Arnold Kling  

Violence, Anarchy, and the State

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Steven Pinker writes


the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short--not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence--don't strike first, retaliate if struck--but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.

These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.

We certainly can point to state-inflicted violence in this century: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and so on. However, Pinker points out that the rate of violence has actually declined over the course of history. He does not necessarily view the emergence of strong states as the cause for this decline.


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CATEGORIES: Political Economy



COMMENTS (26 to date)
Unit writes:

Mafias thrive off government hand-outs.

Sulla writes:

>This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence--don't strike first, retaliate if struck--but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta.

This is kind of wrong because it assumes that they have any scores to settle at all.

It's also worthy to explore the possibility of people not attacking each other because it's irrational, that is, more costly than to simply do business with others.

MikeP writes:
Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources.

The argument is a fair one for a prehistoric, agricultural, or even early industrial society with its penchant for colonialism.

But the richer and more advanced a society is, the less of the actual wealth of another society that can be stolen, and the more costly war is to it. When intangible capital is three-quarters of the wealth of a society, even foregone trade may outweigh the value of the resources that can be captured.

All indications point to decreased conflict between economically advanced societies. In fact, as societies get richer and economies more interconnected, the only tendency toward greater conflict is that people are so rich that they don't care about losing half their wealth in nationalistic pursuits.

In other words, it could be argued that for advanced societies it is nationalism and the state itself that provides the greatest impetus, intentionally or unintentionally, toward war.

simone writes:

Pinker is not reading the current psych, soc or behavioral economic literature when he makes such assertions. We see altruism and self policing behaviors rampant in the literature. I suggest that the behaviors Hobbes was speaking of where largely rhetorical and rooted in dynamics that should not be generalized without accounting for the political system where they were observed.

df writes:

Godwin's Law for the win!

Hobbes and Locke disagreed a bit on this point, but I think the founding fathers struck the right balance in granting the right to the state while giving us the 2nd amendment (we don't necessarily have the right to use weaponry, but can't be disarmed en masse by the state).

@MikeP, I'm a bit skeptical that the general proclivities of humans have changed in the last 200 years or so as you seem to imply. Besides that, you are assuming that people are rational and utility maximizing in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Give me a break.

Andrew writes:

Are states and mafias any different, except in scale?

darjen writes:
Pinker points out that the rate of violence has actually declined over the course of history.

Declined? Seriously? How was the 20th century not the most violent era of human history?

Life may have been brutish and short during Thomas Hobbes day. But to say that democractic government is the be-all and end-all of civilization flies in the face of human advancement.

These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence.

No... no they can't.

David writes:

One thing to consider is that violence is nearly inevitable when there just isn't enough---i.e., there is less population carrying capacity than there is population. The great wave of New World colonization, the industrial revolution, and finally, the Green Revolution gave some populations a reprieve from the Malthusian historical norm. Most of our modern, enlightened moral norms are luxury goods paid for by the massive energy surpluses afforded us by fossil fuels. Is it an accident that the first real moralistic anti-slavery movement came hard on the heels of industrialization and the safety valve of the colonies for excess population? I think not.

Mark Seecof writes:

That Weberian formula (often expressed as "monopoly of force"), which has become such a cliche that Pinker parrots it without thought, does not describe either the State Pinker seems to long for nor the State we (20th Century Americans) nor our forebears actually live(d) under.

Our State claims monopolies on violent aggression and revenge, but leaves the market open for defensive violence. Our State permits everyone to utilize violence in self-defense or the proper defense of another. The prospect of defensive violence deters aggression.

Pinker repeats a common but baseless notion that violence prospers (only) in regions without strong State control. Research has revealed that (despite the image created by countless movies and TV shows in need of violent stories to maintain dramatic interest) the lightly-policed American frontier areas of the 19th Century were mostly much less violent than the supposedly well-policed American cities of the latter 20th Century. In the England of the present day, the State claims a total monopoly on violence for all purposes, but it cannot make this claim good-- so it leaves the law-abiding to the dubious mercies of violent criminals. In England today the rate of criminal violence is much higher than in the United States. This was not always so and the fact of it surprises many people today whose notions of England are outdated, but it is a natural consequence of State overreaching.

The State cannot even in theory prevent all aggression-- it can only deter some aggression, and react to the rest slowly (for the State to react to an act of aggression it must first learn of it, presumably from the complaint of the victim. By the time that cry is heard much of the damage will have been done). Only self-defense, though it is also reactive, can come in time to beat off (rather than merely deter) an attack. Of course the prospect of encountering defensive violence also helps deter aggression.

To maintain a true monopoly on violence the State would need to impose absolute deterrence. That is impossible. It might not be impossible to maintain a fairly high level of deterrence, but it would be costly-- the State would have to react very strongly to violence and punish it both certainly and severely. Furthermore, to maintain a true monopoly on violence the State would have to punish self-defenders. That would have the perverse effect of privileging aggressors over their victims because potential aggressors could choose whether to risk any punishment, but potential victims would be forced in all cases to accept punishment-- either from an aggressor if the victim remained passive, or from the State if the victim attempted to defend himself.

