Against Empathy & Einfühlung

by Jonah Goldberg

This morning while perambulating the canines, I listened to the recent Econtalk podcast in which Russ Roberts interviews Paul Bloom. It was a great discussion, as you might expect. Econtalk is my favorite podcast and Bloom, despite our ideological differences, is one of my favorite writers on psychology (though I’ll admit, of his books, I’ve only read Just Babies and barely started Against Empathy). I also had the pleasure of meeting Bloom recently (for a cigar no less!) when I was up in New Haven last month.

Bloom argues, rightly I believe, that empathy can be a trickster. It causes us to focus on a specific injustice or outrage and as a result empathy sidelines reason. It is different than compassion for, among other reasons, the compassionate thing is often to resist what your empathetic instincts tell you. Every parent understands this. When our kids suffer we feel the pain acutely, but that doesn’t mean that the suffering can’t be for their long term benefit.

Anyway, I’m not writing this post to summarize a book I haven’t read yet though I’ve read a lot about it and the podcast does a great job laying out the argument. I just think there’s a fun little oversight in the conversation (and oversight might be the wrong word).

I don’t know if Russ Roberts, the host of Econtalk, would call himself a member of the Austrian School of economics, but he is quite obviously extremely sympathetic to it (he’s a Hayek disciple for sure). The Austrian School, for those who don’t know, essentially launches libertarian economics in the modern era (I would say it launched neoclassical economics, but that would start a brutal intramural tong war for reasons to irrelevant to discuss here). The line goes Adam Smith to Austria to Chicago, more or less. (Apologies to Manchester and Herbert Spencer).

Anyway, the Austrian School didn’t name itself. The label, like so many, was coined by its critics and then subsequently born as a badge of honor (neoconservative, “deplorables,” come to mind). Gustav von Schmoller came up with the term to mock the provincials in Vienna who dissented from the historicists of Prussia. Though in fairness, Carl Menger — the father of the Austrian School — started it when he attacked the historicists. It was in Schmoller’s response that the phrase “the Austrian School” was born.

What was the substance of the fight (AKA the Methodenstreit)? That gets really weedy, really, really fast. In broad outlines, the historicists believed that, well, history was the key to all understanding and history was — is — contingent, relative and decidedly un-universal. Economics, according to the Germans, was downstream of history and could be understood best by using similar techniques. The German economists were champions of bathing in statistics and other economic data in order to “feel into” a specific economy and gain mastery over it. The Austrians believed that economics could be understood through broad aximoatic principles and deductive reasoning — techniques that worked across borders and time. They believed that experts could never have true mastery over economic questions and that overreliance on statistics would more likely obscure the complexity of society than reveal it. (See Hayek on the Knowledge Problem).

That’s probably more than you wanted or needed to know. But I am getting to a point. The German historical school was a descendant of Johann Gottfried Herder, arguably the founder of German of German nationalism and a thoroughgoing romantic. He believed that cultures are relative and unique and that one can only understand them by comprehending them on their own terms. (He essentially rejected the enlightenment project of universal values which makes him a more important intellectual these days than people might have thought ten years ago).

This method would be captured by two words, Einfühlung and Verstehen. Now, Verstehen means “to understand” in German, but in the context of German sociology and eggheadery, it has a more precise connotation. It means to dive into, to participate in the subject which you are trying to understand. Einfühlung meanwhile, means literally “to feel into.”

Indeed, the English word “empathy” only enters the English language in 1909 as a translation of Einfühlung.(Perhaps the foremost champion of the German historical method in economics in America around that time was Richard Ely, who has recently — and rightly — become a villain familiar to Econtalk listeners, though I’ve been banging my spoon on my high chair about him for a while now.).

What I find fascinating about the forces of empathy is the way they used their claims of superior understanding as a way to fend off arguments they didn’t like and facts they didn’t want to hear. I think this is often a problem for experts. They think they know, understand and feel their subjects so much better than everyone else that they can’t be argued with. It’s how intellectuals end up being owned by their theories and it’s how some historians become advocates for the subjects they study.

One can really see how this kind of empathy corrupts music critics. They become bitter and angry partisans for their favorite artists against all detractors. That’s probably okay for music critics, but it’s a really dangerous mindset for economists and other policymakers. Your empathy gives you a sense of ownership of someone or something, but it can also result in that someone or something having ownership of you.

The Austrian approach of emotional detachment has its problems too. But it seems to me infinitely superior as a way to make policy.

Anyway, I got onto this because the whole historical vs. Austrian school fight is in many ways the story of modern economics and policy-making. And I thought it was funny how the conversation on Econtalk – one of the few places where Austrian economics is discussed seriously and respectfully – didn’t touch this elephant in the room directly.

I guess you can tell it was a stimulating discussion, given that I took the better part of an hour of my Sunday morning to get this off my chest, which I think is a pretty high compliment to both Roberts and Bloom.

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