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You have to believe that humans are (mostly) good: Dutch author


Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, whose coconutsmashing abilities have inspired many meme-makers, took a crack at the premise of Rutger Bregman’s latest book ‘Human Kind’. “If human beings are fundamentally decent, why do some of them refuse to pay taxes?” Tharoor asked the cheerful Dutch historian who has often been accused of utopianism.

The occasion was day two of the Times Litfest and the question came halfway through his playful online tussle with Bregman. Citing various anthropological studies that attribute humanity’s survival to “our friendliness and capacity to work together on a scale that no other species can”, the book argues for the need to assume the best in others.

Predictably, Bregman has run into his share of cynics and sceptics who’ve called him naive, even delusional. Which is why after making his case for “universal basic income” as “venture capital for the people that equips the poor too with the power to say no”, the session found Bregman calmly conceding to a central paradox of his book: “The ideas in the book will start to become true once people start believing it.”

A key moment came when Tharoor realised that he had been confusing his own hopefulness with optimism for decades. “Be wary of the optimist,” warned Bregman. “Optimism says things will be alright but hope recognises that things could go downhill,” said the Dutch writer, rooting for a more hopeful view of human nature as the way to build better schools, workplaces, democracies and prisons.

“For instance, if we trust that our employees are intrinsically motivated, we may realise we don’t need so many managers or hierarchies. We are the stories we tell ourselves,” said Bregman. His next book, however, may tell a very different story. “If the book ‘Human Kind’ is a warm hug,” said Bregman, “the next one is a slap in the face.”


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