Why Humans Aren’t the Worst (Despite, Well, Everything Happening in the World)
[MUSIC PLAYING] (SINGING) When you walk in the room, do you have sway?
I’m Kara Swisher, and you’re listening to “Sway.” You probably know by now that I don’t take much crap from anyone — in fact, no crap at all. That’s why I was intrigued by today’s guest, Rutger Bregman. He’s the Dutch historian who went viral in 2019 when he called out billionaires at Davos for evading taxes. I liked that. And then he went viral again after a spat with Tucker Carlson. I liked that even more. You might think that such a person would have a pessimistic view of human nature. But you would be wrong. In his latest book, “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” Bregman argues that human beings are essentially decent. Not self-interested or terrible, but decent. This feels particularly brave on the heels of a pandemic, not to mention rampant misinformation and a wave of right-wing extremism in the U.S. and Europe. But it’s not a total surprise. Bregman also wrote a book called “Utopia for Realists,” which made the case for universal basic income and a 15-hour workweek. So I wanted to see how those could become a reality and give him a chance to persuade me that humans are decent.
Rutger Bregman, welcome to “Sway.”
Thanks for having me, Kara.
I’m going to start with the argument over human nature isn’t new. The ideas of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes have been debated for centuries. So explain what you mean by decent, which sounds sort of like a radical argument right now in this toxic waste dump we call humanity.
I think at one point while I was writing my book, I had the idea of giving it the title, “Rousseau Was Right.” So Thomas Hobbes has the idea that we —
Yeah, humans sucked, and in the state of nature, when we were still nomadic hunter gatherers, we were engaging in this war of all against all. Rousseau made the opposite argument where he said, in the state of nature, we lived lives that were actually pretty good, egalitarian, and everything went wrong when we came up with this concept called civilization. There’s this beautiful passage in his essay on the origin of inequality, where he says, you know, the first moment when someone said, this piece of land here, that’s mine, that’s when everything went wrong. And I would say that the short summary of my book is that most people deep down are pretty decent. Now that’s not necessarily the same as being an actually good person. I mean, clearly, we’re not angels. But in German, there’s this way of expressing it that I really like. They would say, we’re “im grunde gut.” Sort of in the basis, there’s something that is good within us and that we can build on.
So “decent” meaning what? What does “decent” mean, precisely?
Biologists would say is that we’ve evolved to work together. There’s actually a great book out there by Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist. And the title of that book is “Survival of the Friendliest,” which means that, for millennia, it was actually the friendliest among us who had the most kids and had the biggest chance of passing on their genes to the next generation. It’s more adaptive, right? Imagine living in the ice age. How are you going to survive? Well, you need friends. Friends are your most important insurance policy. If you get sick, if you are in tough times, they’re going to help you survive. It would have been very difficult for a narcissist or a psychopath to survive as a nomadic hunter gatherer in the ice age. With humans, it’s not about our individual brilliance. It’s about our collective brilliance. Collectively, we can do extraordinary things. Individually, we’re pretty dumb, actually. I mean, I can count to 10, which is an impressive achievement. But I couldn’t have come up with the numerical system on my own, right? So that is what we do. We built these cumulative cultures. We learn from each other.
O.K. But now, many, looking at the world today, are more of the veneer theory, which is the thin veneer of civilization and then chaos underneath the minute one thing falls out of place.
Yeah, this is really one of the oldest, maybe most influential theories in western culture, the notion that our civilization is just a thin veneer, just a thin layer, and that below that lies raw human nature, that, supposedly, deep down, we’re just selfish and maybe even monsters. You can find it among the early Christian church fathers, among the Enlightenment philosophers. Arguably, it’s at the heart of modern capitalism, you know, this notion that people are just selfish. So it comes back again, and again, and again, in left-wing versions, in right-wing form. I just think that it’s basically wrong.
But looking at the world today, it feels very veneer-y. And it feels like it took a second, one pandemic, to change the way people behave. And I think people have behaved terribly throughout this pandemic.
You think so?
Yes, I do. Yes, I do, except for the scientists who’ve worked cooperatively across the world — that’s certainly true — to create the vaccine. But in general, people fell prey to all kinds of ridiculous arguments over masks, over this, over that. How do you look at that?
