The Role of Sympathy in Policy

It is no great revelation to say that the policy responses to the COVID pandemic varies considerably between Republicans, liberals, and Democrats.  A charitable interpretation of the differences are that Republicans and (classical) liberals are concerned about government overreach, undermining the rule of law, and that the costs of policies far exceed the benefits.  Democrats may be seen as concerned with saving as many lives as possible even if the costs of the policies exceed the benefits.  A less charitable interpretation is that Republicans and Liberals are simply anti-science and that liberty is the only virtue that matters whereas Democrats are merely trying to sneak in socialism on a fearful public.

The split, however, can be understood much more cleanly without trying to speculate on people’s virtues and vices.  According to a recent study, vast differences exist between people’s perception of the COVID virus.  In general, people overestimate the risk of the virus on young people and underestimate the risk on older people (see the first chart in the link).  Democrats tend to overestimate its risk to a greater extent than Republicans do.

Perceptions of the virus filter into people’s evaluations of the costs and benefits of a given policy.  Since economic costs are ephemeral, forward-looking, and subjective, our personal perceptions will shape what we consider the costs to be.  Democrats support more stringent policies and slower re-openings because they perceive the costs to be considerably higher than Republicans.  They likewise overestimate the net benefits of the proposed policies.


This is where the role of sympathy comes into play.  Sympathy is a 4-step process.  For the sake of example, consider two people Jim and Mary.  Mary is an observer of Jim’s behavior, but she wants to try to sympathize with him:

  1. First, Mary imagines herself in Jim’s situation as best as she can
  2. She imaginatively experiences sentiments arising from the situation
  3. She then compares her sentiments (what she is feeling from the imagined situation) with the sentiment that Jim appears to be experiencing
  4. She comes to a new sentiment about the agreement or disagreement between the two sentiments (hers and Jim’s). If they coincide, there is agreeableness.  If they do not coincide, there is disagreeableness and disapproval of Jim’s sentiment.


Disagreeableness, however, is not a good feeling.  Mary, to improve herself, will examine more closely Jim’s situation.  She may endeavor to learn more about his frame of mind, his perceptions- in short, his local knowledge.  In this effort to sympathize more fully with Jim, Mary may learn new key facts, as well as Jim’s perceptions of those facts, which may bring their sentiments closer into alignment.  Mary may still disapprove of Jim’s sentiments, but she will have a clearer understanding of them and could engage with Jim more fruitfully to shift his perceptions, too.

To bring the story of Mary and Jim from the abstract to reality, Mary may observe Jim opposing COVID lockdowns.  In her initial sympathetic process, she may reject Jim’s opposition.  But, upon further reflection, she may see her own sentiments are based on an incorrect perception of the virus.  She, in turn, alters her sentiments, but can now also engage Jim with sympathy to his concerns about the policy.

The late, great James Buchanan described democracy as “government by discussion.”  Discussion, for it to be fruitful and not simply be a tyranny of majority, must involve sympathy.  A government without sympathy, even if it has the trappings of democracy like majority voting and dispersion of powers, cannot be a liberal democracy.  Legislation without sympathy deserves not the august description of “law.”  We must make efforts to understand the positions, the sentiments, and the perceptions of those whom we disagree with.  We just might find it is us who err.



Jon Murphy is a Ph.D. student at George Mason University, where he specializes in Law & Economics and Smithian Political Economy. He previously was an economic consultant in New Hampshire.

For more articles by Jon Murphy, see the Archive.


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The Lockdowns Definitely Suppressed Economic Activity


Pryce Boeye’s Hungry Hobo sandwich shops’ sales on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River have been booming since the state reopened dining rooms in mid-May, while those he owns in still-closed Illinois languish.

The pattern is repeated across the Quad Cities, a river-straddling metro area of around 420,000 that includes Scott and Muscatine counties on the Iowa side, as well as Rock Island and Henry counties in Illinois. The contrasting state reopening policies have created two tracks in what had been a unified economy before the coronavirus pandemic.

The scene is playing out in other border communities around the country where workers and shoppers regularly cross state lines. The relatively stringent lockdown regime in Illinois compared with Iowa has created a clear shift in current spending patterns and potential longer-term consequences.

These are the opening 3 paragraphs of Doug Cameron, “States’ Divergent Virus Rules Create Tale of Two Economies,” Wall Street Journal, June 24 (June 25 print edition).

I often see economists say that the lockdowns didn’t have much effect because a huge percentage of consumers were essentially engaged in their lockdown measures without government regulation.

The evidence in this article, not just anecdotes but 3 graphs of hours worked, businesses open, and employees working, strongly suggests that the lockdowns matter. (There are 3 graphs in the print version and only one in the electronic version.)

To be sure, you have to adjust for the fact that these cities border each other; the effect is therefore exaggerated by the cross-border shopping. So a better test would be Iowa and Illinois cities separated by 50 miles or so. Nevertheless, it’s strong evidence.


I’m catching up on Wall Street Journals during my staycation.


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Oksana Boyko Interviews Henderson on RT

The interview went 28 minutes and is here.

I won’t do my usual time-stamping because I’m busy with other things.

What I will point out is that approximately the first half is on my Wall Street Journal article, co-authored with Jonathan Lipow, that analyzed the findings of the major cost/benefit analyses of lockdowns and other measures that were in response to the coronavirus. We get into an interesting discussion of the value of a statistical life. It also gave me a chance to use the main thing I took away from my debate with Justin Wolfers back in April: how the concept of least-cost avoider strengthens the case against lockdowns.

