What People Are Really Like & How Their Nature Impacts Your Political Religion

By David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

From time to time I receive comments from people who seem to live in an alternate universe populated by a completely different race of humans than the ones who inhabit our everyday world.

I want to talk about how the actual, real, live human beings who populate our world act, and how their actions affect how the economy and the government can and cannot work.

Yes, I know that people fill a continuum of personalities, from one extreme to the other. We like to say that “People do this” and “People don’t do that” but what we mean is that “Most people do this most of the time” and “Most people don’t do that most of the time.”

Of course, if you look hard enough you can find people who will do anything. Anything.

Somewhere out there is a person who will cut off and eat his or her own fingers if you offer them enough money. That doesn’t mean that’s a common occurrence, but if you’re designing critical systems you have to take that reality into account.


In 2013 approximately .91% of the adult population was in jail and about twice as many people were on parole or probation. That’s about 2.7% of the adult population.

If you figure that at least another 1% were committing crimes but had not yet been caught, convicted and jailed that means that between 3.5% and 4% of the adult population are criminals.

What does that tell us?

It tells us that a significant percentage of the population is willing to steal, cheat, rape, rob, sell drugs, embezzle and kill in order to get what they want.

Bad People Who Are Not Criminals

If three or four percent of the adult population is willing break criminal laws and risk going to jail, how many more people are willing perform acts that are dishonest, mean, or deceitful but which are not criminal?

How many people are willing to sell shoddy goods, charge unreasonable fees, skimp on safety equipment, lie, use deceptive advertising, and do other “bad” things that will not get them put in jail?

I would say at least double the number of actual criminals, at least another 7% to 8% of the adult population, are deceitful, mean, untrustworthy, and are pretty bad people.

So adding 3% to 4% of population who are criminals to the 7% to 8% who are dishonest/untrustworthy/abusive means that at minimum at least 10% to 12% of the population is either willing to commit outright crimes or act quite badly.

On the other end, there’s probably an equal number, at least 10% to 15% of the population, that would never commit a crime and never voluntarily act badly no matter how much money you offered them.

That leaves about 75% of the adult population that’s someplace in the middle.

The Middle

On one end of the 75% continuum is the guy who’d maybe pocket the extra ten bucks the clerk mistakenly gave him in change but wouldn’t steal a candy bar on his way out of the store. On the other end of that 75% spectrum is the woman who’d ask her doctor to write her a note for a disabled parking placard so that she could wrongfully park in handicapped zones. Oh, and add in the crooked doctor who wrote the note.

The conduct of that 75% in the middle is largely restrained by their adherence to cultural norms and fear of getting in trouble.

Conduct Limited By Cultural Norms

We’ve seen this many times. When Hitler’s government told people that it was OK to steal a Jew’s property, rape a Jewish woman, kill Jewish people, lots of “decent” citizens who otherwise never would have been thieves, robbers or rapists did just that.

If you tell every man in the country that it’s no longer a crime to rape Jewish women, a material percentage of the male population who would otherwise not rape a woman will happily begin raping Jewish women.

When the Stanford Experiment told participants that it was OK to abuse the “prisoners,” people who never would have abused vulnerable human beings quickly became abusers.

When it was common for cops to take money to fix tickets, when it was common for building inspectors to accept “gifts” to issue permits, that’s what many did.

Today, people can park in special spaces if they have a handicapped permit. Over 35,000 active California handicapped permits have been issued to people who were listed on the vital statistics rolls as deceased. The people using these fraudulent placards don’t think of themselves as criminals. They think they are “clever” and “smart.”

People will generally do what other people in their social group think is acceptable even if it is not only illegal but is also clearly dishonest.

Decriminalizing Any Conduct Increases That Conduct

What am I getting at? I’m saying that you can shift the conduct of that 75% of the population in the middle one way or the other by altering the criminality of a particular act and/or by altering the social stigma attached to that act.

I’m reminding people that decriminalizing conduct that is clearly dishonest, dangerous, or reckless will always increase the number of people who will engage in that bad conduct.

When the government tells people that it’s no longer illegal to do something, lots of additional people will do it.

Increasing Bad Conduct Beyond The 12% Of Bad People

Over and above the 10% to 12% of the population who will act badly if they think they can get away with it, you can expect a significant percentage of rest of the population to act dishonestly, unfairly, selfishly and abusively if they decide that either:

  • They won’t be punished for it, or
  • Lots of other people do it.

Most People Don’t Plan For The Long-Term

Sure, some people will carefully save for their old age, but how many people do you know who spend their money as fast as they make it?

How many people do you know earning under $50,000 per year who regularly spend $400 or $500 a month on bars, restaurants, concerts, alcohol, drugs and vacations?

Anyone who smokes is not thinking long-term.

In fact, most people, most of the time, make most decisions based on a cost/benefit analysis time frame of less than three months.

