Bryan Caplan  

The Missing Moods

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Last month, I argued that people's moods provide information about their reliability:
Yes, the desire to feel any specific mood can lead people into error.  At the same time, however, some moods are symptoms of error, and others are symptoms of accuracy. 

When someone expresses his views with a calm mood, you consider him more reliable than when he expresses his views with an hysterical mood.  We give more credence to someone who discusses alleged war crimes somberly than if he does so flippantly.  As far as I can tell, this is justified.
In sum:
You can learn a lot by comparing the mood reasonable proponents would hold to the mood actual proponents do hold.
How important is this insight in the real world?  Very.  For many popular positions, the reasonable mood is virtually invisible.  For your consideration...

1. The hawk.  Modern warfare almost always leads to killing lots of innocents; if governments were held to the same standards as individuals, these killings would be manslaughter, if not murder.  This doesn't mean that war is never justified.  But the reasonable hawkish mood is sorrow - and constant yearning for a peaceful path.  The kind of emotions that flow out of, "We are in a tragic situation.  After painstaking research on all the available options, we regretfully conclude that we have to kill many thousands of innocent civilians in order to avoid even greater evils.  This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about foreign policy." 

I have never personally known a hawk who expresses such moods, and know of none in the public eye.  Instead, the standard hawk moods are anger and machismo.  Ted Cruz's recent quip, "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out" is typical.  Indeed, the hawks I personally know don't just ignore civilian deaths.  When I raise the issue, they cavalierly appeal to the collective guilt of their enemies.  Sometimes they laugh.  As a result, I put little weight on what hawks say.  This doesn't mean their view is false, but it is a strong reason to think it's false.

2. The immigration restrictionist.  Immigration from the Third World to the First World is almost a fool-proof way to work your way out of poverty.  The mechanism: Labor is more productive in the First World than the Third, so migrants generally create the extra riches they consume.  This doesn't mean that immigration restrictions are never justified.  But the reasonable restrictionist mood is anguish that a tremendous opportunity to enrich mankind and end poverty must go to waste - and pity for the billions punished for the "crime" of choosing the wrong parents.  The kind of emotions that flow out of, "The economic and humanitarian case for immigration is awesome.  Unfortunately, there are even larger offsetting costs.  These costs are hard to spot with the naked eye, but careful study confirms they are tragically real.  Trapping innocents in poverty because of the long-run costs of immigration seems unfair, but after exhaustive study we've found no other remedy.  Once you see this big picture, restriction is the lesser evil.  This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about the long-run dangers of immigration."

I have met a couple of restrictionists who privately express this mood, and read a few who hold it publicly.  But in percentage terms, they're almost invisible.  Instead, the standard restrictionist moods are anger and xenophobia.  Mainstream restrictionists hunt for horrific immigrant outliers, then use these outliers to justify harsh treatment of immigrants in general. 

3. The proponent of labor market regulation.  Labor regulation obviously isn't the main reason why workers receive decent treatment from employers; after all, most workers receive notably better conditions than the law requires.  And labor regulation has a clear downside: Forcing employers to treat their employees better reduces the incentive to employ them.  This doesn't mean that labor market regulation is never justified, but the reasonable pro-regulation mood is humility about the size of the gains plus wonder that even modest gains are on the table.  The kind of emotions that flow out of, "Of course worker productivity, not labor market regulation, is the most important determinant of workers' standard of living.  And of course regulation has some disemployment effect.  But strangely, that disemployment effect turns out to be small - even in the long-run.  As a result, labor market regulation usually makes workers better off even taking the downside into account.  The evidence is so strong that it overcame our initial presumption that the downside was serious, especially in the long-run."

This mood is essentially non-existent among non-economists, and rare among pro-regulation economists.  The latter, to their credit, take the downsides seriously enough to try to measure them.*  But their mood does not inspire trust.  They don't sound surprised that the law of demand coincidentally breaks down just when they hoped it would, or stressed that they might have failed to account for long-term damage.  This doesn't prove they're wrong, but even the intellectually strongest proponents of labor market regulation are hard to take at face value.

As you can tell, I'm not a hawk, an immigration restrictionist, or supporter of labor market regulation.  Are there any "missing moods" that put my views in a negative light?  Absolutely.  While I'm a pacifist, I'm sad to say that many avowed pacifists actively sympathize with evil regimes they don't want to fight.   Similarly, while I think libertarian policies are great for the truly poor, I've often heard libertarians privately sneer at the poor, without even a token effort to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving.  The prevalence of these moods doesn't prove pacifism and libertarianism false, but both are bona fide reasons for people to distrust pacifists and libertarians.  So what?  Again: If you have good reason to distrust the messenger, you have good reason to doubt the message.

* But not seriously enough.




