The always worth reading Prof. Gene Callahan recently posted — citing Jared Diamond’s example of warfare among the Dani of New Guinea — that violence is rooted in human nature, not the state. Prof. Callahan observes:
The problem isn’t the State: the problem is human beings. And the problem with admitting that problem is you’re not left with an easy slogan with which to get funding: “Hate the State” is catchy, but “Hate the human being” isn’t going to get you many speaking engagements.
In a subsequent comment, he further cites Steven Pinker on the comparatively low rate of violence of the C20th. In Pinker’s words:
If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.
If one is going to cite the state as a net generator of violence, one has the dreadful problem that the evidence is against you. (Which does not stop people telling comforting stories about Somalia.) That farming societies tend to be considerably less violent than foraging societies is easily explained by the incentive effects of large stationary asset (one’s land) increasing the risks from violence, and so reducing the willingness to engage in it, while increasing the pressure to evolve effective mediation or other constraints. [Though the intermediate state of slash-and-burn agriculture appears to actually drive up the rate of violence, possibly due to increased competition for resources being greater than increased vulnerability of assets.] A much bigger problem for the violent state thesis is that the establishment of the modern state with its effective monopoly of organised violence has clearly led to a fall (pdf) in homicide rates starting in the C16th and C17th in North-Western Europe and spreading south and east in subsequent centuries. [And the evidence Pinker adduces from a wide range of scholarly studies in Pp47-56 of his The Better Angels of Our Nature that even the most violent of state societies is far less violent than almost all non-state societies.]
Not that there really is anything particularly surprising about this. First, economic theory does rather predict that a monopoly generally results in less production of that which is monopolised – the monopolist restricts supply to drive up the return. Second, the state both has the standard producer interest in blocking competition (i.e. being the dominant, and preferably only, provider of organised violence in its territory) and, via the taxing authority, an interest in more taxable activity. Less private violence or risk of private violence leads to more production and more transactions. Rulerships have a basic interest in law and order, that’s why they provide it. As the state’s administrative capacities expand, the more it can act on both these incentives. So, other things being equal, stronger state means less violence. Hence the rise of post-medieval organised-violence-monopolising states has seen falling rates of violence [and non-state societies being strikingly more violent than state societies].
The notion of the state as a net generator of violence seems to be based on two things – war, and confusing oppression with violence. Yes, of course states wage war but, as Diamond, Pinker and others point out, war predates the state (or even rulership). Indeed, amelioration of the dangers of war is an incentive to have an effective state (as Somalia has recently discovered). Rulers have perennially boasted about their war-fighting prowess; both to intimidate rival rulers and encourage confidence to produce and transact. The larger the territory of the ruler, the further away raiders are likely to be. Borderlands might be less subject to the control of the ruler but they were also more violent.
It is also true that being the dominant provider of violence creates the capacity to oppress. The paradox of rulership is precisely that the ruler is both protector against predators and the most effective predator. Oppression may be based on the threat and capacity to engage in violence but it does not mean there will be more violence. Indeed, given the point is to extract a surplus from one’s subjects, the opposite will tend to be true. There is something of a control/level of violence trade-off here; one that C18th and C19th British opponents of an organised police force generally acknowledged, as do some modern American opponents of gun control.
Part of the appeal of gun control precisely being that society is made up of people of diverse motives, risk assessments and rationality. In the face of such diversity, state management of weaponry both economises on one’s own efforts (purchasing weapons[s], learning how to use them, managing their possession and use) and potentially lowers the risks of such diversity. A judgement that depends on one’s level of confidence in the state and fears about one’s neighbours — hence Steve Sailor’s real estate theory of gun control (which also helps explain the rural-city gap in attitudes to gun control in Australia without the American slavery-and-race baggage).
The failures of drug prohibition illustrate this control-violence trade-off. The state withdraws its protection from particular transactions (sale and use of specified narcotics) and associated property. The result of the state’s withdrawal is increased violence. Of course, the presumptive claim is that the state has the capacity, via its bans, to stop such transactions. This turns out not to be true but its falsity exposes the control-violence trade-off.
Wars of righteousness
Where war and oppression not meaning that the state is a net generator of violencer becomes murkier is when states wage war against some section of their subjects. Most notoriously, the Nazi and Leninist wars of class, ethnic, religious, etc extermination; what political scientist R.J. Rummel calls democide and attempts to quantify.
In a grim sort of way, such wars of righteous extermination are examples of how greed is often preferable to other negative motives, as greed is, indeed, self-limiting. You cannot tax the efforts of the dead. But if your sense of righteousness entails that some group should not exist, then the state, as the most effective predator, is the most effective means for putting your sense of righteousness into exterminatory effect. (To the extent, for example, that the Nazi state actually harmed its war-fighting efforts in its drive to exterminate the Jews and other targeted groups.)
Monotheism started righteous extermination with queers and apostates but the process has since been secularised and expanded. (Righteousness meaning normative claims that trump morality: being enjoined to lead the community into stoning your own brother or sister to death for worshiping another deity counts as trumping morality.) The combination of expanding administrative and technological capacity for states with secularised righteousness has been a grim one, starting with the French Revolution (of course) and its brutal suppression of the Vendee (the secular version of the Albigensian Crusade) and moving on to the aforementioned Nazi and Leninist wars of social extermination.
Yet, even with all those slaughters added in, the C20th of the most powerful and capable states history has known was still less violent than the forager norm. The state is not a net generator of violence compared to the no-state alternative, though different forms of states have different propensities to violence. Which is to say, managing the paradox of rulership is the central problem of politics precisely because we cannot escape from it.
ADDENDA: Prompted by a comment by Gene Callahan at his blog, I looked again at the cases cited by Pinker, and it appears that hunter-horticulturalists have a generally higher rate of violence than hunter-gatherers. As the former typically practice slash-and-burn agriculture, this may, as I note in an inserted comment above, drive up competition for resources more than it encourages restraint due to assets at risk. Either way, it increases the evidence that states reduce the level of violence.