Violence and the State

By Lorenzo

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.]

Control/violence trade-offs
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].

Public-spirited Pharaoh crushing raiders beneath his chariot wheels

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.


  1. Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Lovely and thoughtful piece. What evidence do you draw on for the claim that 20C violence is lower than that of forager societies? I’d like to think it’s a correct claim, but as an old-fashioned empiricist, I worry about ancient data (and even about the modern).

  2. Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Thank you 🙂

    Pinker, in Pp47-56 of his The Better Angels of Our Nature, adduces a wide range of scholarly studies for evidence of the violent nature of non-state societies compared to various state societies (including the proportionally most violent, ancient Mexico — mass human sacrifice will drive up the violent death rate, see my comments about righteousness).

    I have added a sentence citing Pinker, as I had forgotten how striking the differences were, on the archaeological and anthropological evidence.

  3. Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:12 am | Permalink

    Not disputing that the republicans were needlessly brutal in suppressing them, but the Vendéans were in active revolt whereas the Albigensians just wanted to be left alone. Bit of a difference.

  4. Posted January 8, 2013 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    [email protected] But the Albigensians were in revolt against God, don’t you know? 😉

    That the Revolutionary regime was going to attempt to suppress the Vendee revolt is a bit of a given. The US did with Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion and Fries’s Rebellion, after all. It was the way-over-the-top brutality which I was pointing to.

    The Vendeans were in rebellion against Virtue, and that was beyond the pale.

    The contrast with the efforts of the American Confederacy and then the United States in the aforementioned cases is striking, but goes with the very different ambitions and outlooks of the American and French Revolutions. The difference between rights-concerned and righteous revolution perhaps.

  5. kvd
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Interesting post and links Lorenzo, but the heat must be getting to me. When you say:

    Hence the rise of post-medieval organised-violence-monopolising states has seen falling rates of violence [and non-state societies being strikingly less violent than state societies].

    – the [non-state clause] reads to me as the opposite what you’ve just noted in respect of Pinker’s findings?

    Regardless, a happy new year to you, and thanks.

  6. Posted January 8, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    My new (officially) most depressing piece of social science data is the discovery that you were less likely to die violently in Aztec-controlled Mexico than in any hunter-gatherer society for which we have data.

    Courtesy of Steven Pinker, like so much else.

  7. Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] You must have caught it in mid-composition or something, because it is not how the quote ended up.

  8. TerjeP
    Posted January 9, 2013 at 8:33 am | Permalink

    I read somewhere that violence is negatively correlated with affluence. As in affluence decreases violence. I wouldn’t be too quick to attribute peacefulness to the rise of the state. And certainly not to the rise of the large state. Even if we know that poor stateless societies were violent we don’t generally have data for rich stateless societies. That may be because they are like the unicorn or it may be that the state is a very virulent disease.

    That said I like this article. It raises some interesting theories.

  9. Posted January 9, 2013 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] How many prosperous non-state societies do you know of?

    Assets are negatively correlated to violence (which includes human capital). It is an extension of the point I made about farming societies being more peaceful than foraging ones.

    Less violence also means it is easier to build up assets. Standard of living and law and order are hardly independent variables.

  10. TerjeP
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    I can’t name any prosperous non-state societies. Hence my allusion to unicorns.

  11. John H.
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    My new (officially) most depressing piece of social science data is the discovery that you were less likely to die violently in Aztec-controlled Mexico than in any hunter-gatherer society for which we have data.

    A recent analysis concluded that the big increases in human lifespan that began circa 100 years ago is a remarkable feature of the modern world. It also found that hunter gatherer societies had about the same mortality rate as other primates. Ah yes, let’s all become noble savages.

  12. Posted January 11, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] What you said! 🙂

  13. Adrien
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    The dark blush of anger
    the impolite reply
    the loathing of foreigners
    uphold the State

    Roars at a touchdown
    slums near the harbors
    liquor for the poor
    uphold the State

    Hermance, if at a twist of my ring
    those quarters vanished through which my retinue
    rushes forward not to see eyes fixed on nothing,

    if people (instead of everyday necessity and the, so to speak, hairy pleasures proper to the flesh),
    spick-and-span, pretending they do not stink at all,

    nibbled chocolates in a theater,
    if they were moved by the loves of Amyntas,
    and in the daytime read the Summa, luckily too difficult

    none would be fit for the barracks, the State would fall.

    Czeslaw Milosz
    “ThreeTalks on Civilization”, 1964

  14. Posted January 23, 2013 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

    I had the same reservation as several commenters. We don’t have any modern, developed, high income stateless societies to look at. You can argue that that’s because the state is necessary for development and high income–but there are alternative possible explanations. And the absence of such societies makes it hard to tell whether what we are observing is a causal relation between the state and violence or a causal relation between something else, such as income, and violence–where the something else happens to correlate with the existence of the state.

    I haven’t read Pinker on this subject, although I have read Kealy’s book on the violence of primitive societies. Does Pinker offer cases where the degree of state power sharply increased (or decreased) and there was a related change in violence, with other factors reasonably constant? Did the shift from feudalism to absolute monarchy result in a decrease of violence? From weak government (Weimar) to strong government (Nazi Germany)? What about recent changes in China in the opposite direction?

  15. Posted January 23, 2013 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    [email protected] If a certain state of affairs does not happen–high income non-state societies–that indicates something is blocking it from happening. The obvious difficulty preventing high income non-state societies is the existence of states. A major reason to have a state is protection against other states–see Somalia for an example.

    It is not much chop to say “well, if no state acted like that, then …” if it is predictable that states will act like that. For, then, the sensible policy is to presume that is how they will act and respond accordingly.

    The empirical evidence is very strong. Stronger, indeed, than I realised when I originally wrote the post because, as Gene Callaghan pointed out in a response to a comment by me on his blog, farming per se (the creation of assets in land) does not reduce the level of violence. On the evidence, it actually increases it.

    It is the creation of rulerships and states which, on the evidence, reduces violence. And, as I point out, there are a range of reasons to expect that to be the case.

    Now, it is all very well to speculate about some x factor which reduces violence and produces states but we have no empirical reason to infer such an x factor. In the absence of some compelling, evidence-based, reason to do so, it is better to go with the simpler explanation.

    It is, after all, remarkable that one has to have a state that engages in mass human sacrifice in order to have a case of a state society which is more violent than any identified non-state society.

    As for shifts within state societies, we have to be careful what we claim here. The Weimar state was “weak” in the sense it has unstable governments and significant political street violence. But it continued to be a functioning state in all the basic senses. (Indeed, on one reading, it did remarkably well to keep Hitler, as leader of the largest Party, away from office as long as it did.) It did not become remotely a no-state situation.

    And, obviously, states can choose to increase the level of violence, as I discuss. This complicates matters, but it does not change the underlying patterns.

    And yes, absolute monarchy ruled over states less violent than feudal societies.

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