Saturday, October 1, 2011

The decline of violence


Steven Pinker, a Harvard University psychologist, argues in his new book (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined) that violence in the world has declined for five reasons:

1.    Humans have pacified their societies, shifting from hunter-gatherers to agricultural civilizations with governments about 5000 years ago.

2.    Murder rates dropped over the last millennium as governments increasingly exercised a monopoly over violence.

3.    In the 18th century, governments widely abolished torture, reduced the number of capital crimes, ended slavery, and took other steps to reduce the level of violence.

4.    The number of interstate wars has declined since WWII; some historians refer to this as the long peace.

5.    The post-WWII increase in the number of civil wars (which are generally less lethal than interstate wars) stopped and then declined following the end of the Cold War.

Obviously, Pinker’s fourth and fifth observations are too recent to categorically affirm. However, he offers convincing arguments in support of his assessment.

The decline in violence is not attributable to human evolution. Evolution, even at its most rapid pace, occurs over multiple generations rather than decades. Pinker contends that three factors explain the decline in human violence:

1.    Governments, which attempt to monopolize the use of lethal force, are a major factor in the reduction of violence. This is bad news for anarchists and for the advocates of the best government is the smallest government possible.

2.    Commerce has also contributed to pacification, making peace and the trade that it facilitates a win-win proposition for all parties, unlike war in which the victor takes the spoils.

3.    Globalization – the flattening of the world and the cosmopolitan awareness associated with it – also contributes to increased pacification as people recognize that others share a common humanity and adopt the mutually beneficial ethic of reciprocal altruism.

(For a fuller exposition of his views, cf. his recent column, “Violence Vanquished,” in the September 24, 2011 Wall Street Journal.)

Peacemakers around the world can draw not only encouragement and hope from Pinker’s analysis but also suggestions about how to proceed. Effective governance that establishes respect for persons and justice through the rule of law contributes to decreasing violence. Promoting international commerce and globalization build community. For example, Pinker suggests that the U.S. and China, despite their cool relationship, increasingly have more to lose by fighting a war than either side would gain by being victorious in such a war.

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