COMMENTS (18 to date)

An explanation for the absence of tragic emotions on the part of hawks: There is a belief among hawks that the Other Side is attempting to deter attacks by making their own people worse off and depending on our sympathies. (Example here.) Pretending not to have sympathies might deter that attempt at deterrence.

As for how effective that is, the incidence of hunger strikes in Ireland or suicide bombs in Israel declined after the target government pretended to be hard hearted. On the other hand, there is a certain lack of a control group...

Walter Kovacs writes:

I once read a similar argument that New Atheists have entirely the wrong mood on the question of the existence of God, and that Nietzsche had it right. http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/05/believe-it-or-not

Sieben writes:

Maybe "anger and machismo" are moods that help you fight. If you go into a fight with mixed feelings, your chances of victory probably go down.

Of course it probably isn't necessary for the rhetorical defenders of war to foam at the mouth when they're on television. But it could easily be some hardwired evolutionary trait that kicks in.

When someone expresses his views with a calm mood, you consider him more reliable than when he expresses his views with an hysterical mood.

This is a false dichotomy. "Hysterical" is in the eye of the beholder. A calm person might seem dispassionate or unserious next to your garden variety political bully. Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh, and probably a bunch of liberals too, are appealing for many people to follow. They tread a very fine line between hysteric and strong community leader.

If you were debating the melting point of steel, you might have a point. But politics has this air of urgency which invites dramatic performance.


Phil writes:

On a Bayesian level that is all entirely fair and makes sense.

On the level of thinking seriously about our world though, that is an lazy heuristic on which to rely

In terms of moods expressed in public, there is a significant amount of game theory behind what sort of mood public actors show, such that in many cases the moods shown is more noise than signal

its reasonable for someone who is unable to evaluate arguments on their merits to use heuristics like this, its also reasonable to realize that time is finite, one cannot be an expert in everything

however, for someone who does want to be an expert on a particular topic, and is able to evaluate an argument on its merits, they should do better than simply reading the moods of the room

Jeff writes:
But the reasonable restrictionist mood is anguish that a tremendous opportunity to enrich mankind and end poverty must go to waste - and pity for the billions punished for the "crime" of choosing the wrong parents.

I think it's a little presumptuous to think that there's only one reasonable emotional response to a set of conditions. I would happily say that certain moods are unreasonable, but it's a bit much to go around telling people what the proper mood is when discussing topic A, B, C, etc.

For example, putting immigration aside for a moment, how bothered am I by world poverty in general? Not all that much. I hope things get better for poor people, be they Africans, Asians, South Americans, or whoever, but I probably won't lose a ton of sleep over it if they don't. I don't donate to charitable organizations whose goal is to end poverty; what time I spend reading about public policy, I tend to ignore poverty as a general issue, etc. I don't think this is unusual or that it makes me a bad person. People care about those close to them a lot more than they care about people half way around the world.

Furthermore, people tend to get desensitized to stuff that's really common. Tell me a story of some third world subsistence farmer's material deprivation and I'll probably find it sad and depressing. Tell me a million subsistence farmer's stories and I'll be bored.

With that in mind, expecting Americans or anyone else who doesn't favor open borders to feel "anguish" that, say, poor Brazilians might have to stay in Brazil is demanding a kind of emotional sensitivity that most people simply are not wired for.

Case in point: when you write about open borders,
the tone of your posts is rarely one of anguish, despite the fact that there are billions of people at this very moment, still very poor, denied the right to emigrate. This ought to bother you as much as anyone else, right? How much anguish are you feeling about this at the moment? Are you in a constant state of anguish whenever the topic comes up?

Duncan Frissell writes:

"billions punished for the "crime" of choosing the wrong parents."

To be fair, one can only be born to one's parents and those parents have to be in they exact geographic, domestic, economic, and social situation they are in when you were conceived. If anything is changed prior to your conception the odds in favor of your conception (already vanishingly low) decline further.

Floccina writes:

IQ research results make me sad.

Vladimir writes:

So presumably a reasonable anti-communist would have to express his opinions in a mood of sorrow and anguish, lamenting the terrible conclusion that we must abandon the effort to achieve perfect equality and social justice? Not like those libertarians who revel in celebrating selfishness and greed!

It's a dishonest debating tactic that can be turned against anyone. If you take your own mood affiliation as the measure of all things, you're just begging the question.

Plucky writes:

Lacking any other post to make this comment on, I'd like to get Bryan's thoughts on it here. One of the main conservative problems with mass immigration is culture. I've been trying to imagine how to express that argument in economic terms.

Tentative working definition: For purposes of economic analysis, "Culture" consists of all the arbitrary rules and determinations required to make Coase Theorem functional, but which are too unimportant (or too important) to make formally explicit, or for which doing so sets bad enough precedents to negate any benefit.