What I see is a world where billions of people radically adjusted their lifestyle to stop the virus from spreading further. So I see a huge, silent majority that’s maybe not in the news every day, you know? And then, even when I look at the people on the other side, people that refuse to wear masks, or refuse to be vaccinated —
Like, for example, in Austria — let me just point out right now there’s protests over the full nationwide lockdown. In Australia. Even in the Netherlands, there were protests for the three-week partial lockdown.
Yeah, and I think it would be very unwise to look at those people and assume that they are selfish or that they’re showing a lack of solidarity. Because if you’d actually talk to them, you’ll find out that they actually have pretty strong beliefs, that they do these kind of things often out of friendship and loyalty to their own group. People are actually risking their lives by not getting vaccinated or not wearing a mask, and still they want to do it. So this is obviously one of the paradoxes that you have to look into, once you study that behavior and human evil, is the simple fact that there are very few people who are standing on the wrong side of history and are happy about it and are saying, like, yeah, I’m just standing on the wrong side of history. That’s just the place I prefer to be. No, no, no, most people actually think they’re doing the good thing. They’re on the right side of history. So you’ve got to understand why they think that.
Right. All right, so the anti-vaxxers are thinking they’re doing the right thing or —
Yes, I do think that a lot of people who have refused to be vaccinated are just very distrustful of the government. So I mean, everyone has a different story. But I think this is very important job to do as a historian, in my case, is to try and see where things come from.
So one of the things we’ve been talking about is self-interest. And I want you to address the downright brutality in human history. We have to talk, obviously, about the Holocaust. It’s hard to look at that and think humans are decent. Why doesn’t this disprove your argument?
What I wanted to do at first was to show that veneer theory, this notion that we are evil or we do evil things because we are evil, is way too simplistic or just basically wrong. But then you’re still left with the question, why do we engage in warfare and ethnic cleansing and all these kinds of horrible things? So the honest answer is that you have to start building up a very layered explanation with a lot of different ingredients. I look at the role of German soldiers during the Second World War. In 1944 and 1945, many Allied psychologists couldn’t understand why these soldiers were still fighting at the end of the war, when it was clear they were going to lose. And they assumed at first that these soldiers must be brainwashed or something like that, must be highly fanatical Nazis. But it turns out that actually what was driving them most of the time was Kameradschaft, comradeship, loyalty for their friends. And the German Army Command, they knew this. So they deliberately tried to keep friends together as much as possible during the course of the war, because they knew then they would be much more effective fighters. Now, I’m not saying this to — how do you say that — condone anything. I’m just trying to use it as an explanation.
So you’re essentially saying teamwork kept the Holocaust going? Or that they valued that more?
No. As I said, you’ve got to build up a layered explanation. So this is just the average Wehrmacht soldier. If you’re talking about SS camp guards, obviously you’re talking about very different kind of explanations. So for the most brutal work, it was probably many more people who have psychopathic tendencies who did that. And so you have to look at all the different parts. But as you know, there are libraries full of books about this. And maybe that’s exactly the point that I’m trying to make. It’s incredibly complex, and it doesn’t just happen. Evil doesn’t just arrive. It’s a very gradual process in which societies can poison themselves, in which trust decays, and in which the unthinkable becomes thinkable.
But let’s talk about narcissistic leaders. Donald Trump is an obvious recent example. You’ve got some across Europe, for sure. How do you interpret his rise? Because he’s got a certain Machiavellian quality too. How do you look at the admiration people have for him?
This is a super interesting phenomenon and very weird, if you think about it. In nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures, there was something that anthropologists call a reverse dominance hierarchy. In standard organizations, there’s this pyramid model, the leader at the top, and the rest just have to follow and obey the commands. Nomadic hunter-gatherer cultures did this the other way around very often. So you had basically the group who controlled the leaders. And the leaders had to be very humble and had to basically present themselves as —
Servants of the people.
