The Decline of Violence

Instapundit links to an interesting Reason piece on the decline of violence throughout history, as chronicled by Harvard University cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker in his new book.

The book is entitled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  Ronald Bailey, the author of the piece writes:

Human nature did not change, but our institutions did, encouraging people to restrain their natural tendencies toward violence.

I am reminded of a Usenet sigline by one Trefor Thomas:

To be civilized is to restrain the ability to commit mayhem. To be incapable of committing mayhem is not the mark of the civilized, merely the domesticated.

I get the uncomfortable feeling that the decline of violence is due to that violence being banked away for a rainy day. As Bailey notes, human nature hasn’t changed.

What has changed is that violence has largely gone from from personal, retail events to state-level wholesale slaughter. As Tam has noted,

Central governments have managed to turn murder from a hobby pursued at home by individual craftsmen into a wholesale industry churning out slipshod and substandard corpses in numbers that can’t be read without sounding like Carl Sagan.

True, the overall percentages have declined, but when violence is really unleashed the casualties are overwhelming. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned from economics, it’s that past performance is no guarantee of future results.

If When Iran does go nuclear, for instance ….

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