trout notes, we all know stories of exceptional people. Those stories are both interesting and memorable, and our knowing them fuels the availability bias, where we estimate how common something is based on how readily we can think of an example. But we should base social policy on what most humans actually do, not on a handful of exceptions held up as models for the rest of us to emulate. Expecting ordinary people to be extraordinary is a recipe for failure.

“Government fosters dependency.”

But shouldn’t we want people to be “better?” If government steps in and solves a problem for us, we won’t learn how to solve it for ourselves. As Ryan Messmore wrote for the Heritage Foundation:

Finally, as critics have rightly noted, some religious leaders speak as if only government entitlements and transfer payments count as legitimate expressions of Christian charity. These leaders therefore ignore the tendency for government welfare programs to foster among those in need unhealthy dependence on the dole. They also ignore the way in which these programs often crowd out civil society efforts to fight poverty, leaving the poor with less personal and comprehensive care.

Like “more choices are better than fewer,” this is less a statement of fact than an article of faith. If this were true, the evidence would show a decrease on social mobility for the poor – poor people remaining in poverty longer – following the Great Society and other anti-poverty programs. But the evidence shows exactly the opposite. The Great Society programs cut the poverty rate almost in half, and this chart from the Economic Policy Institute shows that most poor people escape poverty in just a few months:


Again, we progressives want government that works, and that means we have to follow the evidence.

“That’s social engineering!”

This is a common objection, and it’s one we can’t disprove. Nor should we. Yes, many progressive ideas are “social engineering.” That’s the point. Engineers look at problems and try to find solutions. Engineers also discard solutions that don’t work, and try to improve solutions that don’t work well enough. Indeed, Dr. Trout suggests that every social policy bill should include a statement of its objectives, expressed as a measurable prediction. He also suggests that most social policy bills should include sunset clauses or automatic review dates. He argues this would both lessen resistance to passing a bill – “Let’s try it for 10 years. If it doesn’t produce the results we expect, we’ll change it” – and also make government more accountable.

Of course, that argument will only convince those who believe government should be an empirical field. It will not convince those who believe government should cling to ‘first principles’ and who test government programs against intuition. It’s easy to convince ourselves a claim “makes sense,” such as that “more choices are better than fewer” or “government programs foster dependency.” We can imagine an example where those might be true, then find anecdotal or archetypal examples. We may not be good at making some kinds of decisions, but we are very good at fooling ourselves.

The cornerstone of scientific inquiry is a willingness to be wrong. We should embrace that as progressives, but we must also accept that not everyone else will. That, too, is part of ordinary people being … ordinary.


Happy Saturday!