Much has been written about Jonathan Haidt’s work on the psychology of political identity and the ways in which libertarians differ from liberals and conservatives. He found, among other things, that self-described libertarians have a more cerebral as opposed to emotional intellectual style. He also found that libertarians score high on “systematizing” and low on “empathizing,” the combination of which is associated with a more “masculine” cognitive style, and, in the extreme, autism. Haidt and his co-authors concluded that: “Libertarians are high in Openness to Experience and seem to enjoy effortful and thoughtful cognitive tasks. In combination with low levels of emotional reactivity, the highly rational nature of libertarians may lead them to a logical, rather than emotional, system of morality.”
And this certainly fits a broader stereotype of libertarians as being “cold” and “rational” and “calculating” when it comes to all kinds of issues, but especially social policy. Of all the sub-species of homo libertus, the economist might be the most likely to match this perception. And it goes without saying that the male of that sub-species might well be the distilled essence of Haidt’s results. If there were ever a creature that embodied Haidt’s description of libertarians as moral beings, it would seem to be the male libertarian economist.
To the extent this is true, it has to confront an interesting empirical observation I’ve noted recently. A number of my male libertarian economist friends have, independently, told me that there is a video that brings them to tears when they watch it, and especially when they show it to student groups. I have had that reaction to the video as well. What could possibly crack our cold, calculating exteriors? It’s the video below. If you haven’t watched “Hans Rosling and the Magic Washing Machine,” you should. And you shouldn’t read the rest of this post until you do.
Yes, those heartless libertarian male economists report getting choked up and teary-eyed when they show this video to students. The interesting question is why. What is it about those 9 minutes, and especially the last 90 seconds or so, that elicits all the emotion and empathy from Haidt’s masculine calculating machines?
I have a hypothesis, but first I want to note that the emotional reaction to this video suggests that Haidt’s story is probably over-simplified. In fact libertarians are capable of empathy and emotion in their moral reasoning, and I would argue that we are better at what we do and make better arguments to others when we let emotions in (or out) and figure out how to harness them for constructive purposes. Libertarians are totally capable of linking morality and emotions, but the link, I suspect, is somewhat more indirect than it is for other groups.
What gets me about that video is the way Rosling captures an abstract intellectual argument about the power of markets and industrialization to improve people’s lives. He uses a very concrete, emotionally rich example that combines our wanting to root for an underdog with a clear example of how markets have liberated both immigrants and women to live more flourishing lives. We talk a lot about GDP per capita and human capital accumulation and women’s labor force participation rates. But it is the idea that industrialization and capitalism made it possible for women to be freed from drudgery and to have the time to read and learn a new language and everything else that has characterized the dramatic improvement in women’s lives in the last century or more that really matters. Critics of markets sometimes say “you can’t eat GDP.” What they miss is that you can’t eat, or learn to read, or go to school, or leave a bad marriage, or do pretty much any of the basics that we might see as required for a flourishing life without the wealth and time created by the market economy.
What Rosling does by visually demonstrating the way in which the washing machine produces books and educated, liberated women is to show us the human side of the arguments economists have been making for a long time. That people like me react to that by getting all weepy shows two things: 1) that despite the stereotype, some/many libertarians really are capable of responding to emotional/empathetic appeals and 2) that we really do believe that it’s a really good thing that the markets we defend work to the benefit of the least well off, and we believe it deeply enough to be emotionally moved when we see it portrayed so vividly. I have a similar reaction for many of the same reasons, though not with the same intensity, to Sean Malone’s “No Vans Land” and its story of immigrant van drivers succeeding despite the regulatory state’s attempts to frustrate them.
That Rosling can reduce male libertarian economists to tears also suggests that we could learn a thing or two from him about our rhetoric and the stories we tell. And the “we” in question is libertarians in general. One lesson to take is that there’s nothing wrong with making appeals to emotions when they are done right. I suspect the emotional response to Rosling is because the washing machine story is a great example of why results matter more than intentions. Too often appeals to emotions in moral and political arguments try to connect up our empathy for the least well off with a call to “do something” in ways that suggest that good intentions are sufficient to demonstrate that empathy.
For libertarians, that’s not enough. Our empathy for the least well off can be engaged when the narrative in question draws on that empathy with an emotional story about actual results. We probably do not respond as strongly to emotional stories about human suffering that simply ask us to “do something” as we do to stories that show us how real institutions have actually improved the lives of those most in need of improvement. We really do care about that goal and if you show us the results and the data to back up, and you celebrate them in emotionally powerful ways, we will respond emotionally.
Capitalism and industrialization did not come about as a way to liberate us, but they sure as hell had that consequence, as Rosling so powerfully demonstrates. If we do it right, we can tap into the powerful emotional responses people have (libertarians or not) as a way to make that argument and others. Rosling shows us how: demonstrate the liberating power of markets with solid data and really good stories about how they benefit the currently and historically least well off among us. We should be heeding his example.
If non-libertarians have more emotional cognitive styles, arguments like this video can be even more powerful with them than they are with us and we should start to recognize that. After all, if you can make male libertarian economists cry, everyone else should be a breeze.
NOTE: to head off one line of argument, it’s worth noting that Hans Rosling is NOT a libertarian. Not even close. This is not one of the tribe telling us a story for the purposes of ideological solidarity. THAT is why this is so interesting to me.