THE BUMBLING COLOSSUS  By Henry F. Field                                              
The Regulatory State vs. the Citizen; How Good Intentions Fail and the Example of Health Care;
                                  A New Progressive's Guide    
  (available at

Misplaced Empathy Harms

How Misplaced Empathy Distorts Good Policy

Paul Bloom, Ragan Professor of Psychology, Yale U., in a recent article points to the fact that all across the political spectrum leaders and followers alike extol the goal of “empathy” as critical to advancement in all spheres. He concludes a recent article as follows:

“I don’t deny the lure of empathy. It is often irresistible to try to feel the world as others feel it, to vicariously experience their suffering, to listen to our hearts. It really does seem like a gift, one that enhances the life of the giver. The alternative—careful reasoning mixed with a more distant compassion—seems cold and unfeeling. The main thing to be said in its favor is that it makes the world a better place.” (Dec 2, 2016, WSJ, excerpted from his Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion (Ecco  2016)).

The importance of this distinction between empathy and reasoned compassion is because it goes to the roots of political difference -- why some people are Democrat and some Republican, some liberal, others conservative, and others at all other points on the political spectrum. Emotions drive thoughts, and misplaced emotions drive erroneous thinking. So it is critical in trying to determine the best public policy to understand the underlying emotional drivers.

The danger of elevating empathy to the top rung when thinking about policy is that doing so puts emotion over reason. Empathy tends to freeze out reason and evidence. You see the effects of this all the time. The popular discourse is front-loaded with emotional pitch, often at high frequency. Alternative views to current fashion are disparaged as "immoral" or "non-empathic", and their proponents seen as closet fascists or "privileged". Their motives are questioned. By contrast, the motives of the emotion/empathy crowd are always pure. 

But something important is lost in this approach. What's lost is the connection between the first impulse and the best action; how do you really help those most affected without harming them instead, or the rest more. The overall effects need to be considered, not just the most visible. So elevating emotion is dangerous. Yet if there is no emotion, the tether of reason to intuition and purpose frays. You need some emotional component. So what's the right mix?

For that you need "sympathy", concern or compassion, a lower emotional pitch which allows full play for reason and evidence. Although as Professor Bloom notes, a reasoned concern seems cold and unfeeling, it has one great advantage -- it allows you to reach the better analysis and outcome. "It makes the world a better place."

Not many people would think of free markets in this connection, but no better or more useful example of the harm of misplaced empathy exists. Free markets are usually seen as dog-eat-dog arenas, crass and unfeeling, and thus immoral. Zero sum. The wealthy or better-off win, the poorer lose. Inequality reigns. Government, in this view, needs to intervene significantly to modify "self-interested" motives and behavior, reduce inequality, and "protect the public interest". Socialism is the logical extension of this thinking, but enhanced regulation and control of the players and the products and services involved is seen as a necessary first step. Contrary thought is rejected as unfeeling and outrageous.

Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, signature pieces of the new Obama administration, clearly illustrated this attitude. Regulate the industry (health care, finance), and if modest regulation is not enough, issue more. Reduce and cabin private decision-making. If problems still exist, take it over. Health care, especially after Obamacare, was headed in that direction.

The idea that private interests can coincide with the public interest is never considered. It is treated as absurd. The idea that regulating an industry can produce great harm to ordinary people is brushed aside.

I wrote "The Bumbling Colossus" expressly to counter this view, which is founded on profound ignorance. Parts II and III of that work set out the educated person's baseline needed to enter the discussion. Recent published work elaborates it further. Especially the work of Dwight Lee and Paul Bloom. Here's how.

Dwight Lee’s distinction between “magnanimous” and “mundane” morality illuminates the fallacy in the empathy/outrage way of thinking about markets. See “Moderating the Dark Side of Emotional Morality with the Bright Side of Market Morality”, The Independent Review, v. 17, n. 2, Fall 2012, pp. 203-217, digested at (see section on “Are Markets Moral?”). These two very different forms of morality confuse thinking about free markets and regulation.

As Lee shows, the case for free markets over regulation or state control is founded on a moral dimension, and not just the better outcome. So while it is true that “markets are unequaled in reducing poverty, providing opportunities, improving environmental quality, decreasing discrimination based upon freedom and responsibility,” these benefits, though demonstrable, are popularly taken for granted, and thus disregarded. This is because they result from “a spontaneous process of widespread cooperation that few understand.”

