Arnold Kling  

From Poverty to Prosperity Watch

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How the Hive Mind Works... Boudreaux's Bet...

I am interviewed on Australian radio.

Also, Don Boudreaux recommends this talk by Stephen Davies. I assume that the "surprising prediction" to which Don refers is that young people today will live hundreds of years. I have been making that prediction for years, based on my reading of Aubrey de Grey. See Nonlinear Thinking. During the Q&A, Davies alludes to his thinking on political realignment. It sounds like he may be rediscovering what Virginia Postrel wrote in The Future and its Enemies.

As familiar as I was with the themes in the lecture, there were several ideas that struck me.

1. Davies draws a distinction between authority and power. Think of power as when people obey you out of fear. Authority is when people obey out of respect.

2. Until modern times government was an extension of the household. That is, a monarchy was a household, and thanks to cultural tradition it was a household with a great deal of authority.

3. The average person is much less violent than a few hundred years ago. Note that stating this in terms of the average person helps to get around the issue of violence undertaken by governments, which one could argue was at its worst in the 20th century.

a. Davies claims that in prehistoric times, the most common cause of death was homicide. What is his source for that claim? I am pretty sure that not every anthropologist would agree.

b. Davies points out that the criminal justice system now prosecutes more nonviolent crime than violent crime, when historically this was not the case. In addition, I would point out that the criminal justice system itself used to be much more violent, reflecting popular opinion.

c. Does the decline in the average person's propensity for violence reflect genetic changes? Perhaps selection mechanisms that once favored violence now favor the ability to get along in society. Or does it reflect cultural evolution--peer pressure now rewards restraint rather than violence? Or does it depend on social and economic conditions--are our violent impulses ready to resurface if we suffer a sudden loss of status?

d. Does the decline in the average person's propensity for violence increase the power of those who do engage in violence? I am thinking of terrorists and governments. My sense is that in the developed world the chances of violent revolution have fallen sharply. Eighty years ago, the level of violence in German politics was very high. Both the Communists and the Nazis were outlets for street thugs. There were attempts in the 1960's and 1970's to reintroduce violence into politics, such as the Weather Underground in the U.S. or the Red Army Faction in Germany (see Bryan's post), but these failed, perhaps because the average person's propensity for violence has declined. If governments do not have to fear violence from their own people, does that give them tremendous leeway to exercise power?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Zdeno writes:

In what sense did the violent radicals of the late 60's fail? They conquered the Universities, purged the what little remained of the traditional right, and implemented most of their policy agenda, although perhaps at a slower pace than they would have liked.

In terms of the current likelihood of violent revolution, the US in particular is in a precarious position, imo. The reigning political establishment is completely at odds with the USAF, police, militias, and pretty much anyone who knows which way to point a gun. Not exactly a recipe for stability.

And finally, consider the implications for the marginal return to violence for a given movement as the population's propensity to respond with violence goes down. Pacifism =/= a Nash equilibrium.

Cheers,

Zdeno

Les Cargill writes:

I recall that the original "Freakonomics" claims that violence is on some sort of exponential/log decay curve from prehistory. Don't have my copy handy, so working very much from memory.

Violent revolutions always, at least to me, seem to be more related to the structural failure of the existing regime. Regions like Africa are violent because no regime can develop critical mass. When South Africa was moved to unity by Nelson Mandela, it also became less violent. As to the Weather Underground or Red Army Faction - those were successfully defended-against by relatively robust regimes with healthy immune systems. Qutbist operatives in Egypt and other Arab climes have been more successful because regimes there are not as healthy. Please also note that excessive violence - in say, Iran in the '70s - may also be a sign of weakness.

Steve writes:

My intuition is that propensity to political violence will decline with wealth. Those in a wealthy society are comfortable and put much at risk if they engage in political violence, so they suffer the depredations of the state with equanimity, of sorts. If the depredations became significant enough to take them dangerously close to subsistence level, their propensity toward political violence would greatly rise, I would think

Tom West writes:

I would strongly agree with Steve.

As well, I'd say that much of government policy *is* more or less in line with people's general tendencies towards greater security now that we have a decent level of wealth.

