People May Be Dumb, but They’re Also Basically Good

With all of us on edge and frustrated about the coronavirus situation, I think it would be a good time for me to share one of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned throughout my life, and especially in my journey around the world.

People are basically good, and generally want to do the right thing. 

However, there are two major barriers for most people that can negate our good intentions: self-interest and ignorance (or incompetence). Maybe we want to give more to charity, but we also want to buy something we’ve had our eye on for a while.  Or perhaps we tried to help someone, but we ended up making it worse because we didn’t really know what we were doing.

These failings are OK. They are a part of being human.  But the important thing to remember is that other people are human as well. They have their own weak spots and failings just like I have my own and you have your own.  They usually don’t mean to hurt someone, it is just that they weren’t aware or were so interested in their own circumstances, that they didn’t consider how it might affect others.

(This doesn’t mean that there never is evil intent.  I am just saying that it isn’t common.  Often times, even when evil acts are done, it is because people have been manipulated into thinking that they are good.)

I want to introduce you to two “razors”.  Hanlon’s Razor and Occam’s Razor.  A philosophical razor is an argument that allows you to cut away unlikely explanations.  They aren’t absolute by any means, but they are based more on generally accepted likelihood.

Hanlon’s Razor is not to assume something is based on malice when it can easily be explained by ignorance or incompetence.  For example, do you really think your spouse was purposely trying to upset you when they didn’t do something you asked?  Or is it more likely that they just forgot, or did it wrong?

Hanlon’s Razor is based on Occam’s Razor, which (overly-simplified) stipulates that when comparing possible explanations, the simplest explanation is more likely.  Now, admittedly Occam’s Razor has major weaknesses, especially in scientific fields, when things can be counter-intuitive and more complex than they appear.  But when discussing regular normal cause-and-effect situations and human interaction, it holds more weight.  An example is would the average person rather just go and turn off a light switch, or would they build an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine to accomplish the task?  Or something I often joke about: Did I simply trip over my own giant clown feet or did the earth suddenly shift and the sidewalk jump up and trip me? Theoretically, the latter is possible, but it’s unlikely.

The reason I bring these concepts up is the recent protests against the restrictive measures to limit the spread of coronavirus.  It is important for all of us to remember, on all sides, whatever your position may be, that in general, the vast majority of people have good intentions during this time.  That doesn’t mean they are correct, but the reasons for their failings are mostly likely simple human fallibility rather than nefarious intent.

Our government leaders and public health officials are generally trying their best to face an unprecedented health crisis.  We need to keep the impossibility of their task in mind if and when we criticize them, and not suspect that they have dishonorable intentions.  Yes, perhaps they might go too far, and perhaps they should be more flexible depending on specific localities. Maybe they should put more consideration into the economic impact of their edicts. These are all legitimate concerns that can be shared, but in a responsible manner.  Which means, (1) complaints and protest actions should still be done while following guidelines to prevent spread of infection and (2) respectfully assuming good intentions rather than some kind of a power-grab.  (I’ll talk more about this second one later.)

Meanwhile, we have to also assume that those protesting are doing so out of genuine frustration and economic uncertainty.  Yes there are legitimate criticisms about their methods of protest and many of their sources of information, but again that goes to the point of assuming fallibility rather than questioning their motivation.  Instead of dismissing them their concerns and mocking them, these people need to be heard and responded to in a considerate and respectful manner. Otherwise, it just adds to the divisive nature of current society.

Now, having discussed Hanlon’s razor and assuming good intentions, I want to switch to Occam’s Razor. I would be remiss not to call out an irrational criticism in our specific situation: that these strict measures are encroachments of an authoritarian government. As Occam’s Razor would argue, the simpler solution that public health and government officials are being overly strict out of an overabundance of caution to contain the virus is much more likely than a coordinated effort by the elites across multiple local, state, and federal organizations of differing partisan leanings all for the goal of controlling the masses.

I could go into an extremely long post about this, but I want to keep this somewhat brief. I encourage you to do more reading into the concepts I’ll bring up for more detail.

  • The beauty of the federal system that the Framers set up was that it would be extremely difficult for an authoritarian regime to take complete control of all the different levels of government; not necessarily impossible, but extremely difficult.
  • The fact that these governments are run by Republicans and Democrats across the spectrum add to the unlikeliness that this is some coup attempt.
  • Most of these actions are on the recommendations of public health professionals. And these are individual experts at the local, state, and federal levels. The nice thing about the hard sciences (like medicine) as opposed to politics, or economics, or media punditry, is that there is objectivity. In STEM fields like medicine, you can’t bullshit your way to the top.  You generally can’t spin and deflect blame.  So the idea that somehow thousands of public health professionals got to the position they are in while harboring intent for eventual domination of the citizenry is simply ludicrous.  (Again, you can legitimately state that they are singularly focused on the medical/healthcare aspect and ignoring the economic impact, but that gets back to human fallibility as opposed to malicious intent.)

Those are my main points based on Occam’s Razor and the complexity of this all being an authoritative encroachment in the USA.  However, we should discuss the actual risks of authoritarianism.  If you are truly concerned about this, you should do some research.

First of all, this crisis can be and is being used by some regimes to increase control.  For example, look at what is happening in Hungary where Viktor Orban has been granted power to indefinitely rule by decree during the pandemic, adding to the powers he has gathered over the past decade.

In the modern USA, authoritarianism is extremely difficult, if not impossible, at the local and state levels.  Even in the days of Boss Tweed and Huey Long, it wasn’t so much about controlling the day-to-day lives of the masses as it was controlling the political and economic machinery of their state through corruption.

Which gets to the fundamental point about authoritarianism. I highly encourage you to actually research authoritarianism throughout history, not via political pundits, but actual researched history, especially modern history.  (I highly recommend How Democracies Die). Using the media and elites to completely control the media happens AFTER a totalitarian regime already has almost complete control.

When first attempting to gain control of a population and in the initial stages of power, aspiring authoritarians operate the OPPOSITE way. They actively appeal to the support of the masses against the elites (the independent media, the academics, the professionals.)  That way instead of turning to the “knowledge gatekeepers” who usually got to that position out of a pursuit for the knowledge and love for the field itself, the people instead turn to the regime and allow it to be the “knowledge gatekeeper” where the regime wants that position solely for the pursuit of power.

Again, look at what has happened throughout history. Once the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, many of the top academics and scientists fled (which actually helped us win WWII).  During Stalin’s Great Purge, academics and journalists were sent to gulags.  China’s Cultural Revolution closed schools and  later sent students to live and work on farms in rural villages. In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, much of the professional class fled to the USA.  In the Khmer Rouge, they murdered people that wore eyeglasses because they seemed intellectual.

In the how to guide for the power hungry, Machiavelli’s The Prince, he often discusses that having the support of the people is more critical than the support of the nobles.  The elite and nobles are a threat to the regime’s power while the people’s support helps to keep power.

So the idea that a bunch of local and state leaders are allying with the academic elite of public health officials to force draconian measures on the regular populace in a bid to gain more power is a little hard to swallow for anyone that has studied history and politics.

However, never say never. I guess anything is possible, and perhaps it all is an elaborate coup attempt.  However, if it is, it seems like the most elaborate, ineffective, historically-ignorant, and counter-productive coup attempt in the history of the world.