Even when appreciated, markets are seen as immoral because they arise from “morally dubious if not outright immoral” motives (self-interest). People tend to judge morals by motives or intentions, not outcomes. They see governmental control as being “the public interest”, taming or replacing the private market’s “self-interest”. In doing this, they have forgotten or are ignorant of Adam Smith's observation of a tradesman or merchant, that "in pursuing his own interest, he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he intends to promote it." An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1776), discussed in The Bumbling Colossus, at 162 ("Adam Smith's Paradox").

So the private and public interests are intertwined. So why do people say private markets are immoral? Enter Professor Lee. He points out that there are two different moralities. The most common, “magnanimous morality”, entails behavior which is: 1) intentional, 2) sacrificial, and 3) directed to identifiable persons or groups. Thus everyone recognizes as moral someone who spends their own time or money helping a wounded person recover. All three conditions are satisfied. An intentional act involving self-sacrifice towards identified persons. Adam Smith discusses this morality at length in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

But the “magnanimous morality” of families and close groups, which entails sacrifice of something of your own for the benefit of identified others, has a dark side: creating a tribal, “us vs them” hostility to others. This is a universal tendency. It “has caused enormous grief throughout human history:”

“The human decency based on our propensity to exhibit compassion and love and a willingness to sacrifice for some is coupled with an equally human tendency to inflict pain and suffering on others. What goes almost completely unrecognized, even by those most vocal in their desire to reduce human brutality, is that the morality of markets serves to moderate hostility between diverse groups by harmonizing conflicting objectives through positive-sum exchange. Markets make the instinctive morality we all embrace emotionally more moral than it would be otherwise.”

Dwight Lee, “Moderating the Dark Side of Emotional Morality with the Bright Side of Market Morality”, The Independent Review, id., at p. 204.

These two very distinct forms of morality conflict. When people impose magnanimous morality on markets, they destroy them. (Imagine a regime of sacrificial trading.) And when people impose market or mundane morality on personal giving, they destroy it. (Imagine if every gift had to be the subject of a reciprocal benefit.)

Nor can "magnanimous morality" be infinitely extended to embrace everyone. Like light emanating from a source, the further out it goes, the thinner and weaker the beam. At some point it diminishes so much other forces easily predominate. That's why there are few like Jesus, or Buddha, who can wander dispensing unconditional love. Someone needs to mind the store, work the fields, support those unable to support themselves. 

Thus the impulse many have to impose magnanimous morality on markets is not only misplaced, it is destructive. It serves to rob the larger society of the very means required for individual and group success. It makes us blind to the very real morality which makes markets work. To castigate markets for not adhering to the tenets of a misplaced magnanimous morality is to violate what is true and moral in reality. What was seen as moral becomes immoral. 

In addition, this misunderstood morality neglects the morality built in to markets themselves. Markets are built on trust, and this requires virtue, honesty, reliability. A greedy businessman will cheat his customers once -- until he finds they take their business elsewhere. Wrongful behavior is not only illegal, it is self-defeating. Only monopoly - business or governmental - promotes bad behavior. Hence the critical importance of competition. See The Bumbling Colossus at 150-180.

What Professor Bloom Adds

Professor Bloom's work adds to misapplied morality another dimension – what drives people to misapply the moralities. The driver of the misapplication is misplaced empathy. Our leaders of all political stripes have told us, "have empathy". For the poor. For immigrants. For religious, social, sexual, racial minorities. The list is constantly renewed. We believe this. Yet few of us have stopped to ask or think about what it means. It turns out that Professor Bloom has done this thinking and research. His conclusion is that:

“when it comes to guiding our decisions, empathy is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse. When we have the good sense to set it aside, we are better people and make better policy.”

Wow! Quite a shock and reversal. Is he a madman? What could he possibly mean? Let's first ask what empathy is.

What do we mean by empathy? Some use the word to describe what psychologists call cognitive empathy—that is, the capacity to understand what’s going on in the minds of other people, without necessarily sharing their feelings. Empathy in this sense is essential; you can’t act effectively in the world if you don’t have some sense of what other people want. But it isn’t inherently a positive force. High cognitive empathy is also necessary for a successful con man, seducer or torturer.

“When most of us talk about empathy, we mean what psychologists call emotional empathy. This goes beyond mere understanding. To feel empathy for someone in this sense means that you share their experiences and suffering—you feel what they are feeling.

