The end (almost) of violence

In my previous post, I referred to the “peaceful times” in which we live. That’s counterintuitive for many people, for two reasons: First, modern communications make them aware of far more, and more widely spread, instances of violence than they would have known of in previous eras. And second, those things grab our attention — indeed, they are reported in the first place — because they stand out as exceptions to the peaceful rule.

There’s a very good piece in The Wall Street Journal today (there are always so many wonderful pieces in that paper on Saturdays — the only day I take now, after my subscription price more than doubled) taking the long view, and explaining why “we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence.” None of what it says is surprising or new — except perhaps for the statistics — but it’s nice when someone takes a moment and pulls it all together.

In “Violence Vanquished,” Steven Pinker describes six major declines in violence through human history. The first is one that our friends who believe that government is the worst plague ever visited upon mankind should contemplate:

The first was a process of pacification: the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering and horticultural societies in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history to the first agricultural civilizations, with cities and governments, starting about 5,000 years ago.

For centuries, social theorists like Hobbes and Rousseau speculated from their armchairs about what life was like in a “state of nature.” Nowadays we can do better. Forensic archeology—a kind of “CSI: Paleolithic”—can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control.

These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states. Tribal violence commonly subsides when a state or empire imposes control over a territory, leading to the various “paxes” (Romana, Islamica, Brittanica and so on) that are familiar to readers of history…

Since those days, violent death has shrunk to less than 1 percent, even if you factor in war-caused disease and famine. Oh, and we’re not just talking about good or benevolent government. Even the plunder economy of the Romans had its positive effect:

It’s not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss—forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves…

And this is not just about pointing out how wrong the Tea Party is (although deeply wrong it certainly is). Some of our other friends on the left view commerce as though the taking of profit itself were inherently evil and destructive to mankind. Quite  the contrary; it is a civilizing force just as is a well-ordered government (which is why the haters of government and the socialists are both wrong):

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.

Finally, back to that matter of perception. If you wish to be simplistic, you can say it’s “the media’s fault,” for always telling you about the bad things rather than the good. If you ever spent, say, a month having to make decisions for a media outlet, you would realize how foolish that is. Even when times were flush, a newspaper’s or television station’s resources, and claim on your time, were finite. If you’re a town crier, your job is to tell people about the one house that’s on fire, so they can rise up and do something about it. You are useless if you instead say, “99.9 percent of the houses in the village are fine.”

That’s not to say I don’t decry the effect. In the grand scheme, media have had a devastating effect on society simply by playing their rightful role as government watchdogs. Over time, readers have come to the shockingly erroneous conclusion that government is nothing but crooks and waste, and the ability of government to be that civilizing force has been seriously weakened. As for violence — one of the most distressing developments of recent years in media is the rise of 24/7 TV news, which creates unlimited time that has to be filled. Consequently, violent crimes that would have been purely local stories 30 years ago are now thrown in the faces of the world constantly. There’s always something bad happening somewhere. This type of coverage creates the impression that it’s happening everywhere all the time.

If you can gain access to the full piece, it’s worth reading. So might be Mr. Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

16 thoughts on “The end (almost) of violence

  1. Nettie

    This is about broader trends, which the Tea Party is not. I’m curious why you found it relevant to point out that it’s wrong.

  2. Nettie

    The article talks about the hunter-gatherers, the Romans, the media, as large movements lasting hundreds of years. The Tea Party does not fit in this category. Why mention it?

  3. Brad

    Because it’s a recent manifestation of false idea that humanity would be just fine without government.

    For some reason, as I was typing that, I was thinking particularly of someone in this video from a Tea Party rally awhile back (more specifically, a rally “hosted by SC Republican Governor Nikki Haley and Republican Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann on April 18, 2011”), who said, “Government is the greatest evil ever perpetrated on the human race.” (At 3:15 in the video.)

  4. Phillip

    It all sounds pretty plausible, except for the elephant in the room: nuclear weaponry. The statistics could change in the relative blink-of-an-eye. Pinker lauds the decline in the overall violence of the world since the end of the Cold War, but isn’t it possible that the 20-year period that has intervened since then could turn out to be the pause before the storm, the exception, not the rule? A Cold War (and one that could heat up quickly and catastrophically) between an America that does not want to cede its position as the most powerful nation in the world and a ever-more-powerful China is certainly not out of the realm of possibility. One nuclear exchange between superpowers and Mr. Pinker’s book will seem a little silly, that is, if you can find an extent copy that hasn’t been turned to radioactive dust.

