7 July 2012

Better Angels or Tougher Cops?

Filed under: Culture, First Lines, Psychology — ktismatics @ 5:03 pm

This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not –and I know that most people do not — violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.

In The Better Angels of our Nature (2011), Steven Pinker contends that, over the past several hundred years, capitalism and strong government have worked in tandem to reduce societal violence in the West. Capitalism encourages cooperation across traditional community boundaries, while government establishes a monopoly over the use of force, especially in matters of interpersonal honor. These pacifying benefits are imposed from the upper class downward:

The European decline of violence was spearheaded by a decline in elite violence. Today statistics from every Western country show the overwhelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by people in the lowest socioeconomic classes. One obvious reason for the shift is that in medieval times, one achieved high status through the use of force. The journalist Steven Sailer recounts an exchange from early-20th-century England: “A hereditary member of the British House of Lords complained that Prime Minister Lloyd George had created new Lords solely because they were self-made millionaires who had only recently acquired large acreages. When asked, ‘How did your ancestor become a Lord?’ he replied sternly, ‘With the battle-ax, sir, with the battle-ax!”

As the upper classes were putting down their battle-axes, disarming their retinues, and no longer punching out bargees and cabmen, the middle classes followed suit. They were domesticated not by royal court, of course, but by other civilizing forces. Employment in factories and businesses forced employees to acquire habits of decorum. And then came an institution that was introduced in London in 1828 by Sir Robert Peel and soon named after him, the municipal police, or bobbies.

The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help.” This has nothing to do with Women Who Love Too Much or Chicken Soup for the Soul; it is another name for vigilantism, frontier justice, taking the law into your own hands, and other forms of violent retaliation by which people secured justice in the absence of intervention by the state.

On the face of it, Pinker’s argument sounds like an apologetics supporting the status quo. Presumably the solution to reducing violence still further is to civilize the lower classes and non-Westerners. One means of civilizing them is to impose on them the discipline and decorum of wage labor; the other is to replace their DIY vigilante justice with state-administered justice, enforced more thoroughly by the police and the courts and the army.

Is Pinker right? There’s a whole academic discipline of criminology that purports to study issues like the one Pinker addresses in his book. I know little about the field, its findings, its theories. Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, a field that’s certainly relevant to criminology. But I don’t get a sense reading the first three chapters that Pinker lets the complexity of the issue speak for itself, nor that he takes seriously the work of any but a few criminology people. He’ll say something about how the social scientists find the issues complicated and multifaceted, but then, based mostly on his own opinion, he asserts that the explanation can be captured in the few factors that he advocates again and again. In the process he seems to marshal the empirical evidence to support his theories rather than letting the evidence shape the theories — the mark of a rhetorician rather than a scientist.

Pinker acknowledges that the upper class attained that status largely through the exercise of violence. Eventually the elite cooperate with each other, both politically and economically. Does Pinker acknowledge that the elite cooperate in order to consolidate their power and wealth against those who would take it from them, by force if necessary, the way they seized it in the first place? Does he acknowledge that corporate capitalism and strong government are means of securing the elite’s permanent higher status by pulling up the ladders behind them? Not that I’ve seen so far.

The American South

Pinker presents evidence documenting historically high homicide rates in the South and West of America. He contends that Southern culture was heavily influenced by a particularly pugnacious wave of immigrants who couldn’t abandon their longstanding traditions of honor and violence.

Americans, and especially Americans in the South and West, never fully signed on to a social contract that would vest the government with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. In much of American history, legitimate force was also wielded by posses, vigilantes, lynch mobs, company police, detective agencies, and Pinkertons, and even more often kept as a prerogative of the individual. This power sharing, historians have noted, has always been sacred in the South…

The northern states were settled by Puritan, Quaker, Dutch, and German farmers, but the interior South was largely settled by Scots-Irish, many of them sheepherders, who hailed from the mountainous periphery of the British Isles beyond the reach of the central government… Herders all over the world cultivate a hair trigger for violent retaliation.

Why in explaining Southern violence does Pinker invoke some long-standing cultural differences brought over from the Old Country? What happened to his acknowledgment that those who exercise monopolistic control over the economic and governmental means of “legitimate” violence achieved that status through illegitimate violence? Didn’t the earliest American emigrants from England, the ones who became the American elite, use violence to wrest control of America away from the Indians and to preserve it from the incursions of subsequent waves of immigrants? Pinker contends that the long arm of Eastern law and order hadn’t yet reached the Western frontier, so the pioneers regressed to an earlier stage of violent “anarchy” notoriously characteristic of the Wild West. Plenty of Western pioneers were Scots-Irish, but there were plenty of Germans too.

