David R. Henderson  

It Takes a Government to Do an Auschwitz

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The title of this post is a sentence from Matt Ridley's recent speech at the Association for Private Enterprise Education in Maui, Hawaii. His speech was excellent, by the way.

The statement is a good reminder that the most destructive and murderous actions in history were carried out by governments.

I wrote something along the same lines in my book The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. In Chapter 7, "Free Markets versus Discrimination," I wrote:

Government use of force against ethnic groups is far more effective than private use of force against these same groups. I remember that when I first heard about Hitler at about age eight, and asked my mother who he was, I was told that 15 years earlier he had used tanks and other weapons to try to take over the world. I pictured a nut with some tanks he had bought coming down our highway and invading our small town in rural Canada. I didn't understand at the time why Hitler was such a threat; I had been raised to believe that the police would protect us. Imagine the shock and sudden surge of overwhelming fear I had when, years later, I learned that Hitler employed the police and, indeed, ran a whole government. That was scary. Even as a child I knew that the government, any government, had more power than anyone who was not in the government, and that when the government passed and enforced a law, you couldn't legally fight back. That's when the true terror of Hitler dawned on me.

Addendum: Here's a review of Ridley's The Rational Optimist that I wrote in 2010.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory




COMMENTS (23 to date)
BC writes:

I agree that governments are among the greatest threats to life and liberty, which is why any relatively free society needs mechanisms to constrain government. However, I think the institution of slavery is a counterexample. A powerful government was not needed to implement slavery, just a government that was willing to allow it. Private slave traders and plantation owners, left unconstrained, had plenty of capability to cause much misery and suffering.

Juan Manuel Pérez Porrúa Pérez writes:

I am sympathetic to the thought expressed in the title of the post. It is true that such large-scale organized massacre could only be carried out my a massive large-scale organization like a government.

But, it doesn't take a government to kill on a massive scale. For example, think of the war-bands that repeatedly invaded Europe during the dark ages. Imagine an entrepreneurially organized army that goes in search of loot. Or take another example that is more recent, like the 9/11 attacks. The people who carried the attacks out were part of a violent organization that wasn't a government.

The point is that in the face of a non-governmental violent organization you need an organization of good guys that is at least as powerful as them.

David R. Henderson writes:

@BC,
A powerful government was not needed to implement slavery, just a government that was willing to allow it.
You’re right that a powerful government was not needed to implement slavery, but a powerful government was needed to enforce it. When slaves escaped across the Ohio River, people north of the river were required by government to return them. That’s why the end of the Underground Railway was in Canada, not Ohio.
Also, even in the South, when slaves escaped, local people were conscripted--by governments--to catch them.

Thomas Sewell writes:

BC,

I see your overall point, but have a couple of nits to pick with it. Slavery, like other forms of making ownership "official", is a government function, even if in not all eras it was the government itself who was the actual owner. Egypt, Rome, etc... did own a ton of slaves directly, but for example, the Code of Hammurabi clearly establishes "how" slavery is to be done. I suppose much of that was codifying pre-existing customs, though.

While Slavery can exist on individual small scales without government, but to make it widespread and legal you need the power of a government. Otherwise slaves can legally kill their masters in self-defense, no one has the obligation to capture or return them, etc...

You could say the same for murder and killing of civilians. It exists on a small scale, but it generally takes government-size action to really make it big. 3,000 casualties on 9/11 is horrible (I was a few miles from the Pentagon that day), but it doesn't compare to the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths from bombing raids during WW II, for example.

I'll leave Juan's war-band invasions example alone, because I don't think it's clear those wouldn't be considered government agents, as they were most commonly organized or paid by putative rulers of some sort.

Dafydd Barr writes:
Even as a child I knew that the government, any government, had more power than anyone who was not in the government, and that when the government passed and enforced a law, you couldn't legally fight back.

I'm sorry, but that's nonsense of the "failure to nuance" variety. The activism and lack of apathy that have erupted since last November are continuing to demonstrate that fighting government is possible. If you're fighting laws, your weapons are lawyers and the press.

