The Missing Moods
By Bryan Caplan
Last month, I argued that people’s moods provide information about their reliability:
Yes, the desire to feel any specific mood can lead people into error. At the same time, however, some moods are symptoms of error, and others are symptoms of accuracy.
When someone expresses his views with a calm mood, you consider him more reliable than when he expresses his views with an hysterical mood. We give more credence to someone who discusses alleged war crimes somberly than if he does so flippantly. As far as I can tell, this is justified.
You can learn a lot by comparing the mood reasonable proponents would hold to the mood actual proponents do hold.
How important is this insight in the real world? Very. For many popular positions, the reasonable mood is virtually invisible. For your consideration…
1. The hawk. Modern warfare almost always leads to killing lots of innocents; if governments were held to the same standards as individuals, these killings would be manslaughter, if not murder. This doesn’t mean that war is never justified. But the reasonable hawkish mood is sorrow – and constant yearning for a peaceful path. The kind of emotions that flow out of, “We are in a tragic situation. After painstaking research on all the available options, we regretfully conclude that we have to kill many thousands of innocent civilians in order to avoid even greater evils. This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about foreign policy.”
I have never personally known a hawk who expresses such moods, and know of none in the public eye. Instead, the standard hawk moods are anger and machismo. Ted Cruz’s recent quip, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out” is typical. Indeed, the hawks I personally know don’t just ignore civilian deaths. When I raise the issue, they cavalierly appeal to the collective guilt of their enemies. Sometimes they laugh. As a result, I put little weight on what hawks say. This doesn’t mean their view is false, but it is a strong reason to think it’s false.
2. The immigration restrictionist. Immigration from the Third World to the First World is almost a fool-proof way to work your way out of poverty. The mechanism: Labor is more productive in the First World than the Third, so migrants generally create the extra riches they consume. This doesn’t mean that immigration restrictions are never justified. But the reasonable restrictionist mood is anguish that a tremendous opportunity to enrich mankind and end poverty must go to waste – and pity for the billions punished for the “crime” of choosing the wrong parents. The kind of emotions that flow out of, “The economic and humanitarian case for immigration is awesome. Unfortunately, there are even larger offsetting costs. These costs are hard to spot with the naked eye, but careful study confirms they are tragically real. Trapping innocents in poverty because of the long-run costs of immigration seems unfair, but after exhaustive study we’ve found no other remedy. Once you see this big picture, restriction is the lesser evil. This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about the long-run dangers of immigration.”
I have met a couple of restrictionists who privately express this mood, and read a few who hold it publicly. But in percentage terms, they’re almost invisible. Instead, the standard restrictionist moods are anger and xenophobia. Mainstream restrictionists hunt for horrific immigrant outliers, then use these outliers to justify harsh treatment of immigrants in general.
3. The proponent of labor market regulation. Labor regulation obviously isn’t the main reason why workers receive decent treatment from employers; after all, most workers receive notably better conditions than the law requires. And labor regulation has a clear downside: Forcing employers to treat their employees better reduces the incentive to employ them. This doesn’t mean that labor market regulation is never justified, but the reasonable pro-regulation mood is humility about the size of the gains plus wonder that even modest gains are on the table. The kind of emotions that flow out of, “Of course worker productivity, not labor market regulation, is the most important determinant of workers’ standard of living. And of course regulation has some disemployment effect. But strangely, that disemployment effect turns out to be small – even in the long-run. As a result, labor market regulation usually makes workers better off even taking the downside into account. The evidence is so strong that it overcame our initial presumption that the downside was serious, especially in the long-run.”
This mood is essentially non-existent among non-economists, and rare among pro-regulation economists. The latter, to their credit, take the downsides seriously enough to try to measure them.* But their mood does not inspire trust. They don’t sound surprised that the law of demand coincidentally breaks down just when they hoped it would, or stressed that they might have failed to account for long-term damage. This doesn’t prove they’re wrong, but even the intellectually strongest proponents of labor market regulation are hard to take at face value.
As you can tell, I’m not a hawk, an immigration restrictionist, or supporter of labor market regulation. Are there any “missing moods” that put my views in a negative light? Absolutely. While I’m a pacifist, I’m sad to say that many avowed pacifists actively sympathize with evil regimes they don’t want to fight. Similarly, while I think libertarian policies are great for the truly poor, I’ve often heard libertarians privately sneer at the poor, without even a token effort to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving. The prevalence of these moods doesn’t prove pacifism and libertarianism false, but both are bona fide reasons for people to distrust pacifists and libertarians. So what? Again: If you have good reason to distrust the messenger, you have good reason to doubt the message.
* But not seriously enough.