A less than perfect human nature

A Division by Zer0 explains why he thinks that human nature would not be a stumbling block for proper communism. I think he's viewing human nature with overly rose-colored glasses, and I was going to comment on his post, but my comment was getting a bit too long that I'm writing my remarks here.


Even in ancient times, it seems that humans weren't exemplars of cooperation, even though resources were freely shared. Anthropologists studying primitive cultures were surprised at the extremely high murder rate among males within a tribe, reaching something like 20%, which is a poor indicator of harmonious cooperation. And that's ignoring what they do to other tribes. At least that's what I read in Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, a book about human evolution, even though I might be incorrectly recalling the statistic. Even chimpanzees, a much more distant relation than our own ancestors, can get violently competitive with each other. (It may have been better if humans were more like bonobos who solve every problem through sex ...)

There's also the experimental fact that I myself have a healthy amount of laziness and a modicum of greed. And considering that I'm one of the less greedy people around me, that bodes ill for a restraint on greed for the average human nature. And of course, there's the depressingly large proportion of the human population that prefers dogma over reason ...

For communism, there are also the problems that not all things are created equal and not all jobs are equally attractive. Better quality products take more resources to build than those with poorer quality. Should there be only one single product line for any class of items? If not, who gets the better products and who gets the worse ones? Who gets to decide, and how will they decide? This sounds suspiciously like economics becoming politics. Then again, politics is a major factor on how money and resources go around, and vice versa.

There are also the essential jobs that must be done, but almost no one wants to do without some compensation. No doubt that for any job there will be people who would love to do it, but I'm pretty sure that there are far too few people who like jobs such as handling human waste. Without private compensation in some form, not enough people might be willing to do many of these essential jobs. It's hardly an insurmountable problem for communism, of course, with workarounds such as mandatory service similar to the two to three years of military service required in some countries. This does run into a converse problem of who gets what job, but it might be better than the exploitation that occurs in many countries, where people do horrible jobs with very little compensation because the other choice would be starvation.

Does this mean that I think human nature will doom any attempt at communism? Hardly. I'm rather uneasy about the vagueness of how allocation should be handled: in capitalism, resource allocation is decentralized and self-organizing, but I'm always confused about how it's supposed to work in communism. But this could be chalked up to my ignorance. Otherwise, I don't have a really strong opinion about communism.

On the other hand, I do have a rather strong opinion that an attempt at communism through violent revolution is doomed to failure. I blame history for this position. It might be arguable whether the Soviet Union or China were really communist, but they're certainly the most visible examples that ended up bad. On yet the third hand, Western nations with more socialistic policies seem to have a higher average standard of living than other Western nations. Admittedly, I'm basing this on the very small sample of the United States and the Scandinavian countries. I might also be confusing cause and effect.

If there were no scarcity of resources and all the unpleasant jobs were mechanized, I could easily see communism working out quite well. But with explosive population growth outstripping the availability of resources and a rate of automation that is still very low, I could also easily see how impractical communism might be as applied to the whole world, although I'm much less sure about it as applied to individual nations. Things might be different with much more advanced technology and population growth back under control: perhaps Karl Marx was just several centuries before his time.

78 Replies to “A less than perfect human nature”

  1. Of course it can! Capitalists are people, too! And if everyone were to be as good-hearted as you want them to be, they'll help people out of the goodness of their hearts. It's because there are enough black-hearted people that competition grows increasingly cutthroat, and unfortunately these same black-hearted people could bring a communistic society down, too.

  2. I never said that they were noble savages. I simply said that they used cooperation far more than they used competition.

    I'm going to read the article when I can

  3. You have to admit though, over time we have improved within societies that can meet the needs of their people better. Not so much in societies that cannot. Which I think is a perfect example of how people would act when their needs are fully met.

  4. OK, that's fine with me. Your writings does have the tendency to paint it that way, probably unintentionally as you're just trying to compare it with communism. I just don't think any "pure" system such as pure capitalism or pure communism would be practical or desirable. But maybe I'll change my mind after I read the leaflet and a few other references. :)

  5. I'm sorry that I can't take you at your word. Pure free market enthusiasts say the same things about capitalism, and I can't take them at their word, either. All I can say is that I'm annoyed at anyone who condemns capitalism or communism as pure evil, and in the same vein I'm also annoyed at anyone who has a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of capitalism or communism.

  6. Past and present humans don't paint an especially rosy picture of human nature, so they're not convincing as the basis for an argument for a better human nature tomorrow.

    It's never happened before, therefore it cannot happen in the future? That's an argument against all progress.

  7. And I'm saying that it's far from the case. There was plenty of cooperation and competition, not significantly different from today.

  8. I don't see db0 saying that reason and cooperation will prevail. I see him saying that they can prevail; perhaps that they must prevail if we are to survive.

    The fact that there have been no large-scale and free communistic society means that I can't entirely put aside the thought that some little detail might make pure communism entirely impractical.

    The only way to meet that objection is to actually try communism on a large scale, an experiment I would be happy to participate in. Would you?

