The Least Empathic Lot

On standard tests of empathy, libertarians score very low. Yet, the world’s “well-known libertarian bias” coupled with many people’s unwarranted pessimism makes us seem like starry-eyed optimists (“how could you possibly believe things will just work themselves out?!”).

Under the Moral Foundations framework developed and popularized by Jonathan Haidt, he and his colleagues analyzed thousands of responses through their tool. Mostly focused on what distinguishes liberals from conservatives, there are enough self-reported libertarians answering that the questionnaire to draw meaningful conclusions. The results, as presented in TED-talks, podcast interviews and Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion contains a whole lot of interesting stuff.

First, some Moral Foundations basics: self-reported liberals attach almost all their moral value to two major categories – “fairness” and “care/harm.” Some examples include striving for equal (“fair”) outcomes and concern for those in need. No surprises there.

Conservatives, on the other hand, draw fairly evenly on all five of Haidt’s different moralities, markedly placing weight on the other three foundations as well – Authority (respect tradition and your superiors), Loyalty (stand with your group, family or nation) and Sanctity (revulsion towards disgusting things); liberals largely shun these three, which explains why the major political ideologies in America usually talk past one another.

Interestingly enough, In The Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses experiments where liberals and conservatives were asked to answer the questionnaire as the other would have. Conservatives and moderate liberals could represent the case of the other fairly well, whereas those self-identifying as “very liberal” were the least accurate. Indeed, the

biggest errors in the whole study came when liberals answered the Care and Fairness questions while pretending to be conservatives.

Within the Moral Foundations framework, this makes perfect sense. Conservatives have, in a sense, a wider array of moral senses to draw from – pretending to be liberal merely means downplaying some senses and exaggerating others. For progressives who usually lack any conception of the other values, it’s hard to just invent them:

if your moral matrix encompasses nothing more than Care and Fairness, then to imagine a political opponent is to reverse one’s own position for those foundations – that Conservatives act primarily on other frequencies, on other foundations, wouldn’t even occur to them.

Libertarians, always the odd one out, look like conservatives on the traits most favoured by liberals (Fairness and Care/Harm); and are indistinguishable from liberals on the traits most characteristic of conservatives (Authority, Loyalty, and Sanctity). Not occupying some fuzzy middle-ground between them, but an entirely different beast.

Empathy, being captured by the ‘Care’ foundation, lines up well with political persuasion, argues Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in his Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Liberals care the most; conservatives some; and libertarians almost none at all. Liberals are the most empathic; conservatives are somewhat empathic; and libertarians the least empathic of all. No wonder libertarians seem odd or positively callous from the point of view of mainstream American politics.

Compared to others, libertarians are more educated and less religious – even so than liberals. Libertarians have “a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style,” concluded Haidt and co-authors in another study; they are the “most cerebral, most rational, and least emotional,” allowing them more than any others to “have the capacity to reason their way to their ideology.”

Where libertarians really do place their moral worth is on “liberty” (a sixth foundation that Haidt and his colleagues added in later studies).  Shocking, I know. Libertarians are, in terms of moral philosophy, the most unidimensional and uncomplicated creatures you can imagine – a well-taught parrot might pass a libertarian Turing test if you teach it enough phrases like “property rights” or “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.”

The low-empathy result accounts for another striking observation to anyone who’s ever attended an even vaguely libertarian event: there are very few women around. As libertarians also tend to be ruthlessly logical and untroubled by differential outcomes along lines of gender or ethnicity – specifically in small, self-selected samples like conferences – they are usually not very bothered by the composition of their group (other than to lament the potential mating opportunities). The head rules, not the heart – or in this case, not even the phallus.

One of the most well-established (and under-appreciated) facts in the scientific community is the male-female divide along Simon Baron-Cohen’s Empathizing-Systemizing scale. The observation here is that males more often have an innate desire to understand entire systems rather than individual components – or the actions or fates of those components: “the variables in a system and how those variables govern the behaviour of that system,” as Haidt put it in a lecture at Cato. Examples include subway maps, strategy games, spreadsheets, or chess (for instance, there has never been a female world champion). Women, stereotypically, are much more inclined to discover, understand, mirror and even validate others’ feelings. Men are more interested in things while women are more concerned with people, I argued in my 2018 Notes post ‘The Factual Basis of Political Opinion’, paraphrasing Jordan Peterson.

