Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Economics of Empathy

"How could they?"

That's most people's reaction to the various reports and allegations about the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam between 1925 and 1961. Hopefully the truth (or as much of it as is possible after such a long period of time) will be revealed in due course.

But back to the question: "how could they?" Some attempts have been made at answers, focusing say on the 'Victorian' social policy ethos that endured in Ireland into the 20th century; while others see it as yet more evidence of a repressive, sexually-obsessed Catholicism that added a uniquely Irish edge to the cruelty inflicted on the young and vulnerable.

No doubt such views will form part of the final explanation (if there ever is one) when the different investigations are completed.

But I wonder will economics form part of the final explanation as well? Ireland wasn't the only country to treat its children cruelly in the past (especially orphans and those of single mothers). The UK's 'Home Children' programme saw more than 100,000 children (often against their will and without the consent of their parents) sent to the 'colonies' right up to the 1970s.  Sweden tried to 'solve' its orphan problem with compulsory sterilisation (to prevent any recurrence) also up to the 1970s. Religion and culture are only partial explanations for the past.

So again, how could they? We look back from our privileged position in a wealthy country with a growing economy and wonder why they did what they did instead of what we would do. But there's the rub: they didn't have the economic resources then that we now have (nor did the British or Swedish for that matter). The nuns and others in Tuam were making appallingly difficult decisions under extremely constrained conditions. At one point as many as five babies and children were dying every week during some of the more virulent infections in Tuam, while the local county council 'supported' the home to the tune of just £1 per week per child.

No doubt such conditions brought out the worst in some of those running the home (and similar institutions throughout the country), while they also brought out the best in others.

Would we have done things differently? Of course we would, or so we think. But what were the real options in Ireland (or Britain or Sweden) in the first half of the 20th century? An unmarried woman who became pregnant back then meant an extra mouth to feed in her family home without the financial support of the child's father (usually), and little or no prospect of her working outside the home (for reasons of stigma certainly, but also because in mainly rural societies there just weren't many such options).

So what were the state's options in response to the real pressures families faced in such situations? The 'affordable' one was to subcontract the care of the children - and sometimes the women - to the religious orders. They were low cost operations (run essentially on voluntary labour: the 'gift economy' preceded the 'gig economy' by some centuries). And so the state did, as it did also with the running of hospitals and schools. Not having colonies was another constraint, of course. The task of caring for the children was essentially outsourced to poorly trained, poorly resourced and poorly managed volunteers; well intentioned for the most part perhaps, though not all evidently, but clearly it wasn't enough.

So would we have done things differently? Faced with the same conditions I'm not so sure we would. Indeed, we still operate under resource constraints: we can't do everything we want to do for those who might benefit from more help, support, expertise or just money. And even when we increase the resources available it's not obvious how to solve the problem - as the ongoing saga of homelessness reminds us on a daily basis. Or hospital waiting lists or the treatment of asylum seekers.

Moreover, in the event of another recession or economic shock (and I'm sure you and I could imagine 2, 3 or 10 such scenarios in the not too distant future), then we might find even our current level of resources put under severe pressure - forcing us to make choices and hard decisions we thought we wouldn't have to make again.

But there's another problem - more resources may not be enough. As Paul Bloom points out in his book 'Against Empathy' (discussed recently on Econtalk), we may have reached the limits of empathy as the basis for settling and solving the social issues and problems that we face. He argues that 'empathy' is cheap (emotionally and even financially), and that what is needed instead is 'rational compassion'. Rather than feeling people's pain (and then moving on), we need to look at their situation compassionately but rationally and figure out the best way to help resolve their situation, if it can be resolved.

As Tuam and other revelations have revealed, the Economics of Empathy is not enough: it wasn't back then and it isn't now.

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