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Nancy MacLean, Libertarians and Autism

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Wow, I haven't posted here in a long time. Unfortunately I've been preoccupied with working on my PhD. Another point I want to make is that, unfortunately, I've been finding that many conversations in the Objecto-sphere have become rather monotonous and rarely are new ideas or new topics being addressed, and thus the discussion has become less interesting for me in recent years. I'm still an Objectivist, I just haven't seen too much novelty in the Objectivist world, which is another reason I've been less than present on this forum.

However, I am back with an article I wrote. I couldn't get it published at more general libertarian-outreach-activism places so I thought here would be a good choice. All comments are appreciated!

NANCY MACLEAN, LIBERTARIANS AND AUTISM
Introduction
Criticism of Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean has become a cottage industry ever since she published her demented smear job against Public Choice Theory "Democracy In Chains." Indeed, MacLean's work is full of absurd distortions, misrepresentative quoting, and obvious untruths. Her entire thesis is that Public Choice Theory is racist; frankly I wonder if Nancy is attempting to continue Duke University's proud tradition of racially charged false accusations. Public choice scholars and economists like Michael Munger (see http://www.independent.org/issues/article.asp?id=9115 ) and Steven Horwitz (see https://www.cato.org/cato-journal/fall-2017/democracy-chains-deep-history-radical-rights-stealth-plan-america-nancy ) have done an admirable job in effectively shredding MacLean's thesis, but MacLean knew, just like Mike Nifong and Crystal Mangum, that women's tears are almost always believed and as such she decided to play victim (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Nancy-MacLean-Responds-to-Her/240699). It is no surprise Oprah shilled her book; I'm sure that soon enough Lifetime will be producing a telemovie about the trauma she suffered at being critiqued.

But the point of this article isn't to channel my inner Christopher Hitchens and say nasty things about MacLean's screed. Plenty of far better commentators have done this. Rather, I am going to make a qualified defense of something she did say whilst criticizing what she seemed to be attempting to imply with what she said. 

We all know how utterly frustrating it is when people deal with their political enemies through the use of diagnosis as a substitute for dialectic. The Soviet Union took this to its logical extreme through claiming that political dissidents were mentally ill, because clearly no sane person could disagree with Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism; more recent entries in this category include the so-called "Republican Brain Hypothesis" (see https://www.abbeys.com.au/book/republican-brain-the-science-of-why-they-deny-science-and-reality.do ) that was proposed during the culture wars against the Religious Right during the George W. Bush administration. MacLean decided to add to this genre of political pseudoargument through arguing that there is indeed a libertarian brain, and that libertarian brain is characterized by being on the autism spectrum (see https://reason.com/blog/2018/02/13/democracy-in-chains-author-nancy-maclean/print ).

Katherine Timpf at National Review fumed (https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/02/nancy-maclean-libertarians-seem-autism-spectrum/). Like several other critics pointed out (see https://psmag.com/news/on-libertarians-autism-and-empathy and https://anintenseworld.com/2018/02/10/duke-historian-nancy-maclean-identifies-autism-as-the-source-of-a-malevolent-ideology/ ), MacLean's understanding of autism primarily in terms of lacking empathy and not feeling solidarity with others is based on an outdated portrait of being on the autistic spectrum rooted primarily in the "Mind Blindness" concept of Simon Baron-Cohen; more recent research has greatly questioned whether "Mind Blindness" is a correct portrait in the first place.

But so far, the responses to MacLean have focused on the fact she equates libertarianism with a lack of empathy and solidarity with others, and the fact that she equates being on the autistic spectrum with lacking said empathy and solidarity. These are all valid critiques to make of her position, but so far there has been little attempt to wrestle with the question of whether or not MacLean is correct that there might be a link between libertarianism and being on the autistic spectrum. Not only that, but no one to my knowledge has questioned the unstated premise of MacLean's argument, which is that libertarian economics (and Public Choice in particular) is wrong because the brains which formulated these economics are arguably on the autistic spectrum. MacLean's argument is simply not an argument unless one accepts that having autism or Asperger's Syndrome introduces systematic error into one's economic reasoning. Indeed, for MacLean to be correct, having a brain that is positively drenched in "empathy" and "solidarity with others" is necessary to be a good economist.

My argument is simple; yes, it is in fact likely that libertarians are disproportionately likely to be either on the austistic spectrum or have subclinical levels of symptoms typically thought of as indicating Asperger's Syndrome. Libertarian thought and philosophy often is characterized by the kind of cognitive style which, in its extreme form, is characteristic of austists and in particular the high-functioning autists commonly described as having Asperger's Syndrome. This is where MacLean is right. However, the implication that this kind of cognitive style makes you bad at doing economics is precisely the opposite of the truth. Indeed, having a degree of autistic symptoms can plausibly be thought of as an advantage for an economist, and that it is the caring-feeling-empathy-solidarity normie-brain which could represent a disadvantage for someone trying to perform economic analysis.

 On a personal note, I am not just a libertarian with Bachelors and Masters degrees in economics (and in the process of working on a Doctorate in the field), but I also have Asperger's Syndrome. Nancy MacLean's statements therefore constitute an allegation that my very brain is less capable at economic reasoning than it would be if I were neurotypical (i.e. not someone with Asperger's Syndrome). Of course, one must wonder why I would develop an interest in and devote substantial amounts of time and effort to the field of economics if I were mentally impaired at comprehending it!

1. Libertarians: More 'spergy Than Average
How someone thinks, their "cognitive style" or what Ayn Rand called their "psycho-epistemology," is partially determined by biology. Of course anyone of any neurology can grasp that 2 + 2 = 4, but research has shown that the biology of the brain influences how people think. Dr. Helen Fisher, for example, researches how brain chemistry impacts things like people's love life and people's politics (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lOPtTbFCMY ). Neurobiology has political correlates, as Fisher points out; she characterizes libertarians as having brains highly influenced by natal testosterone. Jonathan Haidt and several co-researchers also, in a study of libertarian morality, point out that biological factors can predispose one (albeit often indirectly) to different political ideologies (see http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0042366&type=printable ). An interesting thing which Haidt et al. point out is that libertarians rely on reason more, and emotion less, than leftists or conservatives; this is tested using Simon Baron-Cohen's Empathizer-Systemizer scale (see p12-13). This scale is interesting in that it is linked both to being on the autism spectrum and also gender; "libertarians score the lowest of any group on empathizing, and the highest on systemizing. In fact, libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than empathizing... relatively high systemizing and low empathizing scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism. We might say that liberals have the most 'feminine' cognitive style, and libertarians the most 'masculine'" (p13). 

In spite of Baron-Cohen's contested contention that people on the autism spectrum are less capable of empathy, the point remains that there is clearly correspondence between Haidt, Fisher and Baron-Cohen here; persons whom are on the autism spectrum can be described as having an atypically "masculinized" (i.e. shaped by prenatal testosterone) brain. Libertarians (on average) have brains which are more testosterone-influenced than the general population. It stands to reason, therefore, that brains-predisposed-to-libertarianism are more likely to also either be on the autistic spectrum or at least have more autistic-spectrum-traits than the average brain. This also provides a theoretical explanation for why libertarian communities are disproportionately male; strongly masculinized brain development is more likely to happen to natally male individuals. 