Exactly, exactly. And there are wonderful descriptions of this in the ethnographic literature. There’s this ritual, for example, among the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert, of insulting the meat, where imagine you’re a hunter, and you just had a great catch. And you come back with a big piece of meat. And then what you do is you sit at the fire, and you don’t say anything. And then people come along, and they say, did you catch anything today? And you say, no, no, no, not much. And then they would know, O.K., tonight is going to be a big feast. And if they would actually see what you brought and see it’s super big, then they would start insulting it. It’s like, oh, it’s pathetic. It’s nothing, et cetera.
It sounds like my family’s Thanksgiving, actually. But go ahead. Keep going.
Yeah. [LAUGHS] Well, it often reminds me of Scandinavian and Dutch culture. It’s, I think, the secret of social democracy. It’s not about Gini indexes or taxation or whatever. It’s about forced humbleness. What we now have in many societies is pretty much the opposite — so not survival of the friendliest, but survive of the shameless. And it seems to be the case that there are people who can do things that most of us just wouldn’t be able to do, because we’d be so ashamed, right? I mean, look at what Bolsonaro is doing, what Trump has been doing for a long time. And here in Holland, we have Thierry Baudet. He’s the leader of a far-right successful political party here. And it’s just — it’s incredibly embarrassing, you know? But it just works really well in a modern media environment that’s so focused on what’s unusual, right? It generates headlines every single time, right? It gets you attention. And I mean, we all know this was essential to the rise of Trump as well.
But can you explain how power affects us psychologically?
There’s a saying among management gurus that power doesn’t corrupt, but it reveals. It supposedly reveals who you really are. I disagree. I think that power just corrupts. And we’ve got quite a lot of evidence now about how that works. So neurologists have put powerful people in the brain scanners and have found some evidence that, actually, the regions that are involved with feelings of empathy don’t really light up anymore. There’s an important process in psychology that’s called mirroring, right? We humans, we mirror each other all the time. You yawn. I yawn. And that fundamental process just doesn’t work that well anymore if you’re in the influence of power. It’s like you’ve been disconnected from the Wi-Fi. And so people who are higher up on the ladder of power tend to be more cynical, more selfish, more narcissistic, et cetera, et cetera.
All right, so would society change if we all accepted your theory that humans are decent instead of selfish? Would you imagine that would shift people’s feelings? And how do you shift them when they do feel like one group of people has been advantaged over others, which is a big deal in our society right now?
Hm. I think it would have an enormous effect. What you assume in other people is what you get out of them. So if we assume that most people deep down are fundamentally selfish, then that’s how we’ll organize our society. If you’re the C.E.O. of a company, and you think your employees are fundamentally selfish, what kind of organization are you going to build? Well, it’s going to be a very hierarchical organization, where distrust is everywhere. If you turn it around, you can do things radically different. In my book, I’ve got one example about an organization here in the Netherlands. It’s a pretty big one now, with 15,000 employees. It’s a health care organization. And they all work in self-directed teams. They’ve basically abolished management. So they decide for themselves which colleagues they’re going to hire, what kind of additional education they need. And it’s recognized as one of the best employers here in the Netherlands, that delivers higher quality health care at a cheaper cost. And so you can look at one institution after the other. I mean, it’s also true for the way we do democracy. We’ve gotten used to the form of democracy that, I think, could better be described as an elective aristocracy, where we the people are just allowed to choose our own aristocrats. Could we move to a genuine democracy, where actually the people are in power? Sortition could be a really powerful tool, where you randomly select people from the population to be a politician every now and then. And so all of these ideas, it all relies on a different view of human nature.
All right, let me push back there. How do you look at Zuckerberg and then Facebook? Because I actually argue one of their biggest mistakes has been ignoring the human capacity for evil. He was always talking about that people would be decent once they were into these communities. And I think we’re paying for it. That’s the opposite of your argument. So I’d love to know what you think about what went on there, where they totally trust in humanity. And then, of course, humanity, or some parts of it, hit back rather significantly.