The same reason that make men disproportionately interested in engineering – much more so than women – also make men more inclined towards libertarianism. A systemizing brain is more predisposed to libertarian ideology than is the empathizing brain – not to mention the ungoverned structure of free markets, and the bottom-up decentralized solutions offered to widespread societal ills.

Thus, we really shouldn’t be surprised about the lack of women in the libertarian ranks: libertarians are the least empathic bunch, which means that women, being more inclined towards empathy, are probably more appalled by an ideology that so ruthlessly favours predominantly male traits.

As I’ve learned from reading Bloom’s book, empathy – while occasionally laudable and desirable among friends and loved ones – usually drives us towards very poor decisions. It blinds us and biases us to preferring those we already like over those far away or those we cannot see. The “spotlight effect” that empathy provides makes us hone in on the individual event, overlooking the bigger picture or long-term effects. Bloom’s general argument lays out the case for why empathy involves in-group bias and clouds our moral judgements. It makes our actions “innumerate and myopic” and “insensitive to statistical data.” Empathy, writes Bloom:

does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

In experiments, truly empathizing with individuals make us, for instance, more likely to move a patient higher on a donation list – even when knowing that some other (objectively-speaking) more-deserving recipient is thereby being moved down. Empathy implores us to save a visible harm, but ignore an even larger (and later) but statistically-disbursed harm.

Perhaps libertarians are the “the least empathic people on earth.” But after reading Bloom’s Against Empathy, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Perhaps – shocker! – what the world needs is a little bit more libertarian values.

Naipaul (RIP) and the Left

The most interesting reflection on V.S. Naipaul, the Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this week, comes from Slate, a low-brow leftist publication that I sometimes peruse for book reviews. Naipaul, a Trinidadian, became loathed on the left for daring to say “what the whites want to say but dare not.”

The fact that Slate‘s author tries his hardest to piss on Naipaul’s grave is not what’s interesting about the piece, though. What’s interesting is what Naipaul’s wife, a Pakistani national and former journalist, has to say about Pakistan:

[…] she smiled and asked if I knew what Pakistan needed. I informed her that I did not. “A dictator,” she replied. At this her husband laughed.

“I think they have tried that,” I said, doing my best to stay stoic.

“No, no, a very brutal dictator,” she answered. I told her they had tried that, too. “No, no,” she answered again. Only when a real dictator came in and killed the religious people in the country, and enough of them that the streets would “run with blood,” could Pakistan be reborn. It was as if she was parodying a gross caricature of Naipaul’s worst views—and also misunderstanding his pessimism about the ability of colonial societies to reinvent themselves, even through violence—but he smiled with delight as she spoke.

“That’s so American of you,” she then blurted out, before I had said anything. My face, while she had been talking, must have taken on a look of shock or disgust. “You tell a nice young American boy like yourself that a country needs a brutal dictator and they get a moralistic or concerned look on their face, as if every country is ready for a democracy. They aren’t.”

Damn. This testy exchange highlights well what the developing world is facing, intellectually. Religious conservatives heavily populate developing countries. Liberals, on the left and on the right, in developing countries are miniscule in number, and most of them prefer, or were forced, to live in exile. Liberty is their highest priority, but the highest priority of Western elites, whose support developing world liberals’ desperately need, is democracy, which empowers a populace that cares not for freedom.

So what you get in the developing world is two kinds of autocracies: geopolitically important autocracies (like Pakistan), and geopolitically unimportant autocracies (think of sub-Saharan Africa).

That Naipaul and his wife had the balls to say this, for years, is a testament to the magnificence of human freedom; that Leftists have loathed Naipaul for years because he had pointed this out is a bitter reminder of why I left the Left in the first place.

By the way, here is Naipaul writing about the GOP for the New Yorker in 1984. And here is my actual favorite piece about Naipaul.

