There’s a thought I’ve had rolling around in my head for a while that a recent post by Scott Sumner helped bring into focus. He argued there can sometimes be a failure to understand and appreciate how people might think in fundamentally different ways from you, and how this can lead to political polarization. As he put it:

The people that cannot accept that other people like modern art suffer from a failure of imagination, an inability to grasp that other people process visual information differently than they do.  People that view voters for the opposing party as evil often fail to grasp that not everyone sees political issues the way that they do.

This is similar to what Jeffrey Friedman called “ideational heterogeniety” – the idea that different minds process information in different ways. As Friedman described it, 

Ideational heterogeneity between my web of beliefs and yours would keep me from knowing how you will interpret your situation, and thus how you will act in response to it. Even if I know what your situation is, then – itself a difficult matter, if you are anonymous to me, as are most agents to the technocrats attempting to predict their behavior – I cannot know how you will subjectively interpret it, and thus how you will act in response to it, if you and I are ideationally heterogeneous.

While Friedman was talking about differences in how we process information leading to differences of interpretation and action, the more general case I had in my mind that was clarified by Scott Sumner’s post is the unknowability of other people’s subjective experience, not merely their thought processes. If you see modern art find nothing worthwhile about the experience but don’t take into account that different people have different subjective experiences that are fundamentally inaccessible to you, you might be tempted to think anyone who claims to enjoy the experience of viewing modern art is just role-playing. Call this phenomenon “experiential heterogeneity” – paraphrasing Friedman’s description, it could be described in the following way:

Experiential heterogeneity between my subjective experience and yours would keep me from knowing how you experience your situation, and thus how you will respond to it. Even if I know what your situation is, then, – itself a difficult matter, if you are anonymous to me, as are most agents to the technocrats attempting to predict their behavior – I cannot know how you will subjectively experience it, and thus how you will act in response to it, if you and I are experientially heterogeneous.

Aside from modern art, here’s two other cases where experiential heterogeneity can come into play. The first is from my own experience, the second comes from someone else. 

I used to be a very heavy smoker. Towards the end of my time in the Marine Corps, I worked at the rifle range, and for my last year I was the Range Safety Officer and lead Combat Marksmanship Trainer for annual rifle qualification and pre-deployment combat training. This was a job that had me outdoors all day, for obvious reasons, which in turn meant I never needed to step outside for a cigarette. I could light up at any time – and I was easily going through three packs a day at that point. Eventually I decided to quit – I knew that after leaving the Marines and becoming a college student my income would plunge, so I needed to cut back on how much I spent. (Plus, there were several other excellent reasons to quit smoking – you can probably think of a few yourself!) The difficulty of quitting smoking is well-known enough to be a cultural meme, and after being such a heavy smoker for so many years, I knew I was in for a rough transition. Except, what I “knew” turned out to not be true. I had no real difficulty in quitting – it was actually pretty easy for me. What should I take from this? Here are two possibilities:

  1. Quitting smoking actually isn’t all that difficult. Every smoker out there who has complained about the struggle of quitting is just being a big baby. 
  2. Quitting smoking is in fact really difficult, but I happen to possess such a Herculean level of willpower that I can easily accomplish things that are simply too difficult for the plebes.

While both of these interpretations provide an opportunity for me to grandstand in superiority, I don’t think they are true. I know people who have struggled mightily with quitting smoking who were not simply weak-willed babies – I knew too much about the many difficult things in their own life they had accomplished to dismiss them as lacking willpower or discipline. Nor, if I’m honest, can I claim to have some uniquely strong degree of willpower. There are many things in my life I’ve found to be a struggle that probably don’t seem difficult to most other people. 

So what’s a third option? My subjective experience of quitting cigarettes was simply different from most other people. Thus, it wasn’t that I had superior willpower compared to my friends who have struggled with quitting. It’s more likely that it simply required far less willpower from me than from them. While it might be tempting for me to just say “Quitting smoking isn’t that hard – I know from personal experience! You’re just being lazy!”, that wouldn’t be justified. The truth is I have no idea what the process of quitting feels like to anyone else – and neither do you. 