“This is an important part of life. Such empathy amplifies the pleasures of sports and sex, and it underlies much of the appetite we have for novels, movies and television. Most of all, people want to share the feelings of their friends and romantic partners; it’s a basic part of intimacy.

“But emotional empathy is a different matter when it comes to guiding our moral judgments and political decisions. Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our everyday lives) shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.”

Professor Bloom recounts various studies he and others have done illustrating how empathy affects thinking and promotes bad behavior, with subjects showing indifference or hostility to those they do not empathize with (the out-group). Moreover, policy always creates benefits and harms, requiring choice:

“In moral and political debates, our positions often reflect our choice of whom to empathize with. We might feel empathy with minorities abused and killed by law enforcement—or with the police themselves, whose lives are often in peril. With minority students who can’t get into college—or with white students turned away even though they have better grades. Do you empathize with the mother of a toddler who shoots himself with a handgun? Or with a woman who is raped because she is forbidden to buy a gun to defend herself? With the Syrian refugee who just wants to start a new life, or the American who loses his job to an immigrant?

“Such empathic concerns can lead to hostility. Consider that the most empathic moments in the 2016 election season came from the president-elect, in his attacks on undocumented immigrants. Donald Trump wasn’t stirring empathy for the immigrants, of course, but for those he described as their victims, those putatively raped and assaulted and murdered.

 ‘You can always find someone to empathize with on either side of the issue.

“Given all these problems with empathy, it’s a good thing that we can use rational deliberation to override its pull. Most people would agree, on reflection, that these empathy-driven judgments are mistaken—one person is not worth more than eight, we shouldn’t stop a vaccine program because of a single sick child if stopping it would lead to the deaths of dozens. We can appreciate that any important decision—about criminal justice, diversity policies in higher education, gun control or immigration—will inevitably have winners and losers, and so one can always find someone to empathize with on either side of the issue.

“What about our motivation to be good people? If we don’t empathize with others, don’t feel their pain, why would we care enough to help them? If the alternative to empathy is apathy, then perhaps we should stick with it, regardless of its flaws.”

But apathy is not the only alternative:

“Fortunately, empathy isn’t the only force motivating us to do good. Empathy can be clearly distinguished from concern or compassion—caring about others, valuing their fates. The distinction is nicely summarized by the neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki in a 2014 article for the journal Current Biology: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

“In a series of studies ... We found as well that compassion predicts charitable donations, but empathy does not.

“These studies also revealed practical differences between empathy and compassion. Empathy was difficult and unpleasant—it wore people out. This is consistent with other findings suggesting that vicarious suffering not only leads to bad decision-making but also causes burnout and withdrawal. Compassion training, by contrast, led to better feelings on the part of the meditator and kinder behavior toward others. It has all the benefits of empathy and few of the costs."

“I don’t deny the lure of empathy. It is often irresistible to try to feel the world as others feel it, to vicariously experience their suffering, to listen to our hearts. It really does seem like a gift, one that enhances the life of the giver. The alternative—careful reasoning mixed with a more distant compassion—seems cold and unfeeling. The main thing to be said in its favor is that it makes the world a better place.”

Lest you think all this is wholly new, the product of possibly evanescent psychology research, it is good to remind that Adam Smith wrote over two centuries ago, using the term "sympathy" instead of compassion:

 "On the way to proper sympathy, one must restrain the impulses of empathy and assume at least briefly the role of 'spectator'."

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

When one looks as a "spectator," a moral balance is restored. As the great Nobel-economist George Stigler observed about liberals and conservatives:

"I venture to assert that the conservative is an earnest friend of man but that he looks at welfare in a less personal and restricted way than the liberal. When the price of wheat is raised in a crop restriction scheme, everyone can observe the benefit to the owner of the farm, and it is this benefit that catches the liberal eye. The conservative is troubled by two other effects of the crop restriction scheme: a tax has been levied on all consumers of bread; and the restriction scheme almost inevitably will lead to some waste of resources or, differently put, reduce the community's real income. These effects are obviously harmful to non-farmers.

"There are many, many needy groups in a society, and some take a generation or two or even three before they catch the eye of the liberal, be he reformer or politician.... The conservative's programs are designed to help everyone, even groups too poor to have a press agent. 

"It is fair to state that the conservative is compassionate for the great mass of the population which is moderately affected by each public policy, whereas the liberal is compassionate for the special, identifiable group which is most benefited or injured by the policy in question."