Jim Glass writes:

Well, it is true that no business corporation is ever going to 'do an Auschwitz'.

OTOH, remember that the "natural" human condition during all the thousands of years of pre-state societies was far *more* violent than it has been since the rise of states and governments. Vastly more so than in our time -- and that's including all our own 'government violence'.

"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.

Monopolists restrict supply to maximize rents. In the case of the supply of violence this is a good thing. The newly arrived warlord/ king/ whatever suppresses violence other than his own because a society that is not torn by tribal slaughters, vendetta justice, and highway brigandage can provide him more rent as its people will be safer, longer-lived and more prosperous, which is a good thing. It is the first step on the road to civilization, to be followed-up upon or not.

Steven Pinker's extraordinary book on the historical decline of violence, steadily and consistently from pre-state times all the way through until today, is a real eye-opener, and a necessary read for anyone actually interested in the true history and nature of violence, and the factors that have been changing its course.

In Pinker's Ted Talk on this check the rates of "male deaths due to warfare" for several non-state societies versus the rate for 20th Century Europe and USA, just after the 3:00 minute mark. Spoiler: The results of WWI, WWII, etc, combined are barely a blip in comparison. As to the non-state societies...

"If these death rates had prevailed during the 20th Century there would have been 2 billion deaths by warfare instead of 100 million".

Hmmm, looks like you don't need a government for that after all.

Brian writes:

David and Thomas,

I think it's true that large-scale violence that can be pinned on a single entity is almost always government driven. But Jim Glass is right that a huge amount of violence has been perpetrated by everyday people in the absence of government. Think about the prevalence of infanticide in many societies, including China. Those actions can certainly be driven by government policy, but that behavior has existed on a private level for millennia.

I also think your analysis of slavery is off base. No governments are needed for that institution to exist. It's simple. People identify a market for forced labor. They take vulnerable people by force. The people are sold and kept by force for labor. None of that requires government support. Owners can protect themselves from slave violence by restricting slave access to knowledge and weapons. People can be paid to track down escapees. It all works beautifully as a market phenomenon as long as the populace is accepting of it.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Jim Glass-

It certainly is true that there was a lot of violence in early human history (in terms of percentage of population), but I wonder how apt comparisons of that time period are to this one. Absent government, would we see such massive violence? I'm not sure. In early human history, populations were concentrated. To do lots of violence would be relatively easy. Nowadays, the population is much more dispersed. To do the same level of violence (as percentage of the population) would be extraordinarily difficult absent any kind of government, I should think.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Brian,
None of that requires government support.
See my response to BC above. It turns out that slavery in the United S States did require government support.
@Dayffd Barr,
I'm sorry, but that's nonsense of the "failure to nuance" variety. The activism and lack of apathy that have erupted since last November are continuing to demonstrate that fighting government is possible. If you're fighting laws, your weapons are lawyers and the press.
No need to apologize, Dayffd. Contrary views are welcome here.
But you did miss my point. It actually is nuanced. I meant that you couldn't fight back, not that you couldn’t use legal tools. Someone who tries to hit or shoot a cop is well-advised not to.
@Jim Glass,
Touche. I’ll think about it.

AlanG writes:

David, how are you defining government? This takes off on Jim Glass's point somewhat. Is a monarchy a government? If so, it's pretty difficult to find any era when there was an absence of government. Thus, I think your argument naturally falls apart. Monarchies have fought wars and caused violence throughout recorded time (I'm only using Western Europe as my case study). The oppression of common people is certainly well documented (I for one would not want to live during the Thirty Years War that devastated central Europe!!).

If you are talking about "constitutional" government, maybe that starts with post-Magna Carta England. Even then, it didn't fully develop to what we would consider 'government' for quite some time.

Unfortunately, we don't have any truly Libertarian groups to draw a comparison to.

Brian writes:

David,

Yes, you responded to BC and I responded to your response. That governments were involved in slavery is indisputable, but the government role both aided and impeded slavery. More importantly, none of the examples required government involvement to keep slavery going. A very small percentage of slaves ever escaped to Canada, and that loss never threatened the institution. And rounding up runaways didn't require any government support at all. It's easy enough to pay people to round them up. Can you point to a specific part of the slave trade that actually required government involvement for its existence and success?

