To my mind, many questions—especially those of a political or philosophical nature—are not really questions at all. Or rather, they can be answered in two ways—and both say, “Yes!” Here are some examples:
Is humankind good by nature? Or are we bad? Well, yes—both good and bad. You can find examples of both positive and negative actions, intentions, and outcomes within any society or group, and even within the same individual. Human nature is far too complex to be resolved as one single thing, to be placed once and for all, in every aspect, under every condition, and in every situation within a vacuum-sealed glass dome labeled either “good” or “evil.”
Shakespeare alluded to the best of humankind in Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!”
And yet, we still share the corporal and temporal dependency of the animals. We must scratch the earth for our daily bread. We must survive on our wits, plans, schemes, and inventions. To the mass of men and women nothing is given except the chemical drive of cytoplasm to organize the molecules of that bread—plus the surrounding air and water—into more cytoplasm and the inevitable byproducts of metabolism.1 For the rest of this strange reversal of entropy that we call “life,” we all must either adapt to the world we find or make up another world in our heads as we go along. And if that “noble reason” and “godlike apprehension” are occasionally reduced to theft, hoarding, and murder, well, you can chalk the result up to either a failure of moral vision or an even clearer vision that the route of survival sometimes cuts through another person’s cabbage patch and collects vegetables along the way.
Every person is a bundle of intensions, personal rules, and learned experiences warring with his or her hungers, necessities, and opportunities. The choices are never as easy or obvious as labels like “good” and “bad” would make them seem. Yes, there are good and bad actions, positive and negative intentions. And in making a choice or deciding a course of action, anyone can know or predict whether it will end up well or badly, increasing the possibility of hope and love, or summoning chaos and death. But in the summation of a single human career, looking back on a long life, very few of us can be described as wholly just, compassionate, and good, or completely depraved and evil.2
Is it natural for human beings to want to compete or to cooperate? Again, yes. As separate beings possessed of neither a hive dependency nor a hive mind, human beings have choices that are not hard-wired into their brains, as are the choices of ants or bees or even the molecular drives of the different cells composing one body.
Competition is natural when two siblings simultaneously reach for the last muffin in the basket. It is a truism of economics that available resources will always be limited and less abundant than perceived needs and wants. This is how prices are established in the marketplace: when faced with choices—fight for that muffin, divide it and share, or give it up for the emotional glow of feeling and being thought “generous”—a child quickly recalibrates the hierarchy of needs and makes a decision. When a person enters the market with a taste and desire for, say, fresh strawberries but finds that they are not in season, or that the harvest has been poor, or that other shoppers have the same desire, and so the price of strawberries is higher than he or she wants to pay, then the prudent buyer recalibrates his or her desires and either pays the price or buys blueberries or apples instead. In a situation of relative abundance and plentiful opportunities, competition is natural.
But when two people, or a family or tribal group, or even a whole society is pitted against savage nature, imminent famine, or the prospect of war, then cooperation becomes natural. The 19th-century settlers who left the relative safety, comfort, and established infrastructure of the East Coast cities to create farms and ranches out of the western wilderness, usually against the opposition of indigenous peoples, harsh and abrupt weather patterns, and unfavorable soil and water conditions, they found it better to cooperate than to compete. Out of this tradition came American oddities like the barn raising, the cattle drive, and the potluck supper. We may think of those pioneers as “rugged individualists,” but in general they survived by pooling their resources and risks, sharing their skills, and taking care of their neighbors.
Is big government a good or a bad thing? Yes, because the question is insufficient. Government as an operating principle offers many different levels and functions in a society. Some are easily applied, pursued, and achieved, while others are more difficult. The aims and uses of government are not black or white but a vast sea of gray.
These days, people on the left side of the aisle speak and act as if more government is always better, as if government is the obvious answer to every problem, and that the political sphere is composed of the bright, solid, assured thing that is government action opposing the howling void of conditions which were not created or maintained by that government. In the same way, people on the right side of the aisle speak and act as if government is best taken in small and harmless doses, and that left to its own devices a government is some kind of tumor on the body politic, strangling trade and invention, enforcing conformity and mediocrity, and turning social energy into bloat and waste.
For the left, government employees are selfless public servants who think and act for the good of society. For the right, government employees are social parasites who seek power for themselves and serve their own interests, squandering taxes and consuming bribes. And here the answer is, “No”—for reasons outlined above under the question of whether human nature is good or bad.
