Since World War II, America’s elite policy makers have arranged and re-arranged our political and economic relationships around an empirically false – radically false – understanding of human being and behavior.
Paradoxically, the false portrait of humankind feeds both an unwholesome worship of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerless in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe or gross economic injustice.
Its roots lie in the gloomy Hobbesian picture of unredeemable, brutish humanity and in the Enlightenment’s faith in universal reason. Twentieth Century conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and excuse the inevitable social destruction caused by unrestrained greed, simply invented new concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem essential.
It’s just one of many ironies that this authoritarian view was swallowed whole hog by so-called libertarians. It should be noted that Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, later spit out the worm he’d swallowed and repudiated his earlier work.)
The ugly, empirically false portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach pre-determined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another color in the picture, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those pre-determined ends are always selfish or self-interested.
We are, these conservatives say, rats.
As virtually every field within the human sciences has found, we are nothing like that. Because we are hard-wired for empathy, we can and do act altruistically. We seek fairness. Our selves are not isolated, but interconnected in many ways. We are competitive, but we are also cooperative. Reason and emotion are intertwined. There’s no such thing as unemotional reason. We don’t coldly follow the rules of logic in making moral decisions.
In his new book, The Fair Society, biologist Peter Corning writes:
Contrary to the stereotype about our innate selfishness and greed, most of us share a desire to live in a society where fairness is the operative norm, where everybody’s basic needs are met…where there is a robust sense of ‘reciprocity’ – a rough balancing of benefits and obligations.
Cognitive scientists like George Lakoff have been urging us to understand the new 21st Century understanding of human being and thinking. Dozens of others have made similar points. We can’t advance a progressive social vision using false assumptions disguised as unbiased scholarship, assumptions intended to forever preclude a fair, progressive, democratic society.
In her new book, Cultivating Conscience, UCLA law professor Lynn Stout demolishes the concept of “homo economicus,” the descriptive name for the lonely, selfish, hyper-rational and exclusively materialist creature invented by conservative propagandists.
That view, Stout says, “implies we are psychopaths.”
It should come as no surprise that corporations and wealthy conservative ideologues funded the multi-decade effort to convince Americans our nature is other than it is. First came the Rand Corporation. It was there that economist Kenneth Arrow articulated the so-called “rational choice” theory. Here’s how historian Alex Abella summed it up in Soldiers of Reason:
Arrow’s rational choice theory would become a mainstay of economics and political science; by the 1960s…it would redefine the foundations of public policy by assuming that self-interest defines all aspects of human activity…When applied to corporations, the theory exempted them from any social responsibility other than that owed to their shareholders…
Next came the so-called “law and economics” movement, centered mostly at the University of Chicago and spearheaded by Richard Posner, Gary Becker and others. In a nutshell, its propagandists insisted that the “rational actor” model be employed to decide legal disputes.
Such right-wing benefactors as Richard Scaiffe funded the law and economics movement with millions of dollars to the University of Chicago, the Manhattan Institute and other institutions. The funding was not intended to help a search for truth. It was intended to paint a picture of human nature that justified unbridled greed and the injustice that follows from its institutional legitimacy. There are echoes here of other authoritarian traditions that condemned the rabble to justify elite power. The religious myth about the Fall of Man, for instance, is accompanied by the assertion that only priests and pastors can save us from ourselves.
Conservative columnist David Brooks is clearly alarmed that the dark vision of humanity that fueled the conservative movement for decades is being unmasked. He is trying to fit the new, more humanistic and hopeful portrait into a scheme for more, not less, authoritarian control. In his book, The Social Animal, Brooks recommends the new human sciences be employed to shape (read: control) people’s behavior. He leaves untouched all questions about whether such control is moral.
Edwin L. Rubin, who elaborated on the “rat choice theory” mentioned above, summed up the motivations of those who invented the cruel, selfish homo economicus:
…rational choice theory and rat choice theory, when combined, provide a comprehensive argument for an unregulated market, an argument grounded in a theory of human behavior and human choices.
Just last week, philosopher John McCumber took on the rational actor model and homo economicus in the New York Times:
Whatever my preferences are, I have a better chance of realizing them if I possess wealth and power. Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!
A moral imperative for the pursuit of wealth and power, whatever the consequences for the many and for society at large. That was the goal of the confidence men who sold us a false and destructive view of our own natures. So successful were they that many progressives (and most Democrats) remain content to operate within the frames and narratives generated by the scam.
Our most important a task involves replacing the deceitful view of humankind with the new – and true – picture of cooperative, empathic and complex human being (we can, obviously, be selfish, cruel and violent – but that’s not all we are).
A society organized around the values generated by such a picture will look radically different from political and economic structures forced upon us by the greedy authoritarians who sold us a bill of goods about ourselves.