We see in England today the consequences of a State claiming, but not maintaining, an absolute monopoly on violence. The English State does not punish aggressors severely enough to deter them (in fact, today's English government punishes aggression hardly at all), but it does punish self-defenders-- who are easier to catch! With the State encouraging aggressors by punishing anyone who resists them, the rate of aggression has predictably soared. In economic terms, the State has reduced the cost and therefore increased the consumption of aggression.

I doubt Pinker would prefer to live under a State which did claim a monopoly of violence, so he should moderate his language. There is no theoretical or practical reason to offer the State a "monopoly of violence (or 'force')." Rather, the State should recognize the legitimacy of private defensive violence and conserve its limited power of deterrence (by threat of punishment) by deploying that power only against aggressors.

(Above I simply assume the benevolence, or at worst, incompetence of the State. That assumption may not hold in reality. I will not address here the fascinating question: "How would the political leaders of a State which really possessed a monopoly of force act toward those who could not resist them in any way?" But please note that public-choice theory offers some reasons why an all-powerful State might not be such a good idea.)

Jim Glass writes:

We certainly can point to state-inflicted violence in this century: Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, and so on.

"It’s true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths.

"But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history.

"The actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot." -- Jared Diamond.

Troy Camplin writes:

As a percentage of population, Pinker is absolutely right. Elsewhere, including "The Blank Slate," he provides some numbers supporting his claim. This does not mean we shouldn't look at the internal dynamics of countries and declare that there is no question that communist countries slaughter extremely high percentages of their own people. Thus, we should avoid communism. We can also combine this data with the S-curve data of population growth, recognizing that the fall-off at the top of each S-curve results in huge, degastating wars, such as the fall-off of the 17th century -- around the time of the 30 Years' War -- and the fall-off at the beginning of the 20th century, correlating with WWI, WWII, and Stalinist USSR. We're back in the gorwth phase now, and that has correlated with even fewer deaths. But even if we include devastating transitional stages, we see reductions in violence and death over time. The less tribalist we are, the less violent we are. As we move away from any inkling of collectivism, in fact, the less violent we are.

Alex R. writes:

May I make one small alteration? "Any STATE with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence--don't strike first, retaliate if struck--but to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta." What's that...we have NOT invaded Canada yet? Even though they made fun of our maple syrup, and they have all that oil? And they're letting all the "aboot" jokes slide just like that?! But Hobbes said...but...but...

Lee Kelly writes:

Alex R.,

States don't have a self-interest; politicians, kings, emporers, and tsars have self-interest. When U.S.'s political institutions are arranged so that its leaders have almost unlimited discretionary powers, Canada should start fortifying the border.

Mark writes:

I love Pinker's work but that was subpar. He writes as if the sole factor in order is the coordination of violence. He overlooks the role of custom, norms, education, improved standards of living and the rule of law - i.e., having a law that controls the state's application of force - in moderating and taming violence.

Vichy writes:

Why do people always seem to think it's a choice between 'State' and 'Anarchy'. Sovereign bureaucratic states are probably the most atypical political organization in human history and anthropology. Anarchy is more typical than nation-states. Why would it be necessary to have a centralized leviathan instead of overlapping jurisdictions of relatively 'private' power? Note that this applies to Empires, City States and various tribal and feudal arrangements. Cvil sovereignty is an oddball mutant out of civic republicanism, which is largely responsible for things like the welfare state and communism. Such organizations are not possible without the absurd construct of a 'sovereign'.

Furthermore, 'law' does not enforce itself, and all true order is created by conventions and commerce, neither of which can states create; but they can easily destroy them.

MikeP writes:

I'm a bit skeptical that the general proclivities of humans have changed in the last 200 years or so as you seem to imply. Besides that, you are assuming that people are rational and utility maximizing in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Give me a break.

I don't claim that the general proclivities of humans have changed in the last 200 years. I claim that the general proclivities of humans are generally rational and generally utility maximizing. If you have a better explanation for the vast explosion in humanity's wealth brought in the last two centuries, I'd like to hear it.

I also don't claim that everybody is rational or that everybody is utility maximizing. But the wealthier the society, and the more of its capital that exists in intangible form, the more that the people who know why the society is wealthy and who care to keep it that way will prevent the violent collectivist morons from destroying it.

Troy Camplin writes:

I think what Pinker attributes to a strong state should rather be attributed to the spontaneous order evolution of morals. I think he would agree,if presented with the argument.

df writes:

@MikeP, thanks for the response.

I would argue that the explanation for increased wealth is that science & technology have made huge strides in the last 200 years and driven enormous reductions in cost in industrialized countries.

If human nature hasn't changed much over time (and if you've read Shakespeare I think you'll agree it hasn't), then the only thing that has changed at an "explosive" rate is technology.

Dano writes:

What's that...we have NOT invaded Canada yet?

