Human nature isn’t a persuasive objection to left-wing ideas

Every so often someone puts to me the claim that egalitarian and left-wing ideas cannot work because of human nature. I have no concerns about the concept of human nature- any ethologist or psychologist could tell you that we come into the world with a bundle of capacities, drives and instincts. Rather, I find myself puzzled because countless human societies- many, though not all, hunter-gatherer societies- have been vastly more egalitarian than even the most egalitarian societies that exist today, at least in terms of resource distribution, and in many cases, also with respect to decision making. This is not to say these societies were or are flawless or saintly, merely that they tend to lack large material inequalities, and political differentiation between elites and non-elites. Thus the idea that ‘human nature’ prevents egalitarianism is contrary to the ways countless actual humans have lived.

Now you might object that those were under very different conditions- much poorer than those that exist today. Well let’s suppose we accept this objection, what about the enormous range of variation that exists between countries today? To what degree is it meaningful to talk about human nature constraining our choices, when in the English speaking world we are so far from the limits even of what has been achieved? Even if Nordic social democracy were the limiting case of human egalitarianism, we’re nowhere near Nordic Social democracy in terms of, for example, the post-tax and and transfer Gini index. We may be constrained in an ultimate sense, but we’re not constrained at the margin.

Further, given the huge variation in existing societies, is it really likely that that the most equal societies today have run into the absolute edge of what can be achieved? Will our ancestors look at the world and say “The Finns achieved the greatest possible level of income equality consistent with a wealthy society”? I doubt it.

But again, the most important point is that we are not constrained at the margin. We know this is true for most of the people who will read this, because for most readers, there are already far more egalitarian societies than your own which exist right now- rich and successful countries. That which is actual is possible.

Let’s review the variation in actually existing societies on variables which human nature allegedly prevents us from achieving left wing goals in.

Variation in income inequality in rich countries

In Finland the richest 20% of the population make 3.8x what the poorest 20% make, meanwhile in Chile the richest 20% make 15.7x what the poorest 20% make (for reference, in the United States the ratio is 9.4).

The richest 20%’s income expressed as a ratio of the poorest 20%’s income.

This is pretty clear evidence that the Chilean and United States inequality ratio can be very much lower, without contravening human nature (assuming Finns are human). And again, if Finland can reach 3.8 while the US hovers around 9.4, isn’t it likely we can go lower still?

Variation in the level of public ownership

So vastly different levels of income inequality are all consistent with human nature, but what about government ownership? Can a stable, healthy society feature very high levels of government ownership without contravening human nature, or will this ruin a society in some way? The Norwegian government owns 57% of the wealth in the country- 76% of the non-home wealth. Meanwhile, the equivalent figure for the United States is -3.5%. The Norwegian figure (without housing wealth) has risen from 55% in 2000, to 76% today and the overall trend is still going up, providing strong evidence that the current level is probably not the ceiling, if there even is a ceiling:

Data courtesy of Matthew Breunig

So if there is a level of public ownership in wealthy societies that’s incompatible with fundamental humanity, it is at the very least greater than 76% of non-housing wealth.

Variation in crime and punishment

Another common area said to be under the sway of human nature is crime and punishment. Now I will admit that whatever human nature is, it no doubt informs and shapes the social norms, conflicts and violations that shape crime and punishment, but how this is manifested in state policy and outcomes is enormously varied. Here for example is imprisonment rate of Finland versus the United States:

The difference is huge and feeds my optimism that using a combination of technological and social advances it might be possible either totally abolish, or very nearly totally abolish, prisons altogether. Now you might be thinking “Well maybe it’s is a tradeoff, maybe the Finns have to accept a higher crime rate because of their aversion to incarceration”. The answer is no, they don’t. Here, for example, is homicides:

When I talk about this with right-wing people, a lot of them say ‘well maybe this is just due to the ethnic composition of the two countries’. However, even if we only consider White Americans, their murder rate remains about three times higher, and their imprisonment rate about six times higher. So no, theories of innate biological differences between the races (e.g., so called ‘scientfic’ racism) will not save human nature based accounts, social policy and structure are clearly pulling considerable heft here.

But are they happy? Can they grow?

I suppose that one argument might be that even though social democratic societies have achieved a high degree of egalitarianism, in doing so they are straining against human nature in a way that produces unhappiness or makes economic growth impossible or something like that. On this view, social democracies would be like a stunted plant growing outside the boundaries of its normal range. There’s no evidence of this. Nordic countries consistently poll as among the happiest in the world:

Nor is there evidence of slower growth:

Figure courtesy of Demos


The scope of the variation between all societies which have ever existed is absolutely staggering, and strongly suggests that no one society should be seen as the inevitable outcome of ‘human nature’. Even only considering modern societies, the variation is immense. This variation gives us two unassailable defences against claims that achieving left-wing political goals is impossible due to human nature:

1. We are so very far from the boundaries of what has been achieved in some parts of the world, even today.

2. The sheer degree of variation that exists between societies in both the modern and the ancient world gives us reason to think that, whatever the constraints of human nature on egalitarianism (if such exist) it is very likely that even the most egalitarian social democracies are far from reaching the boundaries of the possible. For someone like me who wants to take things a good deal further than social democracy, this is very encouraging.

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