The Southern colonies were co-founded by the English crown and trading companies owned by English aristocrats. In exchange for their work, the earliest English colonists were granted tracts of land in the colony by the trading company. Subsequent waves of colonists, also mostly English, came as indentured servants. They worked for the landowners and, typically after 7 years, were granted their freedom. Those who paid the transatlantic passage of the indentured laborers were granted tracts of American land by the trading company. In other words, the labor importers received not only free labor but extra land as well. This arrangement continued with the subsequent wave of Scotch-Irish indentured servants. Most of them emigrated from “The Plantation of Ulster,” where they had worked as tenant farmers for English landowners on a vast tract of land confiscated from the Irish by the British in the early 17th century. The African slaves too fell under this agreement: American landowners who paid for the slaves’ transport would own the slaves and would be ceded a tract of land, typically 50 acres per slave. Of course the Africans didn’t get the benefit of a time limit on their servitude.

It’s easy to see how the earliest English settlers in the South also rapidly became the wealthiest, with free land worked by free labor resulting in profits for importing more workers and acquiring more land, etc. — a geometric rate of accumulation. It’s also easy to see how, after putting in their time as free labor, the indentured servants of England and Ulster would have had a hard time securing good land. When after 7 years they got their freedom they were still under the thumb of the landed gentry, with no possibility of rising in status or wealth or power. Three choices presented themselves: either continue working for the landowners; or settle in the hill country which, not being much use for farming or herding cattle, could be had for little or no money.

Or they could head for the Western frontier, where the Indians were and the plantation owners weren’t. So too with Northern frontiersmen. Pioneers would band together in small groups to clear the forests, build houses, plant crops, and kill Indians. They would also fend off European newcomers, pushing them farther into the frontier. Whoever won those violent skirmishes wound up dominating the economy and government on the frontier — they became the new elite, just as the old European elite emerged from similar violent confrontations. Eventually the new Southern and Western elites would form alliances with the Eastern elite, extending the power of capital- and government-empowered control over “legitimate” violence across the continent.

The Sixties

Pinker observes that there was a statistical rise in US violence beginning in the 60s. He contends that this regression to uncivilized behavior resulted from the “if it feels good do it” anti-establishment attitude of the times. He cites as supporting evidence the upsurge of violence in movies and aggressive lyrics in popular song, but what about empirical evidence?

In looking at Pinker’s graph of historical trends the reader observes the homicide rate starting to go up in the mid-60s, peaking from the mid-70s to around 1990, then dropping. That takes America past the hippies, past disco, past punk. As Pinker notes, most murders are committed by young men. Who were the young men during this high-murder era? Not those “decivilized” Baby Boomers of the sixties, but Generation X.

Per Pinker’s graph, the rapid rise in murder rate corresponds almost exactly with the years of the Vietnam war. The big anti-establishment protests weren’t about “if it feels good, do it;” they were about staying alive, and about anger at a government that would expose its young men to death for no good reason, and about questioning the legitimacy of the state’s monopolistic exercise of military violence. The Vietnam War led to the violent deaths of 47,000 young American men. Assuming an average of 150K US soldiers in Vietnam over a period of 8 years, that’s a rate of about 4,000 violent deaths/100K/year. Compare that to the recent peak years of 1978 and 1990 when the rate was 10 homicides/100K/year, and you can see why protesters were particularly exercised about ending the war as well as the draft that sent Americans into peril against their will.

Pinker points out that blacks experience a disproportionately high murder rate. While on the American side the Vietnam War was fought mostly by lower-SES kids, they were mostly white, as were the “feel good” antiwar protesters. Did black pride and resentment against the white-dominated power elite constitute a “decivilizing” impulse comparable to the anti-establishment hippies and rock-and-rollers? The spike in the US homicide rate lags significantly behind the most active phase of civil rights activism. If an upsurge in black violence expressed resentment against the oppressive white culture, then why did black-on-black crime among people who already knew each other account for most of the spike in homicides? Here Pinker reverts to his lawlessness theory: blacks constituted a separate subculture operating outside of the control of legitimate government-sponsored violence, so street gangs fill the power void — sort of like the Old West, or like the wave of Irish, Polish, Italian and other “pugnacious,” less civilized, non-Western European immigrants whose arrival in the US corresponded with an earlier spike in city crime rates. Pinker attributes the decline in homicides in the 90s to more police presence in black neighborhoods and tougher sentencing in criminal cases involving black perpetrators. Again, it’s the top-down imposition of civilizing forces via the exercise of “legitimate” violence that restrains illegitimate and uncivilized violence.

