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Your Theory of Human Nature Predicts Your Policies

2014 March 12
by Ian Welsh

Conservatives were right when they said that ideas have consequences.

What you believe, what we believe, determines much of how we act.

Every economic theory, every political theory, is ultimately a theory about human nature.

If you believe that humans are selfish and greedy, you will believe that the best way to get them to do what you want is through monetary incentives and you will provide those incentives. This includes, in the modern context, not taxing people, because taxes are seen as reducing the incentive to work.

Combine this with a belief that the system is meritocratic, that those who have more money have it because they deserve it and are “value creators” and “job creators” and you logically should reduce high-end taxes, because the most productive people in the economy should not be discouraged from working more.

You come to this web site, and you may think that these ideas are mistaken at best, and more likely ludicrous.

They are widely held. Every time someone attacks a rich person, some fool can be counted on to pipe up and say: “He earned that money, he should keep it!”

Ideas have consequences.

Economic ideas, have consequences. Your conception of human nature determines your economic philosophy, and that economic philosophy will have an effect on actual policy. If you believe, as did those who lived through the Roaring ’20s and the Great Depression, that markets do not distribute goods or wealth fairly, or to those who deserve them, or in a way that is either sustainable or wise, you will make different policy decisions. You will tax high incomes at 90 percent or so, you will engage in policies which distribute income, you will work to keep wages and prices high, you will implement a safety net, and so on.

If you believe that human personality and abilities are not the result of some sort of metaphysical willpower, but a matter of genetic Russian roulette and upbringing, neither of which anyone chooses for themselves, you will not believe that even those who genuinely do contribute more (a very distinctly different thing from “get more money”) necessarily deserve more, since there is little merit in winning the lucky sperm lottery.

The fact is this: Incentives work.

The second fact is this: Using strong incentives is usually idiocy, because they do work.

What happens with incentives is that people’s behaviour is warped by them. A normal doctor who does not get paid more per test he orders, orders fewer tests. A doctor who owns the facility which does the testing, does more tests. Management has a saying: “What gets measured, gets managed”. Yeah—and nothing else does.

Paying people enough, and trusting their own judgment about what is important, tends to produce better results, because then people don’t ignore everything else to leap for the incentives and to meet the measurements some doofus is managing. And they don’t go out of their way to manipulate the measurements, which is what happens when reward and punishment are linked to metrics.

But saying “trust people” comes from another model of human nature, one which says, “Most people will do the right thing–as long as they’re not given a good reason to do the wrong thing.” (This doesn’t mean all people will, just most people.)

The bigger problem is the push towards tying all human behaviour into one rule. “We just want to spread our genes.” “Everyone looks out for number one first.” “Everyone is selfish and greedy.” “Humans are inherently sinful due to the fall.” “Everyone seeks to increase their power.”

No. Humans have multiple drives, and how much of what drive is expressed in each of us is different and changes based on the context. Put people in a world where people are cruel to them, and they will become cruel. Put them in a world where people are kind, and most of them will become kind.

None of us is just one thing; each of us changes and changes quickly, from day to day, year to year, sometimes even minute to minute. We are capable of expressing cruelty sufficient to make demons weep and kindness that would awe an angel. Which we will do and when, depends so much on who we believe we are, how we are treated, and what we are told our nature is.

If we want the better angels of our nature to soar, we have to admit that they exist. If we insist that we are all devils, all selfish bastards, we will build our societies based on that expectation, and we will make our prophecies come true.


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22 Responses
  1. Chris Bonner permalink
    March 12, 2014

    Another good one. Just the smallest bit of compassion and introspection could radically transform this world. But what is the treatment for a sick culture?

  2. Compound F permalink
    March 12, 2014

    “Humans have multiple drives.” How long did it take one of the most perspicacious commentators to say it out loud? Too long. Shoulda been Slide One in the Powerpoint. I don’t mean to offend; just saying. But you finally said it, the core truth, behaviorally & politically.

    I knew you’d make good. I mean, really good, on everyone’s behalf.

    There’s a glimmer of hope.

  3. Dan H permalink
    March 12, 2014

    You damn, silly, sensible bastard.

  4. nihil obstet permalink
    March 12, 2014

    Adam Curtis did a good three-part documentary on the ill effects of a simplistic definition of human beings as simply self-seeking called The Trap available here.

    A lot of the appeal of the self-seeking economic doctrines in America comes from the way they justify hierarchy while retaining language about freedom and equality. Whether it’s based on upbringing or something innate in the personality, some people prefer life in a stable hierarchy over life among equals, but supposedly America’s the greatest country evah because here “all men are created equal.”

  5. Bernard permalink
    March 12, 2014

    lol, the category is “how to think”. that’s kind of pushing it here in America. Thinking is severely curtailed and rarely exercised, unless the thinking is to the “right” way of thinking. idiot nation.

    presupposing Americans know how to think, much less do think. lol
    kind of like Wall E movie. the Daddy party is what America is. The Father Knows Best Way, as a counter to the upheavals of the ’60s.

    really a good laugh when i saw that “how to think” category. America’s exceptionalism is taking the world with it down the tubes.

