Thom Hartmann, a talk show host on Air America, is always referring to the conundrum about human nature: is it basically good or basically evil. I think "evil" is a loaded word so I transcribe the question to good vs bad. Hartmann then goes on to say that the traditionally liberal position is that human nature is basically good and the traditional conservative position is that human nature is basically bad. This leads to liberal positions that government should be a "backstop", something that provides help for people in need such as universal health care etc, and conservative positions that government should be a police force or military, something that protects the good guys from the bad guys.
My question is: why can't government do both? Provide social protection such as education, health care, social security and provide police protection from the bad guys. In fact most governments do both so there isn't such a dichotomy as Hartmann imagines.
Returning to the basic question, I don't think there is such a thing as human nature in general. I think there is an aggregate of many human natures, and human nature spans the whole spectrum from good to bad. Some people are basically good and some are basically bad. Most are somewhere in between. The real question is "is the median human nature more good than bad or more bad than good or absolutely neutral, that is neither good nor bad." If bad is on the extreme right end of the spectrum and good is on the extreme left end, let zero represent the neutral point, negative numbers represent good points and positive numbers represent bad points. So the question becomes where does the median or average human nature lie.
My answer is that the average would be somewhere slightly to the right of zero or slightly bad. The reason is that I think people in general are basically selfish. For a person to be on the good side of the spectrum, he or she would have to balance selfishness with compassion, self-interest with caring for others. Since compassion and caring for others seem in short supply, on average, I don't think human nature is, on average, basically good although there have been examples of people who are basically good such as Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa, people who have devoted their lives to caring for others, people of immense caring and compassion.
However, just because the average human nature is more bad than good is no reason to say that government should be just a police force and that's it, that people should fend for themselves. You would have to be pretty far to the right on the spectrum before I would say that you don't deserve any help from society but only deserve punishment. Shouldn't liberal government serve the bad as well as the good, especially when the bad aren't totally and thoroughly bad? I think so. It just need not be suckered. There are people who will abuse and subvert any service. This has to be guarded against. So while serving with the left hand, government has to be willing to punish, if need be, with the right.
From a Darwinian perspective, human nature has evolved in such a way that under certain conditions bad people are more successful than good and under different conditions good people are more successful than bad. Under primitive, less civilized conditions, in conditions of lawlessness, bad people tend to win out. For several centuries after the fall of the Roman empire, for example, war parties and raiders massacred peaceable people, pillaged, raped and stole their property. Bad people prevailed driving out good. In more civilized societies where the rule of law prevails, good people tend to drive out bad by either imprisonment or execution. However, bad people because of their ruthlessness, tend to rise to the top and gain powerful positions in large organizations including government. They, therefore, are in a position to wreak havoc on entire human civilizations. At the same time many small individual selfish decisions can lead to destruction of the environment by ignoring the welfare of the commons and only being concerned with selfish welfare. Both of these tendencies could cause the extinction of the human race just as 90% or more of the species that have ever existed have become extinct.
Whether humans can rise the level of compassion and cooperation necessary to realize that their own collective selfishness is a threat to their quality of life and the cultivation of the commons is an enhancement remains to be seen. In some parts of the world, they seem to "get it." In other parts, not. It's a drama whose final chapter has not yet been written.