Bryan Caplan  

Tolerance Before Empathy

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Suppose you have a ne'er-do-well cousin.  A long-term alcoholic and drug addict, he's been arrested about thirty times - though never convicted of a felony.  One day he comes to your door, and tells you a largely accurate history of his troubled life, from childhood to the present.  He admits that many of his troubles are his own fault, and accepts responsibility for them.

Then, he hits you up for money - as he's done many times before.

How do you react?  If you're like most people, you'll feel a blend of frustration, impatience, and pity.  Sure, he came from a broken home.  Sure, he's had bad luck.  But if these were his only problems, he'd wouldn't need your help.  And you've helped him so many times already.  Looking at your cousin fills you with sadness, but the thought of bailing him out for the umpteenth time fills you with disgust.

Trapped between your conflicting negative emotions, you hesitate long enough for a nosy neighbor to wander over and ask, "What wrong?"  Before you can stop him, your cousin repeats his story.  The nosy neighbor's face turns red with anger - at you.  He reads you the riot act.  "How can you be so lacking in empathy?!" he asks.  "You were born on third base, yet you fault your cousin for failing to hit a home run!  You sicken me."

Should you help your cousin?  Reasonable people are likely to disagree.  But whatever you'd decide, your nosy neighbor is plainly and completely out of line.  Yes, there are some plausible reasons to say yes to your cousin.  But there are also plenty of plausible reasons to say no! 

It's tempting to ask your neighbor to show some empathy for your awkward position.  But what's awful about Mr. Nosy is that he fails to show you something more basic: tolerance.  Instead of preaching at you, your neighbor should admit that there are decent arguments on both sides, and butt out.

At the individual level, I doubt many people will dispute my perspective.  Why bring it up?  Because in his recent piece on poverty, Nicholas Kristof perfectly plays the part of society's nosy neighbor.  After acknowledging the connection between poverty and bad choices, Kristof lashes out at people who oppose a renewed war on poverty for their lack of empathy:
Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs. The advantaged sometimes perceive empathy as a sign of muddle-headed weakness, rather than as a marker of civilization.

This crisis in working-class America doesn't get the attention it deserves, perhaps because most of us in the chattering class aren't a part of it.

There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity. But the essential starting point is empathy.

If you had a ne'er-do-well cousin, I'm almost sure Kristof would be a tolerant man.  He'd acknowledge the moral complexity of the situation.  He'd admit that you might be right to refuse your cousin.  Whatever you decided, he'd keep his opinion to himself unless you explicitly requested his counsel.  My question: Why can't he be equally tolerant of people who say that "the crisis in working-class America" is not their fault and not their problem?  

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COMMENTS (26 to date)
David writes:

You might also suggest to your noisy and intolerant neighbor that if it's so clear to him that the ne'er-do-well cousin get help, that the neighbor be the one to help him, and watch the neighbor makes excuses for not helping.

Lemmy caution writes:

" I don't care about poor people" isnt a convincing slogan. Maybe make up some excuse about how it is really in poor peoples best long term interests not to suffer?

Pseu writes:

One possible reply: "Because the ne'er-do-well cousin still has government assistance to fall back on - you're just denying him 'extra' help. When what we're talking about _is_ that government safety net, there isn't anything else."

MikeP writes:
Too often wealthy people born on third base blithely criticize the poor for failing to hit home runs.

I'm guessing Nicholas Kristof does not actually watch baseball.

The average or below average ball player -- or ball team -- does not try to hit home runs: They play small ball. Get on base. Get into scoring position, stealing if you have the chance. Try to get that single that scores you from second base or that double that scores you from first.

This is, after all, the message of The Millionaire Next Door. Who thinks the poor should hit home runs?

ThomasH writes:

I think this is wrong in two ways. 1) I see little similarity between any real political issue (Medicaid expansion? unemployment insurance? Food stamps illegibility criteria? child border crossers?) and the ne'er-do-well brother in law. 2) Why is Kristoff the intrusive outsider in the issue?

Mark Bahner writes:
Who thinks the poor should hit home runs?

I think they should. Look at Dave Kingman.

The benefits of hitting long balls

Fifteen years in the bigs, with a .236 lifetime average. That's what home runs will do for you, poor people of the world! ;-)

Thomas Sewell writes:

Well, the first thing you might point out to Kirstof is that his list of "steps that could help" won't necessarily help and that if he's going to assert that the "crisis in working-class America doesn't get the attention it deserves", he might consider providing some evidence of this lack of attention, because it appears to get more attention than it deserves, at least compared to the Billions of people more deserving and more needy in the world.

vikingvista writes:

I don't get it. If that were my cousin, I'd invite him in for as long as his company pleased me, I'd try to be an entertaining host, and would happily and without hesitation let him know that I'm not giving him any money. If he were offended and became ill mannered at that refusal, I'd lose interest and tell him to leave. If my nosy neighbor became indignant, than I'd say with a smile, "Then you take him."

