Since World War II, America’s elite policy makers have arranged and re-arranged our political and economic relationships around an empirically false – radically false – understanding of human being and behavior.
Paradoxically, the false portrait of humankind feeds both an unwholesome worship of dog-eat-dog individualism and a sense of powerless in the face of godlike market forces that must be obeyed no matter the cost in lives, global environmental catastrophe or gross economic injustice.
Its roots lie in the gloomy Hobbesian picture of unredeemable, brutish humanity and in the Enlightenment’s faith in universal reason. Twentieth Century conservative thinkers, looking to rationalize authoritarianism and excuse the inevitable social destruction caused by unrestrained greed, simply invented new concepts of human nature that made their policy goals seem essential.
It’s just one of many ironies that this authoritarian view was swallowed whole hog by so-called libertarians. It should be noted that Robert Nozick, author of the seminal libertarian book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, later spit out the worm he’d swallowed and repudiated his earlier work.)
The ugly, empirically false portrait is this: a human is a cold and isolated individual who uses unemotional reason to reach pre-determined ends. This is the widely discredited but still popular “rational actor” model. And there’s another color in the picture, which some are now calling the “rat choice” model. This tells us those pre-determined ends are always selfish or self-interested.
We are, these conservatives say, rats.