Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence

Violence is obviously a human rights issue. Violent actions, either by the state or by fellow citizens, violate our physical integrity and personal security. Several articles of the Universal Declaration protect us against different forms of violence: art. 3 protects our right to life and personal security, art. 4 prohibits slavery, art. 5 prohibits torture etc.

Levels of violence throughout history

It’s perhaps counter-intuitive, but violence has been in decline throughout modern history.

Today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth. When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers – which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago – he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. … From the Middle Ages to modern times, we can see a steady reduction in socially sanctioned forms of violence. Steven Pinker (source)

This is true for most kinds of violence: war, ethnic conflict, state violence (criminal punishment, torture, repression etc.), war, one-to-one violence (homicide) etc.:

When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.

And since 1945 in Europe and the Americas, we’ve seen steep declines in the number of deaths from interstate wars, ethnic riots, and military coups, even in South America. Worldwide, the number of battle deaths has fallen from 65,000 per conflict per year to less than 2,000 deaths in this decade. Since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, we have seen fewer civil wars, a 90 percent reduction in the number of deaths by genocide, and even a reversal in the 1960s-era uptick in violent crime. Steven Pinker (source)

A cognitive illusion

We tend to believe that the 20th century was the most bloody of all, and that the 21st hasn’t started any better. That’s probably a misconception or “cognitive illusion” fueled by unprecedented information flows. Today, we have magnificent information systems delivering facts, figures and images instantaneously. Compared to that, information about the centuries before is by definition more scarce: few images and newspaper reports, no television reports, less systematic historiography, less durable data sources etc.

That doesn’t make the present-day levels of violence acceptable. On the contrary. Rather than looking at history and concluding that man will always be violent, the recent decreases in levels of violence should encourage us to go all the way. And then it’s important to understand why the levels have gone down.

Why has violence declined?

One reason is undoubtedly the development of the modern state and its judicial apparatus. This apparatus can of course be used to inflict violence, but the risk of this happening has decreased as states have become more democratic, more respectful of the rule of law, and more sensitive to human rights. The democratic nature of many contemporary states has also diminished the risk of inter-state violence (this is the so-called democratic peace theory).

Another, and related, point is that

Thomas Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short – not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors and steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. … These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence. States can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Manuel Eisner attributes the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband. Steven Pinker (source)

Yet another reason for the decrease in the levels of violence is the development of the modern economy. This development has increased the costs of violence. It’s easier to be violent towards your fellow human beings of you live in a subsistence economy and produce everything you need for yourself. When you depend on others for your job and income, your consumption goods, your transport etc. it becomes more costly to act in a violent way towards them. The same can be said of nations: like individuals, nations have become more interdependent in the globalized economy. Acting violently towards other nations has therefore become more costly. Self-sufficiency is no longer an option for nations either.

Yet another reason:

James Payne suggests another possibility: that the critical variable in the indulgence of violence is an overarching sense that life is cheap. When pain and early death are everyday features of one’s own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others. As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives, we place a higher value on life in general. Steven Pinker (source)

15 thoughts on “Crime and Human Rights (5): Decreasing Levels of Violence”

  1. No, Hobbes didn’t get it right. The state, which does hold a monopoly on violence and coercion, does not reduce violence. It merely shifts violence to the state sector, which is a much more efficient and deadly killer than any one individual. State violence right now exists on an unimaginable scale. And it’s no coincidence that the biggest (i.e. strongest) state–the U.S.–is the largest perpetrator of violence and terrorism around the world. State terrorism is accountable for millions upon millions of deaths and destruction never seen before the advent of the state. Again, the state’s monopoly on violence does not stop violence but merely shifts it to a much more efficient killing machine.


  2. I agree with Filip that Hobbes got it right. How one can even begin to construct an argument that denies the safety and prosperity a democratic state brings, is difficult to understand.
    So Benjamin, while imperialism and neocolonialism by a few powerful states cause death and destruction in many developing countries and should be exposed and rejected, that does not in the least nullify the basic argument about the advantages a state brings to its own citizens (yes, even to the ones who dream about libertarianism).


  3. The safety and prosperity, for example, that the United States brought to Nicaragua when Reagan orchestrated the worst terrorist attack the country has ever seen, leaving it in complete wreck and ruin? The kind of peace and prosperity that Africans enjoy, living on less than a dollar a day?

