Do we live in an Age of Peace? Has human violence subsided over time, remained constant, or increased?
According to some, such as Harvard professor Steven Pinker:
Believe it or not…violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.
This comes from a presentation and follow-up QA session held in 2011 entitled, A History of Violence. Both audio and video of the two-hour presentation are available via the link.
Pinker’s assessment is worth examining, not just for his idea that violence is decreasing, but for the reasons he gives for the trend. The question, and the answers we find, are fundamental in shaping where we see ourselves as a species, and where we choose to go from here.
There are glaring issues in Pinker’s analysis, and it begs the question if we do, in reality, live in a time of peace.
It is understandable that as things such as government sanctioned slave trading have disappeared (not to ignore that human trafficking still exists), and major conflicts between nation states of the type seen in the World Wars are not likely to happen today, it becomes tempting to say with confidence that we live in relatively peaceful times, and that humanity on the whole is eradicating violence from all areas of life.
Professor Pinker uses various graphs to chart the historical decline of everything from homicide, to capital punishment and even mistreatment of animals. But one, very significant human activity, to which violence is an integral characteristic, is missing: theft.
For sake of argument, one should define what “violence” is, so we can objectively look at our world for signs of it.
The Oxford-American dictionary’s definition of violence:
Violence: noun. behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.
Most of us probably intuitively understand that this is what violence is. The definition of violence as used in law (again according to the Oxford dictionary):
<SPECIAL USAGE> [Law] The unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force.
This is interesting. Notice that violence is defined, legally speaking, not simply as physical force intended to hurt or damage, but the unlawful use of such force. It also includes “intimidation.”
Does this mean that violent acts that are supported by statutes, or what could be termed “lawful violence,” are no longer considered violent? Is “lawful intimidation” no longer intimidation?
In this sense, a legal system can actually sanction violence in society, or even encourage violent behavior. This idea is key.
Pinker seems to agree with the established definition of violence, but he fails to include major aspects of human behavior that fit the definition in his assessment. As I’ve pointed out already, he does not discuss theft.
Although he does talk at some length about “plundering” and “raiding” across human history, he does so in an attempt to illustrate how peaceful commerce between nations has largely replaced the tribal raiding and feuding of the past (which is of course true). He does not examine the larger act of theft in itself, nor graph how prevalent it may be within society: he is concerned with inter-societal thievery, not with the thievery that may take place within society amongst its own membership.
Pinker’s decision to leave theft out of the discussion appears strange, considering that practically everything else, from hate crimes to vegetarianism, is graphed and analyzed in his presentation. Why would he not examine theft more fully?
Perhaps Pinker does not consider theft as involving the use of violence. But this could be said for other things that he charts, like hate crime. Many hate crimes, for example, entail slander, not direct violence against persons.
If destruction of someone’s property is a violent act, then is stealing someone’s property not also, a violent act?
A mugger or someone who holds up a liquor store does so while threatening the victim with bodily harm if they do not comply. We have already seen that the agreed definition of violence, especially in legal usage, includes intimidation by exhibiting force. While a cat burglar may have no intention of violently confronting their victim, and would most likely flee if they were unable to make off with their score undetected, they are still placing themselves into a situation where violent confrontation is seen as a “legitimate” option in carrying out their task. If caught in the act, and unable to flee, will they simply stand there and say to the property owner, “you caught me, I guess you better call the police” ? Of course not. They will threaten the owner with force, so as to secure their escape.
With the exception (maybe) of the con artist, anyone who engages in theft is directly or indirectly applying violence (or is at least willing to resort to violence as the situation dictates) as a means to acquire property which does not rightfully belong to them. That said, it still leaves the question as to why Pinker would leave theft out of the study.
The reason for this is actually very simple. Pinker sees the decline of violence as progressing in four stages, the first of which he calls the “Pacification Process.” For Pinker, this process corresponds directly with the rise and development of the first states:
The first major decline of violence I call the “Pacification Process.” Until about five thousand years ago, humans lived in anarchy without central government.
What was life like in this state of nature? This is a question that thinkers have speculated on for centuries, most prominently Hobb[e]s, who famously said that in a state of nature “the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”… So, not to put too fine a point on it, but when it comes to life in a state of nature, Hobb[e]s was right…
What was the immediate cause [of diminishing violence]? It was almost certainly the rise and expansion of states. Anyone who is familiar with world history knows about the various paxes—the pax Romana, pax Islamica, pax Hispanica, and so on. It’s the historian’s term for the phenomenon in which, when a state expands or an empire imposes hegemony over a territory, they try to stamp out tribal raiding and feuding. That is what drives the statistics down.
States are built and maintained via taxation. A tax is simply one entity demanding of another that a payment be made, and this demand is backed by force. A “voluntary tax” is an oxymoron.
We do not say that we paid a “tax” when we go into the market and buy a dozen eggs or a bottle of orange juice, because we can voluntarily choose to buy pork chops instead of the eggs, or a Redbull instead of the orange juice; we can also choose which store we wish to buy these things from; choose when we buy them (e.g. wait for a sale or discount day), or not buy them at all. We could cut the store out of the process completely and just borrow some eggs from a neighbor, or trade with someone.
But none of that can be said of an income tax or a property tax.
Obviously, no one is going to arrest you for deciding to not eat eggs…
Obviously, no one is going to arrest you for deciding to not eat eggs, but you will be arrested and prosecuted for not paying your property tax. In other words, taxation, like theft, cannot be undertaken without resort to violence, or the ever-present threat hanging over the victim that violence can be brought upon them. We return to the beginning of this writing, where it was highlighted that legally speaking, violence may consist in the “unlawful exercise of…intimidation.”
