Econ 101 teaches us that people are selfish and ruthless — but they only act that way because they're taught to believe it

Business Insider

People are actually pretty decent.Crystal Cox/Business Insider

  • Paul Constant is a writer at Civic Ventures, a cofounder of the Seattle Review of Books, and a frequent cohost of the "Pitchfork Economics" podcast with Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein.
  • On the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein interviewed Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.
  • Bregman argues that most people are pretty decent — but economic theories assume otherwise.
  • If you're taught that people are inclined towards selfish and ruthless competition, you'll behave selfishly and ruthlessly.
  • Imagine if social safety nets didn't make this assumption, and instead made it easier for people to access benefits.

Even if you don't know Dutch historian Rutger Bregman's name, you've likely heard him speak. In January of last year, you probably saw a viral video on social media of Bregman speaking truth to power in front of some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Bregman's speech, in which he told an audience full of CEOs, royalty, and heirs that if they really wanted to do good in the world, they should "stop talking about philanthropy and start talking about taxes," made him an instant celebrity.

Bregman did the requisite TV and podcast tour to explain why rich people should pay a lot more in taxes, and then he went silent for a while. Now, he's back making headlines with a surprising new book. On the latest episode of Pitchfork Economics, Nick Hanauer and David Goldstein asked Bregman to sum up the book in a few words. His response? Advertisement

"Deep down, most people are pretty decent," Bregman announced.

You might not expect a notorious bomb-throwing firebrand to follow up his big sensational activist moment with a manifesto about human kindness and cooperation.

Bregman admits that the premise of his new book, "Humankind: A Hopeful History" sounds like "it's not really a threat to anyone," but he explains that "it's a really subversive idea if you really think it through, because throughout history a more cynical view of human nature has been used by those in power to legitimize power differences and hierarchy."
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To be clear, Bregman isn't saying that people will automatically, fundamentally choose a path of kindness and sacrifice every time they're given a choice. "But we are inclined to cooperate and we can actually trust each other," he argues.

"Humankind" is full of data and historical proof that people are largely trusting and trustworthy. Bregman then takes that fact and extrapolates: if humans are largely cooperative and decent, why do our authority figures treat us as though we're one step away from committing a crime at all times? Could it be that we are taught that people are innately selfish and cruel because it's easier for people in power to manage us if we buy into that frightening worldview? Bregman has a lot to say on the podcast about America's current discussion on policing and prison reform, and what a more decent criminal justice system might look like. And he's also very aware that the thesis of "Humankind" basically disproves mainstream neoliberal interpretation of economics.Advertisement

Modern economics is built on Adam Smith's theory that humans are driven by rational self-interest. We look for the cheapest, most efficient products and services, and vendors must compete to supply them to us.

"It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest," Smith wrote in the "Wealth of Nations," adding, "Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens."

Bregman is arguing that Smith has people's intentions wrong. While Smith claims that a society is made up of individuals looking out for themselves, Bregman says that instead societies are made up of interconnected individuals operating in concert. Those butchers, brewers, and bakers aren't perfectly rational capitalists carving their fiefdoms out of the world using selfishness as their guide. Instead, they're members of a society who perform their specialized tasks with the expectation that others will do the same for them.Advertisement

You might scoff at this subtle distinction and argue that the intention has no bearing on the end result: who cares what the butcher thinks, so long as she has fresh cuts of meat in her case every day at an affordable price? Bregman argues that intent is everything: if you're taught that economies are powered by selfishness and ruthless competition, you're more likely to act selfishly and ruthlessly in your transactions.

"Robert Frank, the economist, did these studies where he literally found that if students study standard neoliberal economics" based on the self-interest model, Bregman says, then those students "become more selfish. These theories create the kind of people that they presuppose."

It's going to be easy for those self-interested economists to distort Bregman's core message of "Humankind" into cheap shots for Twitter arguments. He's not saying you should leave your keys in your unlocked car on the street the next time you go to the grocery store. Instead, Bregman says that if we approach our understanding with the idea that most people are fundamentally decent and cooperative, a whole host of possibilities emerge.Advertisement

Imagine, for instance, if our economic understanding of welfare and other social safety nets wasn't biased toward the belief that people will cheat the system out of every penny that they can. Perhaps tens of thousands of Floridians might have been able to easily access unemployment benefits during the early days of the economic crisis, instead of giving up on the system entirely. Maybe it would be cheaper to find and prosecute the rare cases of fraud that inevitably happen than it is to create an over-cautious, complicated system which throws ridiculous hurdles in the path of people who are already in an impossibly stressful situation. Sometimes a slightly different perspective is all it takes to see the world in an entirely new way.
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