Government Power Undermines Empathy

Empathy: The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this.
 - Merriam-Webster's dictionary

The fundamental quality of human relationship is empathy. Empathy enables you to understand another person's situation, make sense of his behavior, and distance yourself from you own initial self-absorbed reaction to what other people do. It is a supreme expression of consciousness, providing the ability to wait a moment and consider what's happening before acting.

Freedom and capitalism encourage empathy; government power and administrative nitpicking undermine it.

Before trade, the primary interaction among people of different groups was war. The enemy was not considered human; there was no reason for him to be. There was no benefit to expanding the range of empathy beyond one's group. Outside people did not exist within the moral circle of another tribe, and they did not enjoy the benefits of human empathy.

This all began to change with the beginnings of trade about 80,000 years ago. That's when we see marine shells painted and strung as necklaces far from the sea in Africa (see Matt Ridley's book, The Rational Optimist). How did they get there? From people outside the tribe who had something to trade. These shells were used as a medium of exchange, and it was the beginning of a visible expression of our common humanity.

Free exchange is the form of social interaction that most encourages human empathy. When you want something, and somebody else has that something that you want, you have several choices: You can steal it, you can beg him to give it to you, you can ask to borrow it, or you can exchange with your interlocutor something that has an equal or greater value to him.

Begging, borrowing, or stealing all put you in a position which naturally diminishes your empathy. The other person becomes "the thing that possesses something I want." If I use force to steal or appeal to the generosity of another to lend or give me what I want, it puts both of us in an adversarial position toward one another, or at the very least into a sort of dominant/submissive relationship.

The free trade of capitalism, on the other hand, encourages empathy. If I trade with somebody, we are equals. We have to consider each other's interests, likes, desires, and dislikes in order to make a good trade.

Free trade encourages very different people to seek common ground, to understand different ways of living so that we can understand what each one wants and effectively sell things to each other.

In a very real, social sense, it is trade that has brought out the very best of humanity.

Trade does not make everybody angels, and it does not negate human nature. But it does encourage us to understand and accept human nature, and it gets us to look for what's true about people as a consistent way of life, because by doing so we become more effective and successful. But this is not something that can be forced; free trade requires the ability for individuals to choose to do what motivates them. Free trade requires freedom.

The contemporary antithesis is the attempt by some people to use the force of government to make people do things -- like forcing new "green" technology to be (somehow) invented and used or forcing those who create wealth to spread their wealth around to those who do not.

These kinds of ends are pursued by people who consider themselves deeply compassionate and who consider those who oppose such government force cold and uncaring. But they confuse controlling and giving things to people with compassion.

I had a conversation recently with a retired schoolteacher who was singing the praises of President Obama's policies. She said that she wants more entitlements. I pointed out how many of the people who create wealth are leaving California for the very reason that the government is taking too much of their wealth to pay for her entitlements. She responded, "That's why it's good that Obama is enforcing these policies throughout the country so that the wealthy can't just leave." I pointed out how many of the people who create wealth are leaving the country, too. She responded, "That's why I like that Obama is making it more difficult for the wealthy to leave the country and avoid paying U.S. taxes."

Nowhere in this conversation did I hear from her any appreciation of "these people who create wealth" as people. Rather, these people were seen by her as "the wealthy" -- not people, but things that should give her more of what she wants.

This is the problem with greed and envy (which are clearly two of this woman's driving emotions): they cause us to think of other people not as people, but as things. They serve to diminish our capacity for empathy, and they reinforce our sense of other people as objects. It is this lack of empathy that makes it possible for people to do horrible things to one another.

When people on the left talk about compassion, it is really an abstraction. Their compassion -- at least as they express it politically -- is based upon an idea they have of how we all should be; they want us to be like their image of us. Like bad stage parents who try to force their kids to fulfill their own ambitions, folks who seek to use government force to make us better people are not thinking about real people at all.

But their actions, their wishes, their ideals affect real, live human beings, with very personal experiences, relationships, ideas, and beliefs -- and a very real human nature that will not be molded like so much clay in an administrator's hands. Those on the left look upon humanity as small children look upon a blob of Play-Doh, and they work like crazy to squish us and form us and flatten us into the shapes that they long for humanity to become.

This is not empathy; it is magical thinking.

Empathy is encouraged by trade and individual liberty. Individualism is not some cold-hearted selfishness; it is the condition under which real people can care for, respect, and understand other real people.

The way to encourage greater human empathy is to affirm and champion the freedom of the individual, including the freedom of the individual to trade what and how he or she wishes.

This is what our founders did, and they created the foundation for the most benevolent, powerful, and compassionate country that this world has ever seen. It is our task to ensure that our gift of liberty does not perish from this earth in the name of the childish fantasy that people can be forced to conform to an ideal.

Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness: Ten Principles for Living a More Fulfilling Life. He can be reached at