Saturday, December 10, 2016
Human Progress: (5) Life is More Peaceful
Perhaps the most fundamental principle of classical liberalism is the promotion of peaceful cooperation and the denial that violence is ever justified except in defense against violence. Those who join the Libertarian Party of the United States must pledge: "I certify that I oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals." Few people can honestly take that pledge, because many people think that violence or the threat of violence is justified in some cases to force people to do something that they would not voluntarily choose to do. Progressive liberals want to use coercion to enforce economic planning. Traditionalist conservatives want to use coercion to enforce social morality. And yet the liberal norm of non-violence has become ever more appealing in human history, particularly in the past few centuries, as indicated by the decline in many forms of violence. Liberalism has made life more peaceful and less violent than it has ever been.
The best book surveying the evidence for declining violence is Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). I wrote a long series of posts on Pinker's book from October of 2011 to January of 2012, and in April of 2014. I also have a chapter on Pinker in Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Pinker (2016). Pinker's argument shows the influence of James Payne's History of Force (2004), which lays out the reasoning for declining violence as founded in classical liberalism. Another good survey of this history that stresses the importance of taming the male propensity to violence is Robert Muchembled's A History of Violence: From the End of the Middle Ages to the Present (2012). Recently, the history of declining violence in England has been presented in James Sharpe's A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016). Max Roser shows the empirical data for declining violence in his articles under the categories "War and Peace" and "Violence and Rights."
In Roser's "Ethnographic and Archaeological Evidence on Violent Deaths," he attempts to collect every archeological and ethnographic record of violent deaths in non-state societies. I have noticed only one omission--the recent report (in January of this year) of prehistoric skeletal evidence for a prehistoric massacre of a foraging band found at the site of Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana in Kenya. I wrote a post on this. Roser started with Pinker's collection of the data. But he asked Pinker's critics to suggest corrections, and indeed he did correct a few mistakes after examining all of the original sources for Pinker's data and adding sources not included by Pinker.
Roser includes killings in both inter-group wars and intra-group homicides. And thus he sidesteps the debate over whether the evidence for violence among foraging bands shows warfare or only personal homicide--a debate that I have covered in various posts. He analyzes these violent deaths among non-state societies as both rates (homicies per 100,000 people) and shares (percentage of a sample of deaths that were due to homicide).
He concludes that there was much more violent death in the non-state societies studied by archaeologists and anthropologists than in modern state societies and in the world today. While he does not say so explicitly, Roser confirms the argument of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke that state of nature was a state of war, and that the establishment of formal government was necessary for the pacification of human life.
In "Homicides," Roser defines homicide as "unlawful death deliberately inflicted on one person by another person," which does not include interstate wars, civil wars, or genocides. His survey of the data shows a stunning decline from the Middle Ages to the present in the rate of homicides per 100,000 population per year in Western Europe and the English-speaking countries. Over the past century, a similar decline has appeared in many other countries around the world.
In the Netherlands and Belgium, for example, the homicide rate has dropped from 45 in 1450, to 25 in 1550, to 6 in 1625, to 2 in 1812. Italy has had the highest rates in Europe. But even here there has been a decline: 73 (1450), 47 (1550), 32 (1625), 18 (1812).
By 1960, homicide rates were down to around 1 for most European countries. There was a rise from the 1970s to the early 1990s, but then the decline resumed.
The homicide rates for the United States have generally been higher than in Canada and Europe: 1.2 in 1900, 9.7 in 1933, 4.5 in 1958, 10.55 in 1980, 10.4 in 1991, 5 today. The rates for the United States are highest in the American South.
Today, the lowest rates (around 1) are in Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. The highest rates are in South Africa (35), Columbia (36), Guatemala (43), Venezuela (46), and the Honduras (61). High rates are often associated with the violence of the drug trade.
In 1880, homicide rates were low in Northwestern Europe, but higher in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, and Greece). By 2000, all of Western Europe had low rates, and the higher rates were in Eastern Europe.
Low and middle-income nations tend to have higher homicide rates than do high-income nations.
Homicide is predominantly a male activity. In the United States, around 85% of the killers and around 75% of the victims are male. Most homicides are men killing men. And it's mostly young men (20-30 years old).
There is a problem, however, in visualizing the historical trend in homicide that also comes up in judging the historical trend in war. In looking at Roser's visual presentation of the data, do we really see a "decline" in homicide and war? If by decline we mean a line that smoothly slopes downward, then there's no such decline, because the lines show spikes up and down. So, for example, in the United States and Europe, homicide rates spiked upward from the 1970s to the mid-1990s, and then declined.
The same is true in examining the historical data for warfare. In Roser's "War and Peace over the Long Run," he presents a "Chart of Global Deaths in Conflicts since the Year 1400." Each pink circle represents one conflict. The size of the circle represents the absolute number of war deaths. The position of the circle on the y-axis represents the rate of war deaths (the number of deaths per 100,000 of world population).
This chart shows vividly that the two world wars of the first half of the 20th century were the most destructive conflicts in human history as measured by both the absolute number of deaths and the rate of deaths. World War Two--with 60 million deaths--stands out as the most deadly single conflict in human history. Thus, the empirical data would seem to deny the claim of Roser and Pinker that violence in war has been declining, because the data seem to show clearly that the 20th century was the bloodiest century in human history. That's the conclusion of Matthew White in his book The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities (2012). And yet both Roser and Pinker draw some of their data from White.