Many If Not Most Decisions Are Made Largely For Emotional Reasons

  • How many single people living in apartments buy huge SUVs and large pickup trucks?
  • How many people regularly take recreational drugs?
  • How many people drive while on drugs or alcohol?
  • Some people sometimes plan long term but most people most of the time don’t.
  • Some people act from rational motives most of the time, but many act from emotional or personality motives most of the time.
  • Most people will do “the right thing” most of the time, but many people will do “the wrong thing” much of the time.
  • Some people will act in their own logical, informed, intelligent, long-term self-interest some of the time, but most people will act in their impulsive, emotional, uninformed, short-term self-interest most of the time.

Why am I bothering to say these things that most of you already know are true? Because how people act governs how a particular political and economic system will or won’t work.

People Don’t Act The Way You Think They Should Act

Sorry if you don’t like these facts. Sorry if you think people should all be good and moral and caring and generous and nice and responsible, but they’re not.

Most are most of the time. That incorruptible 15% is. Most of the 75% in the middle are pretty good people, but 4% or 5% of the population will commit a crime if they think they can get away with it and at least another 10% will act very badly if they see some money in it, and probably at least another 15% or 20% will act rather badly if given the right incentive and little chance of getting caught.

The number of car break-ins in San Francisco’s Mission District went up a whopping 182% in one year when the law was changed to vastly reduce the punishment for that type of crime.

I know, you want to believe that people will act the way you think they should act, but they won’t. They act the way they want to, not the way you want them to.

See my column: The Maddening Personality Trait That Screws Up The World. It’s Not Arrogance Or Greed Or Any Of The Usual Suspects. It’s “The Ostrich Syndrome.”

People drive drunk. They cheat on their spouses. They take drugs. They beat their wives. They work as little as they can get away with. They drive too fast. They make foolish choices.

This is the human race.

It doesn’t matter how you or I think people should act.

It doesn’t matter what you or I think people should do.

The only thing that matters is how humans really do act in the real world.

Insisting on running a family, a company, an economy or a society in accordance with your theoretical ideas about how people ought to act instead of how people really do act, enacting or repealing laws based on a wished-for fantasy about how humans act instead of reality, is absolutely guaranteed to generate disastrous results.

Just ask the communists.

How Human Nature Interacts With Economic Theories


The communists designed their economic system on the assumption that people were (or could be made to be) generous, altruistic and charitable.

They assumed that once they explained to people how fair it was for everyone to work as hard as they could and then for them all to share the money that was principally earned by the smart, talented, hard-working people, that everyone would be willing to do that.

Ridiculous, right? In fact, one might say downright stupid. But that didn’t stop the true believers from being absolutely convinced that communism would work great. All they had to do was change human nature from what we know it to be into a kinder, gentler form.

We all know how well that worked.

But the communists aren’t the only ones who’ve constructed a political religion based on a false idea of how humans act.

[NOTE: I wanted to also address the Liberals fantasy beliefs about the inherent virtues of the working class and the great social benefits they are sure will be created by giving poor people free money so that they can quit their jobs and engage in an orgy of creative invention but this post was getting too long. Maybe next time.]


Libertarians believe that almost all people, almost all of the time, act in their logical, well-informed, intelligent best interest, that they carefully pick the best products and reward the sellers of high-quality goods and punish the sellers of shoddy goods.

Libertarians believe that almost all people, almost all of the time, know which products and services are high-quality and which are of poor quality, which are healthful and which are toxic, and that they not only have the ability to choose the good ones from the bad but that they actually do generally pick the good products and avoid the bad ones so much so that they drive the bad products out of the market.

Libertarians believe that sellers “know” that almost all people will choose good products almost all of the time and that therefore the sellers choose to make only good products because that is how they will gain more sales.

None of those ideas match how many real people and real sellers act.

The real people in the real world fail much of the time to act in their rational, intelligent, well-informed, long-term self-interest.

The real sellers in the real world know that many consumers often do not act in their well-informed, rational, intelligent, long-term, economic self interest.

The real sellers in the real world are not interested in more sales. They are interested in more profit, and fewer sales with a lower unit cost are often more profitable than more sales with a higher per unit cost.

To demonstrate this, let’s run a little thought experiment.

Life Is More Important To People Than Money

What’s more important to people, their money or their lives? Their lives, right?

If you had the choice of gaining or losing a few hundred dollars or gaining or losing your ability to walk or to see or live, you’d choose to risk the money instead of your life, right?

I think it’s fair to say that we can expect people to be far more careful about risking their lives and their health than they are about just risking some money.

OK, in this context of people being more highly motivated to protect their lives than they are to protect their money, let’s examine the libertarian’s “We don’t need any laws because people will automatically protect themselves by acting in their own self-interest” theory.

Repeal All Traffic Laws

The libertarians would say that traffic laws aren’t needed because people will automatically drive safely because driving badly risks their lives and heath.

