Yascha Mounk and Rutger Bregman discuss human nature and its implications for contemporary politics.
No sooner did I finish listening than I bought Rutger Bregman’s latest book and spent the last three hours reading. It does not disappoint. Mounk and Bregman’s discussion is equally fascinating.
They hold similar views and understand each other well. Bregman, who considers himself a realistic utopian, does quite a good job of defending his views when challenged by Mounk. And at least once the idealist tables were turned when Bergman declared he had almost no faith in the existence of free will. (I think, paradoxically, they were both right.)
Bergman has tackled a puzzle that mystifies me more than any other. How can humans be both so horrible and so wonderful? His goal in answering this question is to develop a theory of how the good side can finally win out. He may not have the full answer, but I think he’s assembled more pieces of the puzzle, and put more of them together, than anyone else I’ve read.
In a nutshell, he sees most human evil arising from good intentions — friendship in particular. “If there is any one characteristic that terrorists share, … they yearn to be seen and want to do right by their families and friends.” That’s a clue to the horrible/wonderful puzzle. And as to how to reach utopia, understand this Enlightenment mistake: “‘It is, therefore, a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: though [that maxim] is false in fact.’
So Bergman advocates that we stop building institutions that assume “every man a knave.” And he has some great examples from Norway (not in the podcast) that demonstrate his point.
The podcast doesn’t apply much of this to US politics, although I see much of it as very helpful in understanding both Trump’s base and the extreme left.
One application to the US that totally surprised me was based on new information about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he says was “basically a hoax.” The purpose was to convince people that prisons do not rehabilitate so they should be abolished. But the unfortunate consequence was that people became convinced to lock ‘em up and throw away the key. You can hear this starting at minute 48:00.
Altogether, I think this podcast gets to the roots of the social science that we need to apply to our political dilemma better than anything else I’ve seen or read on Persuasion.
It would be great if Yascha could bring on someone from the conservative side to represent the counter-argument - namely that human nature is essentially fallen and fixed. Certainly some of Yascha's friends from the Dispatch (either Jonah Goldberg or David French) would be more than capable of the task.
As an adherent of the conservative position myself, I find it less pessimistic than Bregman does, essentially:
1. To the extent that we find peace and good in the world, we should think of it as a precious inheritance to be protected for future generations.
2. There is no "arc of history" that guarantees good outcomes - these are the result of individual agency.
3. State of nature reasoning is of limited use for determining the structure of a just society on its own; a more empirical approach is required. Efforts to radically change to society to fit a pre-conceived notion of the good should be viewed skeptically, especially if untried.
On that last point, I worry that Bregman is not too many steps removed (philosophically) from the kind of consequentialist leftism that brought us some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. His ending remarks on "mobilization" in particular were concerning.