Crime is predominantly a young man’s game. I don’t doubt that black violence is triggered at least in part by frustration and resentment at lack of opportunity and active oppression by a white-dominated governmental and economic system. But in the black ghettos don’t the larger established authority structures exercise control from a distance,  containing the violence within well-established buffer zones, arresting all of the main (young male) combatants who have achieved some local power, repeatedly creating power vacuums to be filled by groups of new kids? Certainly frustration and anger don’t always strike out at the sources of that anger. Powerful emotion isn’t that easily channeled, plus the real targets have badges and bigger weapons and more backup than you do.

Of course it’s not that simple. But it’s not as simple as Pinker makes it either.



  1. I believe Bryan Stevenson talking about the incarceration rate of blacks rather than the fanciful generalisations of Pinker. Keep the ‘usual suspects’ in jail and you have thereby cut down their chance for homicide.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 7 July 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  2. Writes Pinker:

    “Unlike the more gimmicky theories of the crime decline, massive imprisonment is almost certain to lower crime rates because the mechanism by which it operates has so few moving parts. Imprisonment physically removes the most crime-prone individuals from the streets, incapacitating them and subtracting the crimes they would have committed from the statistics. Incarceration is especially effective when a small number of individuals commit a large number of crimes… The people who commit the most crimes expose themselves to the most opportunities to get caught, and so they are the ones most likely to be skimmed off and sent to jail. Moreover, people who commit violent crimes get into trouble in other ways, because they tend to favor instant gratification over long-term benefits. They are more likely to drop out of school, quit work, get into accidents, provoke fights, engage in petty theft and vandalism, and abuse alcohol and drugs. A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as bycatch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets.”

    Pinker thinks there’s a rate of diminishing returns on the lock ’em up strategy of crime deterrence: at the margin people left on the street are presumably less criminally inclined, so incarcerating them won’t be worth the expense of the criminal justice system. Still, it’s clear that Pinker commends rounding up the usual suspects as a valid and effective exercise of legitimate violence for civilizing the lower classes and the non-Western ethnicities. I don’t recall Pinker acknowledging that the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world.


    Comment by ktismatics — 7 July 2012 @ 7:08 pm

  3. As a non-American who has never been to America I lack the direct intuitions or sense of the situation of the native. Still it seems to me that for the standard academic the obvious is not very interesting. If you lock up men you lock up fathers and husbands and you have created broken families that are known since time immemorial to be prone to delinquency. A bland acceptance of mass incarceration as a strategy is immoral.

    Is violent crime decreasing? Probably in those jurisdictions where police and courts are trusted. We subcontract our score settling to them rather than to the dons known in IRA circles as community activists.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 8 July 2012 @ 1:14 am

  4. The homicide rate in the US is half what it was 20 years ago; so too with rape, robbery, larceny, burglary, assault, and auto theft. Meanwhile the incarceration rate has doubled over that same 20-year interval, and it has increased fivefold since 1970. Over the past twenty years police presence has also increased dramatically in the ghettoized parts of American cities. It’s argued that most criminals are repeat offenders, so if you catch them and give them long sentences for the first offense then they’re not out there on the streets committing more crimes. I doubt this is a matter of trust, of more people relying on the police to settle their grievances, since a huge percentage of black inmates are imprisoned for drug-related crimes, a strategy which Pinker specifically notes and commends. In effect Pinker advocates profiling: drug users are more likely to commit violent crimes, so let’s go after the drug users. He also says that school dropouts and the unemployed are more violence-prone: why not focus police attention on them? And of course we have the statistic indicating that blacks commit more violent crimes than whites, men more than women, young men more than old men. Why not then focus the police attention on young black men? This I think is what happens in the US.

    “A bland acceptance of mass incarceration as a strategy is immoral.”