This "systemizer-brain" orientation is evidenced all over libertarian culture, as evidenced by the emphasis we tend to place on logical consistency and reason in general (to the point where our biggest magazine is literally named Reason). As Ayn Rand made clear, she was not primarily an advocate of markets, liberty and egoism, but rather of reason, and if one embraced reason all the rest would follow; agree or disagree with Rand as much as you like, but she serves as evidence of how libertarianism has deep cognitive roots. The fact that libertarian advocacy is ultimately rooted in the Enlightenment, which championed human reason, is further evidence of this. Whilst the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has fallen out of favor with academic psychology research, I distinctly remember discussions in libertarian communities about how libertarians are about 80% xNTx (it is even more extreme amongst Randians/Objectivists, whom are about 85% xNTx and particularly biased towards INTx individuals; indeed MBTI enthusiasts often characterize Howard Roark as an INTP, and Rand herself as an INTJ); this is massively disproportionate relative to the general population, which is about 12% xNTx. The xNTx style of cognition is the "rational temperament" focused on thinking rather than feeling, and high level abstractions over immediate sensory information. 

To the extent that cognitive style is biological, the implications are depressing for libertarians. The libertarian mindset is strongly correlated with a brain that is heavily influenced by prenatal testosterone, moreso than the average brain. Libertarianism appeals to an atypical style of mind, one that is likely to exhibit more characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome or the autism spectrum generally; libertarianism appeals to a mind which is more emotionally detached, more introverted, more abstract, and less invested in social relationships than the norm (Haidt et al.'s paper substantiates this; libertarians are less likely to define or describe themselves in terms of their relationships to other people). This is consistent with the fact that libertarianism is not a mass movement, and implies that most people will find libertarianism counterintuitive at least initially. 

2. Good Economics Is Counterintuitive Too
It has been noticed by many that even very mainstream economics requires thinking that goes "against the grain." As Bryan Caplan demonstrated in The Myth of the Rational Voter, the average American diverges substantially from the economic beliefs of the average economist, and diverges in systematic and predictable ways (in particular, the average American is less pro-market than the average economist). The economists in the survey are a general cross-section of economists, and not "just the staff of the Cato Institute," so it cannot be claimed that there is bias in the selection of experts; the experts are consistently to the economic 'right' (if by 'right wing' one means pro-market) of the average American citizen. Even economists generally associated with the left, such as Paul Krugman, are surprisingly pro-market relative to the average (Krugman, for example, is more pro-free-trade than Steve Bannon). 

Not all libertarians are economists and not all economists are libertarians, but the presence of libertarians within economics is unquestionably disproportionate relative to the general population. The point to emphasize, however, is that according to the experts, average people are (on average) systematically wrong about the benefits of markets.

Caplan notices that even first year economics students come into the classroom bearing the imprints of multiple economic errors which need to be eliminated from their thought. In other words, even non-controversial neoclassical economics goes against the intellectual grain for many, many people. 

This should not be a surprise. After all, economics is the field that suggests (and this is anything but a controversial argument in economics) people who act selfishly in the commercial realm will make life better for other people alongside themselves; this is hardly the first thing that comes to the mind of most people when they're asked to picture a "selfish" person. Rather, they imagine some bloodsucking brute, not the local shopkeeper. Many people who run various local governments believe that rent control is still a good policy, even if it is literally textbook bad economics. Many people believe that cheap goods from overseas somehow are "exploitation." Many people don't grasp the fundamental insight that voluntary trade where parties have all the relevant information will always make both parties better off by definition. Even non-controversial, non-extreme, standard-issue economic reasoning does not come naturally to most people. Economists in general, not merely libertarian economists, don't think typically. This does not mean all economists have Asperger's Syndrome (economic reasoning can be taught, after all); it means that economic reasoning has to fight an uphill battle against the conventional mindset.

3. Neurology And Systematic Error
What I have shown is that libertarians are defined by a cognitive style which overlaps neurologically with certain symptoms of being on the autism spectrum. This is what Nancy McLean is correct about. I have also shown that economists in general (across the political spectrum) are more pro-market than average people, so the "norm" (which presumably includes and is defined by the majority of neurotypical persons) is systematically wrong. What I have not shown yet is that the characteristics of the neurotypical cognitive style (higher levels of empathizing than systemizing, "solidarity with other people" as MacLean claims, that kind of thing) can systematically bias someone towards incorrect economic conclusions. This is what I will now attempt to do. I should clarify that I do not intend to claim someone must have Asperger's Syndrome or substantial levels of autistic-spectrum-traits in order to be a good economist; economic reasoning is a skill which can be taught. All I am claiming is that having at least some level of autistic-spectrum-traits helps avoid systematic error. 

The first argument that needs to be made is that economics, as a field, is focused entirely on systemizing and has literally no room for empathizing. In economics, society and individuals are dealt with impersonally, as either collections of logical rules or utility functions or value-scales. Every person is merely one item in a far larger picture. Economists think in terms of optimizing systems, not caring for particular individuals (this does not mean they do not care, merely that this isn't the focus of economics). Standard-issue general equilibrium economics is built from mathematical models borrowed from field theory in physics. Individual happiness is just a matter of "utility" - a simple quantity of pleasure/satisfaction. The economy is invariably conceptualized as a system... be it a physical system, a biological system, a network, a machine, but it is still a system. Not only that, but economists are addressing one of the most painful and difficult facets of the human condition - specifically poverty - and how to ameliorate it. We have to deal with difficult tradeoffs that may sacrifice ten lives to save twenty five other lives. This simply is not a field suited to mindsets that focus on things like "feelings" and "empathy" and "solidarity" and "caretaking" and the other things which Nancy MacLean associates with the neurotypical mindset; it is a field which requires cold calculation, and often literal calculation since at times economics is like physics or mathematics. In this situation, a systemizing-oriented brain is exactly what one wants to have solving the problems. It is easier to speak of temporary frictional unemployment than to be confronted with the day-to-day minutiae of someone without any marketable skills trying to secure a job interview. 

A second, and in my opinion stronger, argument could be made however. Let us look at several "textbook bad economics" policies. How are these policies sold to the polity? How are they justified?

Rent control is a fantastic example: "to ensure affordable housing for the poor." The motive here is compassion, solidarity, empathy, a concern for the plight of the poor. And it isn't controversial to say it doesn't work. 

Welfare states are consistently justified in terms of compassion for the suffering and solidarity between human beings. But, pray tell, why are these welfare states almost always full of massive bureaucracies rather than policies which handle welfare through simple income transfers (for example via a negative income tax or basic income guarantee)? Given the many problems and flaws that bureaucracy and its associated incentives have, one would think that a genuine motive of compassion doesn't necessarily mean one will pick the least costly, most effective means of being compassionate. 

Of course some environmental protections are easily defensible on the basis of economic reasoning. But what about environmentalist attacks on genetically modified organisms (a proven-safe technology) or nuclear power (which is incredibly safe and efficient if modern technology is used)? Environmentalists consistently appeal to the emotions, to empathizing, to feelings and fluffiness in their campaigns to cast GMOs as "impure" and all nuclear power plants as Chernobyls-In-Waiting. Nordhaus and Schellenberger, both economists, campaign (through their think-tank the Breakthrough Institute, see https://thebreakthrough.org/about/mission/ ) for technological solutions to environmental problems, yet the environmental establishment still demands wind, solar, organic and biodynamic (the latter of which is based on a semi-spiritual framework rather than a purely scientific one). Environmentalism appeals to compassion, feelings, oneness with the earth and all of that emotionalistic illogical bilge, yet consistently avoids the policy proposals actual economists can demonstrate would be effective means to environmentalists' declared ends. 

