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.

What we can be thankful for

Nov 24 JDN 2458812

Thanksgiving is upon us, yet as more and more evidence is revealed implicating President Trump in grievous crimes, as US carbon emissions that had been declining are now trending upward again, as our air quality deteriorates for the first time in decades, it may be hard to see what we should be thankful for.

But these are exceptions to a broader trend: The world is getting better, in almost every way, remarkably quickly. Homicide rates in the US are lower than they’ve been since the 1960s. Worldwide, the homicide rate has fallen 20% since 1990.

While world carbon emissions are still increasing, on a per capita basis they are actually starting to decline, and on an efficiency basis (kilograms of carbon-equivalent per dollar of GDP) they are at their lowest ever. This trend is likely to continue: The price of solar power has rapidly declined to the point where it is now the cheapest form of electric power.
The number—not just proportion, absolute number—of people in extreme poverty has declined by almost two-thirds within my own lifetime. The proportion is the lowest it has ever been in human history. World life expectancy is at its highest ever. Death rates from infectious disease fell by over 85% over the 20th century, and are now at their lowest ever.

I wouldn’t usually cite Reason as a source, but they’re right on this one: Defeat appears imminent for all four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Pestilence, Famine, War, and even Death are all on the decline. We have a great deal to be grateful for: We are living in a golden age.

This is not to say that we should let ourselves become complacent and stop trying to make the world better: On the contrary, it proves that the world can be made better, which gives us every reason to redouble our efforts to do so.

Pinker Propositions

May 19 2458623

What do the following statements have in common?

1. “Capitalist countries have less poverty than Communist countries.

2. “Black men in the US commit homicide at a higher rate than White men.

3. “On average, in the US, Asian people score highest on IQ tests, White and Hispanic people score near the middle, and Black people score the lowest.

4. “Men on average perform better at visual tasks, and women on average perform better on verbal tasks.

5. “In the United States, White men are no more likely to be mass shooters than other men.

6. “The genetic heritability of intelligence is about 60%.

7. “The plurality of recent terrorist attacks in the US have been committed by Muslims.

8. “The period of US military hegemony since 1945 has been the most peaceful period in human history.

These statements have two things in common:

1. All of these statements are objectively true facts that can be verified by rich and reliable empirical data which is publicly available and uncontroversially accepted by social scientists.

2. If spoken publicly among left-wing social justice activists, all of these statements will draw resistance, defensiveness, and often outright hostility. Anyone making these statements is likely to be accused of racism, sexism, imperialism, and so on.

I call such propositions Pinker Propositions, after an excellent talk by Steven Pinker illustrating several of the above statements (which was then taken wildly out of context by social justice activists on social media).

The usual reaction to these statements suggests that people think they imply harmful far-right policy conclusions. This inference is utterly wrong: A nuanced understanding of each of these propositions does not in any way lead to far-right policy conclusions—in fact, some rather strongly support left-wing policy conclusions.

1. Capitalist countries have less poverty than Communist countries, because Communist countries are nearly always corrupt and authoritarian. Social democratic countries have the lowest poverty and the highest overall happiness (#ScandinaviaIsBetter).

2. Black men commit more homicide than White men because of poverty, discrimination, mass incarceration, and gang violence. Black men are also greatly overrepresented among victims of homicide, as most homicide is intra-racial. Homicide rates often vary across ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and these rates vary over time as a result of cultural and political changes.

3. IQ tests are a highly imperfect measure of intelligence, and the genetics of intelligence cut across our socially-constructed concept of race. There is far more within-group variation in IQ than between-group variation. Intelligence is not fixed at birth but is affected by nutrition, upbringing, exposure to toxins, and education—all of which statistically put Black people at a disadvantage. Nor does intelligence remain constant within populations: The Flynn Effect is the well-documented increase in intelligence which has occurred in almost every country over the past century. Far from justifying discrimination, these provide very strong reasons to improve opportunities for Black children. The lead and mercury in Flint’s water suppressed the brain development of thousands of Black children—that’s going to lower average IQ scores. But that says nothing about supposed “inherent racial differences” and everything about the catastrophic damage of environmental racism.

4. To be quite honest, I never even understood why this one shocks—or even surprises—people. It’s not even saying that men are “smarter” than women—overall IQ is almost identical. It’s just saying that men are more visual and women are more verbal. And this, I think, is actually quite obvious. I think the clearest evidence of this—the “interocular trauma” that will convince you the effect is real and worth talking about—is pornography. Visual porn is overwhelmingly consumed by men, even when it was designed for women (e.g. Playgirla majority of its readers are gay men, even though there are ten times as many straight women in the world as there are gay men). Conversely, erotic novels are overwhelmingly consumed by women. I think a lot of anti-porn feminism can actually be explained by this effect: Feminists (who are usually women, for obvious reasons) can say they are against “porn” when what they are really against is visual porn, because visual porn is consumed by men; then the kind of porn that they like (erotic literature) doesn’t count as “real porn”. And honestly they’re mostly against the current structure of the live-action visual porn industry, which is totally reasonable—but it’s a far cry from being against porn in general. I have some serious issues with how our farming system is currently set up, but I’m not against farming.

