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That may be one of the reasons why interventionists have won the battle of communicating ideas to the laymen. Those emotive appeals may be very powerful to convince people, though they are not rigorous nor valid from an economic point of view.

I am fond of Steinbeck novels, especially East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath. He uses those emotive appeals in a great manner, so that one has the idea that Government in the Great Depression did help workers and poor people, and capitalists and bankers harmed them.

By the way, Peter:
As a fan of The Grapes of Wrath, let me ask you some things.
Have you read the article called 'Steinbeck's Myth of the Okies' by Keith Windschuttle at The New Criterion? That article tries to debunk much of the historical and economic contest that Steinbeck wrote about.

Do you have some article or paper that deals with the novel particularly?
Personally, my first rapprochement to the Great Depression was through Steinbeck. It conveyed many ideas against capitalism and free markets. Don't you think there is a need to deal with Steinbeck's writings from a libertarian/Austrian viewpoint? An analysis or a historical or theoretical critique of his novels and books?

Thanks.

"I am an economist and I have to say that I have always had a negative reaction to appeals to personal tragedy."

Rape, disease, natural disasters, government force and takings? Surely you sympathize with these kinds of personal tragedies, right Pete?

Dave,

Yes, but only in the same sense that I talk above about Rand's perspective --- as illustrations of broader systemic points. As an issue of family matters, of course; as an issue of friends, of course, but as an issue of community member --- yes, but less so. By the time we get to issues of being a citizen of the world, I view rape, disease, natural disasters, and illustrations of a broader system point that I find more analytically appealing. I think compassion, both of the left and of the right, should be rejected in politics though practiced everyday with family and friends.

Is my position incoherent? In saying that I honestly don't believe I am ignoring the concern with the least advantaged in society and the systemic forces that are working against them. It is about reasoning about the economic and political system, not the particular case either of devastating failure or heroic success. I am all for story telling in the social sciences (heck I wrote an essay under that time 20+ years ago), but it is a story about the system, not the plight of any one individual. Don't tell me about Grandma, tell me about the elderly. See what I mean? Not sure if I am articulating my position well enough.

Now I understand. Focusing just on political discourse, strategy and implementation. I agree.

This also, then, should lead us to consider the value (which I think can be quite positive) of civil society or the so-called voluntary sector (using Cornuelle's somewhat unfortunate term). It is within this sector that Smith's virtue of beneficence can be most systemically developed.

Rand would likely frown upon that.

Prof Boettke,

"Not sure if I am articulating my position well enough."

I want to make sure I understand: are you against the use of personal narratives, as opposed to systemic narratives? If so, then this is truly a losing political position. You do not win political arguments by "reasoning about the economic and political system", but by talking about the particular case.

Ira Glass (of PRI's "This American Life") has a great saying he uses in personal appearances: "Narrative is a back door to a part of the mind where reason does not go." All political arguments are won by saying "here is this person. We can see her. This is how her life will be better under my plan. This is how my opponent's plan will leave her worse off."

Thus, if you want your positions to carry the day, you find visible examples of such people who fit well into your position, and talk about them. Perhaps one reason that libertarian positions do not win more often is that it is easy to identify the individuals who currently benefit from this or that program, more difficult to find those who will demonstrably benefit under the new regime, and even more difficult to find those who will obviously benefit and who are generally sympathetic otherwise.

PS- I assume that you would not be against using personal narratives of the seen even if they align well with the systemic forces at work. For example, it would be okay to beat the drum of the folks from the 'Kelo' decision, because they serve as a demonstrable reminder of the end of the eminent domain road? Or do you not dig personal narrative appeals, period?

Jared,

Yes, that is what we have to (a) first understand, and (b) defeat, if we hope to get rational public policy.

I think the last thing we want is for economists to be making concessions in their analysis to the part of the mind where reason doesn't go. That doesn't mean we don't need to understand that --- we most certainly do. But our goal (if we want to move beyond pure understanding) should be to figure out ways to resist this move and to develop among the population more sensibility to the failure of this style of political rhetoric.