Let us also look at the monster example: socialism. Socialism was motivated in many cases by compassion for the poor, by the desire to reduce poverty, by the desire to spread prosperity as widely as possible. Every attempt to try it failed miserably, and to the extent that any socialist system worked it only worked to the extent it preserved property rights and market incentives (for example Titoism, which avoided famine, yet did so through preserving property rights over farmland). It strikes some as counterintuitive to suggest that letting people keep things for themselves (i.e. property rights) can result in a larger and broader distribution of goods than forcibly taking those goods and collectivizing ownership, but the historical record makes it clear that property rights and markets are essential conditions to wide-scale prosperity. Again, not even left-leaning economists contest this; the Economic Calculation Problem is a fact, which is why contemporary economists on the left are Social Democrats rather than old-school Socialists. 

There is a systematic pattern; advocacy of bad economics is constantly rooted in the same motives Nancy MacLean accuses libertarians and persons on the autistic spectrum as lacking. Compassion and solidarity and empathy are certainly positive traits, yet they seem to be the driving force behind some atrociously bad policy preferences. This certainly doesn't mean that good intentions always result in bad policy, but it suggests a possible theory that I will summarize as follows:

"Neurotypical drives towards compassion, empathy, solidarity and other associated feelsy-niceness override rational consideration of what means are actually effective at generating the desired positive outcomes. Because people with at least some level of austistic-spectrum-traits can detach themselves from the compulsive cries of 'feelings' more easily, they may be better judges of what is practically effective."

Conclusion
Nancy MacLean's book on Public Choice is frankly so bad the only use I can see for it is toilet paper, even though I generally prefer pages of Abrahamic religious texts for that particular purpose. However, she isn't wrong to suggest libertarians may be more likely to have Asperger's Syndrome or at least an atypically high level of autistic-spectrum-traits relative to the general population. 

But that doesn't make us wrong about the economics. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be true.

Highly empathizing brains without much systemizing capability are not the brains you want to have evaluating different economic policies. Frankly awful economics is typically justified on the basis of empathetic, caring, emotionalistic rationales. The more people feel and the less people think (i.e. the more they empathize and the less they systemize), the worse their economic reasoning gets. Even by the relatively moderate (compared to libertarians) standards of the economics profession, the general population is deeply misguided about economic fact. Neurotypical cognitive biases towards "solidarity" and "empathy" can lead away from economic truth, not towards it. Even non-libertarian economists use cold, impersonal reasoning to justify intervention rather than appeals to emotion and fluffy-wuffy-snuggliness. 

Good economics goes against every instinct of the neurotypical brain, which is why it is so counterintuitive and so many prejudices need to be weeded out. Libertarians, on the other hand, are disproportionately likely to have the kind of brain able to overcome these cognitive biases and see where the policy which appeals to "empathy" and "solidarity" will be counterproductive to these ends. This overlaps (although is not identical) with the kind of brain that is often described as "on the autism spectrum" and in particular the higher functioning regions thereof. Whilst MacLean is justified in suspecting a lot of us are "on the spectrum" at least to some degree, her implication that this is a reason to dismiss libertarian economics is arguably the opposite of the truth. 

 

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2 minutes ago, Jon Letendre said:

Very interesting and thought-provoking, thanks.

Thank you. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. 

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More generally, am I alone in observing that as this advocated, pressured, media and state-driven social and 'moral' frenzy to everyone having "empathy" for everyone else has blossomed in the last decades, empathy has become in short supply? Even businesses flaunt their compassion credentials, "what we do to serve the community", and such. Running counter to the stated aims by "empaths", people, in the aggregate, seem to have got nastier and more inconsiderate than ever. This was logically predictable. 

Compassion (for others' plight and/or emotional states) is an emotion like all other emotions, self-automated by one's previous value-judgments; values are the consequence of reasoned thinking. The causal relationship is unknown, quite innocently by many individuals, but immorally exploited by many more who recognize and use this emotive mind control over a person or masses of people. What self-styled empaths have done is divorce emotion from thought and value-judgment, or, split one's mind into two parts: "cold" cognition and "warm, human" feelings -- and worse, have lifted that specific feeling, morally, above logic and reason to be men's moral guidance system. Since after all, "the assault on the mind" is a composite attack on the entirety of consciousness: the faculties of conceptualization, evaluation - and emotion. There isn't internal division unless allowed or invited. The conceptual mind which takes in and can integrate huge quantities of knowledge, therefore equally makes a huge amount of evaluations, and as a result, will be able to experience a wider range and greater intensity of more emotions. The more you observe, think, and know, the more you care, simply.

If skeptical non-conceptualists (I surmise) try to short-circuit the process by appealing direct to emotional primacy - with empathy, in particular, touted as the 'noble', virtue-exhibiting, emotion -  they achieve nothing but the end of 'good' emotions, replacing them with guilt and resentment (the individual mind cannot possibly feel appropriate and 'sufficient'  - by whose standard? - compassion for every unhappy/suffering person/s who exists in every instance, and he must resent eventually being pressured to put his own values-emotions behind those of others'). That is an introduction to altruism. Training people (especially, terribly, young minds) to "learn" empathy by behaviorist methods (and any method) in order "to fit into society", is bound to fail and has. Rather teach reason and value, and why and how to value, thus to be free to respond with their own pertinent emotions to circumstances.

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Values don't have to be a consequence of reasoned thinking. Retained, positive - higher -  values are. The highest value is one's critically thinking mind.

Re the article, the basic objection is to argumentum ad hominem and that's all the left is doing, especially to the President.

---Brant 

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Andrew,

You have presented a well-researched article, but it needs some more organizing.

When I get the time, I will go through and make some notes, not as criticism, but as suggestions for you to think about. 

On the substance, I have an autism-spectrum step-child and, probably, have a touch of aspie myself. So I am conversant with the problems of this condition, not just in theory, but from living it. From that perspective, I totally reject the hypothesis about any connection between economics or libertarianism and autism. (I won't go into this here, but maybe later.) 

In fact, the form of economics you talk about uses an abstract construct called "economic man" as the foundation. I can see where people could mistake that for lack of caring. But that model is going the way of the dodo bird. In the last couple of decades or so, an enormous amount of literature has been written and has entered into the mainstream on the emotional side of economics, including altruism, empathy, etc. 

If you are interested, there is one work I can point you to as a start, but it is only one among a whole lot of books. It was not written by an economist, but the author did win the Nobel Prize in Economics. The book is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There's another more recent book on the friendship between Kahneman and Tversky that gives an overview of the concepts, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis. Both books go into prospect theory (which deals with risk seeking and risk avoidance being predominant over outcomes as the standard for decision-making where things like money are involved). Prospect theory was what won the Nobel Prize for Kahneman.

There is another field I think you will find fascinating: neuroeconomics. It deals with neuroscience applied to economics. When you focus on neurochemicals, you get to emotions. Essentially, the big five are dopamine (anticipation and pleasure), serotonin (social standing and a different kind of pleasure), cortisol (pain), oxytocin (warm and cuddly caring and protective feelings), and endorphins (pleasure to temporarily cover pain from overexertion or trauma).

As I have studied a crapload of marketing (including neuromarketing, propaganda, covert persuasion and so forth), I can state unequivocally that the dictum, "sell with emotion and justify with reason" is 100% accurate. When you take this to the macro level of economics, you get phrases that express the emotional madness of crowds like "animal spirits" (which goes back to Keynes), "irrational exuberance," "emotional intelligence," and cognitive biases (heuristics) like "bandwagon effect," "belief bias," "identifiable victim effect," "social desirability bias," and so on. In addition, there are countless modern psychology experiments included in books on economics these days.

