The Role of Sympathy in Policy
By Jon Murphy
It is no great revelation to say that the policy responses to the COVID pandemic varies considerably between Republicans, liberals, and Democrats. A charitable interpretation of the differences are that Republicans and (classical) liberals are concerned about government overreach, undermining the rule of law, and that the costs of policies far exceed the benefits. Democrats may be seen as concerned with saving as many lives as possible even if the costs of the policies exceed the benefits. A less charitable interpretation is that Republicans and Liberals are simply anti-science and that liberty is the only virtue that matters whereas Democrats are merely trying to sneak in socialism on a fearful public.
The split, however, can be understood much more cleanly without trying to speculate on people’s virtues and vices. According to a recent study, vast differences exist between people’s perception of the COVID virus. In general, people overestimate the risk of the virus on young people and underestimate the risk on older people (see the first chart in the link). Democrats tend to overestimate its risk to a greater extent than Republicans do.
Perceptions of the virus filter into people’s evaluations of the costs and benefits of a given policy. Since economic costs are ephemeral, forward-looking, and subjective, our personal perceptions will shape what we consider the costs to be. Democrats support more stringent policies and slower re-openings because they perceive the costs to be considerably higher than Republicans. They likewise overestimate the net benefits of the proposed policies.
This is where the role of sympathy comes into play. Sympathy is a 4-step process. For the sake of example, consider two people Jim and Mary. Mary is an observer of Jim’s behavior, but she wants to try to sympathize with him:
- First, Mary imagines herself in Jim’s situation as best as she can
- She imaginatively experiences sentiments arising from the situation
- She then compares her sentiments (what she is feeling from the imagined situation) with the sentiment that Jim appears to be experiencing
- She comes to a new sentiment about the agreement or disagreement between the two sentiments (hers and Jim’s). If they coincide, there is agreeableness. If they do not coincide, there is disagreeableness and disapproval of Jim’s sentiment.
Disagreeableness, however, is not a good feeling. Mary, to improve herself, will examine more closely Jim’s situation. She may endeavor to learn more about his frame of mind, his perceptions- in short, his local knowledge. In this effort to sympathize more fully with Jim, Mary may learn new key facts, as well as Jim’s perceptions of those facts, which may bring their sentiments closer into alignment. Mary may still disapprove of Jim’s sentiments, but she will have a clearer understanding of them and could engage with Jim more fruitfully to shift his perceptions, too.
To bring the story of Mary and Jim from the abstract to reality, Mary may observe Jim opposing COVID lockdowns. In her initial sympathetic process, she may reject Jim’s opposition. But, upon further reflection, she may see her own sentiments are based on an incorrect perception of the virus. She, in turn, alters her sentiments, but can now also engage Jim with sympathy to his concerns about the policy.
The late, great James Buchanan described democracy as “government by discussion.” Discussion, for it to be fruitful and not simply be a tyranny of majority, must involve sympathy. A government without sympathy, even if it has the trappings of democracy like majority voting and dispersion of powers, cannot be a liberal democracy. Legislation without sympathy deserves not the august description of “law.” We must make efforts to understand the positions, the sentiments, and the perceptions of those whom we disagree with. We just might find it is us who err.
Jon Murphy is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University, where he specializes in Law & Economics and Smithian Political Economy. He previously was an economic consultant in New Hampshire.
For more articles by Jon Murphy, see the Archive.