Consequence of mass immigration as distinct from small-scale immigration: Cultural change / ambiguity / balkanization causes deadweight loss due to non-transactions that don't occur because potential transaction parties have incompatible views on the property-right definitions required to successfully negotiate a transaction.

I'll give a small scale example-

Two culturally homogenous neighborhoods of 100 households form homeowners associations, and in order to maximize property values, both require that all yard decorations be "tasteful". In one neighborhood ("A"), "tasteful" is universally understood to mean a ban on pink flamingos. In neighborhood B, it is universally understood that "tasteful" does not ban pink flamingos.

For exogenous reasons (say, mutual shortening of commutes) two households swap neighborhoods, fully cognizant of the written rules of the HOAs involved, but oblivious to the unwritten implications. The B household moves into neighborhood A, sets up pink flamingos in the yard, and discovers very quickly that this is Not OK. Household from B is incredulous, tries arguing that there is nothing wrong with pink flamingos, but faced with the reality of being a 99-1 minority, is forced to grudgingly accept the interpretation. Being strong attached to the flamingos, an offer is made: If you let me put up flamingos, I'll pay 2X the standard HOA dues. The other 99 households, while not particularly happy about the flamingos, realize the extra money will let them spiff up a couple things around the neighborhood and agree, under the stipulation they can revoke the agreement in the future. Classic Coase Theorem outcome.

In neighborhood B the new homeowner from A is shocked to discover yards with flamingos, tries to raise a fuss about the lax enforcement of the tastefulness rule, and is met by 99 puzzled looks. Clearly, a very different view of tastefulness exists here, and there are just no takers on A's more restrictive view. Household from A at this point gets creative and appeals to self-interest rather than taste- after pointing out that despite being otherwise comparable, homes in neighborhood B were priced at a discount to homes in A, it would be in the interest of everyone if the HOA offered the 5-6 households who had flamingos in the yard to remove them in exchange for cutting their dues in half, an income loss the HOA that would be more than compensated by the presumed increase in property values. This is agreed to, with the stipulation that the deal is off if in a year if the expected home value increase hasn't materialized (extra note-Since of course everyone in this neighborhood is an economist (ha!) who understands the adverse selection risk posed here, everyone also agrees not to screw up the deal by putting up flamingos in hopes to getting their dues cut, too). Again, classic Coase Theorem result.

In both cases, the simplicity of the solution is a direct consequence of a clear delineation of property rights, except rather than being a matter of explicit rules it is instead an unambiguous interpretation of an ambiguous word. That makes it culture instead of law (although a comparable result occurs in the common law process..ahem..but that's a different can of worms).

If you imagine the same situation in which there were 20 house-swaps instead of 1, the above outcomes would become much harder to achieve. Why? At the phase in which a single person faces on overwhelming consensus of interpretation, at a certain critical mass of objectors the interpetation goes from Consensus to Legitimate Point of Disagreement, at which point all manner of deleterious consequences ensue.

Again, to return to the example, look at the B person moving into A. Instead of 1, if it's 20, then at the phase in which the majority interpretation is accepted and the negotiations begin, each person in the 20-person minority feel like their view has enough validation to argue that the no-flamingo interpretation is not clearly part of the rules, is completely arbitrary, and the implication that their aesthetic preference are not "tasteful" is a deep personal insult to boot. On the flip-side, the 80-person majority is going to feel like this came out of nowhere, is disrupting something was long-settled, and furthermore is likely to hurt their property values. The are not going to give way on the issue, and will attempt to enforce it. Both sides of the dispute would have a point here- on the one hand, the rule is ambiguous and the interpretation is arbitrary. On the other, it was created under the auspices of an agreed-to interpretation, so making it an Legitimate Point of Disagreement has the practical effect of a rule change. That's a de facto change in property rights, a regulatory taking in miniature.

An agreement of the you-get-your-flamingos-if-you-pay-more simply could not not occur in this dynamic. The reason it couldn't happen is that the implied no-flamingos rule is a quasi-property right, and with 2 opposing camps disagreeing on who is and is not within their property rights, there can be no agreement on who-pays-whom (never mind 'how much') that is necessary for everyone to get to the point at which the outcome is agreed-to and consensual. That no-deal is a deadweight loss, and further waste will ensue when both parties pursue the BA in BATNA.

That "model" has a fairly obvious application to immigration. What's hard to figure is, even if you grant the theory (which seems reasonable enough), how do you measure the magnitude? Deadweight and waste losses are extremely hard to measure if not outright impossible.

James writes:

Some examples to add to the original post:

When police misbehave, conservatives should be angrier than liberals. Police misconduct is a deviation from a mission which is of much more importance in the mind of conservatives than it is in the mind of liberals. Instead, liberals protest in the street and conservatives range from private disappointment to defending the actions of the cops.