    I agree. Warehousing young black men until they’re middle-aged black men is a terrible injustice.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2012 @ 10:57 am

  5. Pinker on the extension of non-violent Western civilization to the purportedly uncivilized:

    Though imperial conquest and rule can themselves be brutal, they do reduce endemic violence among the conquered… It goes without saying that peoples that have been brought under the jurisdiction of a government will not fight as much. The effect is also noticeable to the people themselves. As an Auyana man living in New Guinea under the Pax Australiana put it, “Life was better since the government came” because “a man could now eat without looking over his shoulder and could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot.” …One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th century is that when colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, organized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders.

    I wonder: does Pinker believe that the high rate of violence among American blacks is attributable to backsliding into uncivilized behavior after having been freed from the colonial intervention known as slavery? In the US most blacks can trace their ancestry back to slaves. In one of his graphs Pinker shows that the black and white homicide rates in New York and Philadelphia were equal until an inflection point shifted the black rate up while the white rate stayed steady. When was that inflection point? About 1860. The Civil War began in 1861, and after emancipation a lot of the freed slaves migrated to the Northern cities to find work. I don’t know what the homicide rate was among African slaves in the US, but I suspect that it was pretty low. The hand of “civilization” was heavy; the consequence of stepping out of line, dire. The slaveowning gentry no doubt commended themselves for keeping their brutish charges from killing each other like animals in the bush.


    Comment by ktismatics — 8 July 2012 @ 11:51 am

  6. A quick word on incarceration…..I don’t get the sense that Pinker is commending increased incarceration as a way of reducing crime. In fact, though I don’t have the citation handy, I believe he called it “clumsy” or implied something to that effect. As a statistics guy, he acknowledges that incarceration works in some pragmatic sense, but I get the sense Pinker himself would opt for other methods of reducing crime.


    Comment by erdman31 — 9 July 2012 @ 2:59 pm

  7. Pinkman strongly and consistently commends strong government as the core reason why violence has declined. Strong government wields monopolistic, “legitimate,” and irresistible power over the people in order to short-circuit endless cycles of honor-based revenge and power grabs that ratchet up violence in “stateless” “anarchic” societies. It seems clear to me that Pinker regards police and courts and jails as the core means by which the state imposes civilization top-down on the uncivilized. I’ve still read only the first 3 chapters. Maybe when he gets to the “better natures” parts of the book Pinker will contend that, once the savages have been beaten into submission, they will internalize a set of values and virtues that obviate the constant need for deploying the more heavy-handed tactics. But if so, Pinker will almost surely argue that the inner self-transformation of individuals and societies can occur only after the mighty “Leviathan” has subdued them from top down and from outside in. Have you ever read Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Erdman? He makes a similar case for the imposition of discipline from the top down and from the outside in, though he’s less enthralled with the process and outcome than is Pinker.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 July 2012 @ 3:24 pm

  8. I see that in my last comment I referred to Pinker as “Pinkman.” I must have had Breaking Bad on my mind — funny in the context of explaining a decline in violence.


    Comment by ktismatics — 9 July 2012 @ 4:19 pm

  9. That’s true, for sure. I also get that sense that he views a strong government as a pacifying force. In later chapters, he also, however, talks about genocides caused by strongmen and dictatorships. In later chapters, he also discusses how functional democracies are a pacifying effect, as well as market-based economies. So, a strong democratically elected government combined with capitalism trends toward very low violence. That’s where he finds the strong statistical trend for reducing violence.

    No, I have not read Foucault’s Discipline, though many times I’ve been on the verge of reading it.

    You know, I might add that I don’t get the sense that Pinker is really advocating for any one position. I get the sense that he appreciates the pacifying effects of strong government, democracy, and capitalism, but I think he has a good deal of tempered optimism. Also, I would say that he doesn’t advocate a beat-the-hell-out-em approach to government. That would be more of the strongman or dictatorship model, and that would be contrary to the pro-Enlightenment, democracy trend he sees as necessary for pacification. Presumably, the extent to which a democracy becomes an oligarchy or crony capitalism (as has happened in recent decades in the U.S.) such a society would tilt toward being prone to violence, because the people, feeling that they are not represented and feeling squeezed out of the circle of societal profits, will become less nonviolent and more prone to misbehavior. So far, though, no commentary on that from Pinker. I’ve had to imply that.