James Wilson writes:

Ironically, the less violent we become, the more difficult it is for the government to justify its own existence!

agnostic writes:

a. Probably Lawrence Keeley's work, among other's, such as War Before Civilization. H-G's are in a Malthusian economy, and their population density is not high enough for epidemic diseases and tragedy-of-the-commons in food to regulate population size. Also, their diet is healthier than that of agriculturalists, so malnutrition and famines (which only affect you if you rely primarily on one food, such as potatoes or corn), so that won't be it. That pretty much leaves interpersonal violence.

c. Ultimately this is genetic change, likely due to cultural or institutional change. When the institutions change, those who are genetically predisposed to fit with them will pay lower costs to participate in those societies, while those who are predisposed to fit with other institutions will have to pay a lot by trying to re-shape themselves.

Here there is even a candidate gene variant, namely the long and short variants of the MAO-A gene. If you're predisposed to violence, you can still fit into modern society; it'll just require a greater investment of time, resources, effort, etc. So it'll tend to shrink in frequency (not to zero, since there's still some payoff to violence in modern societies).

d. I think this is more of a parallel with the decline in violence in the economy. 80 years ago violence was common in strikes and strike-breaking, even putting aside the police -- just focusing on private strike-breakers like Pinkertons. There was some violence in the strikes of the '60s and '70s, but hardly any. Today it's gone.

We know why that's happening: economic rewards are given on the margin of the price and quality of goods by sellers, no longer on the margin of violence among rent-seekers. So why not apply the idea to the polity in order to keep one theory? Political rewards used to be given based on violence, but now it's on the price and quality of their services -- as perceived subjectively by the voters, of course! Policies that libertarians would object to that have developed since the Progressive Era are just giving the voters what they value.

Jeff writes:

I would imagine that as the average person's propensity for violence decreases, the usefulness of violence as a political tool also decreases, as any political faction that is seen as violent will have difficulty gaining much popular support, and might even motivate other factions to ally against them.

MernaMoose writes:

a. Davies claims that in prehistoric times, the most common cause of death was homicide. What is his source for that claim? I am pretty sure that not every anthropologist would agree.

Well, I don't know if homicide really was the most common cause of death in prehistoric times. But it was vastly more common then, than it's been since the advent of strong nation-states.

As agnostic says above, see Keeley's book for a non-mainstream anthropologist.


c. Does the decline in the average person's propensity for violence reflect genetic changes?

I doubt we've been "pacified" by our nation-states, to a large enough extent over a long enough period of time, for that to be the case. My opinion.

Consider too the example of the Mongols who settled in Tibet. In a couple of generations these people went from being the most ferocious warriors the world had seen, to being some of the world's greatest Buddhist (pacifist) monks. People adapt to context quite readily. I should hope that aspect of human nature isn't going away anytime soon.

If governments do not have to fear violence from their own people, does that give them tremendous leeway to exercise power?

But of course. Though as others have said, I doubt the risk of violent revolutions has really gone away. More likely, the risk has gone down because people are far wealthier than in the past. Look at history (I've read a lot) -- we could readily attribute gross poverty as a major underlying cause of many, many revolutions over the ages.

I predict that if people got poor enough again, they'd start rebelling again. Look for example today, at the African subcontinent where war is still ongoing in places, and also the poorer regions of Eurasia where the threat of revolt is never far from the surface.

The Chinese government did not begin relaxing communist principles because they suddenly became enlightened. They did it in response to the threat of revolution. Their government is at least as afraid of it today as they were 40 years ago. Keeping the threat of revolt at bay drives much economic policy in mainland China.

I really doubt people have changed much in basic nature over the past 10,000 years.

robbL writes:

Arnold,

I don't agree with your politics, but I usually can respect your integrity. However,

"...There were attempts in the 1960's and 1970's to reintroduce violence into politics, such as the Weather Underground in the U.S. ..."

Is beyond bizarre. Modern US politics is a story of right wing violence. Are you forgetting the 80+ civil rights murders? Are you forgetting the murdered abortion doctors? Are you forgetting the 183 murdered in Oklahoma City?

What are you thinking?

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