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.BIBLIOGRAPHY
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;We have already discussed the Leviathan state above in (4).
(2) cultural and civilising changes, and
(3) “gentle commerce” (a modern market economy).
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;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.”
(2) a kind of “disease” of violence, and
(3) financial hardship.
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.