On the other hand, I'm not familiar with much of the literature on sites like Lew Rockwell or Mises, but my general impression is that they are stuck in the era of "economic man" in their discussions of economic theory. I'm not saying this is where you inhabit. I'm just using it as a type of economics that deals with libertarianism and that seems to be restricted in a manner that focuses on humans making cost/benefit decisions only with a touch of individual rights thrown in. 

I so not attribute their focus to autism, though. Not even a little. Instead, I think there is a bias people often employ when they abandon traditional worldviews. I call it deducing reality from principles. Once we accept this as an epistemological method, we can write reams and reams of material (which basically gives examples, disproves examples derived from other principles, and dismisses/rationalizes anything observed that doesn't fit). Many in the libertarian world use this epistemology, but so does communism, which is a pure "reality deduced from principles" way of thinking.

The proper sequence is to observe reality (basically the patterns in reality--including those humans make), arrive at principles from these observations and infer things from such principles when observation is not available or convenient. But this system always allows for adjustment and correction of the principles to align with later observations.

The "reality deduced from principles" epistemology is much more rigid, but not in an accurate way.

Anyway, I don't want to delve deep into substance within the context of your article because, frankly, I couldn't give a crap about Nancy MacLean or what she thinks. :) 

I'm not trying to be rude. (Yeah, right Micheal. So show me what rude looks like. :) ) I just don't want to go into this or that detail of the article substance-wise when I do not agree with the importance of the issues to begin with. But I do want to help you put your ideas into a better format so you can gin up more interest in them.

So this is just food for thought.

You are one of the good guys.

:) 

More coming. (That is, if you are interested. And if you are, I will illustrate the suggestions with passages from your article.)

Just to end with a zinger, how does the most influential libertarian in the media, Alex Jones, fit in with Nancy MacLean's theories? :evil:  :)  (He actually is a libertarian and proudly trumpets it.) 

You don't have to answer that. I don't really want to know. I'm just being a smart-ass. :) 

But there is a common-sense base of truth to the question that is not considered in academia, seeing that Alex consistently gins up millions more votes for candidates than any other libertarian I know of.

Michael

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14 hours ago, anthony said:

More generally, am I alone in observing that as this advocated, pressured, media and state-driven social and 'moral' importance for everyone having "empathy" for everyone else has blossomed in the last decades, empathy has become in short supply? Even businesses flaunt their compassion credentials, "what we do to serve the community", and such. Running counter to the stated aims by "empaths", people, in the aggregate, seem to have got nastier and more inconsiderate than ever. This was logically predictable. 

Compassion (for others' plight and/or emotional states) is an emotion like all other emotions, self-automated by one's value-judgments; values are the consequence of reasoned thinking. The causal relationship is unknown, quite innocently by many individuals, but immorally evaded by many more who recognize and use this emotive mind control over a person or masses of people. What self-styled empaths have done is divorce emotion from thought and value-judgment, or, split one's mind into two parts: "cold" cognition and "warm, human" feelings -- and worse, have put that specific feeling, morally, above "logic" and reason. Since after all, "the assault on the mind" is a composite attack on the entirety of consciousness: the faculties of conceptualization, evaluation - and emotion. There isn't division unless allowed or invited. A conceptual mind which takes in and can integrate huge quantities of knowledge, therefore equally makes a huge amount of evaluations, and as a result, will be able to experience a wider range and greater intensity of more emotions. The more you observe, think, and know, the more you care, simply.

If skeptical non-conceptualists (I surmise) try to short-circuit the process by appealing direct to emotional primacy - with empathy, in particular, touted as the 'noble', virtue-exhibiting, emotion -  they achieve nothing but the end of 'good' emotions, replacing them with guilt and resentment (the individual mind cannot possibly feel 'sufficient'  - by whose standard? - compassion for every suffering person/s in the world in every instance, and he must resent eventually being pressured to put his own values-emotions behind those of others'). That is one introduction to altruism. Training people (especially, terribly, young minds) to "learn" empathy by behaviorist methods (and any method) "in order to fit into society", is bound to fail and has. Rather teach reason and value, and why and how to value, thus to be free to respond with their own pertinent emotions to appropriate occasions.

I agree with this. There is certainly something quite sinister in the idea that cognitive empathy is inferior to a "feels"-based empathy. I also agree that as the shrill demands for "empathy" have increased, people have gotten less civil... I know it sounds cynical but I think a lot of the people who demand "more empathy" really mean "more people need to be more empathetic towards me"... Its a demand for others to perform emotional labor for them, basically. Its a demand for narcissistic supply. 

It should also be pointed out that this skepticism towards rationality and the like was also prominent in the work of Auguste Comte... who constantly connected rationality with egoism and viewed "personal calculations" as the enemy of an altruism driven by all the feels stuff. So I am sympathetic towards your suggestion that demanding a non-cognitive, reflexive empathy can inflict guilt on people (especially when, as even the British Empiricists and Moral Sentimentalists (Hume and Smith in particular) noted, this kind of empathy needs to be economized upon and we don't have an infinite capacity for it). 

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7 hours ago, Michael Stuart Kelly said:

Andrew,

You have presented a well-researched article, but it needs some more organizing.

When I get the time, I will go through and make some notes, not as criticism, but as suggestions for you to think about. 

On the substance, I have an autism-spectrum step-child and, probably, have a touch of aspie myself. So I am conversant with the problems of this condition, not just in theory, but from living it. From that perspective, I totally reject the hypothesis about any connection between economics or libertarianism and autism. (I won't go into this here, but maybe later.) 

 In fact, the form of economics you talk about uses an abstract construct called "economic man" as the foundation. I can see where people could mistake that for lack of caring. But that model is going the way of the dodo bird. In the last couple of decades or so, an enormous amount of literature has been written and has entered into the mainstream on the emotional side of economics, including altruism, empathy, etc. 

If you are interested, there is one work I can point you to as a start, but it is only one among a whole lot of books. It was not written by an economist, but the author did win the Nobel Prize in Economics. The book is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. There's another more recent book on the friendship between Kahneman and Tversky that gives an overview of the concepts, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis. Both books go into prospect theory (which deals with risk seeking and risk avoidance being predominant over outcomes as the standard for decision-making where things like money are involved). Prospect theory was what won the Nobel Prize for Kahneman.

 There is another field I think you will find fascinating: neuroeconomics. It deals with neuroscience applied to economics. When you focus on neurochemicals, you get to emotions. Essentially, the big five are dopamine (anticipation and pleasure), serotonin (social standing and a different kind of pleasure), cortisol (pain), oxytocin (warm and cuddly caring and protective feelings), and endorphins (pleasure to temporarily cover pain from overexertion or trauma).

As I have studied a crapload of marketing (including neuromarketing, propaganda, covert persuasion and so forth), I can state unequivocally that the dictum, "sell with emotion and justify with reason" is 100% accurate. When you take this to the macro level of economics, you get phrases that express the emotional madness of crowds like "animal spirits" (which goes back to Keynes), "irrational exuberance," "emotional intelligence," and cognitive biases (heuristics) like "bandwagon effect," "belief bias," "identifiable victim effect," "social desirability bias," and so on. In addition, there are countless modern psychology experiments included in books on economics these days.

On the other hand, I'm not familiar with much of the literature on sites like Lew Rockwell or Mises, but my general impression is that they are stuck in the era of "economic man" in their discussions of economic theory. I'm not saying this is where you inhabit. I'm just using it as a type of economics that deals with libertarianism and that seems to be restricted in a manner that focuses on humans making cost/benefit decisions only with a touch of individual rights thrown in. 

