Human Nature Bleg — A Kinda Sorta Comment Rescue

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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53 Responses

  1. Avatar greginak says:

    Caring for others in the tribe, village, valley, community, local hovel has always been part of human society. It as deeply ingrained in human nature as anything. It is what we do.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I was sort of thinking about this in regards to Fergusson. It seems to me that we have a sizeable minority in this country who are actively authoritarian at various levels. They want the cops to be heavily armed, shoot first, and ask questions later. There is also video of a cop from the area speaking at a Far-Right meeting that would make fascists proud. They also seem to sincerely believe that whites are the only truly persecuted people in the US, sometimes this becomes even more limited to white men.

    Yet liberty keeps advancing despite our almost openly fascist element.

    I think you are potentially right and I am glad for it as a liberal. I think democratic societies generally do advance to realizing that the government has a role to play in maintaining social welfare of the people. Now of course many on the right see this as a destruction of liberty/fall of the republic situation but I disagree.Report

  3. Avatar James Hanley says:

    So now I’m wondering, is this the other, communal side of human nature showing through?

    Yes.

    Humans are social by nature. Not entirely collective; very few fully collective societies stand for long, and they tend to be small and have specific rules geared toward maintaining that collectiveness (e.g., the Hutterites). But what academics in some fields call pro-social, meaning not just enjoying each others’ company, but caring for each others’ needs. This behavior has been demonstrated in our close ape kin as well as in some other species.

    People don’t do as good a job of looking out for others’ needs as for their own, but as a species, we’re fundamentally not entirely self-oriented.Report

    • Avatar Patrick in reply to James Hanley says:

      I think the “social animal”/”lone wolf” dichotomy is largely false, myself.

      Human self-reliance and/or communal-reliance is a continuum, and that’s actually a good thing to a point. It certainly helps our ability to specialize; a lot of the risks you take when you specialize are offset by the fact that the community specializes in other things that you have to let atrophy, and as a result you get the benefit of the specialization in stuff you’re not interested in without having to work for it, and you’re rewarded for your own specialization (to an extent).

      The problem, such as it is, is that we historically aren’t really good at designing systems to encourage that sort of thing. As far as goods distributions go, the best thing we’ve come up with is market allocation and really, that’s more of a least pessimum system than anything approaching optimization.

      Today I’m feeling optimistic about long term end game on that score. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be back to pessimism.Report

    • Avatar Kim in reply to James Hanley says:

      … even psychopaths.
      Hmph. hadn’t really thought of them as truthtellers before this moment.
      (maybe because a lot of them aren’t).Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to James Hanley says:

      As we become more wealthy as a society, we are, of course, more able to satisfy that desire to care for others. Since healthy democracies tend to be wealthy, it stands to reason…Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    Over time, there are remains of humans aged and with long-term infirmity, people obviously taken care of. Children were obviously taken care of. Pregnant women and women with nursing children were obviously taken care of. The caretakers of children were obviously taken care of.

    “Taking care of” has always been part and parcel of Human, a social species. We’re just discussing the intricacies of how, it’s a meta discussion.Report

  5. Avatar j r says:

    One thing that I think is that we shouldn’t accept the existence of a social safety net as the defining characteristic of socialism. Socialism, properly defined entails the collective ownership of a large percentage of economy. Maybe it’s best to think of socialism as a halfway point between capitalism, in which almost all the factors of production are privately owned, and communism, in which almost all of the factors of production are owned and controlled by the government or ruling party.

    You can break it down further. You have social democracies, where the factors of production are mostly privately owned, but there is significant intervention and regulation by the government and a cradle-to-grave welfare state.

    Even in a liberal democracy, however, there is going to be some form of social safety net. And that’s because most people, even people like me who oppose the cradle-to-grave welfare state, believe that we ought to help those in need. There are various forms of the creeping socialism argument and many of them are just plain unconvincing.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      I see communism as a form of socialism rather than socialism as an inbetween point between capitalism and communists. Many Communists self-defined themselves as scientific socialists during the 19th century to distinguish themselves from the Anarchists whom they saw as being more mystrical. The Anarchists were actually excluded from the Marxist movement on grounds that anarchism was seen as a form of religion. ;).

