Bryan Caplan  

The Great Pacification

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Suppose you grant every nostalgic memory about the wonder of the Fifties.  Stipulate that America was packed with happy prosperous one-earner families, cozily protected by their unions and patriotic employers.  There's still one wee problem to worry about: nuclear war with the Soviet Union.  Now there was a genuine existential threat.  And it's gone for good.

It turns out this is just part of a Great Pacification.  Andrew Mack in this month's Cato Unbound:
[T]he total number of conflicts--international and civil wars--being waged around the world increased threefold during the Cold War years, then sharply declined, with this latter change going largely unheralded, even at the United Nations.
The average war in the 1950s killed about 10,000 people a year; in the new millennium the average was a little less than one thousand.
Fewer conflicts times less deadly conflicts equals massive declines in death.  Mack's Figure 2:

[Bigger version here].

It gets better:

And it is not just battle deaths that have declined. Deaths from conflict-exacerbated disease and malnutrition have also been reduced by long-term improvements in public health, notably immunization, that have caused child and adult mortality rates to decline sharply across the developing world over the past 30 years. These improvements have not only steadily reduced mortality rates in peacetime but also saved countless lives in wartime.

In addition there have been major increases in the level, scope, and effectiveness of humanitarian assistance to war-affected populations in countries in conflict. These interventions have reduced wartime death tolls still further.

During the Naughts, insular Americans could easily imagine that the world was descending into a new dark age of slaughter.  But you need a magnifying glass to see it in the data.  Availability bias strikes again.

Oh ye pessimists, look upon the Great Pacification and despair!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
iamreddave writes:

The Quaker economist had an interesting article on wars decline here

I find the long term trend from 5000 years ago very interesting

dan writes:

I am not sure I understand the criteria here, but it doesn't seem to include the Rwandan genocide, which, if included, would be literally off the chart. I am skeptical that it is correctly counting other violent killings in Africa and Asia (Khmer Rouge, Darfur, Cultural Revolution, Great Leap Forward, Soviet gulags...)

If this measurement isn't counting relatively lopsided genocides as war, then it's just using an outdated version of the term that doesn't accurately measure the amount of slaughter in the modern world.

Finch writes:

My worry is that this is a lull, not a permanent decline. We all got a good hard shock from WWII and the development of nuclear weapons.

But because of that, we in the western powers have become so wimpy we can't even suppress measly little rebellions, even if they are significant threats. Think Egypt or Israel-Palestine, where a major power with all the technology advantage can't solve their problems. Mass-slaughter of civilians has gone out of fashion, and that's tremendously empowering for the low-tech mob.

I don't mean to endorse going back to the bad-old-days. Not at all, no way. Most of the wimpiness is good stuff, at least in the short term - it means not bombing kids, not firing on protesting students, not rounding up and executing the opposition.

But I don't think we've figured out the ramifications of the new rules. I worry that the first Hitler to come to power in a place like Russia or India or Pakistan is going to cause a lot of harm before society is able to deal with it. We'll make the 1930s look like a tough stand. Arguably, we would be lucky to survive such an occurrence. We're really lucky Putin is mostly harmless.

I would be very happy if this worry was unfounded.

Chris T writes:

One of the ironies of weapons technology is fewer people get killed as individual weapons get more lethal. Leveling a city block when you only want to take out one building is highly inefficient.

ajb writes:

Whether this is a long term trend or a lull remains to be seen. Let us hope for the best.

But in my view, this counts as evidence for the virtues of cold war militarism. Pacifism a la Caplan would have enabled the Sovs and the PRC to attack more countries and probably delayed the great Pacification, just as pacifism would have ended in disaster in the 2nd world war.

It's an argument against silly measures of the narrow peacetime "costs" of militarism.

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