The WSJ has a fantastic article today on the decline of violence in humanity. You really must read the whole thing.
Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.
This claim, I know, invites skepticism, incredulity, and sometimes anger. We tend to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which we can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age. There will always be enough violent deaths to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from its actual likelihood.
He goes through evidence of incredible violence in pre-historical societies, where one in six died with a rock in his skull. He then goes on to the middle ages, when robbery and assault were as common in Europe as unemployed Spaniards are now. And he concludes with the current trend, where violence — both private and state-sponsored — are down to the lowest recorded levels ever.
The rise of capitalism and trade are strong drivers of this peaceful trend. It’s much easier to avoid violence when you can obtain things peacefully and aren’t starving. The rise of competent states has also played a role as governments have become legitimate sources of order, rather than organized gangs of plunder. Even the worst welfare state that Michael Moore could imagine doesn’t have a scratch on a typical 19th century mercantilist empire.
But the biggest reason for the recent collapse of violence?
The most immediate cause of this New Peace was the demise of communism, which ended the proxy wars in the developing world stoked by the superpowers and also discredited genocidal ideologies that had justified the sacrifice of vast numbers of eggs to make a utopian omelet. Another contributor was the expansion of international peacekeeping forces, which really do keep the peace—not always, but far more often than when adversaries are left to fight to the bitter end.
This is exactly what P.J. O’Rourke told me during a Q&A session in Austin. When communism fell, two-third of the world’s civil wars ended. And with them went most collective farming lunacy and a significant number of planned genocides.
There are a few other factors I would cite. Pinker dismissed the effect of nuclear weapons as violence has fallen in non-nuclear states. I think he’s wrong to. In a previous era, the US and USSR would have had a war at some point. Just thirty years ago, we would have seen more wars against Israel or open war between India and Pakistan. But nukes, ironically, by unleashing the greatest destructive in human history, have prevented wars. Hand-in-hand with his is American military power. Our ability to project power anywhere in the globe and our willingness to defend our allies has also prevented wars and bloodshed.
But I would also add that humans have found better outlets for our fundamentally violent nature. Sports, violent video games, violent movies, even shooting our mouths off on blogs — I would argue that all of these have worked to channel our aggressive instincts in harmless ways.
Violence will never leave human nature. We can’t stick a fork in the human experiment just yet. But we’re a good way there. And the experiment of the West — freedom, capitalism, science and the peaceful use of arms — is a big reason we’re so far along.