      Like I said in response to Citizen; socialism should be defined as a series of schools that believe the economy should mainly or wholly be organized on an a collective/cooperative basis. Capitalims is the idea are the schools that believe that the economy should be mainly or wholly owned a private/competitive basis. Socialists could include everything from Left Anarchists, Communists, to the various forms of planned economy that used to be common in developing nations like India’s License Raj or Israel right after it was founded. Capitalists include Right Anarchists like Citizen, more standard libertarians, and Market Liberals that favor of comprehensive social safety net and a degree of government regulation of the economy but not outright government ownership.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        It’s kind of six of one, half-dozen of the other as to whether communism is a form of socialism or socialism is separate entity. The Marxist-Leninist worldview, for instance, saw socialism, the socialization or common ownership of a large percentage of the means of production, as a way point on the road to full communism, at which point all private property would be abolished along with money and social class.

        I am not sure that socialism should be defined in any one super-specific way, because, as you point out, it can mean any number of particular arrangements.

        I do object to your notion that that there is something uniquely socialist about a cooperative economy. A capitalist economy is highly cooperative. Pick any random product and think about all the various inputs and how they are sourced. Cooperation does not have to be state-enforced in order to count as cooperation.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I used cooperative due to the limitations of the English language. Your right that a capitalist economy can be cooperative rather than competitive in nature for many transactions. More than a few transactions can be cooperative and competitive at the same time. I don’t think that collective or private ownership is a good way to distinguish between socialism and capitalism. Lots of dictators managed to use collective ownership as a way to enrich themselves and their family, friends, and cronies. They often didn’t even pretend to be doing anything more noble to disguish their own actions. By cooperative I meant that the goal of the socialist economy is to ensure that everybody in society benefits from it relatively equally.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        By cooperative I meant that the goal of the socialist economy is to ensure that everybody in society benefits from it relatively equally.

        Riiiight…

        I am not sure how you can argue that the collective ownership of the means of production is not the defining characteristic of socialism and communism. Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

        Socialism is a social and economic system characterised by social ownership of the means of production and co-operative management of the economy,[1][2] as well as a political theory and movement that aims at the establishment of such a system.

        It seems like you’re just saying when bad people use collective ownership of the means of production, you don’t want to call it socialism because socialism can only have enlightened motives. There are lots of examples of non-socialist dictators and oligarchs, but they generally don’t outright nationalize the economy. Rather, they keep industry privately owned, but in the hands of their allies.

        This topic reminds me of an article that I just read the other day about Venezuela: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-08-12/venezuela-sees-chavez-friends-rich-after-his-death-amid-poverty.html

        The article opens on one of Chavez’ cronies:

        Biancucci, 55, who grew up poor, says he won contracts to supply Venezuela with livestock thanks to friendships with military officers now in the government. His voice rises with emotion as he says he’s been a devotee of Chavez since military college, when the late leader was his history professor…

        Chavez’s socialism, he says, has made him personally rich.

        “I’m a socialist, but I love having cash in my hands,” he says, shaking a fist holding an imaginary wad of money. “Socialism is wealth.”

        I guess you can argue that this guy is no true socialist. Alternately, we can just take him at his word.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What I meant is that socialism in various incarnations cares more about the end game than capitalism. All forms of socialism are ostensibly about achieving a fairer distribution of wealth in order to create a more just society. Capitalism is more agnostic about the end goal of economic transactions.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Biancucci, 55, who grew up poor, says he won contracts to supply Venezuela with livestock thanks to friendships with military officers now in the government.

        Yeah, that’s horrifying. Thank God people don’t get defense contracts through personal relationships here.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Our problem is that we don’t give enough lip service. If we made a bigger deal over how we were a socialist country doing our best to live up to the ideals of Marx?

        Sheeeeit. Imagine what we could get away with.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Yeah, that’s horrifying. Thank God people don’t get defense contracts through personal relationships here.

        Very @mike-schilling comment. You miss the whole point of the example. The entire conceit of socialism is that once we socialize industry and the economy, we will remove the nefarious influence of the profit motive and things like this won’t happen. Pointing out that this happens in capitalist countries as well is neither here nor there. Also, it’s worth noting that corruption is much higher among countries with authoritarian command economies, be they of the right or the left, than it is among decentralized market-oriented economies.

        What I meant is that socialism in various incarnations cares more about the end game than capitalism. All forms of socialism are ostensibly about achieving a fairer distribution of wealth in order to create a more just society. Capitalism is more agnostic about the end goal of economic transactions.

        These are fairly self-serving definitions. For one thing, when a system claims to care about one thing, but then delivers another, you ought to spend some time thinking about the honesty of those original claims.

