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A Review of Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature”

November 18, 2014

Stephen Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature” is well written, informative, comprehensive, well documented, and very long at around 1,000 pages. I enjoyed reading it, but it took me a long time to finish.

Over the course of human history, violence has declined dramatically. The pace of violence reduction has mimicked the pace of economic progression and has affected all aspects of life. Whether it is rape, assault, murder, war, execution, or even coercive policies toward minorities and women, all signs point to a decrease in violence. Pinker documents these decreases very thoroughly.

Pinker posits several factors leading to this reduction:
Gentle Trade – Economists have emphasized this for quite some time. If people benefit more by trading than they do by fighting, their self interest will lead them toward cooperation and exchange. While this may seem naïve, it’s actually a pretty low bar. Since war is so destructive to both sides, most of the time there are not enough spoils left of the defeated nation to justify the losses ever for the victor. In ancient warfare, the victorious armies did not take heavy casualties, but in modern war between developed nations, even the victor can lose millions of lives. Compared to that peaceful trade looks pretty attractive.

Prior to WW1, many economists said that war was impossible because it would cost too much and hurt the warring nations financially. They were right about the damage and suffering, but wrong about those being able to deter warmongers intent on destruction. These days, however, people are far less enamored with the idea of noble warfare and dying for one’s country.

Leviathan/governmental crime enforcement
A centralized government has an incentive to minimize violence so as to maximize both the tax base and societal stability. A stationary bandit can take far more from a prosperous society than an impoverished one, and the state does not want competitors cropping up. Thus, all states have an incentive to minimize internal violence. A centralized power can create an impartial justice system so that feuds and vendettas are minimized. Also, criminals know that even if the person they attack does not have allies, the government will still come after them.

Fiction/communication leading to sympathy
Pinker argues that fiction has played an important role in the reduction of violence. Fiction writing is a relatively new invention, at least in the case of mass consumption. The Ancient Greeks had plays, and every culture has stories that they tell, but the key difference in modern fiction is that the stories you experience do not necessarily come from, nor are they about, your own ethnic group. In the past, a group would hear stories about their group written by members of their group. Such tales do not inspire empathy for others because they aren’t from the perspective of others. Mass literacy didn’t occur until the 1800s in Europe and even later elsewhere. Once people did start to read about the struggles of those unlike themselves, they developed an empathy for them and improved their ability to see the world from a different perspective.

Pinker seems to view violence as inherently irrational, and thus, the rise of reason and logic will naturally lead people to avoid it. As people become more educated and intelligent, they will reduce their tendency to use violence. I have to say that this does have a certain appeal for me, and certainly, low intelligence people in our society today are the most violent.

This book caused me to think more in terms of levels of cultural development. A small government may not be the best option for primitive people. If norms of non-violence have not been internalized, you need a centralized power to coerce people into not killing one another. In my heart of hearts, I think that if anarchism were implemented today, the private security firms would begin predating those around them. Exit is not an option regarding violence. At the end of the day, “kill people and take their stuff” is a strategy which is never completely off the table. If societal norms against violence were not completely pervasive, it may be the dominant strategy.

If you ask me what I think the best form of government will be in 500 years, I think anarchy is probably the answer. If you ask me what form of government was the best 500 years ago, constitutional monarchy was probably the best people of that time period could do. Small government requires high trust levels and low levels of violence.

Similarly, capitalism requires strong norms of peaceful cooperation and willingness to live by your agreements. Purely selfish people would be totally unable to maintain a capitalist economy. Maybe that’s the lesson from 1990s Russia. Capitalism is the best system – for cultures which can support it. This outlook is pretty pessimistic about a lot of economic development, but then again, cultures can change. It is hopeful toward cultures which are more developed than the society and economy that they are from as well, such as the Chinese. The Chinese diaspora have no trouble running successful, peaceful businesses outside of China. However, the Communists reduced China to a violence-ridden hellscape.

I view this book as a push in the “culture matters” direction. Instead of institutions drive outcomes, maybe it should be culture creates institutions which in turn drive outcomes. Political movements can shape culture, so maybe the best way to look at it is that there are cultural prerequisites to institutions.

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