The second half is about my latest article for Hoover’s Defining Ideas, “Black Livelihoods Matter,” Defining Ideas, June 17.  We get into the minimum wage, Senator John F. Kennedy’s racist case for increasing the minimum wage, occupational licensure, how restrictions on housing supply drive up housing prices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, and other cities, and charter schools. Early in the second half, I dealt briefly with the issue of white privilege.

Also, right at the end, I get in a major criticism of mega-murderers Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin.

Oksana Boyko did her homework and so the result was an excellent conversation.

P.S. I wanted to do a screenshot at the 1:27 point that shows both Oksana, me, and my Rocky movie poster, but with my new MacBook Pro, I couldn’t figure out how.



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The Data Are In: It’s Time for Major Reopening



Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, an influential economic analysis from the University of Chicago concluded that the likely benefits of moderate social distancing would greatly exceed the resultant costs. The New York Times and the Washington Post recently cited that study as evidence that the use of strict lockdowns to control the virus’s spread has been justified, and that current efforts to “open up” social and economic activity around the U.S. are dangerous and irresponsible. That is seriously misleading; the Chicago study is already out of date. More recent research supports the idea that the lockdowns should end.

This is the lead paragraph in an op/ed published in today’s Wall Street Journal. The op/ed is David R. Henderson and Jonathan Lipow, “The Data Are In: It’s Time for Major Reopening,” WSJ, June 15 (electronic) and June 16 (print).

Three things that delight me about it, in order:

1. It was published and I think it’s pretty important.
2. Although I haven’t seen the print version, a friend in the Eastern time zone tells me that it’s the lead op/ed. I’ve had over 50 op/eds in the Journal and this is only about the 4th or 5th time my piece has been above the fold.
3.The editor understands that the word “data” is plural.

Another paragraph:

That finding [that the benefit of the social distancing and lockdowns is only about $250 billion] casts major doubt on the value of lockdowns and even social distancing as a method of reducing the spread of Covid-19. While we can’t yet estimate a specific figure, the economic cost of social distancing and lockdowns will likely be more than $1 trillion. And that’s an understatement of the costs when you consider increased suicides and other social losses not captured in gross domestic product. For example, parents of young children have widely noted their kids’ gloomy outlook when not allowed to be with friends.

As always, I’m contractually obligated not to post the whole thing until 30 days from now. It’s on my calendar.


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Lockdowns are partly endogenous

In monetary policy, a common mistake is to assume that low interest rates and/or QE are indications of an easy money policy. They might be, but more often they are the effect of a tight money policy that drove interest rates to zero or below, and dramatically increased the demand for liquidity (i.e. base money.)

I wonder if something similar is true of lockdowns during the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly there are occasions when lockdowns are reflective of an aggressive policy of containment, but perhaps just as often they reflect the exact opposite.

Germany was much more successful in containing the virus than the other major Western European powers, and as a result had less restrictive lockdowns:

This occurred despite one of Europe’s least draconian shutdowns. Though schools, non-essential shops and restaurants were closed for weeks, a large proportion of businesses and factories continued to operate as normal. Germany also left lockdown more quickly than many of its neighbours.

Some East Asian countries were even more successful than Germany, and in many cases they even allowed their restaurants to stay open.

In contrast, where the epidemic got out of control, as in Italy and Spain, extremely restrictive lockdowns were often put in place.

I often see the discussion framed as “lockdowns vs. lots of deaths”. That’s true in a few cases, but just as often lockdowns are endogenous, a sign countries have stumbled into the “lots of deaths” equilibrium.

This is why I continue to reject the framing of the debate over Sweden’s policies, a country that avoided mandatory lockdowns. In most cases, the best way to avoid lockdowns is by restraining the virus with a combination of test/trace/isolate, masks, hand washing, and voluntary social distancing, not herd immunity.  Do all that and you will likely be able to avoid mandatory lockdowns.

Neither Sweden nor Norway is the model; it’s the most successful East Asian democracies that deserve our attention.

PS.  I understand that Germany had more time to prepare than Italy.  But so did the UK.  Britain wasted valuable time flirting with a “herd immunity” approach before opting for a more conventional approach.  It ended up with the worst of both worlds—lockdowns plus even more deaths than Italy.


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A libertarian is a conservative who has been oppressed

When I was young, there was an old saying that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. I suspect that the debates between liberals and conservatives are especially fierce precisely because they are generally based on genetics and random life experiences, not rational thought.

Along these lines, a Politico article by Rich Lowry caught my eye:

The intellectual fashion among populists and religious traditionalists has been to attempt to forge a post-liberty or “post-liberal” agenda to forge a deeper foundation for the new Republican Party. Instead of obsessing over freedom and rights, conservatives would look to government to protect the common good.

This project, though, has been rocked by its first real-life encounter with governments acting to protect, as they see it, the common good.

One of its architects, the editor of the religious journal First Things, R.R. Reno, has sounded like one of the libertarians he so scorns during the crisis. First, he complained he might get shamed if he were to host a dinner party during the height of the pandemic, although delaying a party would seem a small price to pay for someone so intensely committed to the common good.

More recently, he went on a tirade against wearing masks. Reno is apparently fine with a much stronger government, as long as it never issues public-health guidance not to his liking. Then, it’s to the barricades for liberty, damn it.

Ouch!  Lowry and Reno are both conservatives, but I’m guessing they are not the best of friends.

PS:  Tom Wolfe’s version is pretty close to the sentiments in this post:

If a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged, a liberal is a conservative who’s been arrested.


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