 I so not attribute their focus to autism, though. Not even a little. Instead, I think there is a bias people often employ when they abandon traditional worldviews. I call it deducing reality from principles. Once we accept this as an epistemological method, we can write reams and reams of material (which basically gives examples, disproves examples derived from other principles, and dismisses/rationalizes anything observed that doesn't fit). Many in the libertarian world use this epistemology, but so does communism, which is a pure "reality deduced from principles" way of thinking.

The proper sequence is to observe reality (basically the patterns in reality--including those humans make), arrive at principles from these observations and infer things from such principles when observation is not available or convenient. But this system always allows for adjustment and correction of the principles to align with later observations.

The "reality deduced from principles" epistemology is much more rigid, but not in an accurate way.

Anyway, I don't want to delve deep into substance within the context of your article because, frankly, I couldn't give a crap about Nancy MacLean or what she thinks. :) 

I'm not trying to be rude. (Yeah, right Micheal. So show me what rude looks like. :) ) I just don't want to go into this or that detail of the article substance-wise when I do not agree with the importance of the issues to begin with. But I do want to help you put your ideas into a better format so you can gin up more interest in them.

So this is just food for thought.

You are one of the good guys.

:) 

More coming. (That is, if you are interested. And if you are, I will illustrate the suggestions with passages from your article.)

Just to end with a zinger, how does the most influential libertarian in the media, Alex Jones, fit in with Nancy MacLean's theories? :evil:  :)  (He actually is a libertarian and proudly trumpets it.) 

You don't have to answer that. I don't really want to know. I'm just being a smart-ass. :) 

But there is a common-sense base of truth to the question that is not considered in academia, seeing that Alex consistently gins up millions more votes for candidates than any other libertarian I know of.

Michael

Michael,

Thanks for your response. 

I should be clear that I am not arguing that all libertarians are autists (although I've seen this argument be made about libertarians). What I am suggesting is that the kind of cognitive style which one typically sees in libertarians is much more likely to be practiced or adopted by people with SOME LEVEL of Asperger's-like traits. To an extent, what I am arguing is that libertarians tend to be disproportionately "nerdy" (for lack of a better term... a temperament that is high-intelligence, very abstract, and relatively low conformity), and that the "nerd brain" is kind of like "diet aspergers." In my own experience the correlations are pretty apparent... the INTP/INTJ thing simply cannot be an accident. I think Ayn Rand was spot on when she explained the mechanism by which this kind of cognitive style mitigates against social conformity; in essence, people who think this way are more likely to stick to their guns, to trust in the judgment of their own mind, and not buckle to the demands of the many. 

I've seen this pattern too often to dismiss it. Subcultures full of highly intellectual social misfits are always hard to organize (as Christopher Hitchens said about the atheist movement, "it's like herding cats", and we all know how libertarians divide up into little groups and treat the other libertarians as heretics etc...). As I see it, Asperger's Syndrome is just a stronger variant of these same underlying traits. 

I'm going to be a bit critical when you bring up "economic man." The kind of economics I practice IS NOT incompatible with behavioral economics (the psychological stuff you're talking about). This was shown by Bryan Caplan in his article "Rational Irrationality," where he points out that many psychological quirks or even outright epistemic irrationality can be economically rational (i.e. they are actions in accordance with a person's preferences). Also, you bring up the Mises Institute etc, but Mises actually made LESS strict assumptions about individual behavior than what we see in Econ 101 (where highly specific assumptions are made and mathematically modeled). 

Finally, I think it should be emphasized that we economists KNOW the Econ 101 assumptions are statistical abstractions at best. They're just useful and elegant ways to demonstrate an underlying point that tends to be generally right. There's also a lot of research that goes into what happens when some of these assumptions are removed or softened (indeed, what I'm doing right now deals with the issue of asymmetric information). 

You do raise a very good point with the prevalence of classical rationalism (the "deduce everything from the theory/assumptions" method) amongst libertarians. Its very common. Objectivists can fall into it, the Rothbardian types are even more vulnerable to doing so. Of course you're right that it happened with Marxism too, and it happens with classical 20s/30s/40s Progressivism (which goes back to Auguste Comte really)... indeed, Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism is very much a rebuke to both Marxism and classical Progressivism, but is also a useful corrective to the tendency towards rationalism amongst libertarians. 

As for Alex Jones, I don't know enough about him. Frankly I don't listen to him, even if he is a libertarian. I've listened to Paul Joseph Watson who at least was once InfoWars editor at large (and PJW is a classical liberal/libertarian himself), and of course I have some disagreements and plenty of agreements with him, but I can't comment on Alex Jones. 

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On 9/21/2018 at 5:56 AM, studiodekadent said:

I agree with this. There is certainly something quite sinister in the idea that cognitive empathy is inferior to a "feels"-based empathy. I also agree that as the shrill demands for "empathy" have increased, people have gotten less civil... I know it sounds cynical but I think a lot of the people who demand "more empathy" really mean "more people need to be more empathetic towards me"... Its a demand for others to perform emotional labor for them, basically. Its a demand for narcissistic supply. 

It should also be pointed out that this skepticism towards rationality and the like was also prominent in the work of Auguste Comte... who constantly connected rationality with egoism and viewed "personal calculations" as the enemy of an altruism driven by all the feels stuff. So I am sympathetic towards your suggestion that demanding a non-cognitive, reflexive empathy can inflict guilt on people (especially when, as even the British Empiricists and Moral Sentimentalists (Hume and Smith in particular) noted, this kind of empathy needs to be economized upon and we don't have an infinite capacity for it). 

Hi Andrew, I have interrupted your discourse  - OL regulars have heard me go off in this vein, before. ;) Not too much a departure from your topic, I trust. Mainly I repeat that the emotional faculty is too valuable to go unidentified, mystified, be made collective or egalitarian, or be "a tool of cognition"  - nor - put at risk of exploitation by manipulators. Emotions are secondarily a revealing response to one's values and one's assessments of values. Feelings seem to me the vulnerable part of a person, through which access, his reasoning/valuing mind will be compromised by others at some stage. At an extreme, I've seen what a striking mob turns into when stirred up by a unified emotion, you will agree it is not pretty when humanity resorts to and acts upon feelings, en masse.

Because our emotions seem to spring, unbidden, from nowhere, it gives rise to the thinking, either that: a. we are born with and have an apriori, mysterious and insightful connection to our world - or b. that our biological, animal nature has built-in signal warnings, empathy, etc. But both are wrong. "Springing from nowhere" is a simple misinterpretation of how the conscious mind first identifies entities, evaluates them, then self-programmes its subconscious by repeated volitional attendance to what one judges 'good' or 'bad' in one's life. An emotion then occurs and is experienced extremely quickly ~automatically, from the subconscious~ to whichever external (or mentally recalled or anticipated) situations. Naturally, the response will be by physiological means, which is how one senses, "feels", the emotion and can identify which one it is, specifically. The most remarkable thing is that for every value-concept one has, the mind forms a corresponding emotion. The list of possible emotions on the scale of good-bad, pleasure-pain, with many sub-grades, runs to many scores. Just think of a few: guilt, loneliness, satisfaction, ecstasy, humiliation,  embarrassment, misery, pity...and so on - a system of high sophistication and each emotion caused by a pertinent mental construct, relating back to reality.