        Further, it is not really accurate to say that capitalism is more agnostic about the end goal. It is fair to say that socialism tends towards utilitarian ethics, while capitalism focuses on more of a deontological position. However, a just normative deontological framework is an end in itself. In other words, a functioning market that allows individuals to freely exchange goods and services and allocates resources towards their most productive ends is an end goal.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to LeeEsq says:

        The entire conceit of socialism is that once we socialize industry and the economy, we will remove the nefarious influence of the profit motive and things like this won’t happen.

        No it isn’t, any more than the conceit of capitalism is that the market is a perfect optimization engine.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “…socialism should be defined as a series of schools that believe the economy should mainly or wholly be organized on an a collective/cooperative basis. Capitalims is the idea are the schools that believe that the economy should be mainly or wholly owned a private/competitive basis.”

        @leeesq

        I know you are trying to make an easily identifiable division between two complex systems, which is all well and good. I think your collective/private terms hit the difference better than cooperative/competitive.

        Free enterprise clearly IS about cooperation and reciprocal exchange. A global market is composed of networks of countless voluntary cooperative interactions. Therefore “cooperative” cannot be a defining characteristic of its opposite. Cooperation is an essential and foundational element of market exchange.

        The better difference is “who decides?” In a free market decisions are made in a much more decentralized manner. Each person decides upon her goals based upon local realities and seeks out cooperative relationships based upon mutual agreement. Competing alternatives are encouraged, with the expectation that constructive competition improves choices and creates a virtuous circle which improves how the network self assembles to the benefit of members of the network.

        The benefits of voluntary, decentralized and local decision making and constructive competition over centralized top down imposed planning are well known and beyond serious dispute. Game, set match to Hayek. Or paraphrasing Patrick, “markets are not all that terrible.”

        However I would offer a clearer distinction then between the two is IMPOSED/VOLUNTARY. A central plan faces the issue of how to suppress all other plans by definition. Any deviation from the plan or individual not wanting to follow the plan is in effect a defection from the plan and must be suppressed. Thus pure socialism is about creating a plan and managing it from above and suppressing any freedom and voluntary decision making which interfere with the plan.

        Socialism stress imposed order, markets stress voluntary and decentralized order.

        Obviously in the real world societies can blend the two by carving out spaces for imposed order and planning, and other spaces for markets.

        It indeed is possible as you suggest that the goal of the imposed order is equality of economic outcome. That certainly how it is often marketed.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to j r says:

      The association of the redistribution of wealth with socialism is somewhat strange, given the general relationship between socialism and private wealth. Redistribution is something you can only get in an economy that is primarily based on something other that collective ownership, because it is a redistribution of private wealth. So almost all redistribution takes place in market economies with some degree of social democratic governance (basically, the welfare state). In a sense, if you have a welfare state, you have capitalism.Report

      • Avatar j r in reply to Chris says:

        To what exactly are you objecting? I didn’t associate the redistribution of wealth with socialism. I associated the cradle-to-grave welfare state with social democracy. And social democracies are quite obviously capitalist.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Yeah, I wasn’t objecting to anything you said, just to the general equation of the two, which is very common in our political discourse (such as it is), and of which your comment reminded me.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW in reply to Chris says:

        Yes, you two are agreeing with each other, as far as I can tell. The welfare state is a means of addressing the failings of capitalism, within the framework of a capitalist society.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Chris says:

        Debates over the welfare state is what caused the split between Modern Liberals and Classical Liberals during the 1880s. There was a lot of high-minded debate about positive liberty and negative liberty but it basically amounted to that Modern Liberals while still skeptical of socialism’s arguments regarding who should own the means of production thought that government should temper capitalism a little. Classical Liberals believed this to be a dangerous stepping stone to socialism.

        You see echoes of this debate in Internet arguments between liberals and certain factions of libertarians. To Citizen and Damon, state action is always wrong because at the best the state and all who participate in it are amoral office seekers that only want a job or active tyrants at worse. Liberals take a more positive view of the potential for government action.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to Chris says:

        The assumption that an office seeker or regulator is not at least potentially amoral or self focused is simply naive. I agree with you that not all actually ARE. However, I am not sure there is even a difference in effectiveness based upon their intentions. Benevolence can lead to totalitarians and tyrants, and self interest can lead to wise leadership, and vice versa.