    Yes, peace and property, but for a small minority of wealth and power. Much of world, even today, exists in a state of pauperization. Looks below the glitter. And we should remember this has been the case throughout all of the history of the state. In fact, contrary to Dr. Spagnoli’s claims, it is cognitive illusion that makes the state appear to be so beneficial. Part of that is related to the rapid increase in living standards and technological progress seen in the past 150 years (i.e. the Industrial Revolution), of course forgetting that “the race between rapid technological change and intensification has been going on for 500 years.”


  4. As should be clear from my previous comment, I would support you in condemning acts like the US intervention in Nicaragua.
    But you conflate separate issues too easily – the problem of imperialism by a few powerful states, or the problem of poverty, while important, are no reasons to be in denial of the advantages organized states bring to their citizens.


  5. I don’t think anyone disagrees there have been tremendous advantages over the past 150 (particularly for a minority of wealth and power), but the question is whether the state is necessary and whether it has been worth the misery and destruction brought about by the state. This is also an example of counting the hits but ignoring the misses. Yes, we can look the United States, which has been able to enjoy wealth and prosperity. But too often ignored are the failure of states to bring “safety and prosperity,” for example in Africa where large populations live in terrible poverty and are anything but safe. What has the state done for them (especially considering these people lived relatively safe and prosperous lives before the advent of the state)? The statist will tout the benefits of states while simultaneously ignoring the oppression it bestows upon its populations (and others). I don’t think that’s a particularly fair analysis of the state.


  6. I think what Steven Pinker tried to say is not that Hobbes was right in any absolute sense, only in his characterization of the “state of nature”. And that’s relatively uncontroversial. Even most libertarians demand a state (a minimal one of course) to undo the negative effects of a state of nature (I know the latter is a highly contestable concept in itself). They demand protection for property rights, for instance, rules for the fairness of trials etc.

    The error of Hobbes – in my view – is that he believed an oppressive state is preferable to the horrors of the state of nature. Worse even: only an oppressive state can prevent us from falling back into the state of nature. That is of course untrue, and I think Benjamin is referring to that. As well as to the state of nature that exists(ed) between states (imperialism etc.), which Hobbes didn’t see as a major problem either. Fortunately, since the time of Hobbes, international law has to some extent limit the “wolf-like” behavior between states (what an insult to wolves by the way).


  7. Hobbes’ ideas of the brutish man are uncontroversial? I beg to differ, and I’m sure Locke, Hume, and Rousseau would too. The idea, too, that war is a natural state for man to be in has been shown to be preposterous (see, e.g., Marvin Harris’ Cannibals and Kings). I mean, we shouldn’t be surprised about Hobbes’ views, given the great Civil War of his time. But we should not take his ideas without question. Uncontroversial? No. It was, after all, the Lockean imagination that set the foundation for the American Founding Fathers, not Hobbes’ notions.

    Yes, international law is useful, but it’s not particularly helpful when you have rogue states like the U.S. and the UK that completely disregard it.

    That’s part of the problem I think for a lot of people in the West where legitimacy of power is almost universally accepted and left unquestioned. The state is seen as having prima facie legitimacy! As Joel Migdal notes in his Strong Societies and Weak States, “Today, for those of us in the West, the state has been part of our natural landscape. Its presence, its authority, its place behind so many rules that fashion the minutiae of lives, have all been so pervasive that it is difficult for us to imagine the situation being otherwise.” In reality, much of the world does not blindly accept the legitimacy of states (notions such “social contract theory” fall flat here). Migdal continues, “In fact, resistance to state designs by unassimilating minorities or vulnerable peasants and workers clinging for security to tried and true folkways has often been quite significant.”


    1. I’m not a great fan of Hobbes, and I’m reluctant to be forced to come to his defense here, but I think the consequences of state failure as we see them today do indeed confirm his intuitions on the nature of man. This, however, doesn’t require one to submit to the “legitimacy of the state” or to stop questioning power. A state can be many different things. Let’s not fall back into an essentialist conception of the state or of power.


  8. I don’t think state failure has anything to do with the nature of man. Failed states often arise out of the retaliation from the populace, not because man is essentially evil as Hobbes argues, but because the state is corrupt and lacks legitimacy. And, indeed what’s left is what some call a “vacuum.” But any violence that occurs in this vacuum is not because man is essential evil but because of the institutions, power structures, and social configurations that are left over from the failed state. So, yes, I would say it’s very much the state’s fault. And indeed, there exists “primitive” societies that are completely peaceful. There are examples of both prehistoric and modern “primitive” societies that are both stateless and refrain from warfare. Had Hobbes been aware of this, I doubt he’d be able to explain it.

