Sunday, February 17, 2013

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, Chapter 3

In Chapter 3 of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, he moves on to what he calls the “civilizing process.”

My summary of the chapter:
(1) Pinker points to a remarkable trend over the past 8 centuries or so: from the late Middle Ages onwards homicide rates have plunged in Western Europe (but the trend is also visible in Western offshoots). The long term trend was most pronounced from about 1300 to 1700, where rates fell from about 50–100 per 100,000 to about 10 per 100,000 (Pinker 2011: 63). Furthermore, for the period before 1800 the current data from historical records are likely underestimates, so the downward plunge was probably much greater.

Nor can we attribute the spectacular trend to the effects of modern medicine, for effective, science-based medicine is an invention of the 20th century, and most of the decline happened before 1700 when medical science was very crude, and doctors possibly “killed as many patients as they saved” (Pinker 2011: 62).

And the general trend continued to the present day, in which homicide rates are about 1 per 100,000 in many Western European nations (with a range in individual nations from 0.3-2 per 100,000). Notably, the death penalty has been abolished in Western Europe (and indeed virtually all of Europe except Belarus, and other dubious cases like Russia where it has been “indefinitely suspended” but legally allowed). Remarkably, some small states like Iceland and Monaco have recently had some years with zero homicide rates.

(2) As an aside, the average homicide rate in the Middle Ages in Europe was still lower than Pinker’s average for non-state societies (524 per 100,000; Pinker 2011: 63).

(3) Interesting observations in the data can be found: men are responsible for 92% of violence (Pinker 2011: 63), and most of these were males between 15–30 (Pinker 2011: 104). Until recently, rural areas were much more violent than cities (Pinker 2011: 63).

(4) Pinker attributes the violence in Medieval Europe partly to its fragmented political organisation: by the late Middle Ages the central governments of kingdoms were very weak (Pinker 2011: 67).

This is a crucial point that Pinker does not develop, but I can do so here: feudalism, politically speaking, resembles anarcho-capitalism and other stateless right libertarian ideologies.

Feudalism in its political sense means, not the manorial system or serfdom, but a system of private contractual arrangements where political power and its associated tasks of defence and justice are contacted out to lords and feudal vassals (Freeman 2002: 147–148).

Local political power, justice and defence had essentially been “outsourced” through feudalism (Pinker 2011: 67): the private power of feudal lords was overwhelming. In fact, the kingdoms were divided into vast collections of competing duchies, counties, minor principalities, feudal lords and knights, who were constantly at war: indeed they were little more than warlords.

The result? Fairly terrible and frequent wars where civilians were not spared (Pinker 2011: 67). The homicide rate in the Middle Ages might have been about 100 per 100,000.

Astonishingly, the everyday carnage in late Medieval society was only somewhat lower than the death rate per capita in modern Communist China (1949–1987) which was 120 per 100,000 (Cooney 1998: 58), a country which had a civil war, the Cultural revolution and a terrible man-made famine (1958–1962).

The Leviathan state brought an end, if not to all elements of the feudal system, at least to the previous political fragmentation and anarchic violence (Pinker 2011: 74). Europe had 5,000 political units in the 15th century, 500 by the early 17th century, 200 by the time of Napoleon, and by 1953 fewer than 30 (Pinker 2011: 74).

A new “King’s peace” emerged within national and quasi-national states as central government reasserted itself and law and order was imposed. Remarkably (at least to the modern mind), murder was in many societies not even a criminal offence – that is, a crime against the state (or against the public good) – in many medieval and tribal societies. Murder was merely an aspect of private law (or “civil law”), in which two relevant parties would negotiate, and the victim’s family would demand “wergild” (“man-money”) from the perpetrator’s (Pinker 2011: 74). If not, revenge killings and blood feuds were the norm.

Medieval kings like Henry I of England made murder a crime against the state, and provided at least the beginnings of a modern justice system, by sending his court officials out to punish murder (Pinker 2011: 74–75). In this respect, justice came to be “nationalised” (Pinker 2011: 74).

(5) Pinker takes over the thesis of the German sociologist Norbert Elias (1897–1990) in his work The Civilizing Process, and sees three factors behind the decline in violence:
(1) the Leviathan state and its creation of a peace through suppression of feudal anarchy and a new law and order;
(2) cultural and civilising changes, and
(3) “gentle commerce” (a modern market economy).
We have already discussed the Leviathan state above in (4).

