I was listening to the Ezra Klein show and walking the pup. I jokingly call Ezra “my pretend internet boyfriend” because over many years of reading and listening to his stuff, I’ve developed a real admiration for the smart and careful way he thinks about complicated issues. Nonetheless, I often struggle to get myself to start one of his podcasts. I’ll look at the title, decide that I just don’t feel like engaging with the subject, and want to walk away. The thing that gets me started is the fact that usually everything in my podcast list looks like even more of a chore than whatever Ezra has on offer. So I reluctantly press play. I haven’t been sorry once.
This episode on offer was called “Are Humans Fundamentally Good?” with Rutger Bregman. As a nation we had just watched George Floyd slowly die, murdered in plain sight by three white police officers in a city I thought I knew well and imagined was better than that. There were mostly peaceful protests happening in all 50 states and around the world, and riots and looting in plenty of cities also, in many places led by white supremacists hoping to sow discord and confusion. I wanted Bregman to convince me that the violence and pain on display all around me was not necessarily who we truly are, and I was afraid he couldn’t. In short, the stakes seemed too high to listen.
Bregman was on the show in large part thanks to his new book. He had made a career discussing economic policy, but what he discovered in discussing economics is that you couldn’t agree on policy unless you could agree on human nature. The case against universal basic income, for example, rests not on data sets from when UBI has been tested and how well it has worked. It rests instead on an idea that humans are fundamentally selfish and lazy, that if you give them what they need to survive, they will lose motivation to invent, build, and thrive.
So Bregman sets out to tell a story of human nature that highlights our better selves. Drawing from biology, historical anthropology, and psychology, Bregman tells us that we are evolutionarily friendly, cooperative, social and humble. He shows that Lord of the Flies has an actual historical counter-example, he debunks the Milgram experiment, he explains how soldiers had to be conditioned to kill.
Ezra pushes back – you can easily construct a very different narrative about human nature drawing on different examples. Bregman agrees. You can, but why? The evidence for the truth about human nature isn’t conclusive in any direction. What does it gain us if we believe we’re terrible? Bregman said it simply and brilliantly, "We are the stories we tell ourselves."
Bregman is making a collective argument, but his idea also holds true at the individual level. Over time, we construct a narrative of how we are, what we’re like, why we succeed or fail. And this narrative might be based on tons of evidence, or it might be based on a sliver of evidence, but regardless, if it is your narrative it’s true for you. Your narrative helps you understand yourself, it gives you a framework for your decisions, but it also creates limitations.
The challenge is to see the story of yourself for what it is – a narrative construct – and adjust it as needed. Bregman shows that it can be done. Whatever evidence you have for your narrative, chances are good that there’s a different story that can be constructed if you care enough to find it. And it’s worth doing. Because you are the story you tell yourself.