I don't see any dilemma or reason for hesitation here.

If Mr. Kristof wants to lash out at me, then he can go suck eggs, I just don't see why I should care. His morality is perverse, and I've got no time or respect for it.

Now, if Mr. Kristof shows up at my door with a badge and a gun...

john hare writes:

Well Mr Nosy Neighbor, since you have shown that you don't know the difference between helping and enabling, get off of my property. And don't come back until you learn manners and have enough situational awareness to make rational comments.

Cousin, I'll feed you, but I won't help you buy more poison. Yes I know you have gotten off the stuff, just like the last six times you had gotten clean just long enough to bum more greenbacks from me and the rest of the family and used them to go get wasted.

On the national level, I am sick of programs that give a drunk a drink, rather than withholding those resources for people that actually deserve help, or leaving it to those that earned the money in the first place. (insert long rant here)

ThomasH writes:

Can someone explain why Kristof is a "nosy neighbor" in this "family" dispute? In a public policy controversy, he's as much a cousin to the ne'er do well (Caplan's claim, maybe cousin Kristoff disagrees) as Caplan is.

Art Carden writes:

I think Kristof misunderstands: these criticisms of the poor are focused on on-base percentage, not slugging percentage.

If we're going to extend the baseball analogy and adopt Caplan's earlier discussion of virtue, the criticism might not be "you should hit more home runs" but "you shouldn't rush the mound after an inside fastball."

Of course, one might respond that the poor are hampered by the fact that it's awfully hard to hit when the pitcher is throwing at you, and empathy and assistance are society's way of saying "take your base" when someone gets beaned or takes four pitches out of the strike zone.

To which, I would imagine, Caplan might respond "true. Therefore, rushing the mound is still a terrible strategy. It's far easier and more productive to work on dodging balls that are thrown at you so that you can find yourself on first base after just a few pitches."

I wonder how far this could go. It sounds like a version of "Who's On First?" for 21st century poverty discussions.

Pajser writes:

Intolerant = def = one who doesn't allow. The neighbor, as described, is not intolerant. He is annoying at the worst. You are intolerant - you do not allow to your cousin to take the money from your wallet home. It doesn't mean that this particular form of intolerance is bad. But it is intolerance. Similarly for Kristof's cite.

RPLong writes:

The nosy neighbor's problem isn't a lack of tolerance. It's narcissism. Why does the neighbor assume a few moments on the porch are enough to wrap his head around the situation? Already he thinks his pet prescription will solve the problem and that you're a moral fool for not seeing it his way.

In the end, this is the main problem with using other people's money to address social ills. The more "other people" give you money, the more they feel they ought to be able to weigh in on addressing the problem. What was once a dispute between you and your cousin is now a matter of public discourse.

Soon everyone, everywhere thinks they are entitled to their opinion on whether and how you should be helping your cousin. This sort of thing is poisonous to public discourse, not to mention how bad it is for helping that cousin out.

Thomas Boyle writes:

I'm going to second John Hare's comment about enabling.
In recent years, psychologists have expanded the idea of "codependency", which was originally used in connection with family members of substance addicts, but has been generalized as referring to any behavior that enables self-destructive behavior by others, generally out of the enabler's underlying (often unconscious) need to be needed in order to feel good about him/herself.
Key insights: codependency (enabling) is not about helping the dependent, it is about the codependent feeling good about him/herself because he/she feels needed; codependency is a destructive behavior, destructive to both the codependent and the dependent; codependents are consciously unhappy about the dependents' behavior, but in fact actively seek out - even create - dependents who will need them; codependents effectively encourage bad behavior by dependents, to ensure the continuation of the cycle, and will sabotage the dependents' own efforts to stop their self-destructive behavior.
In psychology, there is a similar debate about how to distinguish between "helping" and "enabling", but increasingly there is an acceptance of the idea that enabling, or "codependent behavior" is bad behavior, masquerading as good intentions.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

So one thing that seems relevant here is that the social distance of the neighbor to the cousin is much greater than your social distance to your own cousin. In contrast, any given person's social distance to poverty broadly is the same on average. Sure some people are going to be especially close or especially far, but since this is a matter of social choice it's fair to say that on average any two people talking about this are at the same level.

I don't necessarily agree with Kristof's approach, but I think a lot of the obnoxiousness of the neighbor comes from the fact that it's your cousin, not his.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

It also depends on precisely what we're talking about. A basic safety net, or support with very well established rules is a different beast entirely from a guy showing up and asking for cash when he feels like it.

Here's another story to make this point - would you consider the neighbor equally nosy if your cousin was lying on your stoop, coughing up blood, crying out to you, and you refused to help him? I don't think so, I think the neighbor's plea would be more justified.

Similarly I think there's a big difference between looking down on people who oppose a basic safety net vs. looking down on people who oppose a generous cash welfare system with no work requirements, time limits, conditions, etc.