Well, this is not my expertise. But I would just say that maybe they underestimated the negativity bias. It’s a well-documented phenomenon, again, in psychology, is that the negative is just more powerful than the positive. We tend to focus more on the negative. There’s probably some evolutionary reason for that, right? It’s probably more helpful if you’re afraid of a snake or a spider once too often, if you’re in the jungle, because it doesn’t kill you. But not being afraid enough, well, it will kill you. So then you have a news feed with a lot of bad stuff being thrown at you all the time. And it just has a bigger effect on the brain. Maybe they underestimated that. But then that’s also how Facebook makes its money. So it’s inherent to the technology.
Sure. Sure. I have a whole theory of engagement equals engagement. But how do you think it has affect — has it amplified? Has it weaponized it? Because here you have human decency. And online, pretty much everything indecent is what does better than decent. Cat videos are not the most popular things.
Terrible memes insulting the Squad or whatever side you’re on, that becomes the focus and the activity on these sites. Why do you think that is if people are fundamentally decent?
One of the ways in which humans are unique is that we blush. At least among primates and mammals, we’re the only ones. Which is fascinating, I think, that we involuntarily give away our feelings to other members of our species in order to establish trust. How could this ever have been an evolutionary advantage, if we’re really so selfish and Machiavellian? But then the thing is, with these kind of abilities, it doesn’t really help you on Twitter or Facebook, right? Because there’s so much communication that is lost there. It’s just text. And then the algorithm decides what gets the most engagement. So it’s obviously, how do you get out of that? One of the theories in psychology is contact theory, from the 1950s.
That’s, if you only meet people, if you’d like them, right?
Yeah, exactly, just meet people, bring them together, and that’s the best medicine we have against hate, racism, and prejudice. I guess that’s still the best answer we have.
All right, so what about regular media, which you criticize a lot? And you’ve been a journalist yourself. How do you look at what regular media does? It amplifies this kind of badness, and that creates badness itself?
I think so, yeah. So let me first say, as a European, whenever I watch CNN, I’m like, is this serious? It’s completely bizarre just in the amount of ads and just the hysteria. I don’t know. It just seems like a completely bizarre form of communication and sharing information. But yes, I think you have to make a distinction between the news, on the one hand, and journalism, on the other hand. The news I would define as the relentless focus on what’s going on today — breaking news, something bad happened there, this person is corrupt, et cetera, et cetera. And journalism is helping us to zoom out, focus on the structural forces that govern our lives, speaking truth to power. So obviously, journalism is incredibly important. But the news? Yes, I think the news is really bad for us. And this is described by George Gerbner. He talked about mean world syndrome, this phenomenon where people who have watched so much of the news become more cynical and depressed.
Yeah. I call it the “it could happen to you” phenomena. Do you know that? On local news in the United States, any topic — killer bees, it could happen to you.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Foot and mouth disease, it could happen to you. It keeps you constantly — [LAUGHS]
My grandparents passed away a while ago. But one of the last conversations I had with them was about the chance that ISIS will do a terrorist attack in the north of the Netherlands, where they live. And, you know, no one, really no one, is there most of the time.
No one, no one.
It’s the least likely spot. But they were pretty serious about it. And it’s just one of the examples that the news does to so many people. [MUSIC PLAYING]
We’ll be back in a minute.
If you like this interview and want to hear others, follow us on your favorite podcast app. You’ll be able to catch up on “Sway” episodes you may have missed, like my conversation with behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, and you’ll get new ones delivered directly to you. More with Rutger Bregman after the break. [MUSIC PLAYING]
You had your own viral moments on social media. In 2019 you called out billionaires at Davos. I really enjoyed it, as you might imagine. Let’s hear a clip of that.
- archived recording (rutger bregman)
I mean, this is not rocket science. I mean, we can talk for a very long time about all these stupid philanthropy schemes. We can invite Bono once more. But come on, we’ve got to be talking about taxes. That’s it— taxes, taxes, taxes. All the rest is bullshit, in my opinion. [LAUGHTER]
- archived recording
Thank you. [APPLAUSE]
People like that. Talk about that moment and what prompted it.
Well, I was invited to Davos to talk about my first book. I just got “Utopia for Realists.”
Which is about U.B.I., universal basic income.
Exactly. And that was very popular at the time in Silicon Valley. So I guess they thought, well, let’s just invite this young Dutchman to explain what it is. So I was there for the first few days. And yeah, I thought it was really a disappointing experience.
