Dr. Jagdish Chandra Asthana Could Have Been a Good Policy Analyst

A cliche you’ll hear often is that policymaking should be empathetic. And like many such pronouncements, it is a wrong one. A good policy analysis needs compassion, not empathy
Policy making
Policy making

In Munnabhai MBBS (2003), the medical college dean, Dr. Jagdish Chandra Asthana (played by Boman Irani), cautions against feeling empathetic towards patients. Empathy, he reasons, can impair the doctor’s ability to provide the best treatment for the patient. In the world of public policy, the doctor is correct. If we’re keen to develop better policies, we must avoid empathy and replace it with compassion as a guide. Here’s why.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person's feelings. It involves stepping into someone else's shoes and experiencing their emotional state as if it were one's own. Empathy can be an excellent motivation for community action and for trust-building across groups. However, when imported into public policy, this approach can cause us to become overly invested in the plight of a specific individual or group, leading us to overlook broader systemic implications of state action. This myopic view can result in proposing emotive, simplistic solutions that fail to address the root causes of complex social issues. 

Dutch historian Rutger Bregman makes a similar point in Humankind: A Hopeful History:

“One thing is certain: a better world doesn’t start with more empathy. If anything, empathy makes us less forgiving, because the more we identify with victims, the more we generalise about our enemies. The bright spotlight we shine on our chosen few makes us blind to the perspectives of our adversaries, because everybody else falls outside our view.” ~ [Humankind: A Hopeful History, page 215]

The philosophical underpinning for an empathetic public policy is that people are irrational. Since its starting assumption is that people are prone to making terrible decisions, empathetic policymaking often ends up thinking that only the omniscient government can rescue poor souls. For instance, playing the lottery seems irrational, given the extremely low probability of winning and the poor expected value of a lottery ticket. An empathetic approach to tackling this problem will produce coercive and paternalistic policies such as bans, mandatory education campaigns to emphasise the low odds of winning, and heavy taxes on lottery winnings. 

Single-minded empathy can also result in proposing emotive, simplistic solutions that fail to address the root causes of complex societal issues. For instance, empathising with small farmers who cannot repay loans might cause a well-meaning analyst to recommend a simplistic solution like loan waivers. But the prospect of a future waiver creates a moral hazard—more people end up taking unsustainable loans, and in cases when these loans aren’t waived off, some might even take the extreme step of committing suicide. 

Examples of empathetic policymaking gone wrong are a dime a dozen. Here’s just another one. In 2016, Bihar implemented prohibition laws to ‘protect’ women from alcohol-driven violence from their husbands and male relatives. The law criminalised the manufacturing, bottling, distribution, transportation, collection, storage, possession, purchase, sale, or consumption of alcohol. 

The consequences were fourfold. It led to an increase in consumption of adulterated liquor, resulting in many deaths. Already a fiscally vulnerable state, Bihar lost a big chunk of revenue coming from liquor sales. The state’s judicial administration was overburdened with lakhs of prohibition cases and bail applications, thus clogging the system. Already lacking policing capacity, precious state capacity was diverted to catching tipplers. All this was followed by a rise in crimes, including bootlegging by people, politicians and cops. Today, liquor is still freely available in the state, defeating the very purpose of the law. 

If not empathy, what’s the right approach for policymaking? Clearly, the technocratic and robotic caricature of Dr Asthana in Munnabhai MBBS is neither practical nor real. Instead, we should use a frame of compassion. 

Compassion is not the same as empathy. It represents a more detached and rational concern for the general well-being of all people. It is rooted in a desire to alleviate suffering on a broader scale. Compassion allows policy analysts to maintain a degree of emotional distance while still recognising the inherent dignity and worth of every individual affected by their decisions. 

With compassion as a guiding principle, policy analysts can weigh trade-offs, consider unintended consequences, and think of solutions that promote the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Compassion encourages analysts to look beyond individual narratives, examine systemic factors, and think about the general equilibrium (long-term implications of policy actions), ultimately leading to more effective policy recommendations.

Take the lottery playing example. A compassionate approach to policymaking would play out something like this. Starting with the premise that most people are reasonable, this approach would locate lottery playing as a social practice deployed for cheap escapism, for providing a sense of belonging or connection to other players, or just a way to stake your claim in a society where success is often portrayed as the result of luck rather than hard work. 

In this case, the policy solutions would then focus not only on individual behaviour change but also on addressing the systemic factors that make this behaviour appealing or necessary for some people. This could include increasing economic opportunity, providing alternative sources of entertainment and social connection, and challenging cultural narratives around success and luck.

So, while empathy can be a powerful motivator for activists and advocates, it is a poor fit in public policy. Policy analysts and observers should instead strive for compassion.

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Compassion is the desire for another to have freedom from suffering… if you want others to be happy, practise compassion. If you want to be happy, practise compassion.”

(Pranay is the deputy director of the Takshashila Institution. Madhav has been a marketing professional for over a decade and recently completed the Takshashila GCPP)

(The opinions presented above belong solely to the authors.)

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