Note — May 10, 2020

Brace Yourself for the Most Dangerous Idea yet: Most People Are Pretty Decent

Rutger Bregman (historian, author, utopian, caller-out of Davosians) has a new book coming out in a few weeks. To introduce his main thesis—that most people are pretty decent—he looks at the history and ideas of Peter Kropotkin as well as Huxley, Darwin, and social darwinism to reflect on why so many of us think people are egotistical jerks when really, people usually help each other out and are basically decent.

Kropotkin was far ahead of his time. He rejected both authoritarian communism and the iron cage of capitalism. He believed in the power of the individual, but equally that we can’t survive without each other. […]

Even today, reams of legislation are written from an assumption that most people are rotten. This assumption is constantly treated as biological fact, when nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Too many economists and politicians model society on the perpetual struggle they believe exists in nature, but which is a mere projection,’ observes biologist Frans de Waal. ‘What we need is a complete overhaul of assumptions about human nature.’ […]

Kropotkin knew that nature has its share of selfishness, struggle, and violence. But he also understood that the Social Darwinists were blind to something even bigger: mutual aid. Since his book, a tremendous body of scientific literature has emerged on altruism and kindness in humans and animals alike. […]

What would happen if we turned this around? What if schools, businesses, and governments assumed that most people are doing their best? What if we rallied round our tendency to trust and cooperate – a tendency with every bit as much of an evolutionary basis, over hundreds of millions of years?