The hard truth about empathy


Too often policy has little empathy toward the poorest.  We already know that the policy default settings, such as trickle down and a ‘rising economic tide will lift all boats’ are just not strong enough to tackle poverty, even in times of growth.  But increasingly, some policy seems alarmingly detached from the plight of the poorest.

We don’t need to look very far to see this detached lack of empathy.  It’s in the words of politicians, who denounce the benefit claimant as ‘a shirker’, but applaud the virtues of elite greed.

It’s in some of welfare reform, which is creating real hardship, but neutralised in some policymakers minds as the ‘necessity of austerity’. It’s in economic policy which advances ‘labour market flexibility’, while underemployment rises and low wages create a growing group of ‘in work poor’.  If policy people could truly and deeply empathise with some of this hardship, would they be advancing such rhetoric or be so gung ho in advocating these policies?

Economic policymakers need to face up to the hard truth about empathy.  It is not some bleeding heart piece of fluffy moral whimsy, distinct from economic, business or societal success.  Quite the reverse, it’s intrinsic to the kind of economy we should aspire to.  Indeed the father of economists – Adam Smith in his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments – tells us that by being able to disrupt our sense of ease, and deeply imagining the pains of others, comes a useful empathy:

‘As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.  Though our brother is on the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us if what he suffers’.

The Theory of Moral Sentiments stands as an interdependent part to Smith’s much more famous science of economics, The Wealth of Nations.  In The Wealth of Nations, while advocating self interest and economic gain, Smith also highlights a requirement that we appreciate the suffering of others and do something about it:

‘What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconvenience to the whole.  No society can be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable’.  

Across both of Smith’s books, we have two vital interdependent elements – benevolent self interest and a need to empathise with the pain of others.  However, the economic policy world has and continues to over play self interest, fuelled by the neo-liberal economist’s abuse of Smith’s message and cheered on by the powerful self-interested elite.

Part of the solution is about raising the consciousness, making us all see the horrors of poverty.  Indeed, this is raised adroitly by Julia Unwin, chief executive of Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in her excellent Why Fight Poverty?, in which she highlights how poverty has become a ‘spectator sport’, creating a detached ‘them’.

However, we also need to combat any general detached indifference with policy action.  We need:

  • A central state which identifies more with the precariat at the bottom, rather than the elites at the top.
  • An economic policy which shows that it understands that tackling poverty, is not just about getting economic growth but is about doing something socially virtuous with it
  • In the absence of growth, we must still advance policy to help the poorest, we can’t wait for growth.
  • Policies such as living wage, and fairness-focussed labour markets, which ensure a torrent down opposed to a trickle down of wealth.
  • True ‘place-based policy’, which links economic development, public sector reform and tackling poverty
  • Welfare, childcare and education policy which truly gives a hand-up.

Policy has been driven by an obsessive fear of recession, a focus on austerity and return to growth.  In turn, we have witnessed the demonisation of the benefit claimant, the out-of-work and the poor.  Of course, we have a budget deficit headache, but we can’t let this be an excuse for an empathy deficit in our hearts.

The original article can be read on the NewStart website here