    Well, I think the explanation is easy: man is not essentially evil. Man does not need the state to reign in on him. Man does not require a state to strip him of his liberty so that he live in peace. As Marvin Harris notes, “Obviously it is part of human nature to be able to become aggressive and to wage war. But how and when we become aggressive is controlled by our cultures rather than by our genes. . . . There are no drives or instincts or predispositions in human beings to kill other human beings on the battlefield, although under certain conditions they can easily be taught to do so.”

    And, again, the idea that states stop violence from occurring is patently absurd, as the state has long been the largest perpetrator of war and mass destruction. Some even argue that it is the state that makes people violent in their own right.


    1. Well, we’re sure getting into difficult territory here. The nature of man is by definition an essentialist concept, and I’m allergic to essentialism. But still, state failure as such is caused by many things, most if not all unrelated to any such thing as the nature of man (if there is such a thing). But I think “retaliation by the people” isn’t a major cause either.

      It’s also hard not to notice the mayhem resulting from state failure, and then I mean state failure in the wide sense: failure to guarantee law and order, but also failure to provide justice, education, cohesion etc. I agree with you that the violence that follows state failure isn’t the result of the “evil” nature of man, but of the lack of state institutions and state protected “games” that channel violence into more peaceful directions (e.g. the fair trial guaranteed by the state – ideally – replacing revenge and vendetta etc., the democratic elections replacing the violent struggle for power). It’s not because the state creates violence that it can’t limit it as well.

      You’re right to say that man doesn’t necessarily need the state for this and that certain types of states make things even worse, but the circumstances – scarcity, diverse societies, international intervention, globalization, the activities of corporations etc. – are often such that this ideal is impossible for communities that aren’t completely isolated from the rest of the world.


  9. I do not believe a population can be discounted when talking about state failure. Joel Migdal actually does explore weak and failed states in Strong Societies and Weak States. It’s been a while since I read his book, but he does attributes a lot of it colonialism. Even still, if the population wanted the state to work, I think they would allow it to and they can do this by affirming the state’s legitimacy. But a lot of people in these states deny the legitimacy of the state–and how can a state possible effectively operate when its population does not even recognize its legitimacy?

    Indeed, the state can limit violent, but it does so through coercion and violence of its own. A lot of time this is manifested in the brutal repression of the state’s populace. (There are other ways too, like the use of propaganda. When states cannot control their population through the use of force, “the club,” they will resort to propaganda, the “manufacture of consent,” as in the West.) But the mistake is in assuming only the social structures that involve the state can limit violence within that society. Stateless societies also have the ability provide justice, education, and cohesion–and it can do so democratically just as well. I don’t believe the existence of scarcity, diversity, what’s called “globalization,” or the existence of corporations makes this any less of a possibility. The latter two are merely social constructs that can modified or even dismantled through similar social forces. Scarcity and diversity, I believe, would not provide any more of a challenge to stateless societies than they do statist societies. In fact, I think it would be possible to address these issues in a much more democratic, fair, and egalitarian way without the state.


    1. Ok, I agree; I overstated my case. Popular sentiment does indeed play a crucial role in state failure/success. I also agree that, ideally, people don’t need a state to administer functions which are, nowadays, usually the domain of the state (e.g. criminal justice). However, the real-world cases where this has happened successfully are rare and unconvincing (take the example of the less than spectacular Gacaca courts in Rwanda), and usually either far back in time or at the margins of society. I guess we will never know for sure if the absence of the state is – on aggregate – positive or negative. I’m sure there will be both positive and negative effects of such a hypothetical event. The point I’m trying to make here is that it is hypothetical, and therefore more useful to try to improve the state (by promoting human rights and democracy, an effort that has demonstrably positive results) than to work for the unlikely abolition of the state (with uncertain results).


  10. I agree with you entirely. It’s entirely useful to try to improve the state so that it might be more democratic, more egalitarian, more just, and so on. It’s also quite true that anarchism is, for most intents and purposes, an untested theory. (I do think, though, that there are useful examples of stateless societies in modern times and I also think there is a lot of useful information to learn about “primitive” societies that existed before the advent of the state. Marvin Harris explores both of these in his Cannibals and Kings 1977 book.) Does this suggest it’s unhelpful to theorize and advocate anarchism? I don’t think so. Despite its theoretical nature, I think the philosophy has a preponderance of evidence to support its major conclusions.


  11. I applaud this discussion, fellows. Thanks for all the work and creativity. It was an enlightening pleasure to read.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s