The second case comes from Ben Carpenter, one of YouTube’s many online fitness personalities. Provided you don’t have an aversion to profanity, I’d recommend you just take a few minutes to watch his video, but the short version is this. While Ben himself is very lean (being a fitness model and a training coach), his sister has struggled with her weight through her entire life. He talks about a time when he was dieting down to absurdly low body fat levels for a photoshoot, and the insane struggle he felt with his hunger while trying to maintain that level of leanness. His sister asked about how he was feeling and he described to her in great detail about how extreme his hunger was, how nothing he ate made a dent in his hunger, and as soon as he finished eating all he could think about is when he would eat again. Her response was “You’ve basically described how I feel every single day.” Carpenter describes the realization this gave him:

Dieting to this level of leanness is the single hardest fitness thing I have ever done. If you had offered me a hundred grand to maintain this for a whole year, I don’t think I would have been able to endure it, and I am not a rich person. Almost anyone who diets to six percent body fat or below without drugs will tell you how incredibly insatiable their appetite was. But I only had to fight my appetite signals for a few weeks. She had been doing it for years…My sister has to exert more effort and willpower to fight her hunger signals for her entire life, basically, than I ever have.

Ben Carpenter describes his sister as an “incredibly hard working” person, so he knows her well enough to know that her struggles with controlling her weight aren’t down to her just being a lazy weak-willed glutton. But if you just assume other people’s subjective experience is the same as yours, then you might also just assume people like Emily Carpenter are lazy and weak-willed – despite the incredible work and effort she demonstrates in other aspects of her life. But you don’t know what someone else’s hunger feels like to them. You can’t know that. 

So where am I going with all of this? Well, I think in cases like I described above, regarding addiction or weight management, the views of myself on the former and Ben Carpenter on the latter are usually seen as the kinder, more compassionate view, whereas the view that it’s all just down to willpower and voluntary choice is considered the more hard-hearted view. On the other hand, the views of libertarians and classical liberals to let certain issues be handled “on the market” are often seen as being the hard-hearted view. To some, it sounds callous and uncaring to say “while having a safe job is good, money is also good. Jobs that are unusually dangerous—in the contemporary United States that’s primarily fishing, logging, and trucking—pay a premium over other working-class occupations precisely because people are reluctant to risk death or maiming at work. And in a free society it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” But I think this take, far from being callous and uncaring, is actually what shows genuine respect and even compassion for people. 

Libertarians and classical liberals are much more likely to be willing to accept that “it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk-reward spectrum.” But modern liberals and progressives recoil at this – they view those kinds of choices as suspect, and feel an imperative to overrule them via the state. There is often an expressed disbelief that anyone might genuinely make such a choice – surely nobody would genuinely believe higher risk for higher pay was a good trade. Such choices must surely be made under duress or perhaps out of ignorance, making their choice susceptible to an external veto by third parties. 

Scott Sumner closed out his post by saying “Don’t assume that you know what’s going on in the minds of other people.  You do not.  You don’t believe that your neighbor needs a painkiller?  How would you know?  We need free markets precisely because we do not know what other people see and feel and taste.” I wholeheartedly agree. Modern liberals see others making choices that seem wrong or misguided and think this shows those choices are not genuine, or not deserving of respect, and can therefore be negated. Classical liberals see the same thing and understand that though these choices might seem strange to us, they nonetheless deserve respect and should not be subject to outside interference, because we cannot truly know the other person’s thoughts or subjective experiences, and therefore we cannot truly know what value that arrangement offers them. If I see someone making a trade-off of higher risk for higher pay that seems crazy to me, that is excellent evidence that such a trade-off is not worth it for me – but precisely zero evidence that such a trade-off isn’t genuinely worth it for them. As is often the case, Adam Smith said it the best:

The statesman who should attempt to direct people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.