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 July 2012 @ 1:08 pm

  10. I also wanted to say that Pinker discusses a good deal of “norms” as an important element of pacification. One example is dueling. In older times, personal honor was so important that people would duel, sometimes to the death. The norms have changed such that people expect to solve their differences nonviolently. Pinker discusses these norms toward nonviolence apart from the pacifying effect of government. Not that the two are always separate, as in the case of the 1960s civil rights marches, where it seems as though there was a changing norm as well as a government that stepped in (in some cases) to prevent the white establishment from excessive violence.

    What changes norms, if not government? Pinker talks a good deal about the centrality of nonviolent trends in literature. Again, this is a pro-Enlightenment–or better yet, pro-modernity–trend he sees. One example is fiction. First person fiction can draw the reader out of their own perspective, and they can empathize with the characters. Once a person begins to empathize and think in terms of the perspective of the other, they are less likely to think in terms of entrenched sectarianism, which makes them less vulnerable to us-versus-them violence.

    I do get the sense that Pinker is a strong advocate of literature as a pacifying force. This connection with empathy perhaps intersects with both his own talent as a writer and his area of expertise, cognitive psychology.


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 July 2012 @ 1:21 pm

  11. “So, a strong democratically elected government combined with capitalism trends toward very low violence. That’s where he finds the strong statistical trend for reducing violence.”

    Yes, I hear that message loud and clear. I wrote in the original post that Pinker jumps awfully quickly from statistical results to one particular interpretation of those results. In so doing Pinker seems more of a polemicist and an advocate than an impartial empiricist. Others interpret those same statistical results to conclude that Western Europeans are genetically superior to Eastern Europeans, Africans, etc. Others, also looking at those same data, conclude that Protestantism is superior to other forms of Christianity and to other religions. It’s hard not to regard those particular interpretive leaps from the data as also representing advocacy stances rather than neutral observations.

    In the post I outlined two specific examples — the American South and the 60s — of where I think Pinker’s interpretation fails, or is at least open to viable alternative interpretations. While he may later heap scorn on strongmen, it remains the case that the Western democratic capitalistic nations have often propped up those strongmen. Alternatively, the Western nations have used anti-strongman rhetoric to justify military intervention; e.g., in Iraq. Yet the Iraq homicide rate after the occupation has been far higher than it was under Saddam. I’m not arguing that Saddam was a great leader; I’m saying that the supposed pacifying force of Western capitalist democracy ain’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that it’s used as a rhetorical lever to extend Western dominance to other parts of the world. And certainly the “beat the hell out of em” governance strategy seems to be what happens when a strong foreign military force serves as the de facto government of an occupied country. Pinker’s position is explicit: once people realize that a strong government can and will beat the hell out of em, then they capitulate to the superior force and stop beating the hell out of each other.

    “Pinker discusses these norms toward nonviolence apart from the pacifying effect of government.”

    The only place I’ve seen him make that case is with respect to the aristocracy. He claims that the fading out of dueling constituted increased civilization on the part of the upper classes, which they then transmitted to the lower classes. The alternative interpretation I suggested in my post — and it’s certainly not unique to me — is that the elite, having fought each other for dominance, eventually decided to form alliances with each other in order to solidify their position at the top of the heap. Regarding norms among the lower classes, again I point to Foucault as making the same point that Pinker makes: strong government imposed top-down becomes internalized as norms consistent with the government’s laws. Internal norms come to serve as a preventive restraint on behavior, but the government still serves as an external enforcer when the norms are violated.

    “What changes norms, if not government? Pinker talks a good deal about the centrality of nonviolent trends in literature…”

    I wrote some posts awhile back about empathy in reading fiction. There have been empirical studies (of which Pinker seems unaware) showing that readers’ empathy does not translate into real-life empathy. I.e., the degree to which readers empathize with fictional characters from other countries, stations in life, etc. does not correlate with readers’ alliance or support of people or ethnic groups similar to those fictional characters. One explanation for this finding is that fiction entails no reciprocal expectations between reader and character, so the reader is free to enter into imaginary empathic and sympathetic relations with characters without having to worry about the responsibilities entailed in real life. Also, empirical findings show no difference in empathic response with first-person fictional narrators versus third-person characters.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2012 @ 2:18 pm

  12. See pp. 279 ff. “…the Democratic Peace theory has come under scrutiny, especially after it provided part of the rationale for Bush and Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003…” Pinker then goes on to a complicated discussion of multiple logistic regression, “a statistical technique that separates the effects of confounded variables.” Having done so, a few pages later, he concludes that “the Democratic Peace came out of a tough test in good shape. But that does not mean we should all be freedom guys [like Bush and Blair, presumably] and try to impose democratic governments on every autocracy we can invade. Democracy is not completely exogenous to a society; it is not a list of procedures for the workings of government from which every other good follows. It is woven into a fabric of civilized attitudes that includes, most prominently, a renunciation of political violence…Within this fabric, democracy brings no guarantee of internal peace. Though new and fragile democracies don’t start interstate wars, in the next chapter we will see that they host more than their share of civil wars.

