In a recent comment, Jim Glass make a few critical points about libertarian’s approach to policy implementation, particularly a tendency among libertarians to argue for the abstract ideal while paying insufficient attention to the messy real world process of moving towards that ideal. I agree that libertarians are certainly prone to this, although I’m not sure it’s more common among libertarians than anyone else along the political spectrum. However, there is one part of his comment where I think an additional perspective is worth considering.

Glass notes, citing research from Jonathan Haidt, that libertarians rank the lowest “in empathy and compassion.” Accusations of lacking compassion is not an uncommon thing to hear. And there’s certainly some truth to it for some libertarians. I’d be lying if I said I’d never met any libertarians who really did fulfill the stereotype of the cold-hearted brute, indifferent to the suffering of others.

But there’s another take I have in mind. To tie it all together nicely, I’ll also cite something from the work of Haidt. In his book The Coddling of the American Mind, Haidt talks about peanut allergies and how various institutions have reacted to them. Years ago, if you had a nut allergy, it was up to you to make sure you avoided peanuts. In more recent years, and some would say more compassionate times, things have moved in the opposite direction. I’ve been on flights where it was announced that because there was a single passenger on board who had a peanut allergy, peanuts would not be made available to any passengers. Not only that, but passengers were forbidden from even bringing their own peanuts onboard.

Haidt cites research suggesting the substantial increase in nut allergies in recent years is actually a result of this very form of compassion. He writes:

It was later discovered that peanut allergies were surging precisely because parents and teachers had started protecting children from early exposure to peanuts back in the 1990s. In February 2015, an authoritative study was published. The LEAP (Learning Early About Peanut Allergy) study was based on the hypothesis that “regular eating of peanut containing products, when started during infancy, will elicit a protective immune response instead of an allergic immune reaction.”…The immune system is a complex adaptive system…It requires exposure to a range of foods, bacteria, and even parasitic worms in order to develop its ability to mount an immune response to real threats (such as the bacterium that causes strep throat) while ignoring nonthreats (such as peanut proteins).

I don’t have the requisite medical expertise to judge how authoritative this study was, but for the sake of thought experiment, let’s assume these findings are correct. If being ever more protective of nut allergies leads to a situation where a greater and greater percentage of the population will end up suffering from that very condition, then it’s not at all clear that such protective efforts are the truly compassionate approach. It can be argued that the older approach is in fact what a maximally compassionate person would prefer, given the constraints we face.

Adam Smith wrote in The Theory of Moral Sentiments that what we consider compassionate or merciful can change when we take a step back and consider the larger picture. Using the example of how we might feel pity for a criminal facing the terror of his judgment, Smith writes (emphasis added):

[The compassionate] are disposed to pardon and forgive him, and to save him from that punishment, which in all their cool hours they had considered as the retribution due to such crimes. Here, therefore, they have occasion to call to their assistance the consideration of the general interest of society. They counterbalance the impulse of this weak and partial humanity by the dictates of a humanity that is more generous and comprehensive. They reflect that mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and oppose to the emotions of compassion which they feel for a particular person, a more enlarged compassion which they feel for mankind.

To one perspective, saying we should be less proactive about nut allergies might seem lacking in compassion or empathy. But to another perspective, that seemingly uncompassionate approach can be motivated by a compassion that is, in Smith’s words, more generous and comprehensive, a more enlarged compassion felt for all mankind.

I think many libertarians are motivated by this more generous and comprehensive view of compassion. If libertarians were truly indifferent to the suffering of the poor and weak, as is often alleged, it’s very odd that so many libertarians spill so much ink arguing about why libertarian policies would be especially beneficial to the poor and weak. Nor does it make much sense why libertarians object that so much of the state’s intervention is on behalf of the rich and politically powerful, often at the expense of the poor and politically weak.

Again, I’m not claiming this is the sole motivation for every libertarian. But it is a real motivation, and a strong one. And I find it’s arguments rooted in this motivation which libertarianism’s opponents are most likely to overlook and least likely to engage.


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.