Did you know that Paul Krugman is more compassionate than you are? Or so he says.

In fact, just about everybody who is left of center is more compassionate than everybody who is right of center, Krugman explained in a recent New York Times editorial.

“American politics is fundamentally about different moral visions,” he wrote. If you identify with Milton Friedman’s “free to choose” vision you are today part of the “free to die” crowd.

That last bit is based on Republican presidential candidates foolishly stumbling over a Wolf Blitzer question about what should be done with a man who willfully chooses to be uninsured and then discovers needs lifesaving medical care. No, in case you are wondering, none of them said “let him die.” But Krugman implies that is the position of the whole Republican Party.

[Democrats, by the way, would also have trouble with that question. In fact there is nothing in Obama Care that guarantees health care for someone who ignores the government mandate and remains uninsured.]

Krugman is not alone. Writing at Health Affairs the other day, Princeton University economist Uwe Reinhardt described the current budget impasse in Washington by declaring that this country has been in:

A long ideological war fought over the distribution of economic privilege in this country, a war that has been raging unabated for over three decades now.

One side in this war believes that the current distribution of income and wealth in this country is fair, as it rewards generously those who contribute commensurately to the economy and properly gives short shrift for those who do not — e.g., unskilled workers…

The opposing faction believes that the current distribution of income and wealth no longer is the product of a genuine meritocracy, and even if it were, that health care, education and legal care are so-called social goods to which rich and poor should have access on roughly equal terms, regardless of their own ability to pay.

Although Reinhardt doesn’t engage in the kind of ad hominem personal character attacks that are Krugman’s stock in trade, the message is still the same: one side cares about the unfortunate and the other side doesn’t.

Before going further, there is something you should know. There is no evidence whatsoever – zero evidence – that liberals are more compassionate than conservatives. In fact all the evidence points in the other direction. More about that in a moment.

I know you don’t care too much,
But I still care.


Since Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, I would like to turn first to the science of economics, just as Adam Smith did more than 200 years ago. What Smith realized was that it’s not compassion, or any other feeling that is going to eliminate most deprivation and suffering around the world. It’s sound economic policies, produced by rational thought.

Several years ago, I was at a conference at the Vatican and I heard another Nobel laureate, University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, make a remarkable statement. Becker said, “I believe in capitalism. The reason: capitalism confers its greatest benefits on those at the bottom of the income ladder. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a capitalist. And Milton Friedman thinks the same way.”

Non-economists are generally unaware of how much evidence there is in support of the Becker/Friedman position. If you look around the world, you will find that the bottom 10% of the income distribution gets about the same percent of national income in countries with the least economic freedom (2.5%) as they do in the countries with the most economic freedom (2.6%). Whether a country is capitalist or socialist doesn’t seem to matter. But there is a huge difference in the absolute level of income. In fact, the bottom 10% gets almost ten times more income ($8,474 per persons per year vs. $910) in capitalist countries than in non-capitalist countries.

Given that disparity, what is the most compassionate economic system? It is the system advocated by the University of Chicago economists and other classical liberals: a system that leaves people free to use their intelligence, their creativity and their innovative ability to pursue their own interests. In other words, it is a system in which people are “free to choose.”

That freedom and free enterprise are good for poor people is a fact of economic science. It has nothing in particular to do with compassion. But since the issue has been raised, who are the most compassionate people? It turns out, they are not liberals. In an exhaustive study of this issue American Enterprise institute president Arthur Brooks discovered that:

In 2000, households headed by a conservative gave, on average, 30 percent more money to charity than households headed by a liberal ($1,600 to $1,227). This discrepancy is not simply an artifact of income differences; on the contrary, liberal families earned an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich…

The differences go beyond money and time. Take blood donations, for example. In 2002, conservative Americans were more likely to donate blood each year, and did so more often, than liberals. If liberals and moderates gave blood at the same rate as conservative, the blood supply in the United States would jump by about 45 percent.