The libertarians would say that people won’t speed or run red lights or drive drunk because they know that such conduct could result in a crash that might injure or kill them; that since most people most of the time act in their rational, well-informed, intelligent, logical, long-term self-interest, most people most of the time will drive very safely and carefully because doing so will be in their own self-interest and therefore traffic laws are unnecessary.

OK, suppose we accept the libertarian’s argument and we repeal all traffic laws.

Do you think that the almost everyone will drive safely and carefully?

Do you think that almost no one will drive too fast, make dangerous turns, drive drunk, drive without a license, or drive recklessly because doing so would be counter to their enlightened, logical, unemotional, long-term, and intelligent self-interest?

If you do I have a bridge I would like to sell you.

I think that many people, much of the time, work from emotion, rage, impatience, different levels of risk taking, self-delusion, a short-term desire for pleasure, stupidity, foolishness, arrogance, etc.

The libertarians will say that bad drivers, like bad sellers, will choose to drive responsibly because they know that driving badly will may well get them injured or killed.

Do you think that’s true?

The libertarians will say that those few bad drivers who don’t choose to drive carefully will get into wrecks and soon take themselves off the roads leaving only the good drivers behind.


Or will the bad drivers continue to drive badly because humans often don’t act from motives of reason, intelligence, and long-term planning but rather from non-rational motivations?

And what about the good drivers who are crashed into by the bad drivers?

Libertarians will say that careful drivers will be able to avoid the bad drivers by keeping a good watch out just like consumers will be able to avoid the bad products by being careful shoppers. Just keep an eagle eye out and be ready to swerve out of the way of that drunk Mr. Good Driver and you’ll be fine.

Don’t worry. You don’t need those traffic laws to keep the bad drivers off the roads. Why, hell, eventually, once he misses you, that bad driver will crash into a tree or a bridge and will injure no one but himself.

Just like the bad producers whose products will be so avoided by the careful shoppers that he’ll quietly go into bankruptcy without hurting anyone.

Does that argument bear the slightest relationship to reality? Is that how you see things working in the real world with real humans?

Allowing Bad Conducts Results In More Bad Conduct

In fact, things work just the opposite. When things that were illegal become legal, more people do them, not fewer. Monkey see, monkey do.

If I see cars blasting by me I’m liable to drive even faster. If the other people at my table are drinking and driving, that makes it more likely that I will drink and drive.

Do you think that repealing traffic laws will increase good driving and decrease drunk driving?

Do you think that good drivers will be able to protect themselves from the bad drivers, that bad drivers will disappear either from realizing that driving carefully is good for them or because they will kill themselves without hurting any innocent people?

Again, if you do, please call me to talk about financing your purchase of the bridge.

Consumers Are Like The Good Drivers

Why would any person with even half a functioning brain think that repealing consumer protection laws will increase the number of safe and effective products any more than repealing traffic laws will increase the number of good drivers?

Do you think that consumers will be able to protect themselves from bad sellers any more than motorists will be able to protect themselves from bad drivers?

Do you think that sellers of bad products will suddenly choose to make good products any more than bad drivers will decide to become good drivers?

Do you think that sellers of bad products will go out of business without screwing anyone along the way anymore than bad drivers will kill themselves without taking any good drivers with them?

People Want Money — Bad Products Can Be Profitable

In the short term bad products are profitable. At last in the short term and often in the long term, they make money. People want money. The at least 15% of the population who are willing to do bad things in order to make money will happily make bad products because they can make a lot of money from them.

In the same way that turning loose bad drivers encourages others to drive badly, when people who make bad products are seen to be making money from them, that encourages others to get into the bad-product business.

In the same way that bad drivers cutting you off and racing ahead of you encourages you to drive more aggressively, bad products put competitive pressure on manufacturers of good products to cheapen their own products in order to compete.

The problem isn’t that all producers will make bad products. It only takes a few bad producers, 5% or 10%, to wreck great harm.

Theories Based On Imaginary People Acting In Imaginary Ways Are Failures

When you apply the libertarian’s theory that a society doesn’t need rules because people will act properly on their own to another real-world activity like driving, the theory’s flaws become immediately apparent.

In reality, the libertarians just want a world without rules, and if the rest of us have to live in a traffic nightmare of car crashes and drunk drivers that’s fine with them because all that really matters to them, in the end, is that everyone lives in a World Without Rules, and to them the anarchy is worth it no matter what it costs everyone else.

If the world were populated solely by brilliant angels who were thoroughly charitable, cooperative, self-sacrificing, altruistic, and non-materialistic then communism might work.

If the world were populated solely by brilliant, emotionless robots who acted only from logic, long-term economic self-interest, and perfect commercial knowledge then maybe some of the libertarian’s ideas might work.

The real world is, in fact, populated by humans who are substantially emotional, greedy, foolish,unethical, mean, short-sighted, selfish, and stupid. Neither communism nor libertarianism can ever work well in such a world.

— David Grace (www.DavidGraceAuthor.com)

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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