When people capable of working collect welfare benefits, liberals should be angrier than conservatives. Sending TANF to the able bodied diverts money away from the the intended mission of TANF, a mission which is more important in the mind of liberals than it is in the mind of conservatives. When egregious cases of TANF misuse make headlines, conservative commentators are always angrier than liberals.

There is a theme: Conservatives see misbehaving law enforcement personnel and their need to defend law enforcement programs swamps their professed goal of law and order. Liberals see able bodied people receiving tranfer payments and their need to defend transfer programs swamps their professed goal of reducing poverty.

Eugine_Nier writes:
Labor is more productive in the First World than the Third

You may want to think about why this is. Otherwise, you wind up implicitly basing your reasoning on the "magic dirt" theory.

Eugine_Nier writes:

Consider the following argument made by a hypothetical leftist:

This doesn't mean that wealth inequality is never justified. But the reasonable inequalist mood is anguish that a tremendous opportunity to enrich mankind and end poverty must go to waste - and pity for the billions punished for the "crime" of being born in the wrong circumstances with the wrong abilities.
Eugine_Nier writes:
When police misbehave, conservatives should be angrier than liberals. Police misconduct is a deviation from a mission which is of much more importance in the mind of conservatives than it is in the mind of liberals. Instead, liberals protest in the street and conservatives range from private disappointment to defending the actions of the cops.

When police genuinely misbehave, conservatives do get angry. Of course, most instances of police "misbehavior" you hear about in the papers is liberals crying "misbehavior" over police legitimately doing their job. So it's not surprising that you see a lot of liberals crying over "misbehavior" and conservatives defending the police.

Mark V Anderson writes:

Excellent post. I particularly liked the last two points Bryan made of folks that agreed with him but had less than convincing demeanor about their beliefs.

Yes, Phil, we should all try to be experts in the topics we care the most about, so we needn't make these judgments based partly on the demeanor of the partisan. But no one can be an expert on everything, and I definitely use Bryan's method of discounting opinions of others when it is clear that they don't really care about their own arguments.

Vladimir, I've always thought that Marxist beliefs sound great. How could one disagree with the concept of "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs?" The problem is that it doesn't work, and those who take it seriously (or pretend to do so), will end up with a society like the USSR. Do you really think that would be a terrible philosophy if it was workable?

Adam Casey writes:

These mood summaries all seem to boil down to: "My opponent's policies have serious and dramatic downsides. People who propose things with serious and dramatic downsides should feel sad about it. They don't."

To which the obvious response is: nobody proposes a policy which seems to them to have serious and dramatic downsides. It would be very strange to positively endorse such a policy.

For example: One in favour of open boarders should be very nervous, because this policy runs a serious risk of the collapse of western civilisation leading to the avoidable deaths of billions. Are you nervous? Of course not. If you thought that risk was serious you wouldn't be in favour of open boarders.

Brandon Berg writes:

Similarly, while I think libertarian policies are great for the truly poor, I've often heard libertarians privately sneer at the poor, without even a token effort to distinguish the deserving from the undeserving.

Really? I don't think I've ever heard a libertarian talk about, say, the people of China or North Korea as being responsible for their own plight rather than victims of bad government. What would be an example of a libertarian sneer at the deserving poor?

Eric Hammer writes:
When police genuinely misbehave, conservatives do get angry. Of course, most instances of police "misbehavior" you hear about in the papers is liberals crying "misbehavior" over police legitimately doing their job. So it's not surprising that you see a lot of liberals crying over "misbehavior" and conservatives defending the police.

I don't think it is true that conservatives do get angry about police misconduct. I agree that there is a good bit of just silly complaining about police, but I have seen remarkably little interest, let alone anger, from conservatives regarding police departments ignoring laws requiring them to file information on police shootings. That doesn't make sense to me.

Compare that to the current Clinton ... is scandal even the word? I am angry, and conservatives seem to be as well, that Clinton seems to be getting a pass on her apparent criminal activity. I don't know that she is guilty, but I am angry that it isn't being addressed as I believe the law requires (or would be applied if anyone other than a presidential candidate did it).
Now, if a business or church were to just decide that it didn't want to follow the law and fill out reports on say accounting and hiring practices, the relevant governmental agencies would drop on them like a ton of bricks. When police forces decide they don't want to fill out forms relating to shootings, eh, no biggie. Strangely, conservatives don't seem angry about that** despite the fact that it implies the same thing as the Clinton scandal: there is no rule of law, but rather different rules if you are sufficiently connected to the government vs being a private organization.
It is not clear to me what mitigating factors lead conservatives to ignore the principle that the rules should apply to everyone evenly in this case.***

** Leftists are not either, for different reasons I would guess.
*** Leftists have an even more confusing path from their stated principles to this point, in my opinion.

jon writes:
This doesn't mean that immigration restrictions are never justified.
Under what circumstances would Bryan Caplan support immigration restrictions?
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