Stigler, "The Unjoined Debate," in The Citizen and the State: Essays on Regulation, at 6-7 (1975).

So there is no way around the need for careful thinking and research. As benefits to distinct groups at the expense of the whole accumulate, everyone starts to suffer. Pile one after another, add bureaucracies to administer it all, and you have the Bumbling Colossus. Slow growth, people without work who want it, static or declining real incomes for most, heightened inequality and social tensions -- these are the legacies of the empathy/emotion approach to policy. In the end, everyone is worse off. The only correction is an awakening, change on a large scale, a revolution in thinking and expectations. Discussed in Field, The Bumbling Colossus at 259-69.


Driven by misplaced empathy, millions of people around the globe, the educated and the uneducated – from avid readers of the N.Y. Times to European populists to remote Peruvian farmers – continue to confuse the appropriate realms of magnanimous and market morality. Unconscious of the misplaced empathy which drives them, and confused by conventional “magnanimous morality”, they apply it erroneously to markets, and they vote for leaders who espouse ever more government regulation and control over the economy, stifling it in the name of helping it.

They do this believing, falsely, in the moral rectitude of displacing markets or limiting their effectiveness. Even the most educated among us fall prey to this. We vote for leaders who extol equality and the evils of economic freedom and business. "Down with Wall Street". "Kill the Capitalists Pigs".  "Redistribute the Wealth". "Curb the 1%".  These leaders end up inevitably delivering neither equality nor prosperity, but a declining standard of living for everyone except their elite supporters and themselves and increasing castigation or downright repression of everyone else. 

We see this around the world wherever an ideology elevates the goal of "equality" over that of "liberty" or "freedom". Witness Cuba. Venezuela. The Soviet Union. Think about the contrast between North and South Korea, and East and West Germany, a contrast which is almost a controlled experiment in the relative merit of systems of freedom vs government control.

As Milton Friedman said, "countries elevating equality over freedom end up with neither equality nor freedom; countries elevating freedom over equality end up with both." Much of Europe is awakening to this truth, and to the harms brought about by slow growth, reduced employment, high welfare costs, and relative decline in living standards which earlier "equality" ideology resulting in a bureaucratized state entailed.

In the U.S., we see this in continuing calls for more and bigger redistribution or government regulation and control, wherever some perceived need or inequality exists. There is always an endless supply of causes. And the solutions misplaced empathy brings lack real helpfulness and usher in much harm.

Witness Obamacare. Dodd-Frank. Regulatory overkill supplanting markets, which resulted in eight years of slow growth, fewer jobs, more people discouraged from the workforce. Jobs never created are difficult to empathize with, but nonetheless real for those who could fill them. These are very poignant, if less visible, harms to many, even millions. The blindness here is the failure to recognize the misplaced empathy behind the failed enactments, the inability to step back and use compassion and the power of reason instead.

And recognize what is lying there before us. Do not blind ourselves to the morality, mundane as it is, and power of markets and economic freedom, just because the benefits "derive from a process of widespread cooperation that few understand." Look to see how markets can be freer and individual economic freedom increased to include more people and transactions, not replaced or constrained. Build to enhance them, not seeking false towers of government control elevated on their desiccated remnants. 

For further discussion of the views of the great Nobel-winning economist George Stigler and others, read "People Talking Past One Another: Liberals versus Conservatives", The Bumbling Colossus, at 148 et seq.


Once the central importance and morality of free markets is recognized, a further question arises. What is a free market? Is it the absence of all rules, regulations, and laws, as is commonly assumed?

No. Few markets operate effectively in the absence of certain rules, whether agreed to, customary, or by law. Look at stock exchanges. Before any law or regulation was created, the parties organized themselves so as to operate by agreed to or customary rules. These rules simplified and facilitated transactions. You also need a rule of impartial law enforcing contracts and penalizing fraud. Without these, the trust necessary for people to engage and invest fails.

So the question is, what principle defines what type of rule is beneficial to the transacting parties and the public, and what type of rule or regulation harms? This is the key question for creating a regime which advances the common good instead of falsely claiming to do so while dragging it ever backward.

For discussion, further analysis and examples, see the sidebar here, "Regulation: Good & Bad".

Full explication of the "New Progressive Approach" is in The Bumbling Colossus, by Henry F. Field ( 2012), including the section at p. 218 et seq, "How Do You Tell What Regulation to Avoid and What to Keep?" 

Website Builder