David R. Henderson  

Yglesias on Narcissism

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UPDATE: Paul Krugman makes the point that Matt Yglesias and I make.

Personal Experience and Principle

Various friends on Facebook this morning were celebrating the fact that Republican Senator Robert Portman has come out (no pun intended) in favor of allowing gay marriage. The animating factor behind this is that his son is gay. I celebrate Portman's shift too, but my celebration is more muted. I was trying to think of how to say it and then Matt Yglesias beat me to it. In a piece titled "Rob Portman and the Politics of Narcissism," Yglesias writes:

But if Portman can turn around on one issue once he realizes how it touches his family personally, shouldn't he take some time to think about he might feel about other issues that don't happen to touch him personally? Obviously the answers to complicated public policy questions don't just directly fall out of the emotion of compassion. But what Portman is telling us here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy. Once he looked at the issue through his son's eyes, he realized he was wrong. Shouldn't that lead to some broader soul-searching? Is it just a coincidence that his son is gay, and also gay rights is the one issue on which a lack of empathy was leading him astray? That, it seems to me, would be a pretty remarkable coincidence. The great challenge for a Senator isn't to go to Washington and represent the problems of his own family. It's to try to obtain the intellectual and moral perspective necessary to represent the problems of the people who don't have direct access to the corridors of power.

I agree. I think we should have compassion for all peaceful people. Yglesias and I would express our compassion in pretty different ways: he would have a powerful government use force to grab people's wealth and give it to others and I wouldn't. But where we agree is that you shouldn't have to wait until the state interferes with your peaceful son before you start advocating that the state not interfere with other people. So, for example, maybe Portman's son doesn't smoke marijuana or snort cocaine. But if he did, it would be admirable for Portman to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana and cocaine. It would be even more admirable if he came out in favor of legalizing them absent any evidence that his son uses them.

Unfortunately, this is not how most people are wired. They seem to have to have some personal experience to get them to favor a change. They can get from that personal experience to favoring a change that affects not just them but others, but it seems hard for most people to say, "Gee, here's how I thought about this issue. How would I feel if this other thing happened to my son or if my son was involved in some other activity? Would that change my views? If so, and if I'm justified in the conclusion I draw, I should change them now."

It's also not how most people think other people think. In November, I was sitting in the San Diego Airport waiting for a flight and I had my laptop open. On the back is a big sticker that says, "Free Bradley [Manning]." A man across from me asked, "Is Bradley Manning your son?" "No," I said. He then lit into Bradley Manning. Why did he ask that? I think it's because he had trouble imagining that someone my age who was not Bradley Manning's father would want Manning freed.

I accepted these facts about people long ago. And my acceptance is a big part of why, when I give speeches, I try to get the audiences to put themselves in other people's shoes. So I'm glad that Portman came to this conclusion. But I'm not ecstatic.


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COMMENTS (27 to date)
KLO writes:

I agree, David, but your example, drug use is one peculiar area where personal experience does not seem to have resulted in much change, at least in Washington. I don't think that most people -- let alone politicians -- would favor legalization of hard drugs once they became aware that their sons were addicts. In fact, they may even favor more restrictive (although perhaps less violent and aggressive) policies. Indeed, I strongly suspect that many, if not most, politicans have used at least one illegal drug in their lifetimes. This does not seem to have created a groundswell of support for decriminalization of drugs. Marijuana is the one exception, but even that seems to have moved largely through grassroots efforts, bypassing the politicans almost entirely.

David R. Henderson writes:

@KLO,
Good point. That's why I said that in such a case "it would be admirable for Portman to come out in favor of legalizing marijuana and cocaine." Most of them don't. Instead, they get a special deal for their kid. Gore, as VP, and Senator Richard Shelby are examples.

MingoV writes:
... Portman is telling here is that on this one issue, his previous position was driven by a lack of compassion and empathy.

There is no proof for this statement. It is highly likely that Portman took the position on homosexuality that appealed to the majority of his constituents. After all, he is representing them. His experience-based conversion to the opposite opinion, despite no significant change of opinion among most of his constituents, shows that he is willing to publicly announce an unpopular change based on new personal knowledge of homosexuality. I view that as a positive event: Portman did this knowing it reduced his chances of re-election.

nzgsw writes:

My Senator, DiFi, drives me crazy with this: On one hand, she continually uses her experience with the Moscone and Milk assassinations to justify gun control measures. On the other, she is a staunch defender of the drone wars, seemingly unwilling to consider the effects on those innocents who are droned.

Richard Reinsch writes:

So what is the logical working out of Portman's position? Would it not entail that public policy must be made on the basis of emotion and sentiment? If so, that sounds like President Obama's statement that he would appoint federal judges who understood and were sympathetic to the plight of the poor rather than the rule of law.

