| Peter Boettke |
Last year as I was teaching my HNRS 131 class and we were working our way through The Grapes of Wrath, I realized something that was a common thread in works like Dickens and Steinbeck, that was reversed in writers such as Rand. The critics of the market-order emphasized personal plights of misery due to forces beyond their control, whereas Rand talked about systemic forces in society and relied on personal stories only to the extent they illuminated the systemic forces.
I am an economist and I have to say that I have always had a negative reaction to appeals to personal tragedy. Probably has something to do with my upbringing which did not permit whining and excuses. One of my basketball coaches was fond of saying "excuses are like *******, everyone has one." So excuses were not allowed. And neither should regrets. It is what it is, deal with it. Build your own fate through hard work and skill. I didn't need a coach to teach me that lesson, my father taught me that from the time I can remember. Take responsibility for your own actions.
Enough personal history. But we often hear from those specializing in rhetoric that we need to make these personal appeals if we want to impact our audience. I agree, but keep in mind the distinction I am made between Dickens/Steinbeck and Rand. Nine times out of ten, the rhetorical experts are pushing for Dickens/Steinbeck type personalized story. In short, a personalized narrative at odds with economic analysis. One of the first lessons of economics is that intentions do not equal results, and the principles of unintended consequences.
I understand the Hayekian argument about our genetic hard wiring and Adam Smith's discussion of moral sympathy. But also note that in both Smith and Hayek, the intellectual demand they put on us is to develop our mental capacities to move beyond our immediate emphathetic reaction -- to understand the span of our moral sympathy and the moral demands of the Great Society.My favorite comedic depiction of emotive appeals in politics is Dana Carvey playing Bill Clinton and following up on Clinton's "I feel your pain" appeals. Carvey get surgically enhanced to be able to breast feed the nation and to have a mother hen ass so he can provide "Presidential comfort". It was the first skit of the first episode, you can get it here. To me it captures the absurdity of emotive appeals perfectly. And President Clinton was an amateur compared to the way President Obama makes these appeals.
Do you think my concern with emotive appeals in politics is wrong? Should the economist stand against such appeals and emphasize systemic effects and general principles even as they build these from the purposes and plans of choosing individuals? What popular cultural discussion do you think captures the difference between emotive and systemic effect appeals in politics?