        Here we get to another use of the invisible hand metaphor. If political institutions are working properly, the intentions of the politicians is neutralized. What we want are institutions which align the interests of politicians with the interests of the people. In this way, even the worst bastards will not harm us, and we should always assume the worst bastards will eventually get control.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to Chris says:

        @leeesq

        “state action is always wrong because at the best the state and all who participate in it are amoral office seekers that only want a job or active tyrants at worse. ”

        No, State action is wrong because it’s based upon compulsion and violence.Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to Chris says:

        one must wonder if dynastic families like the kennedys, bushes, (clintons?) have some kind of genetic defect which compels them to seek power over others, or if it’s just having so many ducats and so many kids that after a while you run out stuff to do.

        game of thrones of boredom?

        or more likely it’s simply another path to riches.Report

  6. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Any functioning society needs to recognize that people are both individuals with their wants, needs, and desires and social creatures that form groups to look out after each other. On political level, it also needs to be recognized that there will always be differences of opinion on what government should do or how society should be organized or disorganized.Report

  7. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Communism didn’t fail because of the negative side of human behavior. Commuism fell because its what I call a High Ideology. A High Ideology is a worldview that is all encompassing and demands that it alone is the entire possessor of truth and has the answers to all questions. Anarchism and theocracy are also High Ideologies. High Ideologies only work if everybody in society believes in them and works towards its goals. This is not going to happen. Ever. Working political systems are those that could withstand the fact that people are going to disagree a lot about everything.Report

  8. As a general rule of thumb, as the society gets richer and more complex, the group will increase the number of things where it decides to establish “a floor under outcomes.” The US decided a long time ago that primary and secondary education were necessary, and established a socialist system for same. Ditto income support for retirement, and medical care for the poor and elderly. Post-secondary education was on that path, but we seem to be retreating from that (eg, I could get a decent bachelors degree at a public university without going into debt through a combination of scholarships, work, and a bit of help from my parents; my children required a lot more help from their parents to accomplish the same). The premise behind the Bell System and various rate-setting strategies was to make phone service cheap enough that almost everyone could have access on at least a limited basis (think party lines, pay phones). We took steps to assure that if you could afford a radio or television set, there would be content for you.Report

  9. Avatar Damon says:

    “The explanation for this on the Right is that this is ‘takers gonna take,’ but this is clearly not the case.”

    I disagree. Allow me to expand. Don’t forget to include those in power making decisions to get themselves re-elected, the bureaucrats working to expand their scope and power, and those who think people need to be “fixed” by keeping them from smoking, drinking, etc. Once people realized that they could, through gov’t and politics, enforce their will onto others, for what ever reason, they did, and they will continue to do so until enough people get fed up and rebel.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

      The cynicism in this comment is way too high. There were a few politicians that embraced the welfare state for largely cynical reason. Hi, Bismarck. However, most advocates of the welfare state whether they be ordinary people or politicans actually believe its a good idea though. People have been protecting each other from the vagaries of life before we were even homo sapiens. Its a very old instinct. As society grew more complex and wealthier during the 19th century, lots of people decided that we needed an arrangement a more formal and comprehensive arrangment of this principle. The welfare state was the solution they came up with.

      You have a right to believe this solution was wrong but its very bad form to assume that everything politicians and civil servants do is based on nothing more than cynical self-interest rather than genuine belief. For one thing, it means that the politicians willng to vote for the harshest possible policies are the most sincere. That seems a very dark proposition to me.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think Damons dark observations are more dire than dark propositions. We are living it in 50 shades of State.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Do you believe that everybody who believes differently than you about the potential for positive government action is deluded at best and actively evil at worse?Report

      • Avatar dhex in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq

        “You have a right to believe this solution was wrong but its very bad form to assume that everything politicians and civil servants do is based on nothing more than cynical self-interest rather than genuine belief.”

        if someone said this about businesses, would you giggle or just roll your eyes?

        (you also assume genuine belief isn’t terrifying, which i would posit is one of those things political scientists call “hella eroneous, bro”.)Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I believe people invest in the brand of government that appeals to their comfort. If it leads to deluded or evil ends, it would be prudent to take note of the “bugs” that got it there.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        dhex, depends on the type of business. ;). No, I would not roll my eyes if somebody said this about business or political points of view that I disagree with. Most people have varied motives for their actions. People go into business for the purpose of making money, actual interest in whatever industry they are in, and a belief that they might be doing some good in the world by their activities.Report

      • Avatar Damon in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @leeesq
        “You have a right to believe this solution was wrong but its very bad form to assume that everything politicians and civil servants do is based on nothing more than cynical self-interest rather than genuine belief.”

        All human activity is based upon self interest. There’s a reason certain people become politicians. They are the type of people who are capable and willing to lie directly to a person’s face. As for ‘crats, the first order is to expand the scope. The mission comes second. Both these processes are easily observable in the real world. How many times have you seen a story about a new congrescritter who goes to washington vowing to make changes and who will only run for a few terms and ends up staying for a much longer….Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to LeeEsq says:

        All human activity is based upon self interest.