What about Krugman, personally? I don’t know him. But the next time he is on television, mute the sound and focus on the image on the screen. Is there anything about Paul Krugman that seems to be the least bit compassionate? Not to me.

Comments (26)

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  1. Ken says:

    Terrific post. One of your best.

  2. Joe S. says:

    Liberals like to tell themselves they are compassionate. But there is nothing compassionate about collectivism.

  3. Blake Woodard says:

    Great editorial, John. I am a disciple of Milton Friedman and Adam Smith, having read and studied both. There is nothing “liberal” about liberals. They have just wrapped stupidity in a label they think sounds compassionate. Their big-governmentment, small-freedom policies have done great damage to the United States of America and have hurt the people they seek to help. Liberals would not advocate raising their own children the way they advocate raising the poor.

  4. Devon Herrick says:

    People who are skeptical of free markets believe collectivism is a fairer, more compassionate economic system. On the other hand, proponents of free markets believe markets boost peoples’ living standards more than collectivism. Thus, free market supporters believe markets provide more collective good even though markets do not guarantee any one member an entitlement to a specific outcome.

    The United States is unique in that we were founded upon principles of self-determination and individual responsibility. I cannot condemn as uncompassionate people who want to adhere to our founding principles. I do not find it to be inconsistent for people to claim to be both compassionate and strongly support our founding principles.

  5. John Goodman says:

    Uwe reports that he is in Asia at the moment and cannot repond. However, he did send this quck note:

    “Good to hear that Texas is oozing with compassion. With 25% uninsured, it is sorely needed.”

  6. Greg Scandlen says:

    Uwe’s entire premise, that there is or should be some — “distribution of economic privilege” — baffles me. What is an “economic privilege?” And who is responsible for “distributing” it? Curious that he skips over the first step of creating wealth. How can this “economic privilege” be distributed if it is never created? I feel like I have just fallen through the looking glass into Wonderland.

  7. Greg Scandlen says:

    No one would accuse California of lacking Uwe’s kind of compassion, yet its rate of uninsured is very similar to Texas.

  8. Charlie Bond says:

    Hi John,

    I always appreciate receiving your insights. This post goes to the core of our health care crisis in America. The truth is those seeking to claim the high moral ground must themselves be moral.

    Compassion is not a political platform, nor an economic principle. The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches that compassion transcends both politics and economics. After all, the Samaritan was the enemy of the man he helped, and that man had been stripped of his money, his clothes and any signs of wealth or social status.

    After recounting the compassionate acts of the Samaritan, Jesus concludes the parable with the words, “Go thou and do likewise.” So whether one is a Christian or not, it seems our health policy was really set 2,000 years ago. The question, therefore, is not whether we exercise compassion but how.

    Those who would turn the healing of the sick and alleviation of others’ suffering into political fodder sadly lack the compassion that they themselves will someday need.

    Politics divide people and economics are no measure of the soul of individuals. We are facing a true test of the American character, and I firmly believe we can all unite on the high moral ground, setting aside political persuasion and economic status and learn how to take care of one another as we face the unique challenges before us.

    It is for these reasons that I am promoting “Samaritanism” as the solution, and have accordingly launched a grass roots movement to spread community by community to reform health care the only way it can be reformed–from the bottom up not the top down. Individuals joining together can tackle the problems of health care like a barn-raising, using a combination of personal responsibility, community spirit and free market solutions to create a truly American answer to this crisis.

    The Samaritanism movement is expressly apolitical. Indeed, the objective is to rise above politics and unite all Americans proving that we can and will take care of one another and that government need not so massively intervene in our health care.

    The active exercise of compassion, therefore, is the central issue. All others pale. Compassion is a moral duty made all the more urgent by the demographic imperative we face. Accordingly, I invite the readers of this blog to help with this effort by becoming actively involved in helping build the national Samaritanism movement now forming under the name of the Patient-Physician Alliance. []

    As always, John, thank you for your thoughtful commentary.