The cultural changes consisted of a new culture of more restrained impulses and self-control, a movement embodied in the drive towards “courtly” manners (“courtesy” originally meant civilised behaviour at court). This originated from royal courts, downwards to the nobility and even to the middle classes and common people.

But Rothbardians can only take cold comfort in Pinker’s third factor – commerce as one of the “civilising” processes – for Pinker sees the Leviathan state providing the fundamental basis for mutual, positive sum, economic exchange:
“The two triggers of the Civilizing Process—the Leviathan and gentle commerce—are related. The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan. Not only is a state well suited to provide the public goods that serve as infrastructure for economic cooperation, such as money and roads, but it can put a thumb on the scale on which players weigh the relative payoffs of raiding and trading …. The two civilizing forces, then, reinforce each other, and Elias considered them to be part of a single process. The centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole.” (Pinker 2011: 77–78).
The expanding market economy was made possible by the Leviathan state’s imposition of a new peace, law and order, provision of basic infrastructure, and things such as national currencies.

(6) Pinker looks at the class issues related to the decline in European violence. In the Middle Ages, rich people were as violent as the poor or even more so (Pinker 2011: 81). Today violence is mostly committed by lower socio-economic classes (Pinker 2011: 82). The trend was for elite violence to fall from the Middle Ages onwards. Why? Pinker sees some cultural reasons (the militarised aristocratic culture faded away), but above all the rich and middle classes have the best and easiest access to the justice system, and to the state-based resolution of conflict.

(7) On the issue of modern violence (from the 20th century onwards), Pinker notes:
“The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defense.” (Pinker 2011: 83).
Pinker goes on to identify myths about the causes of modern violence. These myths are that the vast majority of violent crimes are caused by
(1) a deficit of morality and justice;

(2) a kind of “disease” of violence, and

(3) financial hardship.
These are interesting points, and they seem to reinforce the idea that a significant portion of crimes is indeed committed within a circle of family or friends (e.g., crimes of passion). Also, many perpetuators are people who have a deluded sense that they are the “victims” of injustice. However, I doubt – for the sake of argument – whether lack of restraint in domestic disputes isn’t really (in the end) a question of “a deficit of morality.”

Pinker then points out that many modern criminal classes are beyond the law precisely because they are involved in illegal activities and cannot (by definition) resolve conflicts by means of the state. They are, in a word, stateless. They resolve disputes by violence. So Pinker sees the persistence of some violence as the result of violence being relegated to the “socioeconomic margins” (Pinker 2011: 85).

(8) Pinker proceeds to show precisely how it was that those regions escaping effective control by the early modern European state continued to have endemic violence: the inaccessible hinterlands and mountains (Pinker 2011: 87). Furthermore, those modern nations with the highest rates of violence are those where states have become dysfunctional, have collapsed, or where stateless tribal societies really do persist beyond the reach of an effective state (Pinker 2011: 85).

Freeman, Samuel. 2002. “Illiberal Libertarians: Why Libertarianism is not a Liberal View”, Philosophy and Public Affairs 30.2: 105–115.

Pinker, Steven. 2011. The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Viking, New York, NY.


  1. Lord Keynes,

    Thanks for your interesting discussion, which I find congenial.

    I don't have the time to read Pinker in full, at the moment; so, what a marvellous windfall to be able to read your superb summary.

    One of the best books on the transition from two fundamentally different regimes of violence [kinship-based (including feudalism) vs. state-based] can be found in the very short (140 pages) book by Robert H. Bates "Prosperity and Violence".

    I am sure you will enjoy reading it.

    Herzliche Grüße,

    Georg Thomas

  2. "feudalism, politically speaking, resembles anarcho-capitalism and other stateless right libertarian ideologies. "

    Apart from the fact that such societies were not anarchist (they had brutal if weak and ephemeral states) did not have developed capitalists market structures (that's why its called feudalism) and had none of the ideology one associates with anarcho-capitalism (and that would be necessary for a stable libertarian society) your analogy is spot on.

    1. You're right: that is why I said *resembles* anarcho-capitalism - in terms of a "system of private contractual arrangements where political power and its associated tasks of defence and justice are contacted out".

      Lords were great private property holders, leasing out land to others, either vassals or peasants.

      You contract with a lord to obtain his protection as his retainer or knight (i.e., you become his vassal), and in return you get a fief. It's a private contractual arrangement.

      Even freeman could contract with lords (through the ceremony of "bondage") to be a serf, come under his private protection, and hold land lease, until that institution became quasi-slavery.