Explicando a eleição de Trump para brasileiros

Para qualquer um que acompanhou as notícias pela grande mídia brasileira (leia-se especialmente Globo e Globonews) a eleição de Donald Trump para a presidência dos EUA parece ter sido em primeiro lugar uma surpresa imprevisível e em segundo lugar a maior desgraça que poderia se abater sobre aquele país e o mundo, quando ao mesmo tempo estes perderam a chance de serem agraciados com a primeira mulher presidente dos EUA, a imaculável Hillary Clinton. Para responder a esta avaliação, faço aqui algumas observações a respeito do sistema político e eleitoral dos EUA.

Há basicamente dois partidos políticos nos EUA: Democratas e Republicanos. Diferente de algumas bobagens que vi nos principais canais de notícias, o Partido Democrata não remonta a Thomas Jefferson. Remonta sim a Andrew Jackson, primeiro presidente populista dos EUA e notório assassino de índios. Ao longo do século 19 o Partido Democrata foi o grande defensor da escravidão, e com a abolição desta nefasta instituição tornou-se o grande defensor da segregação. Woodrow Wilson e Franklin Delano Roosevelt, famigerados presidentes democratas, muitas vezes tratados como grandes heróis da democracia, foram grandes expansores do governo federal e enfraquecedores da economia americana. Na década de 1960 o Partido Democrata criou uma versão norte-americana de Welfare State que desde então mais prejudica do que ajuda os mais pobres. Do século 19 ao 21, o Partido Democrata está sempre ao lado dos mais poderosos e contra os mais pobres, não importa se dizem o contrário.

A origem do Partido Republicano é menos antiga. O GOP (grand old party), como é chamado, foi formado pela união de vários movimentos abolicionistas, e seu primeiro presidente foi Abraham Lincoln. Em resposta à eleição de Lincoln, estados escravistas do sul dos EUA romperam com a União, dando início à Guerra Civil. Embora a história do GOP esteja cheia de controvérsias, o fato é que ao longo do tempo este partido foi mais inclinado ao livre mercado, defensor mais forte dos direitos individuais e menos populista do que seu adversário Democrata.

Para além dos partidos, a população dos EUA se divide basicamente em duas correntes políticas: liberais e conservadores. Diferente do que ocorre no Brasil ou na Europa, o termo liberal é utilizado nos EUA para indivíduos de esquerda. O termo liberal passou por uma mudança na virada do século 19 para o 20, sendo adotado por indivíduos do movimento progressivista (notoriamente o já citado presidente Woodrow Wilson), que defendia a expansão dos poderes do estado e menor liberdade de mercado. Eventualmente o termo liberal tornou-se associado aos Democratas.

Conservadores nos EUA são as pessoas que querem conservar o país como este foi fundado no final do século 18. Conservadores são mais constitucionalistas do que os liberais, defendem um governo mais limitado e maior liberdade de mercado. Em outras palavras, conservadores são liberais clássicos, enquanto que liberais deturparam este termo, quando deveriam se chamar de progressivistas (embora seja altamente questionável se sua posição promove algum progresso). Eventualmente conservadores também se tornou um termo ligado a cristãos, embora esta ligação seja menos necessária do que possa parecer. Conservadores estão particularmente ligados ao Partido Republicano.

Evidentemente é impossível que a população de um país grande como os EUA se encaixe perfeitamente em somente dois partidos políticos ou duas tendências ideológicas. Os liberais em geral defendem liberdades sociais (como legalização das drogas e união civil de homossexuais), mas são contra liberdades econômicas (como contratos livres entre trabalhadores e empregados). Conservadores são contra liberdades sociais e favoráveis a liberdades econômicas. Pessoas favoráveis aos dois tipos de liberdade sentem-se pouco representadas nos dois principais partidos, e, embora em geral optem pelo GOP, também tem como opção o Partido Libertário ou o movimento Tea Party (não um partido político formal, mas sim um movimento de protesto contra o crescimento do estado, em favor do retorno aos parâmetros constitucionais). Há também socialistas, ambientalistas, comunistas, e todo o tipo de tendência política nos EUA. O fato é apenas que somente dois partidos possuem uma representatividade nacional.