    Charlie Bond

  9. Beverly Gossage says:

    Thanks for this, John. Shared on my facebook.

  10. Morris Bryant, MD says:

    I greatly appreciate this post. I most certainly do not appreciate Krugman lumping me and others into a “…deeply radical movement.” Perhaps he has limited his personal exposure away from those of us who, like Hayek, might be called “compassionate capitalists”. I regularly tell my medical students that I do not believe the civil society can exist without a reliable safety net hospital system in place. However, just as there is no evidence that liberals are more generous than conservatives, there is NO EVIDENCE that that any socio-economic system can provide more wealth, goods and services for its citizens than capitalism.

    Oh, and Mr. Krugman, please do not equate having health insurance with having good health.

  11. Michael D. Ostrolenk says:

    It’s easy to be ‘ compassionate’ with other people’s money, a bit more difficult when you have to spend your own time and money helping those in need.

  12. Linda Gorman says:

    Since when is the proportion of estimated uninsured an indicator of anyone’s compassion?

    If liberals are going to put forth that metric they’d better be able to defend it.

  13. Alieta Eck, MD says:

    We see patients for free, something that that left finds hard to swallow. The left wants big programs, as proven by Bernie Sanders when I described our work at the free clinic. He said that he thinks “doctors ought to be paid.” But of, course, we all know that getting paid 10 cents on the dollars 6 months after the fact costs us more than simply donating our time.

    I asked him “How can you argue with free?” We are proposing that the state provide us with medical malpractice coverage for everything else we do in our state if we donate four hours per week in a non-government free clinic.

    I am convinced that the left wants control and are not particularly interested in solving the problem of providing health care for the poor. The taxpayers can no longer pay for the big programs of the left.

  14. Aaron G says:

    The primary difference between liberals and conservative thought

    Liberals think in ideals
    Conservatives think in consequences.

  15. Carolyn Needham says:

    The left often speaks about compassion with the assumption that capabilities will exist when they won’t. It’s very frustrating to consistently have to counter arguments, that, as Aaron said, are based in ideals that will not translate to real life. This is a great post!

  16. Virginia says:

    Beyonce? Are you letting someone else pick your videos now? Or has the great John Goodman expanded his musical palate?

    The great thing about capitalism is that people, by and large, get to make their own decisions. They live life the way they want to live, and they bear the responsibility for those actions. It just depends on who you are as to whether or not that works out to your benefit.

  17. Al says:

    “Since Krugman is a Nobel Prize winning economist, I would like to turn first to the science of economics”

    Just because Krugman is a Nobel Prize winner doesn’t mean he has expertise in health care. Why should we presume that all his knowledge in trade is transferrable to health care? He is simply another health care pundit and not very expert at it. Likely he earns a lot more money plying his trade of expert economist regarding issues where he is not an expert than he could on those things where he won his Nobel Prize.

    Krugman is not compassionate. He is envy driven and expresses this envy with ad hominem attacks.

  18. wanda j. jones says:

    John and Friends…

    Is there not some way of withdrawing the credentials of any “economist”who insists on arguing from religious slogans rather than objective cause and effect? Both Ewe and Paul totally ignore the amount of uninsured care now given by the US healthcare system. Whenever I hear someone say “redistribution,” meaning taking money from one person and giving it to another, I wonder if he is willing to also distribute discipline, so that there is a take-away if a receiver of largess is a glutton, a drinker, a wielder of guns and knives?

    Our country really does have a hold-over of Victorian mores where some addictions are considered moral failures even though they are physical dependencies that make it hard to reason to a behavior change. But they are, indeed, a cost burden on the rest of us for something inherently in their power to change. When I hear these great economists, somehow I get the impression that they are talking about heavenly beings who are innocent of any personal responsibility for doing the things that would keep them healthy and make the right decisions about health insurance and treatment. Education is the largest factor in whether someone is healthy or not, not having health insurance.

    Why don’t we give blog space to a real economist rather than Elmer Gantry in a grey suit? Much less two of them.