A tax levied on income, for example, is simply backed with the so-called lawful exercise of intimidation through an exhibition of (state) force. Taxes are theft, backed by violence.
When we realize that terming one form of theft “lawful” and another “unlawful” does not change the action itself, i.e. does not change the fact that theft and violence are in play, we can see that Pinker’s process of “pacification” through state building results in anything but creating a more pacified world.
Many people would counter this by saying that we still have choice, as in the idea that if we don’t like a state’s taxes, we can move to another state. Or, that we voluntarily consent to a “social contract,” whereby we have made the choice to allow ourselves to be subjected to the theft.
The oft-repeated, “If you think it’s so bad, why don’t you move to North Korea or Somalia?”.
But people who use this line of reasoning are totally missing the mark.
Obviously, when faced with an economic decision you don’t prefer, if the only choice you have is to leave the entire area, then you have no choice at all. If indeed taxes pay for “services” from the state, then why do people not have the option to refuse the services in lieu of paying? Why are some services only “legally permitted” from one provider (the state)? I can choose to buy house cleaning services from several providers, or not buy it all; but for a service such as the police, I have one provider only. In any given area, only one provider is lawfully allowed, and I cannot decline the service.
The simple truth is, when it is mandated that one must pay for a service, and no alternative suppliers of that service are permitted, then a person is being subjected to an extortion racket.
When this is acknowledged, it becomes obvious why Pinker, and others like him, refrain from talking about theft or extortion. If Pinker recognized that taxation is a form of theft, backed and facilitated through violence, then his entire thesis that state building produces progressively less violence in society begins to fall apart completely.
His highlighting of the so-called Pax Romana, for example, does not serve as convincing evidence for a more peaceful world when theft is taken into account. When the Roman government decreed that “all the world shall be taxed,” and Roman legions enforced this policy from modern-day Palestine to Great Britain, this was not a reduction in theft and extortion: it was merely a consolidation and organization of an elaborate system of thievery.
If we are to cite examples of raiding amongst the warring tribes of Gaul and Germania for slaves, goods and land as constituting violence, then why do the taxes levied on all these same people by Rome suddenly not count? Taxes were not only paid in currency, but in kind: land and goods continued to be confiscated; people not yet under the hegemony of Rome continued to be raided by the Roman army, deprived of their holdings, and sold into slavery .
The Pax Romana was anything but a time of peace.
To the contrary, it was a time of ceaseless military adventurism on the part of Rome’s rulers. Some of the most expensive and unsuccessful campaigns (under Trajan), long-lasting (Claudius and Aurelius) and fruitless (Hadrian, Caligula) were waged in this period. And that is not to speak of the civil wars that erupted within the Empire during this time.
Pinker claims that when an empire such as Rome’s establishes its hegemony, that tends to “stamp out tribal raiding and feuding.” This is true. But it’s equally true to say that when an organized, criminal syndicate establishes itself in a city, it tends to “stamp out petty gang rivalries and small time illicit trade.”
If we are going to talk about crime, we should be concerned with the prevalence of crime itself, and its scope. Merely shifting from dozens of petty slum lords to a few Dons doesn’t suddenly mean crime has diminished, and therefore criminal syndicates “drive violence down.”
No: criminal syndicates only eliminate competition posed by other criminal entities. They streamline and make more efficient the system of plunder and violence.
I do not pretend to be making any new insights when it comes to demonstrating that the institution of the state is built upon theft. Many great thinkers have done this already. Notably, there is Hans Hermann Hoppe and Murray Rothbard in our own time, the Frenchman Bastiat going back to the mid 19th century, and the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.
That said, while I have seen many people acknowledge these (and other) authors’ work, the arguments both for and against the state often ignore that the systemic looting of a subject people constitutes in itself a clear breach of peaceful order, and not just because property is changing hands.
The person who understands that taxation is theft laments that violence is being utilized (via the state) to conduct the theft. They lament that property rights are not paramount.
The person who is an apologist for the state proclaims that they have no problem with the theft, that they gladly pay their taxes, and so there is no theft taking place. They say that individual property rights must be subordinated to the “general will” or “collective good,” or they may go so far as to say that property rights do not exist at all.
And then there is the person who believes that they stand in the middle, who recognize the thievery, but see it as an acceptable price to pay for the “peace and order” that the state supposedly renders.
The divergence among all three types of people breaks along the lines of private property rights, the individualist vs. the collectivist social view, and the importance placed on order and security. However, what they do not seem to recognize is that they all share convergence on the implicit idea that peace is desirable, and violence is undesirable.
Each one simply points the finger at the other and maintains that they are unrealistic or do not understand the nature of property.
Too often, the libertarian individualist says that violent coercion is wrong, positing that it is wrong simply because it constitutes an infringement on property rights.
The weakness of this approach, is that it is unconvincing for the person who doesn’t hold the same view on property rights, or the person who is willing to surrender their property rights for security and order. What would form a far stronger case, is to remind ourselves that violent coercion, by definition, means to effect a change in a natural order of things; it means that the whims of one individual or group are held to be superior to others.
Person X asserting that they are entitled to 10, 30 or 70% of person Y’s income is wrong not simply because Y has the “property rights” to 100%, but because X is presuming to know how to better employ that income to Y’s betterment than Y himself knows. By extension, this confers on the Xs of the world an air of omniscience or moral superiority to the Ys of the world based upon…what?
It is the baseless quality of these presumptions that makes them in themselves unnatural and inherently chaotic, in other words, disharmonious, and therefore the antithesis of peaceful order.
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