O fato de que os EUA possuiriam somente dois partidos políticos expressivos foi previsto bastante cedo por James Madison, um dos Pais Fundadores e principal autor da Constituição. No final do século 18, Madison previu que devido ao tamanho do país (ainda pequeno se comparado com as dimensões atuais) e sua diversidade, um partido de projeção nacional precisaria evitar extremismos e se focar em posições moderadas, que pudessem atender à população como um todo. Foi o que aconteceu. Ao longo de toda a sua história os EUA tiveram um sistema bipartidário, variando apenas os partidos que compõem este sistema. Republicanos e Democratas tem sido estes dois partidos desde meados do século 19.

Na primeira metade do século 19 outros partidos compuseram o sistema bipartidário previsto por Madison. Mudanças variadas levaram partidos antigos a perder relevância e serem substituídos por novos. É possível que o mesmo fosse ocorrer com Democratas e Republicanos, mas mudanças na lei eleitoral realizadas especialmente na década de 1970 tornaram mais difícil a entrada de competidores nas eleições. Estas mudanças são em parte responsáveis pela animosidade de grande parte do eleitorado, que não se sente representado por nenhum dos partidos, e consequentemente não se importa em votar. Este quadro é um alerta para pessoas que defendem uma genérica reforma política no Brasil, particularmente uma que limite a entrada de novos partidos.

Há em geral uma grande distância entre o que políticos falam em uma campanha e o que fazem uma vez nos cargos. Isto é particularmente verdade a respeito de Hillary Clinton. Graças à sua vasta experiência em cargos públicos, podemos dizer com segurança que Clinton é uma política profissional que busca angariar votos com argumentos que não necessariamente irão guiar suas ações uma vez no cargo. Trump é um político novato, e assim esta mesma avaliação torna-se impossível de fazer, mas há a impressão de que sua campanha foi conduzida como um dos reality shows de que ele fazia parte anos atrás: trata-se de uma realidade produzida com o objetivo de alcançar audiência, não de realidade real. É bastante provável que Trump presidente seja bem mais moderado do que Trump candidato, para o bem ou para o mal. Simpatizantes de Hillary podem se impressionar, assim como eleitores de Trump podem se sentir traídos.


Rational Ignorance, Fairy Dust and Pissing Away the Future: Libertarians are Selfish and Stupid

I’ve been workin’ on a farm out in Utah for the past couple of weeks, so blogging has been slow. I’m trying to save up some cash so I can head back west again. In the mean time, here is an old post I wrote that critiques some of the more juvenile foreign policy arguments of Republicans and Democrats.


Hello all,

I thought I’d take up Dr J’s invitation to write something for his blog. This post is largely inspired by the comments thread from his recent post on bombing Syria (for Syrians’ sake, of course) and his latest post on the supposed differences between conservatives and liberals. Ultimately, my goal is to show you how full of shit everybody that participates on this blog really is.

That won’t be hard to do.

Dr J makes the following, factually correct, observation about Leftists (“liberals”):

Conservatives are well informed about liberal programs because they cannot help but be. Few liberals however avoid being pathetically dependent on gross stereotypes of conservatism as a political doctrine. Few even know that it’s a political doctrine based on a well-defined moral stance.

If there is one thing that Leftists are known for, it is being rationally ignorant: the less you know about your opponent…

View original post 1,255 more words

Are libertarians more intelligent than conservatives and liberals?

The short answer is “yes.”

Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business, published a paper in 2012 with three colleagues exploring libertarian morality. Dr Haidt is well-known for his work on studying morality among conservatives and liberals in the US, but has become increasingly interested in libertarians (or, at least, he can no longer ignore us).

Among the factors that Haidt and his colleagues explore and compare with liberals and conservatives is intelligence, or at least one common measure of it:

The Cognitive Reflection Task is a set of 3 logic questions that have correct and intuitive answers. Correct answers on these questions is said not just to measure intelligence, but also to measure a person’s ability to suppress an intuitive response in service of the cognitive reasoning required to solve these problems.



Table 3 shows that libertarians find the correct answers to these questions at a slightly higher rate than liberals and moderately higher rate compared to conservatives (also see Figure 4).