When we think of previous societies and civilizations, we tend to focus our thoughts on their governments because that has, traditionally, been where “history” is made: the succession of kings, the fights of nobles, the wars between empires, and so on. But even the civilizations for which we almost instinctively substitute the ruling class for society as a whole—think of ancient Egypt or Rome, whose governments seemed to be all powerful—had their merchant and warrior classes, their farmers, their groups and guilds of masons, artists, scribes, physicians, and other productive people.
These classes and groups might have obeyed the laws and regulations set down by the pharaoh in Thebes or the emperor and senate in Rome. They might have paid taxes and bribes to local public officials. They might have interrupted their lives to fight in the king’s wars. But they farmed, traded, built, or otherwise plied their trade with other people on an individual basis. Even the pharaoh’s pyramid was built by independent work gangs—not government-owned slaves—who might be considered the equivalent of today’s independent contractors. Even the monolithic Roman Empire was divided into gentes, or families of like name, and then into various nations and colonies, and the districts of Rome itself sprouted their own “colleges,” resembling local fraternities or buyers clubs, which provided members with food, services, and protection.
No modern, complex, nation-spanning society has ever managed to achieve pure socialism, with total government control of production and distribution of all goods and services, along with the more traditional governmental role of providing for the common defense, securing the borders, and building the infrastructure of roads and bridges, water and wastewater channels, police and fire services, and other necessities usually held in common. And no society has ever managed to provide those commonly held goods and services, or arranged for national defense and control of the borders, purely through private enterprise. For one thing, the web of private service contracts, individual terms and conditions,3 and accounting and billing systems would be practically insupportable.
Is free-market capitalism a good or bad thing? Yes—but depending on how it’s applied and what rules govern it. No human, social function can operate without rules, whether they are written into law or simply accepted as societal norms. Every society depends on an understanding among its members—usually learned at school, on the playground, and from the spoken and observed attitudes of parents and teachers—of what is right, fair, just, and proper. Every child learns, and every adult remembers, what behaviors are appropriate and honorable, and what activities are considered to be false and reprehensible.
In principle, markets are simply the open exchange of goods and services for some species of value, such as coin or other goods and services offered in return. And capitalism is simply the way a group of individuals can share the costs, responsibilities, and risks of organizing to provide a greater amount of goods and services—or more complex goods and services—than any one of them could provide through his or her own resources and actions.
These things are necessary for any group of human beings to rise above the level of hunter-gatherer existence, where every member is known to and trusted by every other member. Hunter-gatherers practice a pure form of socialism, where all goods, resources, efforts, and results are shared equally.4 Like hunter-gatherer socialism, markets and capitalism are not the product of any determined philosophical analysis—expect perhaps in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations from 1776, which is more descriptive than prescriptive. As natural outgrowths of normal human activity, markets and capitalism do not descend from any “pure” form or depend on the application of a rigorous ideology. And they can be subjected to necessary rules and regulations in order to preserve those societal norms covering proper action and fair dealing. Like the human body, they are flexible—that is, until so many strictures and controls are added that, like weighted chains or a starvation diet applied to a body, the system labors, slows, and eventually collapses.
When you find dichotomies like these, questioning the ultimate nature of human existence and human interactions, which can be argued—oh, endlessly!—from both sides of the question, you can be sure that you are encountering a domain too vast for any simple answer. And then the answer is usually, “Yes!”
1. See The Real Prime Mover from February 14, 2016.
2. Although exceptions do stand out. Hitler may have been polite to visitors, nice to children and dogs, and a confirmed vegetarian, yet his hatred for whole classes of people and his crimes against humanity blacken his soul for eternity. Charles Manson might have seen himself serving some overwhelming vision of God or truth, or been living within some kind of alternate reality, and yet his madness is no excuse for his careless—that is, without due care or caution—actions and their horrific results.
3. Consider the blank check that every member of a national army or navy signs for defense of the country: to give up his or her liberty and perhaps life without counting the cost against the actual paycheck. What contractor would be bound by those conditions, no matter how the war was going? This is why mercenaries have always been adjuncts to, rather than replacements of, national military service.
4. See When Socialism Works from October 10, 2010.