        Not really true, Damon. Granted that humans are self-interested critters, and our actions are predominantly driven by self-interest, but because of our social nature there is also a true strain of other-interestedness, or pro-sociality. And to the extent that other-interestedness derives at least in part as an element of inclusive fitness, it’s really our gene’s self-interest, not our own as the collective embodiment of those genes.

        But it’s not certain that it’s all even inclusive fitness. Check out this talk by Frans de Waal, and pay attention to the chart when he’s talking about pro-sociality.

        Self-interest is obviously an exceptionally important characteristic of humans, and we’ll predict behavior correctly more often if we always assume self-interest than if we always assume other-interestedness. But it’s important not to go overboard and assume self-interestedness is actually the totality of human behavior.

        Or put another way, Ayn Rand’s vision of human nature was scientifically inaccurate.Report

      • Avatar Citizen in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I think this sells Ayn Rand a little short. If I understand her main theme was that the achievements/success of individuals should be celebrated more. Otherwise we could end in a striped collective foraging honey for the queen.

        Also it is important to acknowledge the direct observation (line of sight) of one primate to the need of another for pro-socialism to occur. The fact that they didn’t choose the pro-social choice when the second party was not present. That is the reason I see socialism as doomed when the line of sight is broken.Report

  10. Avatar Roger says:

    Interesting comment and question, Tod.

    My first thought is to wonder if perhaps we are distorting the analogy of the invisible hand. The idea is that with properly designed institutions (markets) the self interested pursuits of the members is channeled into socially benevolent directions — Steve Jobs gets rich out of self interest but in order to do according to the rules of the game he creates better technological tools for the rest of us. Personal interest leads to social gains.

    I think it would be correct to say a similar invisible hand works in sports (players play better for themselves and thus lead to fan enjoyment), and in science (scientists seek status by discovering or explaining natural phenomena to others’ benefit).

    Certainly I agree that voters care about fellow humans. But this is not an invisible hand phenomena. It is the intention of their voting for it. No?

    In summary, I would say safety nets are an emergent property of societies as they get wealthier. The invisible hand concept is a sub class of emergent properties. I would not say voting for safety nets is an invisible hand phenomenon though.

    Side note… I would say another important distinction is between voluntary behavior and imposed behavior. Charity is an example of a safety net that is voluntary. People voting or regulators requiring that others pay for safety nets is an example of the imposed variety.

    Tying the two together, I guess we could stretch and say that people vote for others to fund safety nets and in so doing tie themselves to funding it. Does seem a metaphorical stretch though. Hmmm?Report

    • Avatar zic in reply to Roger says:

      As a society, we’ve evolved what you’re calling involuntary charity because voluntary charity has a nasty habit of discriminating and leaving many of the most-needy outside its safety net.

      But there is a flip side here — and it’s community investment; your involuntary charity is, to me, an investment in community, a community-driven way to help people have access to opportunity of some minimal descent life.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to zic says:

        Even if voluntary charity did not want to discriminate, it has to because of limited means. There is never enough money, time, or people for everybody that needs help. In an emergency situation that could result in dire consequences. Government seems slow but it can get money and move faster when necessary.Report

      • Avatar Roger in reply to zic says:

        I didn’t actually mean to argue against imposed safety nets.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to zic says:

        Thanks, @roger

        I don’t mean to argue, either.

        But I do mean to be a booster for community investment. This may be an example. From Andrew Sprung, disability roles in AK going down because people are able to get health insurance through ACA, and so don’t need to go on disability, which they did, because they could not afford insurance. The medicaid health-insurance expansion costs a lot less than full disability payments, and the people can keep working as they are able.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Roger says:

      I think it would be correct to say a similar invisible hand works in sports

      In some cases. Relief pitchers are used inefficiently because the best-paid ones are closers, who are judged by saves, so the best one pitches primarily in one situation: his team is ahead by 3 runs or fewer in the ninth inning, rather than in the most important relief situation (e.g. the 8th if that’s when the heart of the order is up.) Changing or doing away with the save rule would help this situation considerably.Report

  11. Avatar Kolohe says:

    The run of industrial social democracy has been relatively short compared to human history (for many countries, only starting within living memory), and it’s not entirely clear it will survive the shift to a post-industrial economy that also includes a demographic age inversion (from the pattern most common in human history).

    I’d like it to, though.Report

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