  9. I'm a conservative person in the sense that I prefer small changes compared to revolutionary ones. Which means I wouldn't adjust well and probably would drag down any such experiment, considering I'd have to move someplace completely new and find something new to do. ^_^;;

    I wouldn't mind forgoing the use of money or private property, though. :)

    Funny thought, though: My attitude towards communism is similar to my attitude towards string theory. Both lack experimental verification (with the latter lacking any at all), so I have a skeptical attitude towards both of them. But I'm much more sympathetic to communism, which doesn't seem to get so much mainstream support, compared to string theory, which has a virtual monopoly in theoretical physics. Must be my leanings towards underdogs ...

  10. Maybe the time is not yet right for communism due to scarce resources and low level of technology, or maybe it's getting even further as population growth is currently outstripping everything else.

    Resources are not scarce; our technology is quite advanced; and the Earth can -- intelligently managed -- support an order of magnitude more people than currently exist.

    The only thing stopping us from managing our economics and politics humanistically, sensibly, rationally and intentionally is the reluctance of humanistic, sensible, rational people to intentionally manage our economics and politics.

    1. Well, I think we'll just have to disagree here, since I think resources are becoming increasingly scarce per capita, with technology currently not quite keeping up to compensate. One example being adequate water supplies ...

  11. Oh Capitalism is not true evil. Just a very flawed system that was a necessary step towards the next one. As slavery was necessary for feudalism which was necessary for capitalism.

    But I'm afraid that I simply do not have time to explain the whole theory to you, especially when I'm still learning the fine details myself. The only thing I can hope is that I gave you an incentive to investigate yourself. Even introductory leaflets like How Marxism Works are be much more in-depth than my series of posts

  12. Maybe I misunderstood what db0 was saying a bit, then. I might not have gone and written this post if he didn't argue part of it from an idyllic view of the ancient past, I might have agreed to a large degree, in fact.

  13. No, I'm just saying that to use them as a basis for argument is rather weak. When the argument is that because the past was good, so the future can be good, too, it kind of stabs itself in the back when the past wasn't actually so good ...

  14. That's not a cop out, it's invalid reasoning. "The exception that proves the rule" is valid only in some esoteric legal contexts. Otherwise, an exception *falsifies* a rule.

  15. But the precise composition of human nature is not an argument. Rather we can identify what really is good in human psychology, and build on that. And, again, socialism does not depend on *eliminating* what is bad in human psychology, but rather *managing* it... just like we currently manage many of our less-than-desirable psychological traits.

  16. There are only two resources that really matter: Human labor and energy. More people = more labor, and the sun is giving us plenty of energy.

    The point is to allocate our labor not on the basis of *profit*, but on the basis of social utility. All "scarcity" is caused by correct resource management not being profitiable in a capitalistic context.

  17. More people means requiring more food, water, etc. This in turn means needing more raw resources such as freshwater sources or spending a great deal of energy to obtain them from other resources

    Exactly. So all that matter is human labour and energy. We have plenty of human labour that is wasted on things like the government, the army and random crap of the day (trends, useless gadgets etc). If we turn this labour to energy production, then we can resolve the scarcity problem.
    The problem is that doing that under a capitalist system is not profitable. Poor people can't pay so there's no way capitalism can cater to them.

    PS: Can you edit your stylesheet and add some special styling to blockquotes to tell them appart?

  18. Like I said, using a false view of the past and present to justify a future is not a good argument. That is all I'm saying: I am not saying anything about whether human nature can or cannot improve in the future.

  19. More people means requiring more food, water, etc. This in turn means needing more raw resources such as freshwater sources or spending a great deal of energy to obtain them from other resources. And much of the raw resources are becoming alarmingly scarce with the increasing population, and current technology is not yet advanced enough to get all of the required energy and resources with little enough effort and supporting resources.

    Capitalism might be responsible for an uneven distribution of products. But it's a worrying trend that the amount of resource available per capita is continuing to dwindle, and this has nothing to do with capitalism per se. It's not just that the average amount of resources available to each person is decreasing, but the total amount in the entire world has been decreasing as well for some resources, ironically but not so surprisingly due to the increased demand from population growth.

  20. While I don't really consider it a serious possibility, I can't entirely suppress the nagging in the back of my head that whatever mechanism is used to allocate resources based on social utility may as well end up with any legalistic measure of "social utility" being essentially the same as what money and profit are now.

  21. To make efficient use of human labor and to get a lot of energy, we need a whole lot more than just human labor and energy we have. And I have grave doubts that humans will focus their energies on higher-priority projects without a great deal of coercion. No one is forcing anyone to spend so much effort on so much useless crap, but people still do so (not to mention that one person's useless crap could be another person's meaning of life).

    (I'll try to work on the blockquote appearance when I get the time.)

  22. On a completely separate tangent:

    There are only two resources that really matter: Human labor and energy.

    This reminds me of Sid Meyer's great game Alpha Centauri. :D

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