What remains, however, for advocates of same sex marriage is to define the limiting principles of marriage since their de novo position is clearly a departure from the principles of western marriage law. If on the basis of a same-sex attraction that an individual possesses, it legally follows that the public right to marriage should be conferred on that individual, then how can marriage be limited to 2 persons? That is to say that once you have rejected heterosexual complementarity as the basis of marriage, then what is it at that point? What would you say to polygamists, polyamorists, etc., who also claim personal attractions, but to multiple persons? Or am I missing something, is this precisely the point?

libfree writes:

Its wise to challenge your own positions and in doing so wonder how you might think differently if situations were different. His tweet this morning was "What if Portman had poor friends or an unemployed son". He might have been better off if he had tweeted "I wonder if I would feel different if I owned a 5 guys franchise" Its often better, when seeing other peoples blindness and carelessness, to wonder how I am blind and how I am careless.

e pearse writes:

This reminds me of all those people that are in favor of cutting government spending until the cut is in their back yard and affects them directly.

The same with those opinion polls condemning Congress almost unanimously but always re-electing their own Congressmen.

Portman change of heart is exactly that, a change of heart, but we cannot trust it is a change of mind, since his rational, intelligent, and educated mind told him otherwise for all his life except the last few days. To me Portman cannot be trusted in what he really thinks until he thinks otherwise when it affects him directly.

David R. Henderson writes:

@libfree,
He [Yglesias] might have been better off if he had tweeted "I wonder if I would feel different if I owned a 5 guys franchise" Its often better, when seeing other peoples blindness and carelessness, to wonder how I am blind and how I am careless.
I just checked the link. Good one, libfree. Nicely done.

Ted Levy writes:

David, despite Paul Krugman coming out in agreement, I still believe your analysis is correct...

Seth writes:

"But where we agree is that you shouldn't have to wait until the state interferes with your peaceful son before you start advocating that the state not interfere with other people." -DH

It seems that supporting gay marriage is more like advocating that the state interfere more with his peaceful son. Of course, this interference (state-recognized marriage) is only a state fix to other state interference (like estate taxes and income taxes)...but, who knows, the added interference may be worth the property dispute backstop, because very few (straight or gay), like to think about how property will be divvied in case they break up.

ivvenalis writes:

Or am I missing something, is this precisely the point?

Depends on who you talk to. FWIW, it seems to me like most people on either side who think through the implications believe that is the point (although their normative views on this are obviously different). Of course the vast majority of those in favor haven't thought it through, and would just as easily believe that we should invade Iraq to dismantle their WMDs or eliminate the Jew parasites or whatever they were being told over the last couple of years.

(David): "Yglesias and I would express our compassion in pretty different ways: he would have a powerful government use force to grab people's wealth and give it to others and I wouldn't."

Oh, yes you would. Redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples is a tax increase on straight couples and all singles. Marriage is an evolved custom that enhances resources available to pregnant women and to children in their early years. The cost/benefit analysis that (perhaps) justifies State intrusion (e.g., employer-funded spousal benefits, tax-free inheritance) into heterosexual pair-bonding does not apply with the same force to people who are far less likely to have children and who are far more at risk of a very expensive medical condition.

Michael P. writes:

What a myopic view this guy has. His constituents elected him because of whatever views he supposedly held (was his anti-gay stance important to his voters?), and, without much thought, abandons them because of some personal issue.

Aren't elected officials meant to reflect the will of the people in their district? If he is willing to shift preferences so easily, who knows how much thought is behind his other positions. This further drives the point how nitwitted, inconsistent, and impulsive public office holders are.


Yancey Ward writes:

The real pity is that Yglesias or Krugman won't turn this insight into something meaningful for themselves.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Malcolm Kirkpatrick,
Oh, yes you would. Redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples is a tax increase on straight couples and all singles.
How so?
State intrusion (e.g., employer-funded spousal benefits, tax-free inheritance)
I don't see how employer-funded spousal benefits are a state intrusion, unless they are required by law. And tax-free inheritance is the elimination of a state intrusion.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Richard Reinsch,
If on the basis of a same-sex attraction that an individual possesses, it legally follows that the public right to marriage should be conferred on that individual, then how can marriage be limited to 2 persons? That is to say that once you have rejected heterosexual complementarity as the basis of marriage, then what is it at that point? What would you say to polygamists, polyamorists, etc., who also claim personal attractions, but to multiple persons?
Good questions. I would say to polygamists that the state should not interfere in their polygamy.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Yancey Ward,
The real pity is that Yglesias or Krugman won't turn this insight into something meaningful for themselves.
I bet you're right about Krugman; I have some hope for Yglesias.