In error, empaths and most people, therefore, treat emotions as having primacy - as the primary cause, instead of a consequence of reasoned application to reality, also believing them instruments of supernatural insight, but while being highly selective, i.e., dictating that this one (empathy) is a "good emotion" towards others, while that one (anger/hatred) is a "bad" (towards others) one. Regardless and over-riding of how each emotion may be objectively fitting to the event or some person's act. What they tacitly demand is, in making a display of the "correct" feeling at the 'correct' occasion, individuals must submit their minds, individualism and selves into the collective. The remark "virtue-signaling" doesn't do justice to how -sinister- that all can be. Although, it is quite an accurate epithet, actually - proclaiming and accepting that your emotions are your paramount moral guidance system - and that you give your dependent loyalty to THIS 'side' - and that you will always exhibit the 'correct' emotion, one which accommodates the ostensive emotion of a mass of people  (faking it, where necessary). In short, a self-sacrificial loss of mind, therefore an opportunity for others to control minds.

(AR: "It's your mind they want"). Mind independence includes emotional independence.

A smart young thing asked me recently: "But does this ~freedom of expression~ thingy, mean my face is allowed to look happy when I am happy and look sad when I'm sad?"  After I took that in, I answered- "For sure, you may show them! Those are YOUR feelings, you made them, and no one can take that away from you". In her innocent literalness, I consider she got to the core of what is repressed and scorned by some, lately :  freedom of speech, honest expressiveness and truthfulness, free minds and reason. 

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On 9/19/2018 at 9:53 PM, studiodekadent said:

INTRODUCTORY NOTE: Wow, I haven't posted here in a long time. Unfortunately I've been preoccupied with working on my PhD. Another point I want to make is that, unfortunately, I've been finding that many conversations in the Objecto-sphere have become rather monotonous and rarely are new ideas or new topics being addressed, and thus the discussion has become less interesting for me in recent years. I'm still an Objectivist, I just haven't seen too much novelty in the Objectivist world, which is another reason I've been less than present on this forum.

However, I am back with an article I wrote. I couldn't get it published at more general libertarian-outreach-activism places so I thought here would be a good choice. All comments are appreciated!

NANCY MACLEAN, LIBERTARIANS AND AUTISM
Introduction
Criticism of Duke University history professor Nancy MacLean has become a cottage industry ever since she published her demented smear job against Public Choice Theory "Democracy In Chains." Indeed, MacLean's work is full of absurd distortions, misrepresentative quoting, and obvious untruths. Her entire thesis is that Public Choice Theory is racist; frankly I wonder if Nancy is attempting to continue Duke University's proud tradition of racially charged false accusations. Public choice scholars and economists like Michael Munger (see http://www.independent.org/issues/article.asp?id=9115 ) and Steven Horwitz (see https://www.cato.org/cato-journal/fall-2017/democracy-chains-deep-history-radical-rights-stealth-plan-america-nancy ) have done an admirable job in effectively shredding MacLean's thesis, but MacLean knew, just like Mike Nifong and Crystal Mangum, that women's tears are almost always believed and as such she decided to play victim (https://www.chronicle.com/article/Nancy-MacLean-Responds-to-Her/240699). It is no surprise Oprah shilled her book; I'm sure that soon enough Lifetime will be producing a telemovie about the trauma she suffered at being critiqued.

But the point of this article isn't to channel my inner Christopher Hitchens and say nasty things about MacLean's screed. Plenty of far better commentators have done this. Rather, I am going to make a qualified defense of something she did say whilst criticizing what she seemed to be attempting to imply with what she said. 

We all know how utterly frustrating it is when people deal with their political enemies through the use of diagnosis as a substitute for dialectic. The Soviet Union took this to its logical extreme through claiming that political dissidents were mentally ill, because clearly no sane person could disagree with Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism; more recent entries in this category include the so-called "Republican Brain Hypothesis" (see https://www.abbeys.com.au/book/republican-brain-the-science-of-why-they-deny-science-and-reality.do ) that was proposed during the culture wars against the Religious Right during the George W. Bush administration. MacLean decided to add to this genre of political pseudoargument through arguing that there is indeed a libertarian brain, and that libertarian brain is characterized by being on the autism spectrum (see https://reason.com/blog/2018/02/13/democracy-in-chains-author-nancy-maclean/print ).

Katherine Timpf at National Review fumed (https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/02/nancy-maclean-libertarians-seem-autism-spectrum/). Like several other critics pointed out (see https://psmag.com/news/on-libertarians-autism-and-empathy and https://anintenseworld.com/2018/02/10/duke-historian-nancy-maclean-identifies-autism-as-the-source-of-a-malevolent-ideology/ ), MacLean's understanding of autism primarily in terms of lacking empathy and not feeling solidarity with others is based on an outdated portrait of being on the autistic spectrum rooted primarily in the "Mind Blindness" concept of Simon Baron-Cohen; more recent research has greatly questioned whether "Mind Blindness" is a correct portrait in the first place.

But so far, the responses to MacLean have focused on the fact she equates libertarianism with a lack of empathy and solidarity with others, and the fact that she equates being on the autistic spectrum with lacking said empathy and solidarity. These are all valid critiques to make of her position, but so far there has been little attempt to wrestle with the question of whether or not MacLean is correct that there might be a link between libertarianism and being on the autistic spectrum. Not only that, but no one to my knowledge has questioned the unstated premise of MacLean's argument, which is that libertarian economics (and Public Choice in particular) is wrong because the brains which formulated these economics are arguably on the autistic spectrum. MacLean's argument is simply not an argument unless one accepts that having autism or Asperger's Syndrome introduces systematic error into one's economic reasoning. Indeed, for MacLean to be correct, having a brain that is positively drenched in "empathy" and "solidarity with others" is necessary to be a good economist.

My argument is simple; yes, it is in fact likely that libertarians are disproportionately likely to be either on the austistic spectrum or have subclinical levels of symptoms typically thought of as indicating Asperger's Syndrome. Libertarian thought and philosophy often is characterized by the kind of cognitive style which, in its extreme form, is characteristic of austists and in particular the high-functioning autists commonly described as having Asperger's Syndrome. This is where MacLean is right. However, the implication that this kind of cognitive style makes you bad at doing economics is precisely the opposite of the truth. Indeed, having a degree of autistic symptoms can plausibly be thought of as an advantage for an economist, and that it is the caring-feeling-empathy-solidarity normie-brain which could represent a disadvantage for someone trying to perform economic analysis.

 On a personal note, I am not just a libertarian with Bachelors and Masters degrees in economics (and in the process of working on a Doctorate in the field), but I also have Asperger's Syndrome. Nancy MacLean's statements therefore constitute an allegation that my very brain is less capable at economic reasoning than it would be if I were neurotypical (i.e. not someone with Asperger's Syndrome). Of course, one must wonder why I would develop an interest in and devote substantial amounts of time and effort to the field of economics if I were mentally impaired at comprehending it!