Miguel Madeira writes:

About slavery, see the Haiti example - when (because of the Revolution at home, I think) the french colonial government turned weak, the slaves rebelled and expelled/killed their masters.

"It all works beautifully as a market phenomenon as long as the populace is accepting of it."

This only works if slaves are a small fraction of populace (perhaps it is the case of today's Mauritania?); if the slaves are the majority (like in Haiti and perhaps also in the "Old South"), it is almost impossible to repress occasional slave rebelions without some kind of centralized repressive force (one master agains 100 slaves? Even if he has a fire weapon, they could subjugate him without much casualties - he have to reload, after all; the only thing that prevents the scenario "slaves kiling the master, burning down the house and perhaps raping the wife and daughter of the master before killing them also" is the certains of the army coming down to the plantation after some days and killing the rebels).

David R. Henderson writes:

@AlanG,
Is a monarchy a government?
Yes.
@Brian,
Can you point to a specific part of the slave trade that actually required government involvement for its existence and success?
Not only can I, but also I did. Governments required people in the North to return escaped slaves and conscripted people in the South to capture them.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Is a monarchy a government? If so, it's pretty difficult to find any era when there was an absence of government."

I think that almost all hunter-gather societies did not have a government with coercive authority. Even if they had chiefs, usually these chiefs are a bit like the Pope or the United Nations, without power to enforce their will.

A description of the ancient political system of the Andaman Islands, for example (pp 44-47):

https://ia600301.us.archive.org/23/items/andamanislanders00radc/andamanislanders00radc.pdf#page=82

Tom West writes:

I find the idea that the most destructive and murderous actions in history were carried out by governments to be a near tautology.

The largest actions of any form require the largest organizations, and that is, pretty much by definition, government.

I'm also going to guess that very few massively murderous actions were carried out by groups of less than 10 people.

So then the question becomes how to do you stop a powerful entity of any sort from forming, and the answer to that is obvious. Have an even more powerful entity that prevents that :-).

Shane L writes:

What I've read from Lawrence Keeley, Azar Gat, Ian Morris and Steven Pinker is that pre-state environments were much more violent than states. There may be no individual Auschwitz in anarchy but the accumulation of tit-for-tat murders, raids and massacres gives a far higher violent death rate than that of the world of states.

Nevertheless I'd say David's childhood insight is important in this respect: government is not a loving parent. Government is not reason and eloquence, after all, it is force.

T.B. Aquinas writes:

Governments are neither good or bad. It is the people who make up the government that gives it its nature.

You do not need a government to have a genocide. The government of Rwanda may have been complacent, but it was the Hutus that believe that the Tutsis were "cockroaches" that ultimately led to the genocide.

We like to believe that Government's are evil because it absolves the people from culpability. It was not the Germans who were responsible for the Holocaust, It was the Nazi Government. We want to believe that because there but for the grace of God go I. Not many of us would have the nerve to stand up against our neighbors or hide a Jew (or a Muslim or a Mexican) in our homes if it meant risking our security and safety.

Governments are inert objects. They take on the personality of the people who operate them. As such, they can only be as good or as evil as the people running them.

Thomas Sewell writes:

@Aquinas,

To your point, governments are made up of individual people. Some governments are even setup to incentivize tyrants and sadists to populate them. Perhaps with "good intentions" otherwise, but in reality see Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom".

As a result, the power and legitimacy allowed to those individuals in government to act evil if they happen to desire to becomes of critical importance. Even if you don't agree with Hayek's analysis (and it's a great one), nor with Public Choice economics, you must at least be concerned that just by sheer random chance eventually someone whose ideals don't match yours will eventually be in a position to wield government power and limiting and hedging that power up needs to be accomplished.

T.B. Aquinas writes:

@Sewell

I see nothing in Hayek that addresses my concern.

