Bill Maher, of course, has his show Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. What some people don’t know is that he has also taken to filming Overtime With Bill Maher afterward. Overtime, essentially, is a 7 – 10 minute extra feature in which he brings out all of his guests for that night’s episode and they discuss questions submitted by his audience over the internet. It airs on HBO On Demand a few days after Real Time is broadcast.
Last night I was watching Overtime and one of the questions culled by Maher’s staff asked whether people were getting “stupider” or “meaner.” Maher, of course, answered “both.” This provoked a mild objection from his guest Penn Jillette, the illusionist and Libertarian, who argued that while it always seems to us as if things are getting worse, over the great arc of time the human condition has improved dramatically. Jillette also took issue with Maher’s assertion that people are generally nasty pieces of work, and argued instead that the great majority of us are actually very nice people.
Maher’s response, essentially, was that if people have gotten less violent and generally kinder in their dealings with each other over the centuries that doesn’t reflect any change on behalf of the human species so much as it reflects improvements in human institutions. As we’ve gotten better at governing ourselves, Maher asserted, we’ve tamped down on some of the inherent viciousness of which we are capable.
But Jillette took issue with this too. I think because of his Libertarian leanings, Jillette found it difficult to accept that restrictions on human conduct might be necessary, and so he kept stressing that the vast, vast majority of people have no wish – for example – to rape or kill others. And then the conversation devolved to a discussion about religion and whether religious beliefs are necessary to ensure moral conduct.
This back-and-forth between Maher and Jillette got me thinking about our regulatory institutions and how they should be structured.
To the extent Jillette seemed to suggest that humans don’t really need any strictures to control our behavior because most people are “inherently good” – well, he’s right about most people being “inherently good” but he’s wrong about everything else. It is true that most of us are inherently good people who would never rape, or murder, or steal, or inflict suffering on others for our personal gain . . . but some would.
In fact, I would argue that in the absence of any controlling rules or prohibitions on human conduct there would be an inexorable tendency over time for more and more people to act worse and worse toward each other. Even if just 1% of the human population consists of ruthless, self-centered pricks – and the other 99% are angels – there isn’t much doubt that over time the 1% will tend to acquire more power and more resources than the other 99%. (Sound familiar?) If I’m willing to shoot you to take our goods, your horse, or your woman and you aren’t willing to shoot me to do the same . . . guess who’s going to end up with two thumbs and all the goods, horses, and women?
It is very probably true that most people wouldn’t willingly shoot another just to take what the other person has, but when they are competing against others who are willing to do so the pressure to descend to that more vicious level is greater until eventually, without a formal social structure punishing such ruthlessness, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
This is precisely why we need the minimal business regulations – with real teeth in them should they be violated – that Libertarians such as Jillette tend to find anathema. It may be that most merchants would never think of cheating their customers by using filler instead of real food, or selling a 7 ½ ounce can of something and labeling it “8 ounces,” or lying about the quality of their products – but some would. Without a way to police bad behavior, an inexorable pressure builds upon all the competitors in a particular market to cut a little corner here, shave off a little there, or keep their thumb on the scale when their customers can’t see it; they can always console themselves with the idea that “everybody does it.”
Simply stated, it would be foolish to construct a regulatory scheme – or to do without one entirely – based on what “most people are like”; regulatory schemes have to be constructed based on what “some people will do.”
We don’t have to believe – as Maher seems to – that we’re all bastard-coated bastards with a creamy bastard filling . . . but it would be naive to refuse to recognize – as Jillette wishes to -- that some of us are.