Taxing and Drafting Our Way to Empathy?

Is poor government policy making war feel too cheap?

Posted Aug 03, 2009

The scientific findings about empathy's limits make perfect sense of the public's indifference to the war, and of the current Administration's war policy. Research conducted decades ago by Milgram, Darley and Latane, and Zimbardo, and more recently by Alicke, Slovic, Hsee and Weber, Trope and Lieberman, Small and Loewenstein, chart the many different ways that psychological distance can paralyze our empathic faculty. We may want to be alert to evil, but psychological distance grants permission to ignore it.

Two U.S. war policies combine to deaden citizen psychology: There is no military draft, and no dedicated tax increase. How do you sustain an unpopular war of unprecedented expense without conscription and real money? The answer is disarmingly simple: You exploit citizens' all-too-human empathy gap. You finance the war on credit, pushing unwanted payment off into the misty future. And then you might, for example, assemble a volunteer army, even under terms many applicants wouldn't accept if there were effective job alternatives. As a result, U.S. citizens feel that the war costs much less, in money and human suffering, than it actually does. What we need is a measure that binds us to respond with moral seriousness to weighty issues, one that makes us take war seriously in the same way that, say, automatic deduction makes us take retirement seriously.

In order to reverse this empathic failure, we ought to make people feel the full cost of the war; we would need to impose a war tax and a draft. An effort to impose moral discipline and standards of fairness has languished in the House of Representatives. On the matter of the draft, New York representative Charles Rangel, Representative from the 15th District of New York has proposed H.R. 393 (2007), the United National Service Act of 2007: Impose a war-time draft. Rangel's colleagues dismissed an ancestor of this Bill in 2006 (a House vote of 2 in favor, 402 against). Rangel's rationale is open for public discussion; the claim is that Americans don't have anything like equal stakes in the war. Those socially and economically isolated in the lower income deciles not only carry a heavier burden of patriotism, they are the victims of empathic neglect.

This particular misalignment of responsibility seems to be a relatively new development in war policy. Wars never used to be run this way. In fact, during every war since the Civil War the government engaged citizens more viscerally, imposing a war tax and a draft on the citizenry and forcing Americans to pay the war's psychological and financial bill up front. A war tax made people feel the pinch at the moment, and a draft made everyone feel that they could lose a loved one. President Wilson raised taxes for WWI via the Emergency Internal Revenue Tax Act of 1914 and his government drafted nearly 2.7 million citizens. Gearing up for WWII, Roosevelt battled a conservative congress and still got passed a substantial federal war tax - and the government drafted over 10 million. Federal taxes were increased during the Korean conflict, and the government drafted over 1.5 million civilians. To finance the Vietnam War, Johnson raised taxes and, under pressure from Republican opponents, gutted some of his Great Society programs. Of course, the reach of a draft extends far beyond the inductees. While the Vietnam War drafted over 1.7 million citizens from August 1964 to February 1973, the draft exposed an average of over 18 million citizens every year.

Whatever you think of Rangel's proposal, it captures a sentiment that, deep down, we know is right: War is no less tragic just because it is staged at a safe psychological distance. H.R. 393 (2007), or a bill like it, is not irresponsibly pacifist or anti-war. It is, however, pro-principle, dedicated to stemming the immoral voyeurism of a remote-control war. Causing the death of another human is so weighty an act that neither inattention nor weakness of will can make it permissible. Such decisions must reach a level of personal involvement that will engage citizens. And for this, U.S. citizens must face the real prospects that their most cherished friends and family members may be relocated, wounded, and even killed.

Opponents may dispute Rangel's legislation by casting it as a mere exercise in shaming your political opponents. But not all disputes are reducible to the gaming of professional politics. Some policies are simple insights of folksy authenticity. But without a draft or a tax to face us with some of the real costs of war, judging the tragedy of war demands an imaginative leap greater than our human psychology can achieve. By bridging an empathy gap with a policy of taxation and draft, we would be brought closer to those who suffer from the war and will carry its crippling debt for years to come. Sadly, we will doubtless face these issues again. Next time, a psychologically informed policy can be ready for citizens who want it.

J.D. Trout is a professor of philosophy at Loyola University of Chicago, and his book, The Empathy Gap: Building Bridges to the Good Life and the Good Society, recently appeared with Viking Penguin.