Is Pathological Altruism the Biggest Hurdle for Liberty?Submitted by Marc Clair on Mon, 07/01/2013 - 19:13
I recently listened to a fascinating interview , conducted by Economic Policy Journal’s Robert Wenzel, with Barbara Oakley, Associate Professor in the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Oakland University. Oakley is the author of several books, mostly dealing with the psychological and genetic reasons behind why people act in certain ways, namely negative ones.
One point made by Wenzel that I found of particular interest to the libertarian movement starts around 10:20, when he relates the idea posed by Oakley of pathological altruism – the idea that many people will abandon all logic in favor of even the appearance of helping others – to his attempts to explain such basic economic ideas as why the minimum wage causes unemployment. Wenzel states:
If you try to go through the logical steps that show why a minimum wage will damage certain people, people who sort of have this altruistic, giving sense won’t follow the logic.
Oakley agrees with the comparison:
Precisely. You’ve hit the nail exactly on the head. What happens is – I mean step back and imagine in your mind’s eye, everybody has seen these sort of visual illusions where there are optical illusions, where you look at a line and and fiddle with it somehow, and they’re actually the same length. But when you look at them they look like they are different lengths because your eyes trick you.
Well, your emotions are exactly the same way. Your emotions – your empathy, your feelings for others – can trick you into thinking that something is obviously a certain way, to help someone else. And then once that initial conclusion is made – that it’s obviously, that this thing is obviously beneficial…then what happens is you start using motivated reasoning, you get stuck in your way of doing things is the best way of doing things. There’s allegiance bias, you get reinforcement from others who think the same way, and before you know it you’ve got a large group of people who are all on the same bandwagon, kicking out anyone who disagrees with them, and reinforcing one another in their beliefs.
This is a phenomena that surely many libertarians have experienced when trying to argue against certain state measures – be it the minimum wage, gun control or DUI laws – that appear to be altruistic in nature but upon a logical examination actually cause great harm.