Yeah, I’ve been there once.
So many people talking about feminism and about equality and blah, blah, blah, but not talking about the real issues in which they, themselves, were complicit. And I guess the moment when people were watching the new David Attenborough movie, you know, that later streamed on Netflix, they were watching it in the big auditorium. And I saw some people crying. And I was thinking, come on, guys, you flew in here with a private jet, and now you’re crying over the David Attenborough movie about how we’re destroying the planet? Can’t you see the hypocrisy? And then my wife, we had a Skype conversation. And she said, come on, you’ve got to say something about what you really think. And I prepared this short, little speech to ease my own conscience. And that went viral.
Do you feel like you made an impact, your statements? Because they’re still not paying their taxes. I mean, there’s some movement of corporate taxes globally. But do you think it made an impact, bringing it up?
I think it’s just — I’m just a part of a movement. And I think that movement is hugely successful, actually. So 10, 15 years ago, it would have been unimaginable for a Dutch historian to go viral with a speech like that. And now it was pretty normal. And yes, I think there have also been real achievements. If you look at Switzerland, for example, it used to be a major tax paradise. But under American pressure, they had to give up these tax secrecy laws. Now we have indeed the global minimum tax. It’s much more on the agenda. But it’s just this strange phenomenon, where if people hear more about something, they get angrier. They have the feeling that things are worse than ever. But actually, it’s already going in the right direction, because they are angry. It’s actually when no one’s talking about something, that is usually when things are the worst.
Well, interestingly, you continued your viral movement shortly after, when you shared your unaired interview with Tucker Carlson. He brought you on because he thought you were a fellow comrade in arms. But you call him out and Fox News for being funded by billionaires.
- archived recording (rutger bregman)
Come on, you jumped the bandwagon. You’re all like, oh, I’m against the globalist elite, blah, blah, blah. It’s not very convincing, to be honest.
- archived recording (tucker carlson)
Why don’t you go [BLEEP] yourself, you tiny brained — And I hope this gets picked up.
Can you talk about what happened? Because you do preach the value of turning the other cheek and something you call “non-complimentary behavior.”
Hmm. Well, to be honest, I think I wasn’t that bad to Tucker Carlson. I mean, I was just being honest, as we Dutch —
He’s a very sensitve man.
— like to say. Yeah. But then he completely lost it. And I just found it utterly hilarious. I thought it was really, really funny that he lost it that much. And then after the interview had finished, the producer came in. And he said, look, I decided to film the whole thing with my phone. So the next day, watched the video again. And I thought, hmm, well, let’s consult some lawyers first. So we went into this process where we consult with three lawyers. And then we had the guts to actually publish it. Yeah, because Tucker wasn’t happy about it.
I would call this “not non-complimentary behavior.” Explain what non-complimentary behavior is. And how do you realistically practice it when you have situations like this?
Yeah. So it is treating someone who treats you really badly with kindness. And it’s the opposite of mirroring, right? People mirror each other all the time. I’m nice to you. You’re nice to me. You insult me. I’ll insult you, et cetera, et cetera. It takes a lot of effort to break that cycle. It takes a lot of courage as well. But it can be extraordinarily powerful, especially if you implement it on an institutional level. So yes, I guess that’s not really what I did with Tucker Carlson. Because I also don’t think it’s always the solution. I think non-complimentary behavior works better in a setting of trust, where there are no cameras present, et cetera. So it’s not some kind of ideology that I think you should always turn the cheek to everyone around you. But what I am trying to say is that it can sometimes, be really powerful. And it’s also, by the way, being done in anti-terrorism programs here in Europe, where people who are in danger of radicalizing were approached in Denmark, for example, with empathy and compassion.
But at some point, also, this philosophy puts all the work and burden on the victims, not the perpetrator, correct? I mean, if the matter in hand isn’t taxes, but racism or sexism or homophobia — as a gay person, I remember putting up with it for so long, until the day I didn’t. And then I didn’t. And then that worked. The being nice part didn’t work in any way.
So how do you remove the work from victims?