Dick White writes:

Most of us have a tendency for our visceral reactions reflecting our real life experiences to influence judgments we make. But the readers of this blog and its author(s) endeavor to anchor their judgments for the most part on serious analysis. For that reason I don't understand Professor Henderson's (and most commentators) apparent support of or sympathy for same sex marriage.

As Mr. Reinsch understandably wishes to know marriage's limiting principles, if any, I wish to know the first principles for the inclusion of same sex marriage. Such first principles would exclude those features achievable through civil unions.

The distinction between civil union and marriage seems to me at least, to be a perception quotient. The former being rather pedestrian and the latter rather exalted. Were the perception quotient to be the crucial factor, I would be sympathetic to the same sex couple's desire for such public recognition but I would be slow to change an institution that has served mankind so well. Informing my caution would be what economics always asks, i.e., what might be the unintended consequences of such a change.

(David Henderson): "I don't see how employer-funded spousal benefits are a state intrusion, unless they are required by law. And tax-free inheritance is the elimination of a state intrusion."
(a) Medical benefits: The State of Hawaii requires employers to offer health benefits. One of the reasons given by a plaintiff (Ninia Baer) in the original Baer, et. al. v. Miike lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Health for the State's denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples was that the State's policy of granting licenses to heterosexual couples only denied her partner access to her (university, taxpayer-funded) medical plan. Courts may allow private business to renegotiate compensation packages--redifinition of marriage is a material change in the contract-- but what are the odds that a government-employer would not just pass the costs on to taxpayers?
There's an unacknowledged tax increase in the pipeline.
(b) Inheritance: In the current legal environment some people inherit property tax free and some do not. If you suggest repeal of estate and inheritance taxes alltogether and either a reduction in tax-funded government functions or the substitution of a sales tax to compensate for the reduced revenue, we agree. If you advocate for the expansion of the exempt category to include homosexual couples, then the remaining population of non-exempt inheritors will pay an increased tax.

Seems to me, all benefits of traditional marriage amount to payment by society (through government) to responsible child-bearers. Whether the policy is mistaken or not, redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples imposes costs unjustified by the calculation that justifies the original policy.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Malcolm Kirkpatrick,
what are the odds that a government-employer would not just pass the costs on to taxpayers?
Low, I admit. Touche.
If you advocate for the expansion of the exempt category to include homosexual couples, then the remaining population of non-exempt inheritors will pay an increased tax.
I still don't see that. Are you saying that the government would reduce the threshold or increase the tax rate? I'm not sure what public choice analysis leads you to that. But I do see one way allowing gay marriage will lead to higher taxes on the gay couple. I would bet that both members of a gay couple have more-equal income than members of a heterosexual couple. Under the U.S. income-tax system, they pay more when they are married than when they live together unmarried.

BC writes:

As far as I know, Sen. Portman does support equal rights for Blacks and people of other races even though his son is white (as far as I know). Thus, the assertion that he lacks compassion and empathy is not true. Clearly, Portman has the ability to examine issues from other perspectives when fundamental rights are involved.

Perhaps, then, the fact that his views on gay marriage were, apparently, influenced by the fact that his son happens to be gay is an indicator that the gay marriage issue is not quite a civil rights issue, at least not to the degree that racial equality is a civil rights issue. There is a difference between the state not interfering in people's private sexual behavior, for example, and the state creating a special legal status or recognition of a particular relationship. The former is about limiting state interference, as DH puts it. The latter is about elevating particular types of relationships above others. There is actually no inherent right even for heterosexuals to marry. Obviously, two heterosexuals (or two homosexuals) have a right to live together, love each other, etc. But, there is no inherent right to have their relationship formally recognized by the state, to have a separate tax designation, etc. Those are political decisions, won in state legislatures, not rights enshrined in the Constitution, for example. As Reinsch alludes to in his comments, even gay marriage advocates implicitly concede this point when they don't argue that the definition of marriage should automatically extend to polygamists' relationships. They are essentially asserting that homosexual couples' relationships, like heterosexual couples' relationships, are worthy of special state recognition, but polygamists' relationships are not. That's ok; lots of groups try to gain political influence and lobby for special status, and gays have the same rights to do so along with everyone else.