It is funny, people acknowledge that governments could be set up to advance tyrants or sadists, but then advance the idea that Public Choice economics must result in good for all. Why, if the mass of people who get together to create government can be so evil, is it that they are suddenly saints when they are involved in commerce? Why can't a people be evil in their economic lives. Why cant they decide not to serve Jews or Blacks? Why is it that the invisible hand of the market is always the hand of an angle and not a devil?

Economics, like government, is an also just a dead idea. What life it has reflects the same foibles that infect those who participate in it.

Maximum Liberty writes:

@Jon Murphy:

It certainly is true that there was a lot of violence in early human history (in terms of percentage of population), but I wonder how apt comparisons of that time period are to this one. Absent government, would we see such massive violence? I'm not sure.

I was with you this far, but then you went off track:
In early human history, populations were concentrated. To do lots of violence would be relatively easy. Nowadays, the population is much more dispersed.

Nope. When people lived in bands, they were very highly dispersed, because the population that any given area could support was low. Population is much more dense and localized now than it was then.
To do the same level of violence (as percentage of the population) would be extraordinarily difficult absent any kind of government, I should think.

The reason that such a high percent of the population died violently before the rise of government was because violence was endemic. If people were just as violent now as they used to be, it would be just as easy to have similarly high rates of violent death. The reason I haven't killed my neighbors has nothing to do with dispersion of population.

But you don't necessarily have to chalk that improvement up to government. Here you go into counter-factuals. If we had the same level of abundance, technology, an interdependent economics, but were all anarcho-capitalists, would I be shooting my neighbors?

Jon Murphy writes:

@Maximum Liberty-

Let me try to clarify my comment. When I said "In early human history, populations were concentrated. To do lots of violence would be relatively easy. Nowadays, the population is much more dispersed," I meant that the areas where the bands were located were not as diverse as now: mainly tropical/subtropical areas in Africa & Middle East (etc). Whereas today, we have people living in all corners of the world. That's that I meant by dispersion.

Maximum Liberty writes:

@Jon Murphy
The argument still doesn't make sense to me. How does population density being greater than zero now at places where the population density was zero in prehistoric times make violence easier in prehistoric times? It seems to me that it is just a special case of population density at virtually all places being higher now than it was in prehistoric times. And that, it seems to me, would make violence easier to perpetrate now than in pre-historic times, simply because there are more enticing victims or more offensive people or whatever quite close at hand.

Jim Glass writes:

By happenstance I came upon an essay Pinker wrote on the subject for the WSJ. Some have told me it's gated, so I'll quote highlights....

~ quote ~

Violence Vanquished ... we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence ... Violence has been in decline for thousands of years ... a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children...

A look at the numbers shows that over the course of our history, humankind has been blessed with six major declines of violence.

The first was a process of pacification: the transition from the anarchy of the hunting, gathering and horticultural societies ... to the first agricultural civilizations, with cities and governments, starting about 5,000 years ago.

...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 ...

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.

The second decline of violence was a civilizing process that is best documented in Europe. Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide. The numbers are consistent with narrative histories of the brutality of life in the Middle Ages...

Historians attribute this decline to the consolidation of a patchwork of feudal territories into large kingdoms with centralized authority and an infrastructure of commerce. Criminal justice was nationalized, and zero-sum plunder gave way to positive-sum trade...

The third transition, sometimes called the Humanitarian Revolution, took off with the Enlightenment. ...saw the widespread abolition of judicial torture, including the famous prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" in the eighth amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The fourth major transition is the respite from major interstate war that we have seen since the end of World War II. Historians sometimes refer to it as the Long Peace. Today we take it for granted that Italy and Austria will not come to blows...

The fifth trend, which I call the New Peace, ... since the peak of the cold war in the 1970s and '80s, organized conflicts of all kinds—civil wars, genocides, repression by autocratic governments, terrorist attacks—have declined throughout the world, and their death tolls have declined even more precipitously.

The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point.

Finally, the postwar era has seen a cascade of "rights revolutions"—a growing revulsion against aggression on smaller scales....

Why has violence declined so dramatically for so long? ... The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels.

We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe... [etc.]

~ end quote~

FWIW

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