The left has always had a problem with human nature. If not positing an intrinsically altruistic human nature, the left has reassumed a blank slate upon which to inscribe cooperative, work-for-the-common-good values.

This view has never seemed particularly realistic and has been easy prey for the right, which, appealing to common sense and everyday experience, argues that human beings are fundamentally self-interested and seek to maximize–net of costs–the benefits that flow to them from their decisions. This is the famous Homo economicus relentlessly maximizing utility as he or she ambles through life.

Of course, it is not impossible to accept a basically rational, self-interested human nature and still argue that a left program is both necessary and desirable. Most obviously, there are many instances of market failure, from the provision of public goods to speculative panics, that can’t be solved by even more self-interested behavior and therefore require public remedy.

In addition, the assumption of rational, self-interested individuals is consistent with cooperative behaviors keyed to future repayment (“weak reciprocity” in Bowles and Gintis’s terminology), so this is another avenue through which certain left programs could be advanced. Finally, the extremely efficient rationality of the standard Homo economicus model, where individuals have no cognitive or information limitations, is probably unrealistic and can be modified to make it more reasonable,1 thus opening the door to many economic interventions with left support2. All very well and good. But it would be nice to have a more secure basis upon which both to argue for the utility of left programs and for the possibility of generating popular support. Simply tweaking the Homo economicus model, so that left interventions can be made consistent with the actions of self-interested, somewhat befuddled individuals, doesn’t provide that secure basis. Indeed, it makes the whole project sound somewhat tenuous, since the left must constantly struggle to generate cooperative behavior out of individuals whose priority, at the end of the day, is their self-interest. It’s enough to make one ponder switching to the other side, where the picking is easier.

Here’s where Bowles and Gintis’s extremely interesting argument comes in. They start from the premise that, if there is a human nature, it came from evolution. Homo economicus should not, therefore, be assumed to represent human nature, because evolution may have given rise to other traits. They then adduce historical and anthropological evidence suggesting the long-term presence of Homo reciprocans and buttress that with a wide array of contemporary evidence suggesting that the traits of homo reciprocans persist today.

Homo reciprocans is characterized by “strong reciprocity”: the willingness to incur personal costs in order to cooperate with others similarly disposed and to punish those who violate group norms. Linked to this, they believe Homo reciprocans is also characterized by “basic needs generosity”: the willingness to ensure others, more or less unconditionally, enough goods to meet minimal standards. But they don’t believe that people are completely unselfinterested–rather they believe that standard self-interest exists side-by-side in human nature with strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity.

Several things follow from their thesis. Most obviously, these non-self-interested impulses, if they exist, provide left politics with a much more secure foundation than is typically assumed. Instead of having to talk people into wanting what we (the left) are selling, we may actually be selling something people are intrinsically interested in buying. This is not a trivial difference.

Less obvious, and perhaps more controversial, is that some of the current opposition to the welfare state and egalitarian politics lies in these very same non-self-interested impulses. To the extent that people come to see left programs as violating norms of reciprocity and fairness, they will be inclined to reject such programs–and that rejection will come to them “naturally,” as it were, not out of mean-spiritedness or the manipulations of demagogic politicians (though a certain amount of both things may be going on). The left’s goal, then, should be to restore the association of left programs with reciprocity and meeting basic needs, rather than to “combat” the base and selfish views of ordinary people.

I agree strongly with Bowles and Gintis’s views on the origins of current opposition to egalitarian politics-both in the proximate sense (violation of reciprocal norms and fairness) and in the ultimate sense (these norms are more-or-less innate). And I agree with them that the existence of “built-in” support for strong reciprocity and basic needs generosity is an important point with huge strategic implications for the left.

Indeed, if their analysis is correct, we may be on the verge of developing a truly scientific approach to egalitarian politics. “Scientific socialism” in the past, of course, has been anything but and has made the whole idea of a scientific approach to social progress risible, if not somewhat sinister. An egalitarian politics based on actually-existing human nature has a great deal more scientific promise.

Of course, we are just at the beginning of such an approach, and I would be remiss if I didn’t make a few critical comments in the interests of moving forward. To begin with, as a student of public opinion, I found Bowles and Gintis’s use of polling data somewhat glib. For example, pollsters consider respondents’ expressed willingness to pay higher taxes to provide various social goods notoriously soft. Answers to these questions should be used with caution.

On a more theoretical level, Bowles and Gintis invoke group selection to explain how Homo reciprocans evolved. But the influence of group selection on evolutionary outcomes is hotly debated in evolutionary biology, and such hard Darwinians as John Maynard Smith tend to pooh-pooh the whole idea. This suggests the need to defend group selection as an important force–a project to which I am sympathetic–rather than acting as if group selection were an unproblematic concept.

Finally, Bowles and Gintis–perhaps motivated by some of the skepticism about group selection–say that Homo reciprocans is also a product of cultural evolution. It seems to me a matter of some importance to say what the mechanisms for such cultural evolution might be and what the relative weight of genetic and cultural evolution has been in producing Homo reciprocans. But these are questions for another day. In the meantime, let me make clear that I believe Bowles and Gintis are onto something of great importance. It’s for the rest of us to follow up on it.


1 See Matthew Rabin’s excellent review article, “Psychology and Economics,”Journal of Economic Literature(March 1998): 11-46.

2 For arguments along these lines, see Louis Putterman, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre, “Does Egalitarianism Have a Future?” Journal of Economic Literature(June, 1998): 861-902.