  5. Phillip

    I just meant to add to the above that, the overall statistical decline of violence notwithstanding, mankind never had the ability to more-or-less eradicate itself until the last 60 years. I’ve always felt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the main reasons nuclear weapons have not been used again; but as those fade out of living memory entirely, it seems impossible to believe that they will be remain the first and last use of such weapons.

  6. Brad

    Here’s another way to look at that: Today, you can have far more fatalities from a single act of violence. That doesn’t mean the incidence of violence isn’t declining.

    Nuclear war is the extreme example of that. It’s probably more meaningful to speak in terms of the car bomb. One violent act, many deaths. For most of human history, that was impossible.

    Pinker’s point would probably be better made if he counted acts of violence, not deaths. His observations would still be valid.

  7. Brad

    Yet another way to look at it, and this DOES undermine his thesis…

    The modern state has effects that reduce the number of overt acts of violence. However…

    Several of those things that have militated to reduce violence — the rise of the state, commerce, people learning to cooperate and live with people different from themselves — all make a modern economy possible. That means they make modern technology possible.

    Further, it takes the resources of a state to develop something as complex as a nuclear weapon. (At least, it has so far. But even if someone makes one in his garage some day, he’ll only be able to do so because a state pointed the way — developed the technology upon which manufacture of such a weapon would be based.)

    So, the irony here is, we’re less violent — but if we’d remained savages, we’d still be carrying knives and spears around, and our individual capacities for mayhem would be less.

  8. Ralph Hightower

    If it Bachman’s belief that “Government is the greatest evil…”, then she should not serve in a government role, as a legislator, president, VP, or judge.

    It appears that Bachman prefers anarchy over civilization. Perhaps, she should move to a country where government doesn’t exist. I suggest Somalia.

    She’s probably not familiar with former British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill or one of his quotes: “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.”

  9. bud

    Modern liberalism is a wonderful, benevolent and effective way to run our country. It is a true force of good in the world. Liberals don’t hate folks who make lots of money we just recognize the obvious fact that most EXTREME wealth is not really earned but is rather a sort of spillover cost to society. We just want these extremely fortunate people who benefit to such an extent to pay their fair share to tweak the economy a bit and make it much, much better for millions who are less fortunate.

    Modern conservatisim on the other hand fails to understand the luck component of the wealthy and tend to favor policies that further skew the economic system in their favor. They seem willing to allow 99% concentration of wealth into the hands of 1% of the people.

    This is not a matter of “hate” or “envy” and certainly not “class warfare”. Rather this is simply an acknowledgement that our great nation can be much greater, stronger and ultimately more prosperous for all Americans. But if the GOP continues it’s income transfer (to the wealthy) politics the whole nation, including the wealthy will one day suffer.

  10. bud

    To finish my point, it seems that the rise of liberalism was a great force in creating an environment that helped reduce violence. Just look at the very low levels of violence in Europe. The relatively consertative situation in the U.S. has been far less effective in that regard. Given enough time our level of violence is likely to head back up again if the Tea Party gains further power.

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    It’s Dr. or Professor Pinker. FWIW, he’s a linguist-psychologist. Used to be @ MIT, now at Harvard. He has lived in the People’s Republic of Cambridge (MA) for decades. He’s the linguistic relativist– the one who says good grammar is that which sounds correct to an educated native speaker. He’s not an absolutist, so he might not believe anyone would pull the trigger on the absolute Doomsday weapon.

  12. Kathy

    Re: Income Redistribution
    I think a $1 trillion transfer (cash, food, housing subsidies, and medical care) to “the poor” in the United States each year might be close to enough. I think a system in which a person who graduates from college and works quite hard has a good chance of attaining the same monthly net income as a person who receives several government subsidies needs to be reconsidered. I believe that we may need more helping hands and less permanent support for able-bodied citizens. I definitely think the topic needs more research and discussion.

  13. Bart

    Just out of curiosity, could someone please cite one example of a member of the Tea Party committing an act of violence against another person? Has any member pulled out a weapon and shot, stabbed, assaulted, or inflicted injury to anyone you are aware of?

    I’m not addressing unsubstianted charges of inciting another person to commit a violent act, but actual, proveable acts.

    Anyone with veriable facts to share?


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