The Decline Of Violence

Posted by | October 10, 2011 20:54 | Filed under: Top Stories

by Stuart Shapiro

We could use some good news.  Steven Pinker has a new book out that is apparently magisterial in scope, examining trends in violence across societies and across the centuries.  Pinker gives us some good news about the progress of the human condition (from the review by Peter Singer):

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

And why has this happened?

Pinker sees this decline as part of the “civilizing process,” a term he borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias, who attributes it to the consolidation of the power of the state above feudal loyalties, and to the effect of the spread of commerce. (Consistent with this view, Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.)

Fascinating stuff.  We seem to be fighting these trends with everything we’ve got (trying to shrink government and spread the use of guns) but so far we thankfully have been able to counterbalance our progression toward greater civilization and less violence.  Singer’s review does end on a sour note:

Solomon Hsiang and colleagues at Columbia University used data from the past half-century to show that in tropical regions, the risk of a new civil conflict doubles during El Niño years (when temperatures are hotter than usual and there is less rainfall). If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living.

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Copyright 2011 Liberaland
By: Stuart Shapiro

Stuart is a professor and the Director of the Public Policy
program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers
University. He teaches economics and cost-benefit analysis and studies
regulation in the United States at both the federal and state levels.
Prior to coming to Rutgers, Stuart worked for five years at the Office
of Management and Budget in Washington under Presidents Clinton and
George W. Bush.

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