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.