Empathy in public policy increases risk

Paul Bloom thinks we use too much empathy in policy decisions and not enough reason. Taking a person in particularly difficult circumstances and explaining how a policy will affect them – in order to create empathy with that person to ultimately garner or dissuade support for a particular policy – is damaging, according to Bloom. Here’s one way it is damaging in education. If we empathise with the poor, struggling student during a debate over school funding, we will be extremely hesistant to vote for cutting education funding. How could you? Do you not care about the disadvantaged? But if we continue to increase funding, in order to attempt to help this student, or at least not be seen to be dismissive of his/her needs, what we end up with is a government budget increasingly geared towards education spending. And it is hard to cut such spending. If this occurs across other domains, such as welfare and health, what we get is a government budget dedicated increasingly towards recurrent spending on social programs that cannot be cut. The budget is now geared such that the government is a quasi-insurance agency, offering risk management services to those in need. The budget has less room for discretionary spending for projects of need at a particular time, rendering it under-resourced when we may actually need to fund discretionary spending to get us through a crisis.

Such is the argument by Tyler Cowen in his latest book, The Complacent Class. He worries that by moving the government to act as an insurer, we diminish its ability to play a proactive and helpful role during a crisis. This is but one way that empathy and, frankly, weakness, on our parts has led us astray and risked our prosperity going forward. Our budgets and systems should be robust to negative shocks, but at the moment we are heading down a path of fragility. We need to broaden our view of public policy making, and fight this shift towards empathy as public policy. We have gotten weak, underpinned by a focus on victimhood instead of empowerment and reason. We need to rebalance our focus.

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