      Even medieval villeins/villains (a type of serf) might own hold their own property and could (in theory) move to another lord's protection with the consent of the original lord.

      So you have 2 elements of anarcho-capitalism:

      (1) strong private property rights
      (2) private contracts between lords and vassals/serfs for protection/justice and so on.

    2. "Even freeman could contract with lords (through the ceremony of "bondage") to be a serf, come under his private protection, and hold land lease, until that institution became quasi-slavery.

      Even medieval villeins/villains (a type of serf) might own hold their own property and could (in theory) move to another lord's protection with the consent of the original lord."

      Where is Major_Freedom when you need him? I think he would have a field day with that !

    3. I am not denying that serfdom degenerated into a type of slavery, and, yes, most villeins were not much more than slaves.

      But the 2 similarities I list above quite real.

  3. (1) strong private property rights
    Isn't this true of any capitalist society in general (including ones that Post-Keynesian would support) not just anoarcho-capitalist ones ? is it really true that Feudalism had this feature ? Is seems tht there was a lot of property-transfers resulting from wars for this to be really accurate.

    (2) private contracts between lords and vassals/serfs for protection/justice and so on.

    The way I see it is that under a true free-market system you would choose your security provider the same way as you choose your insurance company today. I really am missing the point how this at all related to the lord/surf thing you.

    1. (1) yes, but feudalism goes deeper than that. Private property rights over large areas, and transfer of the rights to vassals (along with justice and defense).

      (2) the analogy was not just with serfs: also contracts with a lord to obtain his protection as his retainer or knight (as a vassal), and in return you get a fief. It's a private contractual arrangement, with private contracting out of justice and defense.

      As to war and violence, yes, no doubt there was a lot of that. But why would you know that anarcho-capitalism would not fall short of the "ideal" and also be very violent?

  4. I'm not sure that the high medieval homicide rates cited in the book arose from wars and skirmishes between rival feudal lords. Pinker does mention this as a factor, but it seems to be different from the data cited in chapter 3 which was obtained from legal records such as coroners' reports, which suggests the killings were not war related. Both types of killing are strongly related to the absence of a strong state which can enforce law and order, of course.

    1. Yes, I think Pinker's medieval homicide rate only includes murder, not war.

      Perhaps I should have stressed that.

  5. I suppose it's fine to describe the modern economies of Europe as "modern market economies". But you could with just as much justice describe them as "modern socialist economies." All of the economies are Europe are mixed economies that have fused the market-oriented mechanisms of classical liberalism with the socialization of sizable sectors of the economy as promoted by socialism. Given Pinker's emphasis on the role of strong central governments in producing the modern, less violent civilized order, it is odd that he chooses such a tendentious, Anglo-US term to describe mixed economies.

    1. I lived and worked in Germany. I didn't see "sizable sectors of the economy as promoted by socialism." You do understand that socialism is government or collective ownership of the means of production, don't you? Virtually all of the means of production in Germany is privately owned. It has a capitalistic market system.

      The term 'modern market economy' is anything but tendentious. It is simply the market economy that we have today, in modern times.

  6. Lord Keynes,

    To what extent do you think mafia-type organizations can be compared to anarcho-capitalism? In places like Sicily, where state power was weak or mistrusted, you had the growth of private organized crime and the accompanying violence added to a society with a vendetta culture thanks, again, to the weakness of state power.

    1. I think there is something to be said for the idea that anarcho-capitalism would just degenerate into a society of competing mafias!

      Then at some point one mafia organisation might obtain a monopoly in one society: you would then have de facto government again, albeit of a very brutal type, probably a regression to some type of terrible, pre-modern state.

      Then you'd have to again go through the stages of 5,000 years of history (maybe it won't take that long, though) to get back to the comparatively decent, democratic modern state.

    2. Hehe, very plausible! Wasn't there a recent post on the Free Advice blog about the Mafia? I'm pretty sure Bob Murphy mentioned that libertarians have a peculiar interest in the Mafia. Suddenly, everything seems to make sense!

  7. If it weren't for the Internet and YouTube, do you think people would even be talking about "anarcho-capitalism" or its polar opposite "anarcho-communism" and all the variants of anarchy out there? I really didn't even know that either one existed until fairly recently.

    I can also finally read along as you do more of these Pinker analyses as I have the book on my computer now. Thom Hartmann also had Steve Keen back on the show recently.

  8. LK, completely off-topic, but have you hear of Ripple? It seems to be a new virtual money backed by credit. Would like to hear your take on it.

