Posts Tagged ‘violence’

Did the emergence of the state reduce the rate of human death from warfare? Steven Pinker’s outstanding book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, surveys many reasons why you are less likely to die from violence today than your ancestors were. Part of his explanation is that warfare was constant in stateless, anarchic societies, but the emergence of the state, beginning about six thousand years ago, helped reduce this problem. He has nice things to say about Thomas Hobbes’ thesis in Leviathan, that a powerful government is necessary to rescue people from their natural state of constant warfare.

In my most recent Learn Liberty blog post, I question this finding of Pinker’s. I argue that the evidence he presents for the claim does not suffice to prove it, because there are other factors that could explain declining rates of war death. Moreover, even if the state reduced war death somewhat, we can’t necessarily infer from that fact alone that the state increased human welfare. From the post:

[T]here is an important conceptual problem for the claim that the rise of the state improved human welfare by reducing violent deaths.

After all, early states arose almost exclusively out of conquest, as Pinker concedes. They started as roving bands of armed robbers, who eventually found that converting robbery into regularized taxation would destroy less wealth and generate more revenue over the long run. Autonomous peoples do not go into “subject” status willingly.

More at the link.

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Want to understand the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Iraq? You can do no better than read this masterful account by Kenneth M. Pollock at Brookings. One quote:

These [ISIS and other Sunni militants] are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second. Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up building or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes. While I have no doubt that there are some among the Sunni militants who want to blow up American buildings and planes right now, and many others who would like to do so later, that is not their principal motivation.

Instead, this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging an intercommunal civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) They are looking to conquer territory. They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics—and they have been principally using conventional tactics since the seizure of Fallujah over six months ago. Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign. [emphasis original]

Wonder why political violence has persisted in eastern Ukraine even though public support for the rebels is extremely low? Jay Ulfelder draws on some of Fearon and Laitin’s work to explain:

Their study recently came to mind when I was watching various people on Twitter object to the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine right now could be described as civil war, or at least the possible beginnings of one. Even if some of the separatists mobilizing in eastern Ukraine really were Ukrainian nationals, they argued, the agent provocateur was Russia, so this fight is properly understood as a foreign incursion.

As Jim and David’s paper shows, though, strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.

In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. Some of that support is overt, but the support we see when we read about the war in the press is surely just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Yet we continue to see the conflict described as a civil war.

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A candidate for the Republican nomination for California’s 11th Congressional District, Brad Goehring, is taking some heat for having posted in his Facebook status—yes, we’ve come to that—that if he could, he would issue hunting permits and declare “today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits,” he continued, adding: “we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd.”

There ensued the by now perfunctory “Are you suggesting violence?” with the implied but unstated as we know you people in the radical right wing agenda are just this close to committing. Whereupon the perfunctory apology, and the claim that, of course, we do not condone violence in any way.

The claim, or worry, that some people on the right are inching closer and closer to unhinged violence has occupied a lot of media attention recently, especially as the Tea Party movements began gathering steam. As others have pointed out, however, the Tea Party rallies have been remarkably civil and peaceful—in contrast, for example, to many of the recent demonstrations sparked by Arizona’s new immigration law.

But this leads me to ask a serious philosophical question: Is there a point at which state encroachment on individual liberty is properly viewed as aggression, thereby justifying defensive force?

I presume there is widespread agreement that defensive force is justified if one is under violent attack from, say, a mugger or rapist. I presume the same holds if one’s family is under attack. Most people would also agree that violent response to someone breaking and entering into one’s home would also license the use of defensive force. Moreover, I presume few would fault communities that are targeted for violence because of their race or ethnicity from organizing and defending themselves, even with violence. Numerous historical examples of all these cases spring readily to mind.

But I am interested in non-violent encroachment on liberty. So put aside for the moment cases like what happened at Waco or what the Columbus, Missouri police department did recently. Can non-violent encroachment on liberty ever rise to the level of aggression that justifies defensive, even violent defensive, action?

Let me offer a concrete scenario. Suppose Sam A. is the head of a household that includes several dependent children. Suppose moreover that Sam A. believes that the fiscal policies of his federal government, including in particular the enormous and rapidly growing public debt, are, unless dramatically reversed, unsustainable and will lead to significantly declining standards of living both for himself and for his children. Suppose Sam A. believes that to address the debt problem, his federal government will dramatically raise taxes and inflate away the value of our wealth, both of which will contribute to substantially declining economic performance. Suppose, further, that he recognize the clear empirical connection between growth in wealth and prosperity, on the one hand, and between declining wealth and misery and suffering on the other.

Now let us connect the dots: By this chain of reasoning Sam A. concludes that the fiscal policies of the federal government pose a clear and growing danger to his prosperity and standard of living, and an even greater danger to that of his children and grandchildren, who will be obligated to spend the majority of their productive years working to pay for government programs and government debt they played no part in creating and from which—he is convinced—they will not benefit. This would be a form of (massive) taxation without representation. And if that justified action before, well, perhaps it might justify it again.

So you see the import of the question I am raising. If one takes seriously one’s obligations to protect and defend one’s family and children, and if one accepts the reasoning I sketch above, it seems one might be led to believing that some government action that is not in itself violent can nevertheless justify defensive, even possibly violent resistance.

Has Sam A. gone wrong in his reasoning? Where? The response that he had the right to vote or agitate (non-violently) against the policies he now abhors, so he can now raise no objection, does not, I think, cut any ice. Suppose he did vote against the policies and suppose he did agitate (non-violently) against them—and they nevertheless proceeded apace. Surely his having been on the losing side of the vote does not entail he must submit to whatever the winning side decides.

Many people in Greece seem ready to engage in violence to protect what they see as threats to their prosperity. I think their thinking is misguided—they have been living at others’ expense, which is an altogether different animal from what our Sam A. is facing—but I wonder whether the principle is plausible (even if misapplied in Greece’s case).

Perhaps, then, violent defensive action can be justified in response to non-violent government action. If so, the next question, of course, is: When?

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