Is the decline of violence a good thing?

10000 BC miniature set

Ian Welsh with a thoughtful piece. I’ve thought about this, too — there are so many cameras everywhere, people are less violent — but also more aware of being under surveillance:

Stephen Pinker, in 2011, for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article on the decline of violence, arguing that it has been decreasing for thousands of years for a number of reasons, including the rise of states.  Pre-state periods had a lot of violence (15% according to Pinker.)  This sweeps a lot of pre-history into the basket (violence was not that high when humans were far below carrying capacity), but I’m willing to grant the point for the sake of argument.

What I want to say is something different: the decline of violence due to repression has a price.  To be sure, a subject of the Pharoahs was much less likely to be killed by their neighbour.  But they had a vastly increased incidence of disease, worked far longer hours, lost their teeth by the time they were 40, were forced to labor for their overlords and not allowed to keep much of the proceeds of their own labor, almost certainly died more frequently in childbirth, and didn’t live as long if they avoided a death by violence.

The power of the state is, as Pinker notes, used to reduce violence so that assets useful to the state (people) are not destroyed.  But the state’s primary means of reducing violence is that it is much better at violence than individuals or small groups.  People put up with living conditions and political conditions they would not put up with if they had recourse to violence.  (They also don’t get as involved in feuds and so on, which is a good thing.)

This is visible even in very recent history in the United States.  Everyone likes to go on about how violence was reduced in the United States from the 80s on, or so.

So was equality.  This is not unrelated.  The more powerful the means of repression, the less violence there will be

That doesn’t mean that reductions in violence always mean reductions in equality.  But all other things being equal, a reduction in the capacity for non state/government/chieftain violence will generally lead to a reduction of equality, and that loss of equality will lead to an increase in other types of suffering (inequality is correlated with everything bad from heart attacks to depression, even controlling for objective material possessions.)

2 thoughts on “Is the decline of violence a good thing?

  1. The worst violence in human history occurred 75 odd years ago, so Pinker’s premise is ridiculous on its face. At least 50 million people died during WWII. But how many more people died during the course of that war nobody really knows.
    How best to reduce violence is an age-old philosophical debate.
    That’s because, for the most part, violence is a state of mind.
    The Right (Fascists) believe that violence can and should be controlled by force. With either physical or psychological force or a combination of the two. Hence the cameras all over the place tracking everyone’s movements, and the NSA tracking everyone’s thoughts. The Right’s final solution to the so-called “evil doers” is instant or prolonged death. Through war, drone attacks, executions or imprisonment. The use of Fear.
    The Left (Communists) thinks about this issue in a completely different way. They believe that, except for an aberrant few who prove the rule, people do not like violence. And the really don’t like violence visited upon them. Either physical or psychological. The Left thinks that tracking people’s movements with cameras or reading their thoughts will result, sooner or later, in a lashing out. It will cause violence. The Left also thinks that killing people will, at some point, force those being killed to strike back.
    Therefore the Left believes that all war (violence) is counter-productive. As is the physical tracking of people, spying on their thoughts and words, or trying to control their movements. The use of Peace.
    The Left pretty much believes what the Founding Fathers believed when they wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

  2. I think they’re talking about violent domestic crime – not wars. The article does say the state is far more violent than the individual.

    I’ve read (and it seems somewhat plausible) that recognizing the effects of lead poisoning and getting it out of gasoline, paints, etc., in the 70s had the effect of reducing violent crime. There are graphs out there and the correlation is startling.

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