  9. Yes, most "broad money" now and possibly for some centuries has been credit money. There are no surprises here.

    I have been saying the same thing for many years now that
    JP Koning says here:

    "Ripple might seem to be unprecedented, but the decentralized credit system it envisions existed centuries ago in the form of the historical bills of exchange system. We tend to assume that all transactions conducted by people living in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were naive barter or coin-based transactions. But Adam Smith, Henry Thornton, and Sir James Steuart all provide lucid accounts of what was actually a very complex credit-based economy. Just like modern bankers have been busy dreaming up MBS, CDOs, and CLOs, medieval innovators in their own time spawned a broad variety of credit instruments including bills of exchange, promissory notes, cash credits, deposit accounts, accommodation bills, bank notes, shares, exchequer bills, and more. Bills of exchange are particularly interesting. ....

    Thus, though bills were payable in gold, very few bills were actually settled with the metal. IOUs circulated perpetually. The bills system functioned as one of the earliest decentralized P2P networks. Merchants, acting simultaneously as bankers, both created new credit and verified existing credit by endorsing it onwards."


    (1) But I would be very surprised if this type of money remains much more than a curiosity.

    Why? Because you start to need central clearing institutions eventually to make a large number of them efficient, i.e., banks.

    (2) also, if you believe in the ABCT, then it follows that an economy with a significant amount of non-bank credit money should be hit by perpetual Austrian business cycles? How is this an improvement over the current system? (assuming you believe in the ABCT, and I do not).

    And there is no reason why you can't have asset bubbles (even with no central bank) with this highly privatized credit money.

  10. (1) The total value of mined Bitcoins is already more than $300 mil, and has soared from $50 mil a year ago.

    Admittedly, that's not a huge amount--yet. But far more than a curiosity, I'd say. Also, Ripple is being designed the head of Mt. Gox, and it has a strength over Bitcoin that JP cited: a fundamental anchor (credit) as opposed to Bitcoin, which seems to have no value apart from a medium of exchange.

    I'll go out on a limb and say that within 5 years either Bitcoin or Ripple (or a synergy of both) are highly likely to grow beyond "curiosity" level (however you define it--perhaps a total money stock of several billion).

    Re: clearing banks--what's to stop Ripple-based specialist banks from emerging? And then bankers' banks (or Ripple clearinghouses) settling claims in dollars, bitcoin, and other currencies?

    (2) Volatility per se is not necessarily a bad thing. Bitcoin has been highly volatile (wild fluctuations in value, hacking attacks, etc), yet that hasn't stopped it from growing rapidly. Market participants know exactly that they're getting into a risky situation, and they bear that risk fully.

    Re: ABCT--the main criticism Austrians/Free Bankers have with the current system is that interest rates are set by committee and often held below the natural rate (which I know you don't believe in). Interest rates for Ripple lending will be completely determined by market participants, not a central authority.

    Also, there will be no "too big to fail" for Ripple-based lenders, and the blockchain (e-ledger) will help to expose overzealous/untrustworthy lenders and borrowers. The ability to shift in and out of Ripple to Bitcoin and other currencies serves as a further check keeping overexpansion from getting out of hand.

    Ripple provides consumers with an alternative payment medium instead of fiat currencies. It also dramatically lowers the barriers to entry to would-be lenders (starting a bank requires very difficult regulatory compliance and capitalization). Expanded consumer choice and freedom of entry are always good things, in my view. And even if it fails, Ripple will provide a lot of useful data to refine our knowledge of credit and money.

    1. John S,

      Although I do not know if these data are correct, but the total world money supply is:

      U.S. - $6.430 trillion
      European Union - $7.352 trillion
      China - $3.1 trillion
      Japan - $6.677 trillion
      (These four regions combine for 50.65% of the world's money)
      Rest of World - $22.954 trillion

      Total World M2 Money Supply: US$46.513 trillion

      These Bitcoin or Ripple moneys would have to get very big indeed to be anything like a serious contender amongst the world's money.

      Just a quick calculation (maybe I got my zeros wrong in doing the math):

      Even 20 billion in Bitcoin or Ripple money is just 0.042% of world money supply.

    2. "Ripple provides consumers with an alternative payment medium instead of fiat currencies."

      So do copper ingots, copper ingot derivatives, corporate bonds, endorsed cheques, book tokens and air miles.

      All you are doing here is creating another asset. You get the same in a casino when you buy chips on the way in.