1. Libertarians: More 'spergy Than Average
How someone thinks, their "cognitive style" or what Ayn Rand called their "psycho-epistemology," is partially determined by biology. Of course anyone of any neurology can grasp that 2 + 2 = 4, but research has shown that the biology of the brain influences how people think. Dr. Helen Fisher, for example, researches how brain chemistry impacts things like people's love life and people's politics (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lOPtTbFCMY ). Neurobiology has political correlates, as Fisher points out; she characterizes libertarians as having brains highly influenced by natal testosterone. Jonathan Haidt and several co-researchers also, in a study of libertarian morality, point out that biological factors can predispose one (albeit often indirectly) to different political ideologies (see http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/file?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0042366&type=printable ). An interesting thing which Haidt et al. point out is that libertarians rely on reason more, and emotion less, than leftists or conservatives; this is tested using Simon Baron-Cohen's Empathizer-Systemizer scale (see p12-13). This scale is interesting in that it is linked both to being on the autism spectrum and also gender; "libertarians score the lowest of any group on empathizing, and the highest on systemizing. In fact, libertarians are the only group that scored higher on systemizing than empathizing... relatively high systemizing and low empathizing scores are characteristic of the male brain, with very extreme scores indicating autism. We might say that liberals have the most 'feminine' cognitive style, and libertarians the most 'masculine'" (p13). 

In spite of Baron-Cohen's contested contention that people on the autism spectrum are less capable of empathy, the point remains that there is clearly correspondence between Haidt, Fisher and Baron-Cohen here; persons whom are on the autism spectrum can be described as having an atypically "masculinized" (i.e. shaped by prenatal testosterone) brain. Libertarians (on average) have brains which are more testosterone-influenced than the general population. It stands to reason, therefore, that brains-predisposed-to-libertarianism are more likely to also either be on the autistic spectrum or at least have more autistic-spectrum-traits than the average brain. This also provides a theoretical explanation for why libertarian communities are disproportionately male; strongly masculinized brain development is more likely to happen to natally male individuals. 

This "systemizer-brain" orientation is evidenced all over libertarian culture, as evidenced by the emphasis we tend to place on logical consistency and reason in general (to the point where our biggest magazine is literally named Reason). As Ayn Rand made clear, she was not primarily an advocate of markets, liberty and egoism, but rather of reason, and if one embraced reason all the rest would follow; agree or disagree with Rand as much as you like, but she serves as evidence of how libertarianism has deep cognitive roots. The fact that libertarian advocacy is ultimately rooted in the Enlightenment, which championed human reason, is further evidence of this. Whilst the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has fallen out of favor with academic psychology research, I distinctly remember discussions in libertarian communities about how libertarians are about 80% xNTx (it is even more extreme amongst Randians/Objectivists, whom are about 85% xNTx and particularly biased towards INTx individuals; indeed MBTI enthusiasts often characterize Howard Roark as an INTP, and Rand herself as an INTJ); this is massively disproportionate relative to the general population, which is about 12% xNTx. The xNTx style of cognition is the "rational temperament" focused on thinking rather than feeling, and high level abstractions over immediate sensory information. 

To the extent that cognitive style is biological, the implications are depressing for libertarians. The libertarian mindset is strongly correlated with a brain that is heavily influenced by prenatal testosterone, moreso than the average brain. Libertarianism appeals to an atypical style of mind, one that is likely to exhibit more characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome or the autism spectrum generally; libertarianism appeals to a mind which is more emotionally detached, more introverted, more abstract, and less invested in social relationships than the norm (Haidt et al.'s paper substantiates this; libertarians are less likely to define or describe themselves in terms of their relationships to other people). This is consistent with the fact that libertarianism is not a mass movement, and implies that most people will find libertarianism counterintuitive at least initially. 

2. Good Economics Is Counterintuitive Too
It has been noticed by many that even very mainstream economics requires thinking that goes "against the grain." As Bryan Caplan demonstrated in The Myth of the Rational Voter, the average American diverges substantially from the economic beliefs of the average economist, and diverges in systematic and predictable ways (in particular, the average American is less pro-market than the average economist). The economists in the survey are a general cross-section of economists, and not "just the staff of the Cato Institute," so it cannot be claimed that there is bias in the selection of experts; the experts are consistently to the economic 'right' (if by 'right wing' one means pro-market) of the average American citizen. Even economists generally associated with the left, such as Paul Krugman, are surprisingly pro-market relative to the average (Krugman, for example, is more pro-free-trade than Steve Bannon). 

Not all libertarians are economists and not all economists are libertarians, but the presence of libertarians within economics is unquestionably disproportionate relative to the general population. The point to emphasize, however, is that according to the experts, average people are (on average) systematically wrong about the benefits of markets.

Caplan notices that even first year economics students come into the classroom bearing the imprints of multiple economic errors which need to be eliminated from their thought. In other words, even non-controversial neoclassical economics goes against the intellectual grain for many, many people. 

This should not be a surprise. After all, economics is the field that suggests (and this is anything but a controversial argument in economics) people who act selfishly in the commercial realm will make life better for other people alongside themselves; this is hardly the first thing that comes to the mind of most people when they're asked to picture a "selfish" person. Rather, they imagine some bloodsucking brute, not the local shopkeeper. Many people who run various local governments believe that rent control is still a good policy, even if it is literally textbook bad economics. Many people believe that cheap goods from overseas somehow are "exploitation." Many people don't grasp the fundamental insight that voluntary trade where parties have all the relevant information will always make both parties better off by definition. Even non-controversial, non-extreme, standard-issue economic reasoning does not come naturally to most people. Economists in general, not merely libertarian economists, don't think typically. This does not mean all economists have Asperger's Syndrome (economic reasoning can be taught, after all); it means that economic reasoning has to fight an uphill battle against the conventional mindset.

3. Neurology And Systematic Error
What I have shown is that libertarians are defined by a cognitive style which overlaps neurologically with certain symptoms of being on the autism spectrum. This is what Nancy McLean is correct about. I have also shown that economists in general (across the political spectrum) are more pro-market than average people, so the "norm" (which presumably includes and is defined by the majority of neurotypical persons) is systematically wrong. What I have not shown yet is that the characteristics of the neurotypical cognitive style (higher levels of empathizing than systemizing, "solidarity with other people" as MacLean claims, that kind of thing) can systematically bias someone towards incorrect economic conclusions. This is what I will now attempt to do. I should clarify that I do not intend to claim someone must have Asperger's Syndrome or substantial levels of autistic-spectrum-traits in order to be a good economist; economic reasoning is a skill which can be taught. All I am claiming is that having at least some level of autistic-spectrum-traits helps avoid systematic error. 

The first argument that needs to be made is that economics, as a field, is focused entirely on systemizing and has literally no room for empathizing. In economics, society and individuals are dealt with impersonally, as either collections of logical rules or utility functions or value-scales. Every person is merely one item in a far larger picture. Economists think in terms of optimizing systems, not caring for particular individuals (this does not mean they do not care, merely that this isn't the focus of economics). Standard-issue general equilibrium economics is built from mathematical models borrowed from field theory in physics. Individual happiness is just a matter of "utility" - a simple quantity of pleasure/satisfaction. The economy is invariably conceptualized as a system... be it a physical system, a biological system, a network, a machine, but it is still a system. Not only that, but economists are addressing one of the most painful and difficult facets of the human condition - specifically poverty - and how to ameliorate it. We have to deal with difficult tradeoffs that may sacrifice ten lives to save twenty five other lives. This simply is not a field suited to mindsets that focus on things like "feelings" and "empathy" and "solidarity" and "caretaking" and the other things which Nancy MacLean associates with the neurotypical mindset; it is a field which requires cold calculation, and often literal calculation since at times economics is like physics or mathematics. In this situation, a systemizing-oriented brain is exactly what one wants to have solving the problems. It is easier to speak of temporary frictional unemployment than to be confronted with the day-to-day minutiae of someone without any marketable skills trying to secure a job interview. 

A second, and in my opinion stronger, argument could be made however. Let us look at several "textbook bad economics" policies. How are these policies sold to the polity? How are they justified?

