Tuesday, 16 April 2013


Human Nature... Hmmm. Dare I?
I was intrigued with something Vincent said in a comment following my last post -
"She (Margaret Thatcher) assumed that if people had more freedom (were no longer stifled by the State, or repressive trade unions) they would naturally work for good."
This is actually a kind of an Anarchist/ Libertarian assumption isn't it? I'm not saying that's a bad thing but to many it will seem almost unbelievably naive.

I'm a little sorry that Libertarianism has become a synonym for US far right politics, and of course Anarchy is synonymous for chaos and terror - a throw-back to a time when the Anarchists were the Al Quaeda of their day and before the Communists took over as the main purveyors of bombings and assassinations around the world. This of course was well over 100 years ago, but the connotation has stuck. My experience of anarchists is that they are among the most peaceable (if not Pacifist) people I ever met. They dressed in black, wore big boots and did odd things to their hair, sure, but they were nothing if not polite. This was in the 80s. I never found their politics especially convincing but their conviction that, to put it simply, people would be better off without government or judiciary was based on a profound conviction that, left to their own devices, given the chance, people are basically good. Likewise, the Libertarians I've come across believe, more or less, that people are better off without an imposed moral code, that 'Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law', and 'If it feels good, do it'. But the Libertarians I've met have been among the most humane, insightful and generous of people, and their proposal has mostly been to be free to take drugs and have sex with anyone, and in whatever manner (as long as it is among consenting adults) as they see fit, because after all, it does no harm to anyone else and is no one else's business. Their assumption was that, genuinely free, people would not feel the need to abuse their freedom, and humanity would be a more fulfilled and harmonious thing.

The objections are too obvious and numerous to go into in detail here, but the most basic is that of course people just aren't like that. Given those freedoms, free from government and law, custom and convention, it'll be a battle of all against all - dog eat dog - survival of the fittest. Not a pretty sight. I think this view of humanity is there underneath maybe the majority's ideas about their fellow men. Scrape away at the surface they say, and there it is, the beast within. Every man has his price. This thin veneer of civilisation masks a human nature, red in tooth and claw, and a life nasty, brutish and short. The noble savage is a myth. And so we impose law from above, with force if necessary, for the common good.

It's a very polarised debate, as these things tend to be. The human brain it seems does not deal easily in nuance.
The former view seems hopelessly idealistic - a dream of children and drug-addled hippies and hardly worthy of serious comment.
The latter seems almost too obvious to be worth demonstrating, because look at us - every chance we get - ripping each other off and taking the piss, looking out for number one, always out for some small advantage - some way of getting just that little bit further ahead.

Well speak for yourself Sunshine. I look around me at the people I know, and the people I've met here and abroad (yes, even in Paris) and I just don't recognise that description. Sure I remember some crappy moments, but actually, not many. Mostly people were friendly and helpful, and no, not because I was going to give them some money or because a policeman was watching them. There are of course people doing all sorts of hideous things in the world, but most of the time, in normal every-day life? Is it just that thin veneer holding us all back from throttling each other? Or is it some sort of confused Kin Selection, as the evolutionary psychologists would have us believe? Do I live in some rarefied middle class rural bubble where nobody is ever mean to anyone? Is it just me? Have I somehow passed through life oblivious and immune?

I've thought about this a lot. I'm not some starry-eyed do-gooder who just luvs everyone. I'm actually not the most trusting of people. I don't want to talk about it right now but I actually have a lot of trouble with people. I'm not particularly comfortable with social situations and I'm easily put off spending time with some people. I'm easily upset. Often, it's just too difficult. And yet... I still have a lot of hope for humanity. Although I personally have trouble with people for whatever reason, I don't think that's because people are bad. I don't dislike them. It's just a problem for me.

