October 29, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

Emoting is easier than thinking dispassionately. Emoting comes naturally. It requires no effort and it feels good. Thinking dispassionately requires conscious effort, and while it offers its own satisfactions, its exercise always threatens to disturb one’s emotional equilibrium. Thinking dispassionately, by its nature, doesn’t thrill the passions, but it can disappoint them. Emoting, therefore, is less costly than is thinking dispassionately. The rewards of the latter are less certain and never instantaneous.

For someone to think dispassionately requires him to anticipate that the personal benefits of so thinking will exceed its personal costs. Economics teaches that the greater the amount of dispassionate thinking devoted to a particular issue, the lower the anticipated benefit from applying further dispassionate thought to that issue. At some point, even the most cerebral and rational individual will decide, as he ponders an issue, that it’s not worthwhile to devote further dispassionate thought to that issue. Any remaining conclusions to be drawn about that issue will thus not be arrived at through dispassionate reasoning. Emotion, prejudice, or appeal to authority (which, it must be said, is often reasonable) will take over.

Of course, different individuals have different preferences and abilities. For any given public-policy issue, some individuals will devote to it more dispassionate thought than will others. One result is that different individuals will arrive at different conclusions about any issue. It follows that disagreements arise not only from differences in the quality of thought, but also from differences in the quantity of thought. Even if Jones’s mental ability is as high as is that of Smith, if Jones has a milder preference for thinking dispassionately (or, what amounts to the same thing, a stronger preference for emoting) than does Smith, Jones and Smith will often arrive at different conclusions about various issues. And unfortunately, no amount of additional education will likely bring Jones and Smith into closer agreement, for the source of the disagreement isn’t a difference in the quality of thought but, rather, in the willingness to think.

Consider the minimum wage. Jones ‘decides’ to ‘decide’ if this government intervention is good public policy or bad. Jones, we can assume, is a good person with no narrow, personal stake in whether a minimum wage exists. He’ll come to his conclusion based upon his assessment of the likely consequences of the minimum wage on low-paid workers – the people whom minimum-wage proponents aim to help.

If Jones isn’t fond of dispassionate thought, he’ll not think long and hard about this intervention. His conclusion about the merits of the policy will reflect either a conclusion that he stumbles upon (say, his girlfriend tells him that the minimum wage is good) or that gratifies his emotions. Being a good person, Jones feels compassion for low-paid workers. The minimum wage’s most obvious consequence is to raise the wages of all low-skilled workers who are actually employed. This consequence is indeed good. By supporting the minimum wage, therefore, Jones rewards himself with positive emotions. With little inclination for dispassionate thought, Jones quickly completes his contemplation about the minimum wage. He concludes that this intervention is wise and good.

Smith, in contrast to Jones, is more inclined to engage in dispassionate thought. Like Jones, Smith is a good person with no personal stake in the minimum wage. Also like Jones, Smith experiences positive emotions when imaging any policy change that improves the wellbeing of low-skilled workers. But unlike Jones, Smith applies to the minimum-wage question some dispassionate thought. She might, for example, consult her notebook from the Econ 101 course she took many years ago.

“Oh yeah,” Smith recalls, upon perusing notes taken during a lecture on the minimum wage:

now I remember. The minimum wage raises employers’ costs of employing low-skilled workers. This negative impact on employers is unfortunate. But far worse is the negative impact on low-skilled workers. Given time, employers minimize their exposure to higher labor costs by doing things such as purchasing equipment that performs many of the tasks that would otherwise require human labor. With a minimum-wage in place, most employers eventually will adjust and wind up unscathed. But many of these adjustments result in employers employing fewer low-skilled workers. Teenagers and other workers with low skills will encounter greater difficulty finding and keeping jobs. Unlike most employers who can change the mix of capital to labor that they use in their operations, these low-skilled workers cannot quickly re-equip themselves to offset the negative consequences of the minimum wage that befall them. These workers thus suffer losses of current income today as well as losses of opportunities to gain work skills that would improve their employment prospects tomorrow.

Smith ponders this reality. Her boyfriend, like Jones’s girlfriend, supports the minimum wage. It would have been much easier, emotionally, for Smith simply to do as Jones did and bring her analysis to a halt after realizing that a minimum wage causes some workers’ take-home pay to rise. But her dispassionate thought about this policy carries her to a different conclusion: She opposes the minimum wage because it harms many of the workers whom it is meant to help.

Smith’s conclusion differs from Jones’s conclusion neither because Smith’s values differ from Jones’s values, nor because Smith is smarter than Jones. Smith simply has a more intense preference for dispassionate thought. This difference in conclusions is produced exclusively by a difference in the quantity of thinking applied.

Not only does Smith’s penchant for dispassionate thought reduce the frequency with which she gratifies herself with positive emotions, it very likely might be, for her, a source of emotional discomfort. Suppose that Smith is close friends with Jones. Smith cannot join with her boyfriend, and with Jones and his girlfriend, in expressing support for the minimum wage. Unhappy that her boyfriend and friends interpret her opposition to minimum-wage legislation as evidence of her ethical shortcomings, Smith confronts the further frustration that arises when her attempts to explain her position are ignored. Smith’s three friends ignore her explanation not because they are less intelligent or less well-meaning than she is; They ignore her explanation simply because each of them has a less-intense preference than does she for dispassionate thought. Smith, in essence, is offering to ‘sell’ something that each of her friends finds too pricey to purchase.

Smith’s urge to emote is further diluted by her recognition that the world is one of trade-offs. In such a world, relatively few options are all-good or all-bad. Almost all options have both upsides and downsides. One consequence of this is especially noteworthy: Because mere mortals can seldom be certain just how much weight to assign, in any particular case, to downsides and upsides – such a call is always subjective – normative ‘conclusions’ are often tentative. A particular conclusion might be reversed merely with a change in the relative weights assigned to an option’s upsides and downsides. The mindset that recognizes the ubiquity of trade-offs tempers any proclivity its owners might have toward justifying their policy stances with enormous heapings of emotions.

A final observation: The more complex the issue, the lower the proportion of dispassionate thought, and the higher the proportion of emoting will be. To understand complex issues requires greater application of dispassionate thought; Complex issues feature more steps to be analyzed with dispassionate thought than do simpler issues. Because dispassionate thought is costly, the general public is more likely to ‘decide’ complex issues emotionally rather than rationally. It’s more costly to think dispassionately through, say, four steps of reasoning, than to think dispassionately through two steps of reasoning. Many individuals, therefore, will bring their dispassionate thinking to a halt before enough such thought has been done to get a good handle on the matter. The remainder of the analysis will be done with emotions or prejudice. Because politicians ultimately seek votes rather than truth or justice, the electoral advantage is had by politicians who most warmly embrace the emotions or prejudice that voters use to assess issues — especially the complex ones.

Unfortunately, the larger the role government plays, the more complex, on average, will be the policy issues that voters are required to assess. The role in public policy of emotions and prejudice will grow relative to that of dispassionate thought. Public policy will tend, over time, to worsen. And we’ll all suffer.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a senior fellow with American Institute for Economic Research and with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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