Rent control is a fantastic example: "to ensure affordable housing for the poor." The motive here is compassion, solidarity, empathy, a concern for the plight of the poor. And it isn't controversial to say it doesn't work. 

Welfare states are consistently justified in terms of compassion for the suffering and solidarity between human beings. But, pray tell, why are these welfare states almost always full of massive bureaucracies rather than policies which handle welfare through simple income transfers (for example via a negative income tax or basic income guarantee)? Given the many problems and flaws that bureaucracy and its associated incentives have, one would think that a genuine motive of compassion doesn't necessarily mean one will pick the least costly, most effective means of being compassionate. 

Of course some environmental protections are easily defensible on the basis of economic reasoning. But what about environmentalist attacks on genetically modified organisms (a proven-safe technology) or nuclear power (which is incredibly safe and efficient if modern technology is used)? Environmentalists consistently appeal to the emotions, to empathizing, to feelings and fluffiness in their campaigns to cast GMOs as "impure" and all nuclear power plants as Chernobyls-In-Waiting. Nordhaus and Schellenberger, both economists, campaign (through their think-tank the Breakthrough Institute, see https://thebreakthrough.org/about/mission/ ) for technological solutions to environmental problems, yet the environmental establishment still demands wind, solar, organic and biodynamic (the latter of which is based on a semi-spiritual framework rather than a purely scientific one). Environmentalism appeals to compassion, feelings, oneness with the earth and all of that emotionalistic illogical bilge, yet consistently avoids the policy proposals actual economists can demonstrate would be effective means to environmentalists' declared ends. 

Let us also look at the monster example: socialism. Socialism was motivated in many cases by compassion for the poor, by the desire to reduce poverty, by the desire to spread prosperity as widely as possible. Every attempt to try it failed miserably, and to the extent that any socialist system worked it only worked to the extent it preserved property rights and market incentives (for example Titoism, which avoided famine, yet did so through preserving property rights over farmland). It strikes some as counterintuitive to suggest that letting people keep things for themselves (i.e. property rights) can result in a larger and broader distribution of goods than forcibly taking those goods and collectivizing ownership, but the historical record makes it clear that property rights and markets are essential conditions to wide-scale prosperity. Again, not even left-leaning economists contest this; the Economic Calculation Problem is a fact, which is why contemporary economists on the left are Social Democrats rather than old-school Socialists. 

There is a systematic pattern; advocacy of bad economics is constantly rooted in the same motives Nancy MacLean accuses libertarians and persons on the autistic spectrum as lacking. Compassion and solidarity and empathy are certainly positive traits, yet they seem to be the driving force behind some atrociously bad policy preferences. This certainly doesn't mean that good intentions always result in bad policy, but it suggests a possible theory that I will summarize as follows:

"Neurotypical drives towards compassion, empathy, solidarity and other associated feelsy-niceness override rational consideration of what means are actually effective at generating the desired positive outcomes. Because people with at least some level of austistic-spectrum-traits can detach themselves from the compulsive cries of 'feelings' more easily, they may be better judges of what is practically effective."

Conclusion
Nancy MacLean's book on Public Choice is frankly so bad the only use I can see for it is toilet paper, even though I generally prefer pages of Abrahamic religious texts for that particular purpose. However, she isn't wrong to suggest libertarians may be more likely to have Asperger's Syndrome or at least an atypically high level of autistic-spectrum-traits relative to the general population. 

But that doesn't make us wrong about the economics. Indeed, the opposite is likely to be true.

Highly empathizing brains without much systemizing capability are not the brains you want to have evaluating different economic policies. Frankly awful economics is typically justified on the basis of empathetic, caring, emotionalistic rationales. The more people feel and the less people think (i.e. the more they empathize and the less they systemize), the worse their economic reasoning gets. Even by the relatively moderate (compared to libertarians) standards of the economics profession, the general population is deeply misguided about economic fact. Neurotypical cognitive biases towards "solidarity" and "empathy" can lead away from economic truth, not towards it. Even non-libertarian economists use cold, impersonal reasoning to justify intervention rather than appeals to emotion and fluffy-wuffy-snuggliness. 

Good economics goes against every instinct of the neurotypical brain, which is why it is so counterintuitive and so many prejudices need to be weeded out. Libertarians, on the other hand, are disproportionately likely to have the kind of brain able to overcome these cognitive biases and see where the policy which appeals to "empathy" and "solidarity" will be counterproductive to these ends. This overlaps (although is not identical) with the kind of brain that is often described as "on the autism spectrum" and in particular the higher functioning regions thereof. Whilst MacLean is justified in suspecting a lot of us are "on the spectrum" at least to some degree, her implication that this is a reason to dismiss libertarian economics is arguably the opposite of the truth. 

 

Having Aspberger's Syndrome is a definite advantage in the computer and software related trades.  Also in physical science.  P.A.M.Dirac was almost a textbook  case of Aspberger's Syndrome.   Spock, the son of a Sarek,  is the patron saint of the Aspies.

Live Long and Prosper  \\//

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"Moral sentimentalism", mentioned by Andrew, is definitive of the times. 

Stanford Enc:

Moral Sentimentalism

First published Wed Jan 29, 2014

For moral sentimentalists, our emotions and desires play a leading role in the anatomy of morality. Some believe moral thoughts are fundamentally sentimental, others that moral facts make essential reference to our sentimental responses, or that emotions are the primary source of moral knowledge. Some believe all these things. The two main attractions of sentimentalism are making sense of the practical aspects of morality, on the one hand, and finding a place for morality within a naturalistic worldview, on the other. The corresponding challenges are accounting for the apparent objectivity and normativity of morality. Recent psychological theories emphasizing the centrality of emotion in moral thinking have prompted renewed interest in sentimentalist ethics.

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From the above article:

"Following Hutcheson, Hume rejects reason or reasoning as the source of moral distinctions (understood either as judgments or facts). His *motivation skeptical* arguments are based on what he believes is reason's inability to move us in the way that morality does. *Content skeptical* arguments, in turn, aim to demonstrate thta recognizably moral conclusions cannot be reached by reason alone, without sentiment-supported premises. These arguments are crucial for the case for sentimentalism". (Stanford)

Hume, the value-skeptic and conceptual-skeptic, notoriously, would not derive ought from is.

(He's known for his comment that he wouldn't "scratch my finger" to save the world, unless he experienced a "passion" to do so).

He could not, therefore, link reason --> value.

He could not therefore make the next step, connect value/value judgments --> emotions.

Briefly, Hume makes a causal reversal. An emotion for him has primacy, a metaphysical given*, and so showed he simply had no clue of what causes them, but yet he is still taken seriously by scholars. To him and all moral sentimentalists, emotions, as powerful as we know they are, 'self-evidently' should take prominence as the defining characteristic of morality.

In effect:

"I am good because I feel good". Maybe, maybe not - depends on the definition of "good"; depends on how integrated one's cognition-emotions are. Hume's writing, for one, clearly shows the mind-body dichotomy. (And as for emotion as a tool of cognition?)

Further, moral sentimentalists' idea of a normative ethics is solidly 'other'-based: 

"I am good because I feel good - for others". (And am morally superior to those others, who do not - those whom I am morally permitted NOT to feel 'good' about i.e., to hate...).

Now, where do we see these ethics acted out, nowadays... almost everywhere? 

*[The emotional *faculty* is "a given" (as with man's consciousness) but not an individual's specific emotions which result from his assessments of reality and are, originally and ultimately, "self-made".]

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