So in the case of the examples that I give in the book, I’m not talking about the victims having to do the work. Right? I’m talking about prison officials, about counter-terrorism experts, who work with this framework. So yes, I completely get what you’re saying, is that you have to be very careful about not going into a blaming the victim kind of argument, where you’re saying, look, you just have to be more empathetic with those people who are doing horrible things to you. I just try to remind people how extraordinarily powerful it can be to sometimes not go for what feels completely natural and intuitive, which is to strike back and to pay back in kind. And I completely understand where that comes from. In the book, I’m just trying to give some examples of people who didn’t and who achieved extraordinary things.
So climate change is a topic you take up in the book. Decency and collective responsibility are crucial here, obviously. But it feels like selfishness is winning out. Wealthier countries, like the U.S., are responsible for most emissions, and yet they’re not cleaning up their mess. How do poorer countries act in good faith, when they’ve been sort of screwed over in the past?
Well, on the level of the nation state, I can’t agree more. I mean, the differences in wealth are enormous on a global level. I just recently looked this up. If you earn a median wage in a country like the US or the Netherlands, where I’m from, you’re already part of the 3-percent or 4-percent richest in the world. This was my feeling when the Occupy Wall Street protests were everywhere, shouting, we are the 99 percent. And I was looking at many of my friends and was thinking, like, well, globally, we’re actually the 1 percent. So the question is, how is this possible? Well, obviously, distance has a lot to do with it. It turns out human empathy is quite limited. The psychologist Paul Bloom calls it a spotlight. We tend to focus on our own small group. And it turns out to be pretty hard to zoom out and see everyone and have compassion for everyone.
So you write that you’re not a climate change skeptic, but you are skeptical of the “fatalistic rhetoric of collapse.” What do you — meaning, it’s not so bad? I kind of said something like this to my son the other day, who’s 19. He was like, we’re screwed, essentially. So spell out your arguments here.
I think that cynicism is a synonym for laziness. This argument that anything is lost anyway. Yeah, what’s the point then? I’ve always liked the word “hope” over “optimism.” Hope suggests the possibility of change. Not that it’s inevitable that things will work out, but at least there’s some possibility that things will be much better in the future, and that we can do something about it. And there is a tendency in some parts of the environmental movement to really go for this doom saying — the kids today are basically lost, and that there will be civil war in the future, blah, blah, blah. And I think that’s all incredibly irresponsible.
But isn’t part of the problem, people haven’t taken climate change seriously enough so far? How do you think we should approach this? Over-optimism can also be an excuse for doing nothing at all. It’s the same as laziness, correct?
Yeah, yeah, I agree. Optimism can also be a form of complacency and lead to laziness. I agree.
So where do you — I’d love you to push — you’re not a climate change skeptic, yet you don’t believe in the fatalistic rhetoric of collapse. Like, we’re not screwed? Or we’re sort of screwed? Or probably there’s these trends and yet, don’t worry about it?
I think that we often underestimate our resilience and our adaptiveness. Easter Island has long been used as a parable of pessimism, right? This island in the middle of the Pacific, where these people build all these huge statues. Supposedly they had to cut down all the trees to transport the statues, to erect them. Then the whole forest was gone, and the soil eroded, and they couldn’t produce food anymore. Civil war ignited, et cetera, et cetera. So it’s a really pessimistic story of ecocide, how people basically destroyed their own environment. The latest anthropological and archaeological evidence is actually pretty much all about the opposite. It’s a story of resilience and adaptation. We now know that the population that lived on this island was actually much smaller than previously estimated. And that even after the trees were gone, they adapted. And they invented new forms of agriculture that were actually more productive. So this is obviously not a necessity. It’s not an iron law of history, but it happens quite a lot. But in general, to be honest, I’m with you. I think that most people aren’t afraid enough just yet, and most people right now underestimate the enormous transformation that we’ve got to make to move to a completely different kind of economy. We’ve never done something like this in peacetime, right?
Right. So I want to touch briefly on one of your previous books, “Utopia for Realists,” which promoted universal income. U.B.I. has been growing in popularity in the U.S. since you published that, especially since Andrew Yang made it a central part of his presidential campaign. Were you surprised by the embrace? I know it’s worked and not worked in different places.