    Sorry, Ewe…and even Paul. You both think you are right, but you are not.

    Wanda J. Jones
    New Century Healthcare Institute
    San Francisco

  19. David P. says:

    Never has such an intelligent and learned man been so wrong about so many things so pubically for so long as Paul Krugman.

  20. John Goodman says:

    As it turns out, Uwe and Paul ran into each other in an Asian city airport and sent me a photo of the two of them lunching together. Would like to share, but they said it was for “my eyes only.”

    Is this a peace offering?

  21. Greg Scandlen says:

    That’s quite an image, John. Two Heroes of the Revolution dining together during a break between their (no doubt) first class flights between Asian cities. I do hope they took the opportunity to call their domestic workers and make sure everything is in order back home at the chateaux. I wonder if they would like to trade salaries with me for a year — redistributing the wealth, and all that.

  22. John Goodman says:

    Greg, you are merciless.

  23. Alieta Eck, MD says:

    There is no end to the arrogance of people who pontificate from on high and have NO IDEA what charity care is all about. They sit with their secure salaries and do not get the chance to look the poor in the eyes. The faces of poverty are very diverse and need very individualized care. No government program can provide it.

    Yesterday I saw a 32 year old in my office. She is terrified that she will soon be homeless as her husband is going to jail for drunk driving. Her parents are both abusive alcoholics and drug addicts. One sister is a drug addict who lost her children to DYFS. She was tearful and alone.

    Tonight she will go to the Zarephath Health Center where we have a support group similar to Al-Anon– for family members of alcoholics. We have counselors there as well. We will get her connected to people who are ready and able to care with practical solutions. No government program would be as good.

    Check this out– written by a physician who came to the AAPS annual meeting in Atlanta last week. He learned about what we are doing and wrote this article.

  24. Bill Ramirez says:

    To address Charlie Bond’s insight into Samarinaism I would say that it is already being acted on by thousands and thousands of private citizens in every city of this great country. I have personally been invovled in my own little community to help others less fortunate and have met others who do what they can to help. This includes ordinary people and professionals (doctors, nurses, etc.) who invest their own time (and often their money) to help others.

  25. Kent Lyon says:

    Actually, what these gentlemen are saying is that because some (a very few?) make bad choices, we should all be penalized by being forced into a government run system in which we will all receive worse care, or no care, or rationed care (grandma won’t get the pacemaker, we’ll just give her pain medication (e.g., euthanize her–which is what Obama himself suggested, although he intentionally said it in a way to ensure his listeners didn’t understand exactly what he was proposing),in exchange for one person’s failure to do what the government thinks he should do. A reciprocal question is what they would do with the Christian Scientist who refuses to purchase insurance and refuses needed life-saving medical care. Would they force him or her to receive it by force, or criminalize the refusal? There apparently is an exception in ObamaCare for those who, for religious reasons, do not wish to avail themselves of medical care and thus do not wish to purchase insurance. I think I will convert to Christian Science in order to free myself from the mandate to purchase insurance under ObamaCare and avoid the fine.

    For the hypothetical person in Wolf Blitzer’s question, I would recommend the Scarlet O’Hara approach–always rely on the kindness of strangers. In America, that is a far more effective approach than relying on government, particularly a monstrosity like ObamaCare.

  26. Bob Kramer says:

    I beg to differ. Compassion notwithstanding, the social and societal beliefs on the left are more concerned with the health care and educational plight of the poor. That is why, I favor some form of comprehensive care, stressing the idea that nothing worth while is free. And that everyone is accountable. I personally know Uwe Rheinhardt, and he is more of a very knowledgeable humanist and realist, and a man highly respected by most everyone in the political field, either left or right. Don’t worry about Wolf Blitser and Paul Krugman. they come from a different political persuasion, and I guess that their opposition to the Republicans is more or less what the likes of Sarah Palin, Ms. Noonan, Glen Beck, and others convey to the democrats. One can disagree, and still be civil. Hmmmm