  6. EmilianoZ permalink
    March 12, 2014

    If you believe in absolute determinism (no free will, libre arbitre, Willensfreiheit), then not much in our society makes sense. Prisons should not exist. Even the Goldman Sachs banksters are not responsible for their actions.

    Sartre (who is supposed to be behind “you are what you do” quoted here not long ago) believed in some free will. It’s even a cornerstone of his philosophy.

  7. cripes permalink
    March 12, 2014

    How has it come to pass that we (USA in paticular) are re-litigating and arguing competing philosophies on questions that largely were settled issues in advanced societies, including our own, until the past couple of decades? Seriously, reproductive choice, evolution (remember Scopes trial?), right to unionize, universal medical care, hell, we’re barely discussing living wage or guaranteed leave/vacation. On and on. Isn’t this all of a peice with the altruism/greed binary? Of course it’s infantile and attempting to reason with those under the thrall of Randism is like trying to reason with cargo cultists, but there it is. What gives this idiocy such power, besides the constant drone of media saturation?

  8. a skeptic permalink
    March 12, 2014

    The real difference between the left and right, philosophically, are between those who believe equality (enforced or otherwise) is a moral good and those who believe inequality is a moral good.

    Nature is unequal. Therefore hierarchy is natural, and inescapable.

    Leftism is a revolt against natural law and life itself

  9. Nat Wilson Turner permalink
    March 12, 2014

    Are you familiar with legalism? The early Chinese philosophy that the laws of the first dynasty was based on. In some ways it was productive but IMO its undoing was baked into its fundamental tenant that people are inherently evil and respond more to punishment than to reward.

  10. Marconi's Decoherer permalink
    March 12, 2014

    The first Chinese dynasty collapsed fifteen years after it was established…

  11. Nat Wilson Turner permalink
    March 12, 2014

    And the sun appears to set in the West. Do you have a point Marconi or are you just playing trivial pursuit?

    The Qin Dynasty laid down the template that the Han followed — with one big change, Confucianism replaced Legalism as the dominant theory of state although the concept of Rule of Law remained (somewhat) in effect.

  12. someofparts permalink
    March 12, 2014

    Have you ever noticed how hard it is not to think of things as static?

    I’ve heard that there have been languages that didn’t use nouns. I heard that they tended to be languages used by indigenous people.

    I’ve wondered if some of the conceptual dead ends our cultures seem to find themselves in might follow from being tied to noun based languages. The book of Genesis begins with Adam giving everything names.

    When I mentioned this to an online friend who is Abenaki, she said “It’s raining” to give me something to think about. That sentence feels like a good example of our language insisting on putting a pronoun into a thought even when it is meaningless.

  13. March 12, 2014

    So yes, someofparts!

  14. Ben permalink
    March 13, 2014

    So much Nietzsche in here . . . lovely

    And since Nietzsche is the source of the diagnosis, let’s look at him for the prognosis. How do you channel (a poor substitute for Nietzsche’s more-complex term “sublimate”) a drive?

    “[1] dodging the opportunities [for its satisfaction], [2] implant- ing regularity in the drive, [3] generating oversaturation and disgust with it, and [4] bringing about its association with an agonizing thought—like that of disgrace, evil consequences, or insulted pride—then [5] the dislocation of forces, and finally [6] general [self-] weakening and exhaustion—those are the six methods”

    1-4 are pretty self-explanatory. 5 is elaborated as “One brings about a dislocation [. . .] by imposing on oneself an especially difficult and exacting task or by subjecting oneself intentionally to a new stimulus or delight and thus diverting one’s thoughts and the play of physical forces into other channels.” 6 is akin to “destroying the village in order to save it”, depleting physical and psychic energy to the point that a drive can’t manifest itself.

    Which ones seem like good options for restraining cruelty in society at large, and especially by leaders, heads of institutions, and so on down the hierarchy (middle-managers, shift bosses, etc.) of those with authority over others?

    6 is obviously out.

    5 sounds good in theory but is hard to envision in practice:

    “It comes to the same thing if one for the time being favours another drive, gives it ample opportunity for gratification and thus makes it squander that energy otherwise available to the drive which through its vehemence has grown burdensome. Some few will no doubt also understand how to keep in check the individual drive that wanted to play the master by giving all the other drives he knows of a temporary encouragement and festival and letting them eat up all the food the tyrant wants to have for himself alone.”

    It’d be hard to encourage the exhaustion of other drives besides cruelty in people in positions of power. What would that look like?

    3 is giving oneself over to the drive with wild abandon until one becomes disgusted with it; 2 is practicing it within strict time intervals. Pretty sure we don’t want to go all “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”.

    That leaves 1 and 4.

    What would 1 look like? Structuring institutions and power structures so that there’s less opportunity available for the expression of cruelty. Strict rules on the treatment of workers; a supermajority requirement to pass a bill cutting the social safety net; etc.