White ranks the Second World War as the worst atrocity of human history. But he also concludes his book by identifying the interconnected events stretching from the First World War to the deaths of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao as the "Hemoclysm" (Greek for "blood flood") as the Number 1 atrocity of human history, with a collective death toll of 150 million. How can this be reconciled with the argument for modern history showing a trend of declining violence?
One response from both Roser and Pinker is to point to the sharp decline in military violence after 1950 as showing that the violence of the first half of the 20th century was only a temporary deviation from a long historical trend of declining violence. As Pinker says, we can see World War Two as "an isolated peak in a declining sawtooth--the last gasp in a long slide of major war into obsolescence" (Better Angels, 192).
Another response to White's ranking of atrocities is to reinterpret the data. Roser's "Chart of Global Deaths in Conflicts" shows that while the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) was not the worst war in the absolute number of fatalities, it was almost as deadly as the two world wars in the rate of fatalities, measured as a proportion of the world population at the time.
Like Roser, Pinker uses the rate of fatalities in proportion to world population to revise White's ranking of atrocities. As I have indicated in a previous post, Pinker can be criticized for his manipulation of the numbers here. By changing White's numbers, Pinker can conclude that the Number 1 atrocity of all time was the An Lushan Revolt and Civil War in China in the 8th century, and World War Two drops to Number 9 on the list. (Roser does not mention the An Lushan Revolt, and it does not appear on his "Chart of Global Deaths in Conflicts," which goes back only to the year 1400.) Pinker's changing of the numbers seems dubious to me.
There is, however, one good argument for why the violence of the 20th century--particularly, the first half of the century--does not deny Pinker's theory of history as showing declining violence. The historical trend towards decreasing violence and increasing liberty depends on the spreading influence of classical liberal culture based on the principle that violence is never justified except in defense against violence. In the 80-year-long Hemoclysm seen by White, three illiberal individuals leading illiberal regimes were responsible--directly or indirectly--for most of the violent deaths: Stalin, Hitler, and Mao. White saw the communist regimes as responsible for 70 million deaths, which would justify ranking communism as the Number 1 atrocity--even greater than World War Two--except that it's hard to think of the whole communist movement as one event. That illiberal leaders and regimes have been the primary sources of violence in the 20th century confirms Pinker's argument for the pacifying effects of liberalism.
Because of the contingency of history, we can never be sure that illiberal movements will not arise and cause great disasters. Some day, we might see another Stalin, or Hitler, or Mao, or Pol Pot. Or we might see a global catastrophe emerge from the growing spread of illiberal Islamic radicalism or illiberal ethnic nationalism. (I have posts on such possibilities here, here, and here.) And that's why Pinker is clear in stating that there is no inevitability in the historical trend towards declining violence, because it could be reversed by illiberal turns (xxi, 361-77, 480). But insofar as classical liberal ideas and norms spread around the world, they can increase the odds in favor of declining violence, which is what has happened since World War Two.
Roser presents the data for this in his "War and Peace after 1945." Amazingly, while world population has increased dramatically--from 2 billion in 1945 to 6 billion in 2000, and then to 7 billion in 2010--the absolute numbers of war deaths has declined. In World War Two, over 60 million people were killed. But in the year 1949, global war deaths were down to 596,086. By 2007, global war deaths were down to 22,139.
The battle death rate (annual world-wide battle deaths per 100,000 people) has also declined: from 21.8 in 1949 to less than 1 in 2010.
Another change is that while today civil wars and civil wars with foreign intervention (like the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan) continue, interstate wars have almost ceased to exist.
But then, of course, many people today see increasing terrorism as the new form of global violence that we should fear. This popular perception began with the 9/11 attack, which was the single most deadly terrorist attack in human history--over 3,000 victims. So the 9/11 attack is similar to World War Two in appearing to refute the belief in declining violence in modern times.
Roser shows, in his article on "Terrorism," that if one includes terrorist attacks in Afghanistan since 2001 and Iraq since 2003, then terrorist violence appears to have skyrocketed since 2000. But if one excludes Afghanistan and Iraq as special cases, then the rate of deaths from terrorism world-wide has dropped since the 1980s and 1990s, as Pinker has argued.
Moreover, one can contend, as Roser suggests, that the illiberal War on Terror of the Bush administration initiated in response to the 9/11 attack has been the leading cause of terrorism. Roser quotes from Richard Clarke, a counter-terrorism expert: "Far from addressing the popular appeal of the enemy that attacked us, Bush handed that enemy precisely what it wanted and needed, proof tht America was at war with Islam, that we were the new Crusaders come to occupy Muslim land."
A liberal foreign policy would justify the use of military violence only in self-defense against violent attacks. Since Iraq had no connection to the 9/11 attack, the U.S. led invasion of Iraq had no justification as self-defense. Afghanistan in 2001 was connected to the 9/11 attack only insofar as there were Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Attacking these camps might have been justified as self-defense, but not the invasion of Afghanistan and the attempt at "nation-building," in using violence to enforce social and political goals in Afghanistan.
As Roser indicates in his analysis of data, terrorist violence has certainly increased in some parts of the world since 2001, particularly in parts of the Middle East and Africa, where Islamic Radicalism is strong. But even so, the global risk on average of being the victim of terrorist violence is extremely low compared with other causes of death. In 2010, the global death toll for terrorism was 13,186. By comparison the global death toll for tobacco was 6,000,000 and for road traffic accidents 1,209,000.
Thus, the empirical data for terrorist violence in recent decades is compatible with the historical data over long stretches of time that shows that life has become less violent and more peaceful in the modern world as shaped by the norms and habits of classical liberalism.