5. This one is interesting, because it’s a lack of a race difference, which normally is what the left wing always wants to hear. The difference of course is that this alleged difference would make White men look bad, and that’s apparently seen as a desirable goal for social justice. But the data just doesn’t bear it out: While indeed most mass shooters are White men, that’s because most Americans are White, which is a totally uninteresting reason. There’s no clear evidence of any racial disparity in mass shootings—though the gender disparity is absolutely overwhelming: It’s almost always men.

6. Heritability is a subtle concept; it doesn’t mean what most people seem to think it means. It doesn’t mean that 60% of your intelligence is due to your your genes. Indeed, I’m not even sure what that sentence would actually mean; it’s like saying that 60% of the flavor of a cake is due to the eggs. What this heritability figure actually means that when you compare across individuals in a population, and carefully control for environmental influences, you find that about 60% of the variance in IQ scores is explained by genetic factors. But this is within a particular population—here, US adults—and is absolutely dependent on all sorts of other variables. The more flexible one’s environment becomes, the more people self-select into their preferred environment, and the more heritable traits become. As a result, IQ actually becomes more heritable as children become adults, called the Wilson Effect.

7. This one might actually have some contradiction with left-wing policy. The disproportionate participation of Muslims in terrorism—controlling for just about anything you like, income, education, age etc.—really does suggest that, at least at this point in history, there is some real ideological link between Islam and terrorism. But the fact remains that the vast majority of Muslims are not terrorists and do not support terrorism, and antagonizing all the people of an entire religion is fundamentally unjust as well as likely to backfire in various ways. We should instead be trying to encourage the spread of more tolerant forms of Islam, and maintaining the strict boundaries of secularism to prevent the encroach of any religion on our system of government.

8. The fact that US military hegemony does seem to be a cause of global peace doesn’t imply that every single military intervention by the US is justified. In fact, it doesn’t even necessarily imply that any such interventions are justified—though I think one would be hard-pressed to say that the NATO intervention in the Kosovo War or the defense of Kuwait in the Gulf War was unjustified. It merely points out that having a hegemon is clearly preferable to having a multipolar world where many countries jockey for military supremacy. The Pax Romana was a time of peace but also authoritarianism; the Pax Americana is better, but that doesn’t prevent us from criticizing the real harms—including major war crimes—committed by the United States.

So it is entirely possible to know and understand these facts without adopting far-right political views.

Yet Pinker’s point—and mine—is that by suppressing these true facts, by responding with hostility or even ostracism to anyone who states them, we are actually adding fuel to the far-right fire. Instead of presenting the nuanced truth and explaining why it doesn’t imply such radical policies, we attack the messenger; and this leads people to conclude three things:

1. The left wing is willing to lie and suppress the truth in order to achieve political goals (they’re doing it right now).

2. These statements actually do imply right-wing conclusions (else why suppress them?).

3. Since these statements are true, that must mean the right-wing conclusions are actually correct.

Now (especially if you are someone who identifies unironically as “woke”), you might be thinking something like this: “Anyone who can be turned away from social justice so easily was never a real ally in the first place!”

This is a fundamentally and dangerously wrongheaded view. No one—not me, not you, not anyone—was born believing in social justice. You did not emerge from your mother’s womb ranting against colonalist imperialism. You had to learn what you now know. You came to believe what you now believe, after once believing something else that you now think is wrong. This is true of absolutely everyone everywhere. Indeed, the better you are, the more true it is; good people learn from their mistakes and grow in their knowledge.

This means that anyone who is now an ally of social justice once was not. And that, in turn, suggests that many people who are currently not allies could become so, under the right circumstances. They would probably not shift all at once—as I didn’t, and I doubt you did either—but if we are welcoming and open and honest with them, we can gradually tilt them toward greater and greater levels of support.

But if we reject them immediately for being impure, they never get the chance to learn, and we never get the chance to sway them. People who are currently uncertain of their political beliefs will become our enemies because we made them our enemies. We declared that if they would not immediately commit to everything we believe, then they may as well oppose us. They, quite reasonably unwilling to commit to a detailed political agenda they didn’t understand, decided that it would be easiest to simply oppose us.

And we don’t have to win over every person on every single issue. We merely need to win over a large enough critical mass on each issue to shift policies and cultural norms. Building a wider tent is not compromising on your principles; on the contrary, it’s how you actually win and make those principles a reality.

There will always be those we cannot convince, of course. And I admit, there is something deeply irrational about going from “those leftists attacked Charles Murray” to “I think I’ll start waving a swastika”. But humans aren’t always rational; we know this. You can lament this, complain about it, yell at people for being so irrational all you like—it won’t actually make people any more rational. Humans are tribal; we think in terms of teams. We need to make our team as large and welcoming as possible, and suppressing Pinker Propositions is not the way to do that.