Look at the clip by Dana Carvey --- that is the logically outcome of the politician feeling our pain in my opinion --- and it is ridiculous. We should make politicians who want to feel our pain, really feel it. Mockery, ridicule, satire, etc.

The political discourse in the US is a mockery of rational discourse. Our job as analysts I think should be to point this out, not to join in the spectacle.

Peter: "Look at the clip by Dana Carvey --- that is the logically outcome of the politician feeling our pain in my opinion --- and it is ridiculous. We should make politicians who want to feel our pain, really feel it. Mockery, ridicule, satire, etc. "

Has anyone seen the UK TV series "The Thick of It"? The ridiculousness of this sort of thing was shown by the character Malcolm Tucker a fictional spin-doctor based on Alastair Campbell. A man who made a living of sensationalizing these sort of stories of individuals but had absolutely no morals himself. Tucker bullies, threatens and humiliates everyone in his vicinity.

In one of the episodes a person he is exploiting in order to get a story favourable to the government talks to him. He replies by saying "I’d love to stop and chat to you but I’d rather have type 2 diabetes."

It is allegedly quite similar to Alastair Campbell's personality. According to some of the press office what was worse about Campbell was that he was much less funny than his fictional counterpart.

http://www.obsessedwithfilm.com/in-the-loop/gareth-on-the-wit-wisdom-of-malcolm-tucker.php

"Do you think my concern with emotive appeals in politics is wrong?"

i don't know that it is wrong, but it has a moralistic, even emotive, flavor that i don't like. i am also a bit turned-off with your admission of callousness. in most cases, i do believe that people should suck it up, but to advertise that attitude publicly is to endorse it to an extent i am not comfortable with.

when it comes to emotive appeals in politics, i think they are not as effective as people tend to think. empathy wears on pretty quickly, even in cases where emotive content is much more powerful than it is in a political discourse (some people call it 'empathy fatigue').

To claim that political discourse in the US is a mockery of rational discourse presumes a standard for political discourse that hardly seems warranted.

As an analyst, it is one's job to assess "what is" not "what should be" (at most "what could be"). No empirical study of politics claims it is a rational endeavor. Neither those voting nor those voted upon are seen to act rationally nor predictably. If they did, would there be any need for elections?

As wrote Mencken, “Whether it be called a representative republic, as in France, or a pure democracy, it is always essentially the same. There is, first, the mob, theoretically and in fact the ultimate judge of all ideas and the source of all power. There is, second, the camorra of self-seeking minorities, each seeking to inflame, delude and victimize it. The political process thus becomes a mere battle of rival rogues. But the mob remains quite free to decide between them.”

Democracy is not rational. To expect it to be so is...well...not rational.

Prof Boettke,

"But our goal (if we want to move beyond pure understanding) should be to figure out ways to resist this move and to develop among the population more sensibility to the failure of this style of political rhetoric."

I believe that this is a fundamental difference of approach. Is it reasonable for me to conclude that you believe that we can develop reasonable discourse at the level of actual politics (as opposed to talking amongst friends and colleagues)? Also, is it reasonable for me to conclude that you want to "beat" emotive appeals--that is, you don't just want people to adopt positions you think are reasonable, but you want them to do it for reasonable (and not emotive) reasons?

If so (and while we are going all NBC;-), I recall a scene from the West Wing. Toby and Josh are discussing the Bartlet re-election campaign. Toby wants to make it a high-minded discourse about which candidate is better suited for the Presidency, a discussion about qualifications and reasonableness and so on. Josh wants to beat Ritchie. At one point, Josh says to Toby:

"I have a problem with you. My problem is that you want to beat them. And I want to win."

It seems to me that your position (if I have it correctly--if you wouldn't answer 'yes' to both of the questions above, then I don't, and I'm wrong) is about beating the 'them' of emotion. And not about winning political decisions that push policy in a direction you favor more.

So, if you would answer 'yes' to both questions above, it seems to me that the cost of using these emotive tactics must be very personally costly, because avoiding them is certainly costly in the policy arena.

Jared and others,

First, I never admitted callousness, I admitted that I think compassion is best left to family and friends and that we do not have the capacity to push compassion as a viable public policy at the national level.