      Ultimately you will have still have to swap out into your local state currency to pay your taxes. Taxes which will be imposed in the local state currency on all your earnings regardless of what currency those transactions took place in.

      If it keeps the true believers quiet, it does little harm. They'll still get jailed if they fail to pay their taxes in the required currency.

    3. True. Still, it's amazing to me that Bitcoin has grown as much as it has despite the inconveniences of buying and selling BTC. Services such as Coinbase, which allow for direct purchases of BTC through linked bank accounts, will continue to develop, making it easier for less tech savvy consumers to use BTC.

      Also, a number of high-profile internet companies have started to accept BTC in recent months (Reddit, Wordpress). The list of vendors accepting it has ballooned recently. Major vendor support, such as Amazon or Ebay, would be a huge tipping point (this is unlikely for now--but someone will step up eventually).

      At one time, many thought Linux would never amount to anything. But it quickly became a major player in servers, and in the form of Android it's on an inevitable path to becoming the most popular computing device OS on Earth.

      Exponential growth can be a powerful thing. The only thing that might squelch the growth of these virtual currencies is--imo--government. The ECB is closely monitoring the growth of virtual currencies:

  11. "So do copper ingots, copper ingot derivatives, corporate bonds, endorsed cheques, book tokens and air miles."

    Wordpress, Reddit, and these businesses accept Bitcoins as payment. How many accept copper ingots as payment?

    Also, Bitcoins allow for int'l remittance of small amounts with low fees (a few cents if done right) and confirmation after 10 minutes. To my knowledge, no other bank, service, or asset class can match this combination of cost and convenience.

    1. Most bookstores accept book tokens, and the casinos deal in an awful lot of chips on a daily basis.

      There is nothing magical about bitcoins except to those who see salvation in them.

      It always amuses me that those who sell bitcoin miners always want US dollars for their gear...

    2. Neil Wilson@February 21, 2013 at 7:47 AM

      Yes, a vast number of businesses already use much credit money. What's so special about Bitcoin?

      And, anyway, the "hard money" libertarians want a gold standard (or some other commodity standard liek silver), not another form of intrinsically worthless credit money.

  12. "What's so special about Bitcoin?"

    Not to beat a dead horse but--cheap, secure, near instant, highly anonymous transfers and remittances? Also, bitcoin could help many Chinese to diversify their savings away from bank accounts with govt capped interest rates:

    Many hardcore libertarians, like those who attend the annual "Porcupine Freedom Festival," are enthusiastically supportive of bitcoin.

    What many libertarians want is freedom in currency competition, not a centrally managed commodity standard.

    Anyway, the only way to know the full impact of Ripple/Bitcoin is to wait. I may be wrong, and virtual currencies go away in a few years. But I think it's far more likely they gain in prominence.

    Let me put it this way: In 30 years, do you think virtual currencies will still be "bit players"? (Sorry!)

    1. We already have a virtual currency that spans the world.

      It's called a Visa card.

      At best bitcoin is a competitor with that - which is no bad thing given the price Visa charges.

      But bitcoin can't compete with state currencies any more than Visa does.

      Because you can't pay your taxes with it.

    2. John S,

      A "virtual currency" is nothing new. Think Mastercard, American Express and Visa

      Most state currencies are traded "virtually" in paperless transactions and *embodied* mainly in digital records.

      Indeed even central banking must be mostly a digital phenomenon these days.

    3. "At best bitcoin is a competitor with that - which is no bad thing given the price Visa charges."

      Credit card transactions are simply a method of deferring payments which are ultimately settled in dollars. For this reason, credit cards are not considered to be part of the money supply in textbooks.

      With Bitcoin, transactions can be settled instantly in BTC. BTC can also serve as a unit of account and a store of value (Visa is neither; dollars are).

      Bitcoins and credit cards are not mutually exclusive either; BitInstant announced the launch of a bitcoin-based credit card (not sure whether it is running yet).

      Sure, payments are made electronically nowadays--in dollars. As more vendors start to accept BTC, it will become possible to conduct a great percentage of one's transactions in BTC instead of USD. That's something new.

      "But bitcoin can't compete with state currencies because you can't pay your taxes with it."

      It can compete for part of my transactions, and BTC denominated assets can compete for my portfolio allocation (there's a tiny BTC stock exchange, and BTC itself would have made a fantastic investment over the last year from $5 to $30).

      To pay my taxes, I can simply set aside dollars. But BTC can compete for the rest of one's money needs.