Human Nature, Hurricane Sandy and the 47%

By Mike Dorf

Views about human nature, broadly defined, can play an important role in shaping various people's political ideologies.  For example, old-school communists believed in the essential malleability of human nature.  Thus, Lenin and his followers sought to create a new Soviet man (and woman) who would work in collective enterprises simply because he (or she) sought the greater good for the collective.

The failure of large-scale collectivization in the Soviet Union, China and elsewhere can be taken as pretty good evidence that most human beings will not labor for their fellow human beings with nearly the same vigor as they will labor for themselves and their families.  That failure also strongly suggests that the totalitarianism that emerged in communist countries was not merely a historical accident but a necessity: In order to get people to accept collectivization, the state had to employ extreme force.  We may thus view the period from 1917 to 1991 as a kind of (un)natural experiment that established the limits of humanity's willingness to work for collective rather than individual ends.

In the democratic world, the political right has long used the failures and atrocities of communism as an argument for resisting any project that smacked of collectivism.  The description of President Obama and the Affordable Care Act as "socialist" is only the latest version of such over-reading of the evidence.  To those of us who see Obama as a centrist along the lines of Richard Nixon (who was a red-baiter himself), these accusations can seem lunatic.  But if one begins with the view that even modest collectivizing projects are inherently doomed, one can end up in such a place sincerely.

To say that people sincerely believe that, say, Social Security is simply a small step on the road that leads to the Gulag, is not to say that those sincere beliefs are at all reasonable.  After all, during much of the same period in which communism was failing in eastern Europe and Asia, social democracy succeeded in western Europe.  That experience established that human beings will accept fairly high rates of taxation and government intervention in the economy in order to further the greater good.  To be sure, many European countries have scaled back their welfare states in recent years, but not because of widespread domestic resistance that tells us anything about human nature.

Accordingly, one might think that human nature sets only loose bounds on the degree to which people will accept the legitimacy of government programs that aim to improve the lot of the whole society.  That is my view, and I suspect it is the view of other progressives who regret that the U.S. never developed a social welfare state comparable to what developed in western Europe.

What about the American right?  They oppose expansion of the welfare state on a variety of grounds.  Some people on the right are economic libertarians on Lockean moral grounds.  People have a right to the products of their labor, such Lockean libertarians think, and so redistribution is presumptively (or conclusively) illegitimate.  Alternatively (or additionally), one might worry that too much redistribution of the pie will lead to a smaller pie.  I  think that economic conservatives in the U.S. set the threshold for economic-growth-killing redistribution too low, but the point is correct in principle.  At some point, redistribution becomes counterproductive.  Put differently, the Laffer curve is right in theory, but Laffer and his followers misplaced its peak too far to the left.

The Lockean grounds for opposing expansion of the welfare state do not rest on any particular view about human nature.  However, the worry about the size of the pie is connected to a view about human nature.  Conservatives think that people's selfish instincts--their unwillingness to give up the products of their labors for the greater good--kick in at a lower threshold than progressives think they kick in.

And yet there is at least an apparent tension within the conservative worry about human nature.  On the one hand, conservatives believe that the selfishness of human beings limits the ability of government to enlist people in collective projects.  On the other hand, conservatives want to rely on other-regarding voluntarism to mitigate life's misfortunes.

Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath illustrate the tension.  Natural disasters bring out the best, and worst, in people.  We have seen heroic self-sacrifice by government-employed first responders and private citizens.  We have also seen instances of purely opportunistic looting and violence occasioned by shortages.   Which impulses dominate will depend on a host of factors, including: individual morality; social norms; effectiveness of the response by government and private charities; effectiveness of law enforcement; etc.  Thus, what we might call "human nature" in such circumstances is a generalization that agglomerates numerous factors.

Many conservatives have nonetheless taken the view that human nature places serious limits on the capacity of  people to respect one another's interests.  For that reason, traditional conservatives are law-and-order conservatives.  We need police to ensure that greedy have-nots do not resort to violence to appropriate what belongs to the haves.  Thus, a traditional conservative would certainly favor a robust armed response by the state in the wake of a natural disaster and at other times as well.

What would a conservative say about aiding people affected by natural disasters and other misfortunes?  We don't really need to speculate because we have plenty of evidence.  From George H.W. Bush promoting his "thousand points of light" through (the severely conservative Republican-primaries version of) Mitt Romney blasting spending on FEMA as immoral, we see skepticism of the efficacy and legitimacy of government-organized responses to human misery.

But if human beings' inherent selfishness accounts for their unwillingness to submit to collectivization, then why wouldn't their inherent selfishness also prevent them from volunteering sufficient resources to deal with the worst of our social problems?  One answer might be that it does, but that conservatives don't care about others' misfortunes.  We saw some of that in the ugly sentiment expressed by libertarians opposed to Obamacare: Let 'em die!  Still, that was never a majority sentiment, even among conservatives.

Another possibility is that there's no tension here because conservatives tend to favor small government on Lockean grounds rather than on the human-nature grounds I'm describing.  I think that's probably true of some but not all conservatives.

So what about the remaining core of conservatives who do take a relatively dark view of human nature but nonetheless say that volunteerism can address misfortune?  Are they simply contradicting themselves?  I don't think so.

I would attribute to this residual group of conservatives a more subtle view of human nature.  I would attribute to them the view that some human beings are inherently selfish, while others are more charitable.  The view that we can rely on churches, non-profits and individual volunteerism to respond to natural disasters does not depend on the assumption that everybody is an altruist; it depends instead on the assumption that enough people are compassionate that they will look out for their less fortunate fellows, even as some substantial portion of the population will become looters.  This view fits well with Mitt Romney's view that 47% of the country are moochers, and with the longstanding efforts of politicians (of both parties) to distinguish between the "deserving" poor and the "undeserving" poor.

How does that view differ from the progressive view?  I would note two major differences.  First, progressives tend to regard the question of whether someone finds himself among the looters, the people simply needing help, or the volunteers, as determined as much by circumstance as by personality or values.  And second, progressives tend to think that the need for government intervention after natural disasters and in many other circumstances is mostly not a problem occasioned by people's lack of charitable impulses; the concern instead is that volunteers cannot play the coordinating and mobilizing roles that government can.

At least that's how this progressive sees things.  Although it should be clear from the foregoing that I take the progressive view, I mean these comments more as diagnostic than as critical of the conservative view.  As I hope I have indicated, I have considerable sympathy for the conservative view of human nature, at least in extremis.

Finally, don't forget to VOTE.