In a recent commentary, Jim Glass made some critical points about libertarian approaches to policy implementation, particularly the tendency among libertarians to argue for abstract ideals while paying insufficient attention to the messy real-world processes of moving toward that ideal. I agree that libertarians are certainly prone to this, though I’m not sure it’s more common among libertarians than anyone else on the political spectrum. However, there is one part of his comment where I think an additional perspective should be considered.
Glass notes, citing research by Jonathan Haidt, that libertarians rank lowest in “empathy and compassion.” It is not uncommon to hear complaints of a lack of empathy. And for some libertarians it certainly has some truth. I’d be lying if I said I’d never met any libertarians who truly fulfilled the stereotype of cold-hearted brutality, oblivious to the suffering of others.
But there is another take I remember. To tie it all together nicely, I’ll quote something from Haidt’s work. in his book The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt talks about peanut allergies and their reactions to various organizations. A few years ago, if you had a nut allergy, it was up to you to make sure you avoided peanuts. In recent years, and some would say in more compassionate times, things have gone in the opposite direction. I’ve been on a flight where it was announced that a single passenger on board had a peanut allergy, so peanuts would not be made available to any passengers. Not only that, but passengers were not even allowed to bring their own peanuts on board.
Haidt cites research suggesting the significant increase in nut allergies in recent years is actually the result of this same sympathy. He writes:
Later it was discovered that peanut allergies were growing right up because Parents and teachers began protecting children from early exposure to peanuts in the 1990s. In February 2015, an authoritative study was published. The LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) study is based on the hypothesis that “regular consumption of peanut-containing products, when initiated in childhood, will produce a protective immune response rather than an allergic immune response.”…The immune system is a complex adaptive system. … it need A variety of foods, bacteria, and even parasitic worms are exposed to build up the ability to resist real threats (such as bacteria that cause strep throat) while ignoring non-threats (such as peanut protein).
I don’t have the medical expertise to judge how valid this study was, but for the sake of a thought experiment, let’s assume these results are correct. If being more protective of nut allergy leads to a situation where a larger and larger percentage of the population suffers from that condition, it is not at all clear that such protective efforts are truly compassionate measures. It can be argued that the old approach is indeed what a most compassionate person would prefer, given the limitations we face.
Adam Smith wrote Theory of Moral Sentiments What we consider compassionate or compassionate can change when we take a step back and consider the bigger picture. Using the example of how we can feel pity for a criminal facing the fear of his trial, Smith writes (emphasis added):
[The compassionate] to pardon and forgive him, and to save him from that punishment, which in all their coolness they regarded as retribution for such a crime. Here, therefore, is an opportunity to call for their help in view of the general interest of society. They counteract the passions of this weak and partial humanity by the dictates of a more generous and comprehensive humanity. They reflect that pity for the guilty is opposed to cruelty to the innocent, and the emotion of compassion which they feel for a particular individual, is opposed to the more extended compassion which they feel for mankind.
From one point of view, we should say less There may seem to be a lack of active compassion or empathy about nut allergies. But from another point of view, that seemingly helpless view can be motivated by a compassion that is, in Smith’s words, more generous and comprehensive, a more extended compassion felt for all mankind.
I think many libertarians are motivated by this more liberal and comprehensive view of compassion. If libertarians really were indifferent to the suffering of the poor and vulnerable, as is often alleged, it is strange that so much ink is spilled over why libertarian policies would be particularly beneficial to the poor and vulnerable. Nor does it make much sense why libertarians object that so much state intervention favors the rich and politically powerful, often at the expense of the poor and politically weak.
Again, I’m not claiming that this is the only motivation for every libertarian. But it is a real inspiration, and a powerful one. And I find these arguments at the core of motivation that opponents of libertarianism are likely to ignore and be less likely to engage with.
Kevin Corcoran is a Marine Corps veteran and a consultant in healthcare economics and analytics and holds a Bachelor of Science in Economics from George Mason University.