The cognitive reflection task provides a behavioral validation of the hypothesis that libertarians have a more reasoned cognitive style. In our dataset, this measure inter-correlates with both Need for Cognition […] and Baron-Cohen Systemizer […] scores, with libertarians scoring higher than both liberals and conservatives on all three measures. Taken together, a convergent picture of the rational cognitive style of libertarians emerges.

Although the Cognitive Reflection Task is just one test among many that attempts to measure intelligence, and although I am not a big believer that intelligence tests are any good at detecting intelligence (they are, however, great for analyzing structural issues within a society or across different societies), it’s hard to argue with the results: Libertarians score higher on intelligence tests than either liberals or conservatives. Here is the paper. I’d be very interested in reading through more literature that deals with this, but libertarians are new to a lot of scholars (which is why Haidt’s “common-sense” approach is being considered groundbreaking for including libertarians).

You don’t really need to read the paper though. Dr Amburgey, the house liberal of this blog, explains well why liberals tend to score slightly lower on intelligence tests than libertarians. Here, for example, is Dr Amburgey trying to tell me that the CIA is not really arming rebels in Syria if it goes through proxies like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It’s an intelligent response, to be sure, but a libertarian – slightly more superior in his cognitive abilities, according to science – knows better.

Notes  On Liberty‘s house conservative*, Dr Delacroix, amply demonstrates why conservatives are not in the same league as liberals or libertarians.

With the fact that libertarians are more intelligent than liberals and conservatives in mind, I’d like to take a moment to a) bask in the glory of it all, and b) go back to Rick’s question about the One Big Change that I’d like to make.

I think that there is a way to incorporate open borders into a One Big Change-style reform while also leaving room for other improvements such as financial competition in the markets (rather than between governments) and competing tax regimes. I’d dig deeper and go a little more structural. I’d federate the entire world, and I wouldn’t make the federation out of the current agglomeration of nation-states, either. I would destroy the states currently in place and federate the administrative units that currently operate underneath the nation-state.

This, I think, would do a great job of incorporating open borders (everyone is part of the same federal union now), financial competition (no more national banks), tax regimes (you can more easily vote with your feet), and a common legal system that protects individual rights such as private property and freedom of religion.

*Dr Delacroix is, of course, a libertarian. He just calls himself a conservative out of spite for liberals, and because he mistakenly thinks of himself as a paternalistic defender of the common man from Leftist condescension and aggression.

Useful neoconservative insights

It is not common for liberals to praise neoconservative thinkers. Regardless if this concerns domestic politics or international affairs.  While this normally makes a lot of sense, sometimes the liberals are clearly at fault. I recently re-read two of Robert Kagan’s most famous books: Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) and The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008). The power of Kagan’s analysis struck me again in these two concise books, predominantly his balanced treatment of the enduring and dominant role of power in world politics. This is something not many liberals are keen to accept, the classical liberals excepted, most notably Hume, Smith and the certainly the hawkish Hayek.

In the light of the topical situation in Eastern Europe, let me quote a few lines from The Return of History.

  • ‘One of the geopolitical fault lines runs along the western frontier of Russia, [Ukraine included] with Russia on one side, and the European Union and the United States on the other. Instead of an anticipated zone of peace, western Eurasia has once again become a zone of competition.’
  • ‘If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned. Russia’s turn toward liberalism at home stalled and then reversed, and so has its foreign policy […….] Great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional great power calculations and ambitions.’
  • ‘Contrary to the dismissive views of many in the West, Russia is a great power, and it takes pride in being a force to be reckoned with on the world stage.’
  • ‘its oil and gas wealth has allowed Moscow to increase defense spending by more than 20 percent annually over the past three years’.
  • ‘This new sense of power today fuels Russian nationalism. It also stirs up deep resentment and feelings of humiliation […] such as acceptance of NATO enlargement, the withdrawal of troops from former Soviet republics and the ceding of independence to Ukraine, Georgia and the Baltic states.’

Recall this was in 2008 and it just a very brief selection. There was not much the liberals (of all persuasions) could have added to this. Liberals generally lack realistic let alone original views on world politics. That is simply not good enough, if they have intentions to widens the appeal of liberal thought. An embrace of neoconservative insights such as Kagan’s would be a good start.