We should not be surprised, though, that Sen. Portman's views are influenced by his own son's situation, as familiarity can lead to greater sympathy for a particular interest group's lobbying efforts. One could imagine, though, that one might take a different slant than Yglesias's in describing Portman's conversion. Suppose Portman became more sympathetic to farm subsidies after his son became a farmer. Would we then say, "Well, he should have supported the subsidies long before his son became a farmer?" I suspect not.

txslr writes:

Yglesias appears to takes it as given that the decision most informed by empathy is likely to be the correct one. Is it not equally logically possible that Portman’s empathy with his son has led him to the wrong public policy decision after years of having gotten it right?

Interestingly enough, my son is gay but I still oppose gay marriage. So, it turns out, does he, but perhaps he simply lacks empathy for himself. Maybe the transcendently empathetic Paul Krugman could set him straight (so to speak).

Richard Reinsch writes:

This is an interesting video interview from a Dutch MP who led the charge on legalizing marriage in the Netherlands: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Me_a_3G8aiw&feature=youtu.be . In the interview he notes that group marriage is the logical next step. I think David Henderson might ask if non-interference with these arrangements will be enough. I should think they will ask and demand for the same public recognition that we seem poised to accord same-sex relationships. I can't think of reasons why we would not other than pragmatic ones. Pragmatism, however, is a mighty thin reed.

[shortened url replaced with full url. Please use full urls on EconLog so our readers can see where they are going.--Econlib Ed.]

Brian writes:

That Portman would change his position just because he found out his son is gay is galling, to say the least. Shouldn't he be making decisions based on what's good for his constituents and not based on what he thinks his good for his son?

I can't think of a single issue on which I would change my mind just because of the experiences of my wife, or son, or daughter, or relative, or friend. It's not the way to make good public policy. So David, I understand why your celebration is muted.

On the other hand, you also say "But where we agree is that you shouldn't have to wait until the state interferes with your peaceful son before you start advocating that the state not interfere with other people."

Well, as other posters have pointed out, legalizing gay marriage is not about removing state interference--just the opposite--so you're motivation is exactly backwards. No couple, gay or straight, is prevented from living as they please. The state has little or nothing to say about it, regardless of marriage law, as should be.

But legalizing marriage of any kind is about giving advantages to certain narrowly drawn relationships over others, and that represents a state instrusion into a fundamentally private relationship. It also represents an intrusion into religious freedom. Mormons were forced to give up polygamy to satisfy the conditions of state-sponsored marriage. And it is inevitable that the state, in advancing gay marriage, will attack or limit the freedom of those religious institutions that do not permit gay marriage as a matter of doctrine. They will also move to limit the free speech of those who disagree with gay marriage (it's hate speech, don't you know, against a civil right). The gay marriage movement, in fact, carries with it multiple threats to the liberty of all and should not be embraced easily by any libertarian.

It seems to me that the only acceptable way forward is for the government to get out of the marriage business entirely. Marriage, after all, is an explicitly sexual union and the government has no business getting involved in sexual choices. Instead, it should institute a (nonsexual) domestic partnership open to all adults in any permutation or number and leave it at that. Anything else is unnecessarily intrusive.

Tracy W writes:

There are two aspects of government involvement in marriage. The first issue is about tax and other benefits, mandated or offered by government (such as immigration or the right not to testify against your spouse), the second issue is about the legal issue of what to do with property once a marriage ends, be that by death or divorce, and, tied into that, what happens if one party claims there was a marriage-like commitment and another party claims there wasn't. (Sample scenario: rich elderly widower hires a live-in housekeeper. Some years later he dies of natural causes. Housekeeper then claims they were secretly married and she is entitled to a wife's share of his estate, widowers' children claim she's lying.)

Leaving aside the question of whether government-supplied benefits should be offered in the first place, it's fairly obvious that if polygamous marriage is recognised then such benefits will be much more expensive. What happens for example if every member of a criminal gang marries each other to avoid having to testify against each other?

On the second issue, a polygamous marriage raises a bunch of legal issues on its dissolution that existing marriage laws aren't equipped to deal with. What's the relationship of the surviving spouses? How is property to be split? These are not unanswerable questions, but it's not just a matter of applying existing laws about marriage to some more people.

On a social level, polygamous marriage is different to normal marriage in that it's no longer two people committing to each other first (well apart from children, pre-existing or past). It changes the definition of marriage in a way that same-sex marriage doesn't.


sourcreamus writes:

A politician makes a change in his public policy stance because it would benefit a member of his family. It seems to me that this is not something to be applauded but rather a conflict of interest to be condemned.

Floccina writes:

To riff off what Richard Reinsch said, will it be acceptable for me to divorce my wife and marry my youngest son because he is younger and so can most likely get surviving spousal benefits for a longer period of time or do the marriage partners have to engage in some kind of sex together to qualify.

Gay marriage opens a can of worms. It would be much, much better for the Government to get out of the marriage business all together.

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