George Balella MD writes:

"My question: Why can't he be equally tolerant of people who say that "the crisis in working-class America" is not their fault and not their problem? " We can be tolerant of their view even if we disagree but ultimately as a nation we have to come to some decision to act or not to act. I would point out that we have a constitution that says we are to promote the general welfare and we are a people lead democracy. That's in our "charter". But pragmatically when a life is unfulfilled it affects all of us. One way or another we pay for poverty. Either trough monetary cost or lost potential productivity, or crime enforcement or even psychologically. I would much rather everyone had a job rather then being on welfare. And as a pediatrician IMO when looking for causes and answers we should not compare the successful adult to the unsuccessful adult. We should be looking at the starting the babies... because there is no blame to be placed on how we "choose" are parents. But ultimately that is the most important "choice" we make.

vikingvista writes:

"You are intolerant - you do not allow to your cousin to take the money from your wallet"

Exactly. Why are people so intolerant of pickpockets? Or of burglars, rapists, vandals, assailants, kidnappers, car thieves, or forced organ harvesting, for that matter? I'll bet it is because they don't understand that property is violence (and intolerance).

Hmm, I wonder if that means it would be intolerant of my cousin to not allow me to take back the money.

Seth writes:

"There are steps that could help, including a higher minimum wage, early childhood programs, and a focus on education as an escalator to opportunity."

The 1st two remind me of naive people saying things like changing school lunches will reduce childhood obesity or restricting Big Gulps will reduce health costs. Even if these specific actions worked, with no other changes, there are other changes. People easily change their behavior to get around the restrictions.

The last one I agree with, but I'm sure we'd disagree on the meaning of 'focus on'. For me, the focus should be on convincing people who do not value education to value it.

While I agree that Kristof fails to directly put his money where his mouth is, I think he's more obnoxious because he hasn't considered that his policies may not work -- or may hurt -- and that's because it costs him nothing to be wrong.

Mike W writes:

Morality tales of the impoverished verses "the rich" are such a bore. Are we talking about all of us helping the poor (the bottom 15%?) or just "the rich" (the top 5%)? And don't they already contribute to social programs more than most via the progressive income tax? Is the cousin not really "the poor" but rather represents "the crisis in working-class America"? If so, what's "the crisis"...that they have only average intelligence and/or motivation and therefore they aren't able to have as much as they would like to have? Is it only "those born on third base" that believe the cousin should not be helped or is that actually a fairly widely held belief even down to the first base level?

Kristol's article was a waste of keystrokes and so is Caplan's response.

john hare writes:

One of the more effective responses to higher minimum wage that I have heard. " Minimum wage simply leaves the potential employer with the decision to pay some people more than they are worth, or leaving them on the street. And any rational employer leaves them on the street rather than unfairly penalize his own business".

Thewaywardarena writes:

If you give a man a fish you feed a man for a day if you teach a man to fish you feed him for a life time! This analogy is over 2000 years old.


Give a man a fish, he eats for a day teach a man how to fish and you ruin a wonderful rent seeking business and vote seeking political opportunity.

gamut writes:

Daniel, you missed the point. Proximity is not at issue here -- it's the indignation at others not wanting to pay up, and lack of acknowledgment that there are valid arguments against.

vikingvista summed it up quite well.

But assuming this was a cousin to both, then the rude and self-righteous one can step right in and pay with his own money; and leave the complicated personal choice to the other.

Peter Drake writes:

Is it perhaps a bit of a false comparison? It seems to be that raising oneself out of poverty you've been born into requires a overcoming a number of uphill hurdles, each of which may seem insurmountable from the downside of the slope. They're not, but sometimes the perspective from above makes things seem easier. Like someone with a map wondering why the mapless guy keeps getting lost.

Assistance (guidance, education, experience, training, etc.) may be required at many of those hurdles to keep the progress going.

That's not the same as repeatedly rewarding a useless relative who deliberately puts himself back at square one. If there are poor people who consistently fail to make even the smallest amount of progress then they shouldn't be rewarded, but that's not the same thing as removing the programs that are working for many others.

None of the above is a defense of programs and spending that don't actually help those who are trying to improve themselves. Nor does it argue that basic welfare should be anything other than minimalist. If you could work but don't then your life should not be comfortable.

Sebastian H writes:

I find it strange to find myself on this side of the argument, but:

The dominant disagreement on the national narrative about the poor isn't between the nosy neighbor and the conflicted cousin. I'd be much more happy with the state of things if it were.

The dominant narrative is between characterizing them as mostly unlucky and mostly lazy/undeserving. Neither characterization is completely helpful--we might even say both strawman reality. But we definitely don't have a regular conversation where one side is the mostly empathic cousin.

Flocccina writes:

I understand that some people have little ability at money making, but what seems more wrong to me is when the likes of Nicholas Kristof say that low income earners could not possibly live reasonably well on what they can earn, when they spend more and work less that I did when I made a low income.

Should this guy who lives in San Francisco CA on $7,000/year expect recipients of his charity $ to live on less than that?

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