Are Liberals Just Snobs? (Revised and Augmented)

This is worth recycling, I think. Has not aged a day!

I have a question. I don’t know many labor union liberals or hereditary Democrats because of where I live. It’s a small town in central California dominated by leftists and Greens. Over the years, they have pushed out every manufacturing industry. Recently, the county closed a small cement plant, the employer of 80% in the relevant village. The same forces are setting to go after tiny and inventive surfboard makers. As a result of all this saving of the environment, the unionized blue-collar class has vanished from the area.

Nearly all the liberals I know are trust-fund babies, unemployed, divorced women on alimony, absurdly overpaid public employees, and people who style themselves intellectuals because they finished college. To be fair, I also know a fair number of university professors. Here is my question:

Why are all the liberals I know, without exception, terrific snobs?

I mean that they like to discourse about little-known wines, that they read boring books (or pretend to), and that they profess to like cerebral French movies I don’t even get although I know the language. Many also airily chat about exotic foods, but not so much in my presence because they realize just from my accent that I might know that stuff.

I almost forgot; there is also what liberals never do, wouldn’t be caught dead doing. They never watch trash on television for example. No reality TV, no Lifetime Channel, and certainly no “Monster Quest” on the History Channel. (If the crypto-biologists ever catch a live Sasquatch, Mr and Ms Liberal will be the last ones to know.) They survive on a straight diet of opera and scholarly discussions of long-dead unknown writers  by professors who sound themselves long-dead. That’s all on NPB, of course, the government-approved, I mean the government- subsidized network.

And, of course, their most visible current style leaders, Barack and Michelle, did not take their summer vacation on Lake Michigan, or in Colorado’s beautiful mountains, or in Florida where the sea is always warm, or in Southern California where it’s always sunny. Do you remember where they went? Who else goes there?

So, I am wondering if it’s just me, my sample – which may not be representative – or if others have noticed a link between liberal political postures on the one hand and snobbery, on the other hand.

If you have noticed the same link please tell me of your speculations about why it might exist. Use the “Comment” option on this blog. I don’t censor though I might comment on your comment if you talk like a lying sac. I don’t edit for grammar or spelling unless you ask me to do so explicitly.

The Boy Who Has Everything

I am taking a leisurely drive down Highway 1 from San Francisco back to Santa Cruz after dropping off a friend at the airport. (For my friends in Tennessee: Highway 1 in California is simply the most beautiful coastal road in the world. In central California, where I live, the shoreline on which it runs is mostly undeveloped except for a few artichoke farms and some dairies.) It’s a sunlit but windy day. I stop at Waddell Creek to watch about fifty kite surfers. Behind me is a small swamp and beyond it are the redwood-lined slopes of Big Basin.

In the parking lot, a hitch-hiker waves at me. Now, I have a complicated relationship with hitch-hiking. On the one hand, that’s the only way I had to get to school my first two years in this country. On the same hand, I crossed this country hitch-hiking twice both ways when I was in my twenties. Yes, that’s about 12,000 miles total. Of course, I didn’t not know this the first time I started. In addition, I hitched from San Francisco to St Louis, Missouri in the middle of the winter to be with a girl. My journey gave her a lot of face. She showed her appreciation accordingly. On the other hand, I have no doubt that today, a good percentage of hitch-hikers are dangerous by reason of insanity. Moreover, for me, living in Santa Cruz, there is an existential dilemma in picking up many hitch-hikers: Do I want to help reach their destination transient people I consider undesirable flotsam once they have reached that destination, down the street from my house?

But, this hitch-hiker is different, I can tell. He is trim, muscular and handsome. It turns out also that the quick part of my mind has noticed that he is wearing a “hiking hat” that must have cost $40 in the L.L.Bean’s catalogue. There is another guy next to him similarly well-outfitted. Both are in their late twenties. I stop my pick-up truck (my pick-up truck, an important detail, culturally). The first guy explains that he and his buddy just finished their two-day hike through Big Basin State Park and that they need to call their ride but that there is no phone reception where they are standing. Continue reading