I first heard Bregman’s name in 2019 when he participated in a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. He made news by proceeding to criticise the businesspeople in the audience for purporting to care about the world economy and the plight of the poor while carefully avoiding any mention of taxation. Bregman, a Dutch historian, was quoted as saying “It feels like I’m at a firefighters’ conference and no one is allowed to speak about water.”
Bregman has a new book out, titled Humankind, in which he argues that the common belief that humans are hard-wired for selfishness is wrong. Asked about the book, he explained his departure from conventional understandings of human nature.
The old fashioned “realist” position has been to assume that civilization is only a thin veneer, and that the moment there’s a crisis we reveal our true selves, and it turns out that we’re all selfish animals. What I’m trying to do in this book is to turn this narrative around, to show that actually, over thousands of years, people have actually evolved to be friendly.
There’s always selfish behavior. There are lots of examples of people hoarding. But we’ve seen in this pandemic that the vast majority of behavior from normal citizens is actually pro-social in nature. People are willing to help their neighbors. That is the bigger picture that we’re seeing right now.
Bregman went on to compare human behavior to the the Coronavirus; both, he asserted, are contagious.
If we assume that most people are fundamentally selfish, and if we design our response to this virus with that view of human nature, then we’re going to bring that out in people. Whereas, if we assume that most people are cooperative and want to help, then we can actually inspire other people. This may sound a bit cheesy, but there’s actually a lot of psychological research that shows that acts of kindness are really contagious. They really spread throughout a social network, even influencing people who you don’t know, who you haven’t seen.
Bregman also makes a point that several others have made–that the pandemic is teaching us which professions are genuinely “essential.” Hedge fund managers aren’t on that list, but people we pay poorly–garbage collectors, nurses, grocery store clerks–are. He suggests that the experience of 2020 should teach us some lessons about who to value–and how to structure society.
In a way, his insight is an old one: we see what we expect to see.
I think everything starts with your view of human nature, because what you assume about other people is often what you get out of them. So if we assume that most people deep down are selfish and cannot be trusted, then you’ll start designing your institutions around that idea. And you’ll create exactly the kind of people that your view of human nature presupposes.
Bregman offers a fascinating example: prisons in the U.S. and Norway.
Norway basically gives prisoners the freedom to do whatever they want–to such an extent that they are often given the keys to their cells. Prisons in Norway have cinemas and libraries, and prisoners interact on a friendly basis with the guards.
Now, if you look at that, from an American perspective, you’re like, these people are totally crazy. But then if you look at it from a scientific perspective, you look at the recidivism rate, right? The odds that someone who has committed a crime commits another one once he gets out of prison. Well, the recidivism rate is very high in the U.S. – it’s one of the highest rates in the world. But it’s the lowest in Norway. So actually the “realist” prison here is the Norwegian prison, where inmates are treated like humans and as adults, whereas many American prisons where inmates are often treated as animals, as beasts. At the moment those are taxpayer funded institutions to educate people for more criminal behavior. That’s basically what they are.
Over the past several years, I have come to the conclusion that culture is the most important factor in molding human behavior, and that the primary purpose of law is the creation of cultures that promote and incentivize socially-desired behaviors and attitudes.
I think Bregman is onto something.