Are people basically good?

Mar 20 JDN 2459659

I recently finished reading Human Kind by Rutger Bregman. His central thesis is a surprisingly controversial one, yet one I largely agree with: People are basically good. Most people, in most circumstances, try to do the right thing.

Neoclassical economists in particular seem utterly scandalized by any such suggestion. No, they insist, people are selfish! They’ll take any opportunity to exploit each other! On this, Bregman is right and the neoclassical economists are wrong.

One of the best parts of the book is Bregman’s tale of several shipwrecked Tongan boys who were stranded on the remote island of ‘Ata, sometimes called “the real Lord of the Flies but with an outcome quite radically different from that of the novel. There were of course conflicts during their long time stranded, but the boys resolved most of these conflicts peacefully, and by the time help came over a year later they were still healthy and harmonious. Bregman himself was involved in the investigative reporting about these events, and his tale of how he came to meet some of the (now elderly) survivors and tell their tale is both enlightening and heartwarming.

Bregman spends a lot of time (perhaps too much time) analyzing classic experiments meant to elucidate human nature. He does a good job of analyzing the Milgram experiment—it’s valid, but it says more about our willingness to serve a cause than our blind obedience to authority. He utterly demolishes the Zimbardo experiment; I knew it was bad, but I hadn’t even realized how utterly worthless that so-called “experiment” actually is. Zimbardo basically paid people to act like abusive prison guards—specifically instructing them how to act!—and then claimed that he had discovered something deep in human nature. Bregman calls it a “hoax”, which might be a bit too strong—but it’s about as accurate as calling it an “experiment”. I think it’s more like a form of performance art.

Bregman’s criticism of Steven Pinker I find much less convincing. He cites a few other studies that purported to show the following: (1) the archaeological record is unreliable in assessing death rates in prehistoric societies (fair enough, but what else do we have?), (2) the high death rates in prehistoric cultures could be from predators such as lions rather than other humans (maybe, but that still means civilization is providing vital security!), (3) the Long Peace could be a statistical artifact because data on wars is so sparse (I find this unlikely, but I admit the Russian invasion of Ukraine does support such a notion), or (4) the Long Peace is the result of nuclear weapons, globalized trade, and/or international institutions rather than a change in overall attitudes toward violence (perfectly reasonable, but I’m not even sure Pinker would disagree).

I appreciate that Bregman does not lend credence to the people who want to use absolute death counts instead of relative death rates, who apparently would rather live in a prehistoric village of 100 people that gets wiped out by a plague (or for that matter on a Mars colony of 100 people who all die of suffocation when the life support fails) rather than remain in a modern city of a million people that has a few dozen murders each year. Zero homicides is better than 40, right? Personally, I care most about the question “How likely am I to die at any given time?”; and for that, relative death rates are the only valid measure. I don’t even see why we should particularly care about homicide versus other causes of death—I don’t see being shot as particularly worse than dying of Alzheimer’s (indeed, quite the contrary, other than the fact that Alzheimer’s is largely limited to old age and shooting isn’t). But all right, if violence is the question, then go ahead and use homicides—but it certainly should be rates and not absolute numbers. A larger human population is not an inherently bad thing.

I even appreciate that Bregman offers a theory (not an especially convincing one, but not an utterly ridiculous one either) of how agriculture and civilization could emerge even if hunter-gatherer life was actually better. It basically involves agriculture being discovered by accident, and then people gradually transitioning to a sedentary mode of life and not realizing their mistake until generations had passed and all the old skills were lost. There are various holes one can poke in this theory (Were the skills really lost? Couldn’t they be recovered from others? Indeed, haven’t people done that, in living memory, by “going native”?), but it’s at least better than simply saying “civilization was a mistake”.

Yet Bregman’s own account, particularly his discussion of how early civilizations all seem to have been slave states, seems to better support what I think is becoming the historical consensus, which is that civilization emerged because a handful of psychopaths gathered armies to conquer and enslave everyone around them. This is bad news for anyone who holds to a naively Whiggish view of history as a continuous march of progress (which I have oft heard accused but rarely heard endorsed), but it’s equally bad news for anyone who believes that all human beings are basically good and we should—or even could—return to a state of blissful anarchism.