    The problem with this is that it puts the cart at least even with the horse: having enough power to accomplish these things means that the elites have been subjugated to the point that their cruelty isn’t as important, the consequences less dire, as it could be. Say, as it is now.

    Which leaves 4. Disgrace, wounded pride, loss of social status. Ridicule is a good weapon, but those in power don’t hear the braying of the masses. It needs to be, as Ian constantly harps, in their faces: a look of disgust walking down the street, a degrading remark in the elevator, a refusal to adhere to the norms of politeness and civility when a powerful person who acts cruelly engages with the public.

    Act that way and the norms will change: powerful people in public will expect to endure ridicule, to anticipate gaining no pride, or have to consider a loss of status if it is known they are acting cruelly in their positions.

  15. Celsius 233 permalink
    March 13, 2014

    @ someofparts
    When I mentioned this to an online friend who is Abenaki, she said “It’s raining” to give me something to think about. That sentence feels like a good example of our language insisting on putting a pronoun into a thought even when it is meaningless.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~
    Interesting; fon tok (rain falls) is how the Thais say *it’s* raining.
    *Have you ever noticed how hard it is not to think of things as static?*
    And yes, I hadn’t looked at it exactly like that before. Krishnamurti discussed that a lot, along with effects of naming.

  16. Peter permalink
    March 14, 2014

    If we agree that a doctor who gets paid more for testing will likely, on average, order more tests (discounting the role of the tort bar), why do you assume one who doesn’t get paid more will order just the right amount? Who is this “normal” doctor you speak who seems to put his/her patients’ health above all else until incentives cause an ethical warping? There is no shortage of evidence to the effect that an absence of incentives, monetary or more dirigiste, will result in steadily declining productivity to even comical levels. Remember the old Soviet joke, “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.”? I certainly agree with you that reducing human nature to simplistic axioms distorts the political landscape, but that cuts two ways.

  17. David Kowalski permalink
    March 14, 2014

    Ideas of consequences, sure, but so do personal experiences, good and bad.

    Ronald Reagan had less accountants or tax lawyers and paid the full 91% on all his income instead of using tax shelters. Oh, my, taxes at the top need to be further, radically reduced (the maximum tax was reduced to 50% in 1976).

    Government for many years provided needed services to the people (social security, unemployment insurance, disability, rural electricity, clean water, decent education, safety, fire protection, roads). Government was a needed balance between labor and management. The stock market and banks needed to be regulated because they already screwed up before.

    Solve the problems, add in Vietnam, Watergate and right wing corporate propaganda and voila, public opinion is suddenly changed. In 1933, a right wing coup against FDR failed. In 1980, in a sense, it succeeded.

  18. Ian Welsh permalink
    March 14, 2014

    That doctors order more tests if they get paid by the test is not in question, it is a matter of fact, and a cursory Google search will show that the great worry of those who study the issue is over-testing, not under-testing. (Many tests are not risk free, even if you don’t care about the cost.)

    In fact, the evidence on incentives is mixed. In first world countries with doctors who aren’t primarily incentivized by money, health care metrics are better than in the US. Putting money into the equation in such a large way has not produced better care.

    Incentives work: but they rarely produce the behaviour a rational society would want. You can check in on what high bonuses for “performance” did on Wall Street–and to the world.

  19. Peter permalink
    March 15, 2014

    Thanks. I’m not questioning that incentives work, nor that they can warp results at times. I’m not sure medical care is the best example because there are other factors at play like vocational ideals, fear of lawsuits, the deification of preventative medicine and the “keep the machine humming” approach to modern medicine. My quibble with you is that your argument that incentives don’t work or work well can be met with the rejoinder that neither does an absence of incentives. To claim that “most people will do the right thing if not given a good reason not to.” is not very far from “most people will do nothing if not given a good reason to.”

  20. March 15, 2014

    “We are capable of expressing cruelty sufficient to make demons weep; and kindness that would awe an angel but which we will do and when, depends so much on what who we believe we are, how we are treated and what we are told our nature is.”

    This follows the same line Ian Haney Lopez uses in his book “Dog Whistle Politics of Race”

    “Most racists are good people. They’re not sick. They’re not ruled by anger or raw emotion or hatred. They are complicated people reared in complicated societies. They’re fully capable of generosities, of empathy, of real kindness. But, because of the idea systems they are reared in they’re also capable of dehumanizing others and occasionally of brutal violence” – Ian Haney López on the Dog Whistle Politics of Race

  21. Panos permalink
    March 15, 2014

    ‘if we want the better angels of our nature to soar, we have to admit that they exist’

    much truth in this – as in this one as well :

    ‘si vis pacem, para bellum’

    balancing acts

  22. Panos permalink
    March 15, 2014

    Incentives work. I think most of the time they do. the real question though is that it is not always possible to design them in such a way as to produce the desired outcomes while avoiding the unintended consequences which may replace one problem with another that is worse. Incentives -just a tool – are also subject to abuse like most things (Wall St. bonuses). sorry this leads me to my other favourite ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ boils down to that.

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