Government Power Undermines Empathy
Empathy: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this. – Merriam-Webster's dictionary.
The fundamental quality of human relationship is empathy. Empathy enables you to understand another person's situation, make sense of their behavior, and distance yourself from your own initial self-absorbed reaction to what other people do. It is a supreme expression of consciousness, providing the ability to wait a moment and consider what's happening before acting.
Freedom and capitalism encourage empathy; government power and administrative nit-picking undermines it.
Before trade, the primary interaction between people of different groups was war. The enemy was not considered human; there was no reason for them to be. There was no benefit to expanding the range of empathy beyond one's group. Outside people did not exist within the moral circle of another tribe, and did not enjoy the benefits of human empathy.
This all began to change with the beginnings of trade about 80,000 years ago. That's when we see marine shells painted and strung as necklaces far from the sea in Africa (see Matt Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist). How did they get there? From people outside of the tribe who had something to trade. These shells were used as a medium of exchange, and it was the beginning of a visible expression of our common humanity.
Free exchange is the form of social interaction that most encourages human empathy. When you want something, and somebody else has that something that you want, you have several choices: You can steal it, you can beg them to give it to you, you can ask to borrow it, or you can exchange with them for something that has an equal or greater value to them.
Begging, borrowing, or stealing all put you in a position that naturally diminishes your empathy. The other person becomes "the thing that possesses something I want." If I use force to steal, or appeal to the generosity of another to lend or give me what I want, it puts both of us in an adversarial position toward one another, or at the very least into a sort of dominant/submissive relationship.
The free trade of capitalism, on the other hand, encourages empathy. If I trade with somebody, we are equals. We have to consider each other's interests, likes, desires and dislikes in order to make a good trade.
Free trade encourages very different people to seek to find common ground, to understand different ways of living so that we can understand what one another want and effectively sell things to each other.
In a very real, social sense it is trade that has brought out the very best of humanity.
Trade does not make everybody angels and it does not negate human nature. But it does encourage us to understand and accept human nature, and it gets us to look for what's true about people as a consistent way of life because by doing so we become more effective and successful. But this is not something that can be forced; free trade requires the ability for individuals to choose to do what motivates them. Free trade requires freedom.
The contemporary antithesis is the attempt by some people to use the force of government to make people do things – like forcing new "green" technology to be (somehow) invented and used or forcing those who create wealth to spread their wealth around to those who do not.
These kinds of ends are pursued by people who consider themselves deeply compassionate and who consider those who oppose such government force as cold and uncaring. But they confuse controlling and giving things to people with compassion.
I had a conversation recently with a retired schoolteacher who was singing the praises of President Obama's policies. She said that she wants more entitlements. I pointed out how many of the people who create wealth are leaving California for the very reason that the government is taking too much of their wealth to pay for her entitlements. She responded, "That's why it's good that Obama is enforcing these policies throughout the country so that the wealthy can't just leave." I pointed out how many of the people who create wealth are leaving the country, too. She responded, "That's why I like that Obama is making it more difficult for the wealthy to leave the country and avoid paying US taxes."
Nowhere in this conversation did I hear from her any appreciation of "these people who create wealth" as people. Rather, these people were seen by her as "the wealthy" – not people, but things that should give her more of what she wants.
This is the problem with greed and envy, which are clearly two of this woman's driving emotions: they cause us to think of other people not as people, but as things, and they serve to diminish our capacity for empathy and re-enforce our sense of other people as objects. It is this lack of empathy that makes it possible for people to do horrible things to one another.
When people on the left talk about compassion, it is really an abstraction. Their compassion – at least as they express it politically – is based upon an idea they have of how we all should be; they want us to be like their image of us. Like bad stage parents who try to force their kids to fulfill their own ambitions, folks who seek to use government force to make us better people are not thinking about real people at all.
But their actions, their wishes, their ideals affect real, live human beings, with very personal experiences, relationships, ideas and beliefs and a very real human nature that will not be molded like so much clay in an administrator's hands. Those on the left – as well as statists of other stripes – look upon humanity as small children look upon a blob of Play-Doh; and they work like crazy to try to squish us and form us and flatten us into the shapes that they long for humanity to become.
This is not empathy; it is magical thinking.
Empathy is encouraged by trade and individual liberty. Individualism is not some cold-hearted selfishness; it is the condition under which real people can care for, respect and understand other real people.
The way to encourage greater human empathy is to affirm and champion the freedom of the individual, including the freedom of the individual to trade what and how he or she wishes.
This is what America's founders did, and they created the foundation for the most benevolent, powerful and compassionate country this world has ever seen. It is our task to ensure that our gift of liberty does not perish from this Earth in the name of the childish fantasy that people can be forced to conform to an ideal.
Posted by William3 on 11/14/11 07:14 PM
Nicely framed article, Mr. Wade.
There are those who see the world as it is and respond to that reality with empathy. And there are those who see a world the way they want it to be (i.e., "childish fantasy") and try to force reality to match their view.
The latter perspective leads them to anger and frustration and to supporting a strong government enforcer.
Posted by nithsdale on 11/14/11 03:48 PM
Trade development gets little attention these days. Thank you for a good exposition re the basis of society. Basics are so important for consideration of events and the proper construction of handling of the crisis society now faces.
Business, our modern euphemism for trade, seems to be our whipping post these days. It is categorized with all kinds of porjoratives, a hold over from the Maxist attacks in the 19th Century. Business is equated with finance and then capitalism until few know what they are talking about. Everyone in "trade" is thrown into the same pot.
The Military Industrial Complex is the major lightning attractor but our crisis today was born long before our involvement in two world wars. It began with governments involved in building empires. Historically that takes us back to any proven empire in our long story of developemnt as societies. Therefore, the impetus to misuse society begins with government, not the people who make and barter goods.
More people seem to be recalling the Reagan years as we stumble into greater problems and well they might. Reagan faced the first big international finance crisis of modern times... the issuance of bonds, and associated paper in mind boggling amounts that threatened to submerge the western world. It appeared that Congress, authorizing foreign assistance in almost every aspect of modern society, had set up funds which were distributed first by the State Department, then a growing number of targetted social and educational and health government, national and international,initiatives and roving gangs of MBA's, straight out the best schools in the USA ,had gone abroad and made "contracts' with foreign nations to "finance" these activities, prerequisites to the modernizing world about us all. The problem was no one was auditting these activities and it all came to a head with Reagan's election.
Cancun was the conference to straighten out this mess. An isolated stretch of beach in Mexico was selected to build an olympic type village just to handle this large international gathering to settle these accounts. it was an awesome task since there were no totals, but paper was floating throughout the banking system of the world. Many governments insisted they had never received the noney promised but were now being asked to repay these bonds. Many governments had proof they had no such contracts since the MBA's had made them with under ministers, had not gone through the correct constitutional procedure in their country to allow such government debt. It was a horrible mess and every international bank was teetering because so much of their capital and reserves were in this paper, traded constantly... .so much so it was impossible to total it!
That was Cancun. Why don't we hear about it now? What was the solution then?
The core of the problem was government, in particular our Congress and the bright minds , mostly in the Democatic Party, and their committment to One World, the philosophical core of Bretton Woods, three decades previously.
Freemarket supporters do not seem to be interested in the free market at all! How strange! Trade is their boy to be whippped.
Posted by laceja on 11/14/11 01:11 PM
Great read! Too bad the main stream media won't publish it.
Posted by Frederick on 11/14/11 10:35 AM
You forgot to add the corporation to your list. As an employer a corporation will try to fool you that they really care, that you are part of a family, but a privately owned small company will have a real face behind that relationship (good or bad)