What I'm left with is this: Clearly people sometimes behave appallingly to each other (but see my posting here on whether everything is getting worse these days) but usually they don't and sometimes they are downright heroic.
So which is it to be? Are we basically Good or Bad, or is it just the wrong question?
Actually I think it's a bit of both, which sounds like an anti-climax, and a mealy-mouthed cop-out at that but actually it's not.
I came up with this 10:80:10 rule a while back. Basically what it says is that real evil is actually quite rare. A small percentage of us do it a lot and probably all of us do it sometimes - say 10%. Likewise real saintly good is pretty uncommon too - really going out of ones way to make things better. Probably most of us do it occasionally and a few of us make a life-style of it. Again, say 10%.
Most of us though, most of the time (the remaining 80%), and here's the point, just live our lives, doing what's normal, going along with what everyone else is doing, anything for a quiet life. Sometimes we're a bit mean and not entirely honest but there are limits. We may not really approve of you or want to spend a lot of time with you, but we won't give you a hard time unless we feel very provoked, and often, if you're in difficulties, we'll give you a hand if it's not too much trouble. That's the kind of people we are. I think this is pretty much true of most people the world over. Obviously if we are very provoked we might get very aggressive indeed - if we fear violence or starvation or having our livelihoods taken away from us for example but I have the perhaps perverse opinion that people should not be judged by what they do when they are desperate. Likewise, we might be tempted to do questionable things by extraordinary rewards, but if anything this is an argument against extraordinary temptations (eg huge bonuses) rather than for the inherent corruption of the human spirit. (I'm very aware of the need here for a deeper discussion on the meaning of Evil but I want to save that for another time. For the time being I'm going to take it that we know it when we see it.)

The glaring trouble here is how Evil can become normal in some societies, such as in late 1930s Germany, or Rwanda in 1994, or perhaps Syria at the moment and I think the answer is in that phrase "doing what's normal, going along with what everyone else is doing", and the fact that Evil is often so much easier than Good. Think how much easier it is to knock something down that it is to build something up and you can see that even nature (in the form of entropy) is on the side of Evil. That 10% has a hugely disproportionate effect on the outcome. What is a wonder is that it doesn't dominate everything most of the time. Just one person in a community who favours violence over peaceful coexistence, collecting a few sociopathic henchmen along the way, can very quickly force the community to take sides and start making decisions about who to blame and before you know it our peaceful hypothetical community is polarised and suspicious. Oppression can quickly become normal. This, in a sense is what is 'Evil' about human nature - not that it is inherent and pervasive in all of us except on very rare occasions, but that a small amount seems to be able to take hold of so much power so easily.

So I think this is the problem with the Libertarian and Anarchist views we started out with - that even if most of us could live reasonably amicably without laws and norms being imposed on us from above (and wouldn't that be great?) it only takes a few individuals who are prepared to take advantage of the situation to impose their own norms and laws and society is taken over by them. And this is also true of a genuinely free market economy, which is not the spirit of free enterprise Utopia some economists and politicians seem to imagine, but instead a Dystopia where everything people can have or do - not just the fripperies, but their health care, education, work and leisure, is determined by what money they can make, which is in turn determined by a very few very powerful business interests.
I think it is up to all of us to do our 10%, but as those Business Interests get fewer and bigger (as they inevitably will, the Free Market being what it is), the only thing big enough to stand up to them, I believe, will be our old friends Democratic Government and The Rule of Law.

Interestingly, one of the main platforms of the Libertarian Right in the USA is always 'Small Government' - a demand I find completely uncontroversial.Government should always be as small as possible.
Is anyone seriously demanding more government than necessary?
The only real question is - How much government is necessary?


paulgrand said...

Lets face it, people, just like children need to have some perimeters, or you end up with a country like
Liberia, where gun running hard drugs and murder are normal everyday happenings.

Which brings us to Mark Thatcher, the convicted gun runner, I expect he found the totally free market of Africa a kind of nirvana, but even he had to be saved by mummy and our regulated country in the end.

Vincent said...

Yes, I like what you've said here. I wonder also if you might like John Gray's "Point of View" piece, presented at 8:50 am on Radio 4 one Sunday. Here's a link to the written version, or you might prefer the audio here.

Steve Law said...

Ha ha.
She must have been so proud.

I'll check that link Vincent - thanks