These videos are not related to economics, but are a corrective to the myth peddled by libertarians that the modern state has presided over the most violent period in human history. In fact, one would have to say that the rise of the modern state is correlated with a remarkable fall in internal violence (within states) and interstate violence (with notable short periods of regression such as 1914 to 1945).
Now obviously one should not deny the role of culture in this process. For example, there was no doubt an increasing cultural repugnance to the fighting of duels in European nations in the 19th century (except perhaps Germany), but it was the state that outlawed dueling and enforced the law, so what we always have is a two-sided process which involves states. Another crucial point is how per capita death rates in war in tribal societies in the modern era – and by induction we can assume historically – appear to have been much higher than in the modern world. The anarchic state of man in stateless societies was by no means peaceful. Even the idea of “total war” is by no means a modern development: it is merely the lack of technology the limited pre-modern societies in waging war. If Middle Ages had access to modern technology, then their wars would have been far more bloody than 20th century ones.
Also, just listening to these videos, in terms of how violent punishment and even entertainment used to be in the past (e.g., think of gladiatorial games or bear baiting), one can also say how comparatively civilised we have become in the modern world, compared to our ancestors.
And note how Pinker endorses in the first talk (admittedly amongst a number of other theories, not incompatible by any means) the Leviathan state theory: a state-based monopoly on force reduces internal violence. In his book, Pinker (2011) agrees that the “Leviathan state” of Hobbes is in fact a major factor in reduced violence.
I wish to make two further points in reference to comments below.
(1) First, I am talking about the views of Austrian anarcho-capitalists in this post (like followers of Rothbard), not Mises or Hayek, who both defended the minimal state.
I could, for example, easily imagine that even Mises might have been willing to agree with Pinker, especially since Mises was capable of writing this:
“There are people who call government an evil, although a necessary evil. However, what is needed in order to attain a definite end must not be called an evil in the moral connotation of the term. It is a means, but not an evil. Government may even be called the most beneficial of all earthly institutions as without it no peaceful human cooperation, no civilization, and no moral life would be possible. In this sense the apostle declared that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God.’” (Mises 2010 : 48).(2) Some people cite criticisms of Pinker:
Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, “Steven Pinker on the Alleged Decline of Violence,” Zcommunications.org, December 2, 2012.To respond to some of the criticisms here, Christopher Ryan points to the allegedly peaceable bonobo as a possible example of what our common ancestor was like, but for reasons given in detail below that is unlikely.
Christopher Ryan, “Steven Pinker’s Stinker on the Origins of War,” March 29, 2011.
Christopher Ryan, “Pinker’s Dirty War on Prehistoric Peace,” Huffington Post, January 9, 2012.
A more damaging criticism is that Pinker’s examples of hunter gatherer per capita death rates (from Keeley 2001) are mostly from societies that are not exactly hunter gatherers: most are partly agriculturalists and not the strict “nomadic (immediate-return) hunter-gatherers” who were “most representative of human prehistory.” How Pinker responds to this, I do not know. But a look at other data about the Kung San (Bushmen) or Copper Inuit (both hunter-gatherers) does seem to indicate a high homicide rate and raiding against neighbours (Keeley 2001: 29). In South America, the Yaghan (also nomads) had a murder rate in the late 19th century 10 times that of the US (Keeley 2001: 29).
Another criticism is that “there [is] no credible evidence that war characterized human life prior to ‘civilization,’ [and] there is massive evidence that war is among the artifacts forged by civilization.”* I really doubt that. First, what about primates? There is plenty of evidence for inter-communal and interpersonal violence amongst primates. And these animals are closer to the common ancestor than we are. What the common ancestor had was most probably passed on to early humans.
For example, the chimpanzees, our closest evolutionary cousins, fight wars:
“In perhaps the most famous of all ethological studies, the leading authority on chimpanzee behavior, Jane Goodall, extensively observed the chimpanzees of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania and showed that aggression and warfare are part of chimpanzee behavior.A four-year war between rival chimpanzee communities! The fact that chimps wage wars and conduct violent raids on other chimps, commit murder, and annex new territory by war would suggest that this behaviour may well have been what our common primate ancestor did too. That is confirmed in this video below of Jane Goodall.
In the course of her studies, she watched not only violence associated with the struggle for dominance among males but also significant intercommunal violence, including attacks, murder, and a four-year war between rival communities.” (Thayer 2004: 165).
While bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) seem to be less violent than other apes (though maybe that is exaggerated), we know bonobos are exceptional primates, and it is far better to look at multiple primate species if we want to use induction to make hypotheses about the common ancestor and hominids: when we do look, we find that violence is a well attested behaviour amongst apes (Sherrow 2012: 34).
Do we really believe that Australopithecenes and our various Hominid ancestors lived in a world where war had to be “invented”? That pre-agricultural hunter-gathers and nomads lived in some idyllic paradise imagined by Rousseau, which was then spoilt by civilisation?
I find it unlikely. That is the conclusion of H. M. Sherrow: that early hominids engaged in non-lethal and lethal violence (Sherrow 2012 34–35).
The existence of chimpanzee wars ought to make us think too! Why? The reason is that warfare
“among human groups that still live by hunting and gathering resembles chimp warfare in several ways. Foragers emphasize raids and ambushes in which few people are killed, yet casualties can mount up with incessant skirmishes. Dr. Wrangham [a chimp expert at Harvard] argues that chimps and humans have both inherited a propensity for aggressive territoriality from a chimplike ancestor.”It is only one step from here to tribes of stateless homo sapiens and their wars where death tolls can build up quickly – and so to the high per capita death rates from violence Pinker argues probably existed in such societies.
One final point: actually this finding about war does not contradict that view that early human hunter gatherer groups were also characterised by intracommunal egalitarianism, cooperation and collectivism.
* For those who want a scholarly refutation of Pinker on prehistoric war, see R. Brian Ferguson, “Pinker's List: Exaggerating Prehistoric War Mortality,” and “The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East,” in Douglas P. Fry (ed.), War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views, Oxford University Press, New York. 2013 (forthcoming).
Obviously, I cannot read and respond to this, because it is not yet published!
Keeley, Lawrence H. 2001. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford.
Mises, L. von. 2010 . Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.
Sherrow, H. M. 2012. “Violence Across Animals and Within Early Hominins,” in Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Perspectives on Violence, Homicide, and War. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. 23–40.
Thayer, Bradley A. 2004. Darwin and International Relations: On the Evolutionary Origins of War and Ethnic Conflict. University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, KY.