You could argue that it’s the quintessential American idea. Or that it would be the —
A free lunch? O.K. They don’t like to think of it —
No, it’s venture capital for the people. Everyone gets the freedom to decide for him or herself how to live his or her life. You know, what do they call them in Silicon Valley? Oh, “fuck you money,” right? Am I allowed to say that?
You may. Please do.
And I mean, now it’s only the rich who have that, right? And with a basic income, everyone would have the freedom to say no. I think it’s an extraordinarily important freedom.
How do you push back on the idea that it’s not just a handout? Now, obviously, the Covid stimulus payments were fairly popular. There’s a lot of people complaining that now people have actually said, I don’t want to work in this shitty job anymore. I want to resign. And so now there’s been a real slap back against it. How do you make the argument that it’s not that? I think calling it “venture capitalism for the people” is a great way to do that.
Well, I think Andrew Yang has been pretty smart in framing it as a dividend instead of an income. So “universal basic income” is probably not the right term. Because it really is a dividend that we all get from our collective inheritance. Now it’s mainly the rich who get these huge inheritance. And the U.B.I. argument is to spread that around and to give everyone that opportunity. And obviously you would want to work on top of that. So the basic income is only a floor in the income distribution. And on top of that, people can do whatever they want.
What is the sticking point, do you imagine?
It’s actually one of the reasons why I wanted to write “Humankind” after “Utopia for Realists.” Because “Utopia for Realists” was full of these stories about experiments that have been done since the 1970s, all these scientific evidence we have that shows that, actually, if you give people free money, they use it really sensibly, and crime goes down, and kids do better in school. And there’s actually a lot of evidence that basic income would pay for itself, because you would have to spend less on the police and the judicial system and on health care, et cetera. But it turned out that most people aren’t convinced by those kind of arguments. Because I was touring with the book also in the U.S., and what happened all the time is that people would say, well, Rutger, maybe this works in your crazy socialist country, or maybe this worked in Canada in the 1970s in this weird experiment that you talked about. But, surely, you can’t scale this up because human nature. This is not going to work because humans are just lazy. It is counter to everything, what we know about what humans are really like. And that’s when I realized I had to dig a little bit deeper.
So you made the case for the 15-hour work week. I’m curious how you think about how the pandemic has affected work. People are calling it in this country the “Great Resignation.” I call it the “Great Reassessment,” as do many other people. What would be the positives and negatives of a 15-hour work week?
The idea of a 15-hour work week goes back to a famous essay written by John Maynard Keynes in 1930, in which he predicted that we would become a lot richer in the 20th century, and we would trade quite a bit of that extra wealth for extra leisure. And he basically was right for a long time. So up until the ‘70s, the work week kept shrinking. And Keynes just extrapolated and thought, well, that will just go on. And then in 2030, according to my calculations, we’ll have a 15-hour work week. It’s just that around the 1970s and the 1980s, everything changed. And in some countries, people actually started working more. This is the case with the U.S. And it’s a bit of a mystery, why has that happened? One of my favorite explanations is the one by David Graeber, the anthropologist who passed away, sadly. And that is the rise of the bullshit job. It’s a scientific concept to describe the phenomenon of people sitting in offices sending emails to other people they don’t like and writing reports no one’s ever going to read. So there seems to be something inherent in modern capitalism, is that it has this extraordinary ability of generating new jobs that don’t actually need to exist, according to the people who do those jobs themselves.
So how do you get to a 15-hour work week and be productive? Because I think not everybody has pointless jobs. I don’t think mine is. So with people who do think they’re useful, and there is a lot of work, how do you square that circle?
Hmm. For a long time, it was part of the left’s political project to reduce the work week. I mean, we have campaigns going all the back to — what is it, Melbourne in the 19th century? Of I think the stone masons who have campaigned for an eight-hour workday. And I can’t see why this can’t happen today. I mean, I’m talking to you from the Netherlands, which is the shortest working week in the world, and I still think it should be shorter.
What is it in the Netherlands?
