The psychologist explains why unfettered free markets don’t exist and the pandemic might not reshape society
Professor Steven Pinker has already eaten his lunch. ‘It’s rude to talk with food in your mouth so I did consume my lunch before our meeting,’ he tells me via Zoom. I glance at the spaghetti puttanesca I’ve prepared off-screen. It’ll have to wait.
He does, however, reassure me that he is in possession of ‘liquid’: a cup of ‘nice strong British tea’, which he raises to the camera (no milk, it must be mentioned). This is going to be more liquid than lunch, then. Fine.
Pinker, 65, is that rarefied species of public intellectual whose opinion is sought – and valued – on just about anything in the world that matters. A cognitive psychologist by trade (he lectures at Harvard), he has written several books on language and psycholinguistics, but his oeuvre has come to encompass a broader array of societal themes.
His entry into public consciousness came in 2011 with the publication of The Better Angels of Our Nature. The data-stacked opus examines how and why violence in societies has steadily declined. It was a critical success: Bill Gates called it ‘the most inspiring book I’ve ever read’. If Angels took Pinker mainstream, then 2018’s Enlightenment Now confirmed his status as a generational thinker.
The book passionately makes the case that the Enlightenment values of reason, science and humanism have brought about consistent human progress over time – a thesis that he displayed in 15 ways. Life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge and happiness are on the rise, folks, if you haven’t noticed. The Microsoft founder called that one ‘my new favourite book of all time’.
But as well as turning Pinker into an intellectual A-lister, Enlightenment Now also made him something of a lightning rod.
The book has provoked everything from cartoons to fierce criticism. The New Statesman’s John Gray was among the harshest critics, deriding the ‘embarrassing’ treatise as ‘a feeble sermon for rattled liberals’. The intensity of the debate that Pinker’s views have aroused is at odds with the warm and disarming manner of the genteel man on screen. If there’s an ego here, it’s hard to detect on first impression.
If anything, the most remarkable part of the screen in front of me is Pinker’s sprightly ashen hair. We’ve connected to discuss, of course, coronavirus. The pandemic has forced changes to daily life around the world, and these changes have led to a wider conversation about society.
Deepening fault lines in inequality and wealth have been painfully exposed. Among policymakers and business leaders, there is a serious conversation about whether things once thought sacrosanct, such as free-market capitalism, can continue in their current shape. For Pinker, this debate over free-market capitalism is ‘misguided’. His position is that there is a failure on the ‘part-libertarian right and the socialist left’ to draw a ‘sloppy equation of free-market capitalism with anarchocapitalism’.
Simply put: there is no such thing as a country without some form of regulation and social safety net – and this is unlikely to change.
‘Unbridled, untrammelled free-market capitalism doesn’t exist,’ he states. Instead, it’s a question of degrees. ‘It doesn’t prove that the libertarian fantasy of an unregulated free market is impossible. Maybe there is some daring country in the future which will try to dismantle its regulatory framework and social safety net that would have better outcomes of any existing society.
But it seems unlikely that after a century of expanding the social safety net – including in the United States, the country that would seem to be most ideologically hostile to it – it’s telling us that you really cannot have a free-market democracy without regulation and redistribution, partly because there are many people who simply have nothing to offer the market in exchange for sustenance.’
But has a new standard for redistribution been set? I mention the UK’s furlough scheme as an example of the state picking up the bill. Will the pandemic yield a shift in what people expect of their governments?
Again, Pinker gently pushes back. ‘There’s a great temptation to predict that measures that we’re living with now will be sticky, and one has to be sceptical of those predictions. If in two years there is an effective vaccine, and a combination of social distancing, sanitation, antivirals, vaccines and herd immunity returns life to something closer to normal, how many of the measures that we’ve taken in the emergency will people want to retain? It’s so easy to imagine the present as the way things always will be, but I expect there is a lot of overestimation of how much inertia there will be.’
Still, he concedes there will be ‘some’ change, mentioning face-to face meetings. ‘People will probably see that so much can be accomplished on video-conferencing platforms,’ he says. It’s almost comically modest when compared to some of the epochal changes that several blue-sky thinkers have been positing.
What about his central idea of human progress, a notion that underpins his career’s writings? Does Covid-19 pose a setback to it? Pinker grows animated.
‘When it comes to the pandemic and whether it challenges the idea that progress is a genuine phenomenon, I think it reveals a common misunderstanding of the nature of progress,’ he states. The misconception holds progress as an ‘idea that bad things can never happen again, that things automatically get better and better by itself’. Instead, these forces of the universe and nature are ‘indifferent to our wellbeing’.
‘The threat of infection has always been with us, as long as complex life has existed,’ he says. ‘The problem that this consists of is not that there is some cosmic escalator, but rather that to the extent that we use human ingenuity to fight back against the forces that grind us down [and] can make incremental improvements. We can remember the things that work, discard the experiments that don’t, and chop away at the problems that afflict us.’
Problems are inevitable, he says, and even some solutions create new problems: ‘There is something not quite Sisyphean about progress, but it always has to overcome the forces that are dragging us own.’
Coronavirus is one such force. ‘It’ll be terrible but it will be temporary,’ he says, taking a sip of tea. Despite the apparent rosiness of this assessment, it’s not to be framed in terms of optimism and pessimism, but instead as ‘an argument against fatalism’.
‘To the extent that we do apply reason and science to humanistic aims – that is, making people better off as opposed to other aims like maximising national glory or the race of the culture or the class – then progress is possible,’ he says. ‘It’s conditional optimism, rooted in the understanding that left to themselves things get worse, that only by the application of ingenuity and concern for our fellow humans that progress can take place.’
Case closed, then. I might not have had lunch, but the conversation with Pinker has left me plenty to chew on. His central thesis is presented with such dexterity that it sounds obvious beyond question. So I don’t.
The pandemic is a blip, unfettered free markets are a myth, and the steady march of progress continues. He might not call it optimism, but it’s certainly reassuring. Time to reheat the pasta.
Illustration: Russ Tudor
This piece was first published in issue 75 of Spear’s magazine