Isn't the Canadian perspective of The War of 1812 that the war was between the U.S. and Canada and that Canada won? The U.S. invaded Canada but was pushed back.

Kurbla writes:

It is not clear what "state" really means.

But, lets say that state is a large territory with central government. So it is able to restrict free market.

In that case: state is not sole reason for decreased violence - it existed from very beginnings of the history, but it is necessary element of violence control. Humanity cannot survive if lot of independent individuals can obtain weapons of mass destruction. Can you imagine what would happen to New York if every citizen, every maniac, lunatic, religious fanatic, every dumped lover can purchase A-bomb for $199.99?

Only state can prevent such a scenario.

cputter writes:

I'm going to side with Locke on this one.

Pinker himself has pointed out that all societies posses some form of conflict resolution and that it's just as universal as conflict itself.

The most obvious mistake in the excerpts above is:

"States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression[...]"

Please point me to these angels in power that are disinterested in the penalties they so gladly dole out. I believe he meant to say the Law can be disinterested. Which certainly does not mean that it is disinterested, at least not when written down by mere mortals. Most importantly the rule of law does not require a state monopoly on violence to enforce it.

The majority of African societies are traditionally stateless and many of them have some form of customary law. The best example would be Somali Xeer which has provided them with the rule of law for many centuries. The whole of Africa is actually a pretty good example of nation states doing far more harm than good.

I'd also like to point out the 2.5 million individuals in American prisons, nearly half of them there for non-violent crimes. In what way is depriving someone of their freedom neither "nasty" nor "brutish"? Or punishing someone for a crime where there was no victim. In most states lauded by Pinker this would be the standard form of punishment.

"Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short"

This certainly is true. Though only because nature is harsh and does not come with any creature comforts built-in. It is we brutes that have tamed it and bent its forces to our advantage.

If Pinker's logic regarding anarchy is so inescapable how on earth did we escape it? Or does this logic not apply to his primitive intellectual forebears that were so kind as to found nation states out of purely altruistic desires to provide for our much needed punishment? And does he forget that we're still in a state of anarchy on a global scale? No New World Order just yet but we're amazingly capable of trade and travel between nearly all 200 something countries in the world. Must be a miracle breaking the laws of logic.

I'd gladly agree with him that violence has decreased and might arguably be at an all time low in human history. Though I ascribe this to increases in human productivity. The cost of violence has always been high (possible loss of life or freedom), either through punishment from authorities or retribution from victims. In more primitive economies bare survival requires arduous daily work, and the benefits of taking the fruits of someone else's labour are clear. Whereas for only a few hours of work a week today one can quite easily survive (without even needing to break a sweat), lead a very comfortable lifestyle comparatively in fact. The costs of honest work have become much lower.

I enjoy Pinker's views on Evolutionary Psychology and loved The Blank Slate. He mostly has a libertarian view on life though sometimes a more authoritarian streak shines through. I guess one can't have it all.

Niccolo writes:

I don't see how this logic of anarchy disintegrates with a central state. Pinker may argue that agents will have decreased expectations of success under a central state, but I'm not satisfied with that.

What he's really saying isn't so much that the central state brings about more peace is that it brings about an increase in consequences, or at least an increase in expectations for consequences. I think Pinker fails to realize, however, these consequences don't evaporate in the absence of a central state and barring significant evidence to suggest that a central state is more effective at instilling these expectation or executing the consequences without increases in direct and indirect negative externalities, I'm inclined to presume that markets are better than central planning.


To the blood vendetta thing, I think Pinker is watching too many movies. In cases not involving the drug trade, vendettas seem to be rather short lived and few and far between. Even so, between the specter of a large central state and a marginal increase in blood feuds, I'd much prefer the latter seeing as the horrors of the former are just too much to continue on.

MikeP writes:

df,

If you wish, you can allow that the social innovation of the liberal free market is a technology that did not exist until the 1700's, but whose application since then is the greatest single contributor to the explosion of wealth we see today.

In any event, the big difference between then and now is that the resources you can cart off after conquering your neighbors today are a pittance compared to the wealth you gain by trading with them. It does not require a belief that human nature has changed to accept that wealthier societies are less likely to foment violence when the costs are greater while the benefits are lower.

8 writes:

The U.S. invaded Canada during the Revolutionary War, and a successful war was waged against Mexico.

The chief argument against invading Canada (aside from the moral one) is that there's nothing to gain. It's totally dominated by the U.S. and makes its natural resources available on the free market. The cost to Canada of developing a major foreign alliance or creating a resource cartel would be a massive defense buildup.

Bill D writes:

Time warp?:) Hitler and Stalin and most of the death were in the previous century, not the current one.

Tom West writes:

Mark Seecof, I would avoid trying to make an argument based on recent British experience. It's about as valid as those arguing that Japan and Canada's gun control lead to much lower rates of violent crime.

It's awfully tempting to cherry pick data that supports one's thesis, but it simply means those advocating the other side will cherry pick their data as well and little light will be shed.

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