Second, I am separating out both the scholars role (pure understanding) from the activist position (advocating this or that policy). My argument is that the economists must understand the value of emotional appeals, but that they cheapen the value of their role in society when they themselves appeal to emotiive explanations. The fact that I have had a hard time communicating this position to readers is an indication of (a) my bad writing skills and (b) the lure of emotional appeals such that criticisms of emotive explanation are in fact dismissed as callousness and emotive!

Third, as a subject of political science obviously political psychology is a huge field --- Jon Elster has done much on this. We who are interested in social change should invest heavily in learning this literature.

Fourth, on reasonableness in democratic discourse --- well yes I am being idealistic --- Habermasian even --- ideal speech community, etc. But the debate at the moment in our country is about the nature of democratic discourse (e.g., townhall meetings) --- have you watched Bill Maher or even David Letterman criticize conservative critics of President Obama's health care plan?; how about President Obama himself? Are we really having a serious discussion about health care policy? Are we really having a serious discussion about economic policy? President Obama promises one --- remember the campaign promises about post-ideological Washington and open debate and discussion? Rahm Emanuel must have missed that point!

Finally, and this is more direct response to Jared --- I don't want to beat, I want to have a reasonable discussion in which the teachings of economics are placed at the center of any of these discussions. To me (I might be wrong) so much of the current discussion is about whether we can pass a piece of legislation, not whether we SHOULD pass it. And when it comes to analyzing whether we should, economics plays a huge role in the assessment of policy options. Yes, due to emotive appeals, the logic of economic analysis is often (not always) dismissed. This is what bothers me.

Pete

"First, I never admitted callousness, I admitted that I think compassion is best left to family and friends and that we do not have the capacity to push compassion as a viable public policy at the national level."

i must have missed that part. but i am glad this is clarified. i don't like when emotional stories are used in the place of analysis. but when i hear stories about people without health insurance i usually feel sorry for them rather than thinking they deserved it.

"My argument is that the economists must understand the value of emotional appeals, but that they cheapen the value of their role in society when they themselves appeal to emotiive explanations."

i agree with that, and i tried to suggest the reason they are doing it: they overestimate the power of such explanations. the problem is in my view that a lot of clever people, including some economists, think that people are too stupid to grasp policy or economics.

Emotional appeals are as old as politics itself. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, Brutus gets up and makes a speach based on reason and Anthony wins the crowd by appealing to emotion.

Economics has two sides - the research side where Economists try to discern the truth, and the didactic side for disemanating that knowledge. Both sides are critically important. In Physics, researchers don't care if the common man understands the Higgs Boson, etc. In Economics, it is important that people understand unintended consequences and supply and demand because they vote on issues where those concepts apply.

If you need emotional appeals to reach some voters, so be it. There is nothing morally wrong about using them, and standing against such an effective tool is futile.

Prof Boettke,

I'm focused on the advocacy of positions, of how it is that actors get what they want policy-wise. When you write:

"My argument is that the economists must understand the value of emotional appeals, but that they cheapen the value of their role in society when they themselves appeal to emotive explanations."

I read:

"It is not worth it to convince people that what I want policy-wise is a good idea if I have to use emotive explanations in policy discussions."

Is that accurate? If so, what I say in return is that reason is a losing argument. You don't want to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001? Then you don't want to help *that little girl right there* go to school. You don't want to reform health care? Then you want *this person right here* to die untreated. The fact that the counter-position is not causal, or that the original argument does not match with the current argument, is immaterial.

When you write:

"Finally, and this is more direct response to Jared --- I don't want to beat, I want to have a reasonable discussion in which the teachings of economics are placed at the center of any of these discussions."

I read:

"I want to beat back emotion with reasonable discourse."

I understand if you would prefer a less violent metaphor (though I was thinking of it from a sports angle...), so I also read:

"I want to drive emotional narratives out of the policy discussion marketplace."