Indeed, this is where Bregman’s view and mine part ways. We both agree that most people are mostly good most of the time. He even acknowledges that about 2% of people are psychopaths, which is a very plausible figure. (The figures I find most credible are about 1% of women and about 4% of men, which averages out to 2.5%. The prevalence you get also depends on how severely lacking in empathy someone needs to be in order to qualify. I’ve seen figures as low as 1% and as high as 4%.) What he fails to see is how that 2% of people can have large effects on society, wildly disproportionate to their number.

Consider the few dozen murders that are committed in any given city of a million people each year. Who is committing those murders? By and large, psychopaths. That’s more true of premeditated murder than of crimes of passion, but even the latter are far more likely to be committed by psychopaths than the general population.

Or consider those early civilizations that were nearly all authoritarian slave-states. What kind of person tends to govern an authoritarian slave-state? A psychopath. Sure, probably not every Roman emperor was a psychopath—but I’m quite certain that Commodus and Caligula were, and I suspect that Augustus and several others were as well. And the ones who don’t seem like psychopaths (like Marcus Aurelius) still seem like narcissists. Indeed, I’m not sure it’s possible to be an authoritarian emperor and not be at least a narcissist; should an ordinary person somehow find themselves in the role, I think they’d immediately set out to delegate authority and improve civil liberties.

This suggests that civilization was not so much a mistake as it was a crime—civilization was inflicted upon us by psychopaths and their greed for wealth and power. Like I said, not great for a “march of progress” view of history. Yet a lot has changed in the last few thousand years, and life in the 21st century at least seems overall pretty good—and almost certainly better than life on the African savannah 50,000 years ago.

In essence, what I think happened was we invented a technology to turn the tables of civilization, use the same tools psychopaths had used to oppress us as a means to contain them. This technology was called democracy. The institutions of democracy allowed us to convert government from a means by which psychopaths oppress and extract wealth from the populace to a means by which the populace could prevent psychopaths from committing wanton acts of violence.

Is it perfect? Certainly not. Indeed, there are many governments today that much better fit the “psychopath oppressing people” model (e.g. Russia, China, North Korea), and even in First World democracies there are substantial abuses of power and violations of human rights. In fact, psychopaths are overrepresented among the police and also among politicians. Perhaps there are superior modes of governance yet to be found that would further reduce the power psychopaths have and thereby make life better for everyone else.

Yet it remains clear that democracy is better than anarchy. This is not so much because anarchy results in everyone behaving badly and causes immediate chaos (as many people seem to erroneously believe), but because it results in enough people behaving badly to be a problem—and because some of those people are psychopaths who will take advantage of power vacuum to seize control for themselves.

Yes, most people are basically good. But enough people aren’t that it’s a problem.

Bregman seems to think that simply outnumbering the psychopaths is enough to keep them under control, but history clearly shows that it isn’t. We need institutions of governance to protect us. And for the most part, First World democracies do a fairly good job of that.

Indeed, I think Bregman’s perspective may be a bit clouded by being Dutch, as the Netherlands has one of the highest rates of trust in the world. Nearly 90% of people in the Netherlands trust their neighbors. Even the US has high levels of trust by world standards, at about 84%; a more typical country is India or Mexico at 64%, and the least-trusting countries are places like Gabon with 31% or Benin with a dismal 23%. Trust in government varies widely, from an astonishing 94% in Norway (then again, have you seen Norway? Their government is doing a bang-up job!) to 79% in the Netherlands, to closer to 50% in most countries (in this the US is more typical), all the way down to 23% in Nigeria (which seems equally justified). Some mysteries remain, like why more people trust the government in Russia than in Namibia. (Maybe people in Namibia are just more willing to speak their minds? They’re certainly much freer to do so.)

In other words, Dutch people are basically good. Not that the Netherlands has no psychopaths; surely they have a few just like everyone else. But they have strong, effective democratic institutions that provide both liberty and security for the vast majority of the population. And with the psychopaths under control, everyone else can feel free to trust each other and cooperate, even in the absence of obvious government support. It’s precisely because the government of the Netherlands is so unusually effective that someone living there can come to believe that government is unnecessary.

In short, Bregman is right that we should have donation boxes—and a lot of people seem to miss that (especially economists!). But he seems to forget that we need to keep them locked.

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