Well, I mean, there’s a huge part-time culture, right? A lot of people work just 25 or 30 hours. But I mean, you have to include unpaid labor as well, right? And then if you —
That would be children.
Yeah, exactly, exactly. So there’s a big gender difference here going on. Mostly men often work longer hours. But they don’t do the dishes. So I think what we also need is a redistribution of work, especially the unpaid caring work, that is basically the foundation of our whole economy.
Yeah, we’ve been saying that for a while. The ladies have been saying that for a while. But do you imagine getting to that idea, getting people’s minds that they don’t need to work all the time? Because the pandemic has stuck you in a situation where you’re always on. And technology has done it too, is that you can always be jacked in to the matrix, the work matrix. How do you change people’s attitudes about that?
Yeah. Yeah. Well, usually, what people say when they get a question like that — they say something like, oh, we need more awareness. Right? We need more discussion around this. And I really dislike awareness. I think there’s a lot of awareness in this world, and it usually doesn’t do much. No, you’ve just got to look at how you design your institutions, what kind of laws you could introduce. When the N.H.S. was introduced shortly after the war in the U.K., they were not thinking about the mentality of people. They were just thinking about, we need universal health care for everyone. We’re going to introduce it. And surely, that has changed peoples’ mentalities after that.
Yeah, you do know that it would be a big pushback from businesses who now are losing their ever-loving minds, because they can’t get people to work at the local McDonald’s that — they really, truly are.
It depends on what kind of businesses. It depends. I mean, sometimes people ask me, like, oh, but if we abolish, say, frequency trading, isn’t that really bad? Because then these people won’t have jobs, right? And I’m like, well, that’s a little bit like saying, in the 17th century, we can’t abolish piracy, because these pirates, they went to great pirate schools, right? And they’ve been educated really well in the art of being a pirate, and they know how to rape and how to pillage and how to plunder. And if you abolish piracy, then the pirates, they don’t have any jobs anymore. Yeah, that’s the point.
All right, my last question — human decency, utopias. You’re clearly an upbeat guy, at least I think you are compared to me, for sure. Are you pessimistic about anything at all?
Oh yes, animals. I’m very pessimistic about animals. So in the last 200 years, we’ve made extraordinary progress for humans. But for animals, it’s pretty much the opposite. There’s never been so much animal suffering in the world as today. And the progress has been really disappointing. We’ve had 50 years of the modern animal rights movement. And if you look at the percentage of vegetarians in the U.S., it’s pretty much the same as 50 years ago. Luckily, we now have technological breakthroughs in terms of clean meat, but still, the suffering happening on a monstrous scale every single day. I’m very, very pessimistic about that.
Wow, I was not expecting that.
But you’re correct. It’s moving that way in this country. We’ll see where it goes.
If I can say one final thing.
One of the things that have always fascinated me as a historian is how we get from the unrealistic to the realistic, to the unthinkable to the thinkable. And if we look back on, say, the Middle Ages, we can be horrified when we look at the slavery that was common or the witch hunts. But surely, the historians of the future will look back on us and think about some of the things that we take for granted now in a similar way, right? In some ways, we must be monsters today. And I think the challenging question is, what is that? And how can you push in the right direction? I guess that’s the question that’s central to basically everything I write. And that fascinates me the most.
Well, on that note, Rutger, thank you so much for doing this. And I would say, I am an optimistic pessimist, meaning I think everything’s going to hell. But I have hopes that it won’t. Anyway, I appreciate the time.
Thanks so much, Kara. [MUSIC PLAYING]
“Sway” is a production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Daphne Chen, Caitlin O’Keefe, Elisa Gutierrez, and Wyatt Orme. Edited by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, and Alison Bruzek, with original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Carole Sabouraud and fact checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks to Shannon Busta, Kristen Lin, and Mahima Chablani. If you’re in a podcast app already, you know how to get your podcasts. So follow this one. If you’re listening on the Times website and want to get each new episode of “Sway” delivered to you, along with a glass that’s half empty, but will be refilled — maybe — download any podcast app, then search for “Sway” and follow the show. We release every Monday. Thanks for listening. [MUSIC PLAYING]