If that's what you mean, then I reply that *this possibility is not on the table.* For every political position possible, there is an emotional personal narrative to draw on. Emotional personal narratives help people connect to your ideas without having to devote the cognitive effort to understand them. So the narrative lowers the cost of people buying into your position. Thus, it is strategically unsound to eschew the emotional narrative, as it yields the use of them to your opponents.

If your opponents like winning more than they like reasonable discourse, then you will lose, as trying to develop the logical argument without using that back door into the mind is like me playing a pickup game with LeBron James. I can show up, but everybody knows I'm not gonna win!

Appeals to the plight of others, and the use of anecdotes to illustrate this, is not as corrupting as the assumption of malicious intent on the part of segments of society one doesn't like.

The first has to do with illustrating a lack of welfare, which in theory libertarians, and all liberals classic or otherwise, are concerned about, even as those trained in economics can better tease out the effect of policy on unknown persons with their own emotionally compelling circumstances. The second is a hallmark of political discourse, and a huge part of the reason for a lack of clear thinking about how to increase welfare for everyone.

Economists focus on "What is Seen and What is Not Seen," especially the latter. There is a type of emotional appeal that looks at what is seen and neglects what is not seen. We should object to that. I suspect Pete is really thinking about that sort of appeal. We should object to emotional appeals that say, in effect, "Once I have pointed to something bad, then no further thought or argument is required for any decent person. Whatever direct state action I happen to have in mind as a cure for the suffering is good because the suffering is bad and if you don't see that you're a horrible awful very bad, bad person whose wickedness extends to any argument in favor of other policy prescriptions." I think there are plenty of cases, however, in which emotional appeals support liberal policy, such as tales of wrongful imprisonments, torture, and the horrors of war. Indeed, I think liberals should be more eager to use such emotional appeals, but not in a way that vilifies other opinions or negates the value of rational discourse.

One of the reasons why the interventionists have won the debate so far is that they recruited the moral appeal to help the poor and weak and allocated the responsibility for assistance to the state. Similarly they recruited the moral appeal of justice and conveted it into collectivist "social justice".

Classical liberals and libertarians should be concerned about the poor and the weak and we need to look to civil society, the family and voluntary charity to do the business. All of those people who are happy to pay for state welfare should instead donate funds to a Voluntary Welfare Association or a suite of associations and take the state out of the picture.

That was the point Margaret Thatcher was making in her "no such thing as society" statement. If you read the source (an informal interview for a ladies magazine) the gist was roughly the opposite of the Left interpretation. She said (words to the effect) that the first line of defence for welfare is family and friends (civil society). The state is not a big person that is supposed to come and help.

Dickens was an interesting case. When his parents were in debtors prison he paid for his board and lodgigns (aged about 12) on six shillings a week that he earned putting labels on tins of boot polish in a factory run by a relative. He had breakfast each morning with his parents (the debtors prison was open). When they got a legacy and paid their debts they sent Charles to a private college to complete his education. The child labour that he experienced was safe, indoors and physically undemanding. Rather like the mills that got such a bad press from the factory reformers, in defiance of the evidence. But again the interventionists got to write the history. Bill Hutt exposed that fraud.

Windschuttle is good on The Grapes of Wrath. Keith was a young left radical but along the line became conservative and now edits Quadrant monthly, our only liberal/conervative little magazine of note in Australia. http://www.quadrant.org.au/

Having just finished reading Richard Reeves book, "John Stuart Mill, Victorian Firebrand", I would not be inclined to downplay the effectiveness of emotional appeals in politics. Reeves aptly describes some of Mill's more effective writing as "controlled rage".

Come to think of it, this ties into the Adam Smith quote I posted the other day:

"The man who has performed no single action of importance, but whose whole conversation and deportment express the justest, the noblest, and most generous sentiments, can be entitled to demand no very high reward, even though his inutility should be owing to nothing but the want of an opportunity to serve. We can still refuse it him without blame. We can still ask him, What have you done? What actual service can you produce, to entitle you to so great a recompense?"

The what have you done -- if a man acts on his sentiments -- should include, as Roger points out, not only the seen but the unseen as well.

If anyone is interested I have just posted a more considered response on my blog:
http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2009/08/is-it-possible-to-make-appropriate.html

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