    “Even when it comes to the aversion of democracies to interstate war, it is premature to anoint democracy as the first cause. Countries with democracy are beneficiaries of the happy end of the Matthew Effect, in which them that’s got shall get and them that’s not shall lose. Not only are democracies free of despots, but they are richer, healthier, better educated, and more open to international trade and international organizations. To understand the Long Peace, we have to pry these influences apart.” 284


    Comment by erdman31 — 10 July 2012 @ 2:49 pm

  13. We haven’t discussed wars at all, either in the post or the discussion; the topic has been limited to violent crimes between individuals. I was pointing out that the supposedly democratic new Iraqi regime, installed by the occupying army of the democratic US, has resulted in a higher rate not just of war casualties but of homicides than was the case under the autocratic regime it superceded. But now you’ve introduced a new topic, about which I’ll have less comment because I’ve not read that far in Pinker’s book.

    Pinker illustrates multiple regression by noting that the relationship between cigarette smoking and heart attacks might be mediated by other correlated variables like exercise. This example supposedly translates into Russett and Oneal’s study of the relationship between democracy and militarized disputes. Evidently they take into account factors like geographic proximity and political alliances. Pinker interprets the results as supporting the idea that democratic governments are more peaceful. However, apparently the actual results of the regression analysis show only that, for democracies, “there is a hint that they tend to stay out of disputes across the board.” “A hint that”? This was supposed to be a statistical argument. Invariably “a hint that” means that the results did not achieve recognized levels of statistical significance. Again, he’s going beyond the data, which showed definitively only that democracies tended not to fight with each other, whereas autocracies weren’t less likely to fight with other autocracies. Russett and Oneal control for whether the disputants were world powers, but evidently they don’t control for whether those world powers functioned behind the scenes as provocateurs of disputes between other countries. E.g., Iran and Iraq, neither one a democracy, fought each other long and hard, with both the US and the USSR providing arms to Iraq. There are plenty more examples.

    Then Pinker writes what you yourself quoted:

    “Not only are democracies free of despots, but they are richer, healthier, better educated, and more open to international trade and international organizations. To understand the Long Peace, we have to pry these influences apart.”

    These are the sorts of variables that should be included in a multivariate regression as well, no? E.g., controlling for wealth and education, what is the effect of democracy on international disputes? Maybe Pinker does pry the influences apart in subsequent chapters. To be clear, I too think that democracy is superior to autocracy, that wealth is better than poverty, that education is better than ignorance, that international cooperation is better than isolation and antagonism. My objections in this post have been directed at Pinker’s contentions in the first few chapters that strong central government and capitalism are the key factors for reducing interpersonal violence. I’m suggesting that he doesn’t take his own advice by controlling for other correlated variables, many of which have as much prima facie validity as do strong central governments and capitalism.


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2012 @ 4:11 pm

  14. Here’s a post about Pinker’s book on Crooked Timber from last October. 352 comments!


    Comment by ktismatics — 10 July 2012 @ 5:02 pm

  15. This morning I read that Friedrich von Hayek, influential advocate of laissez-faire capitalism and libertarian government, supported Augusto Pinochet in overthrowing Allende’s socialist regime and installing a military dictatorship. Hayek wrote that there are “many instances of authoritarian governments under which personal liberty was safer than under many democracies,” in which category he explicitly included Pinochet’s government. In an editorial Hayek wrote: “If Mrs. Thatcher said that free choice is to be exercised more in the market place than in the ballot box, she has merely uttered the truism that the first is indispensable for individual freedom, while the second is not.”

    Hayek’s position supports the argument in Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine: the major Western powers, acting on behalf of the large banks and investors, often help undermine sitting governments in order to replace them with regimes that open up the local cheap labor markets, borrow heavily from the World Bank and the IMF, and sell off government-owned assets at cheap prices to big international investors in order to pay off the loans. Chile is perhaps the first example of this strategy, supported by the CIA and the “Chicago Boys,” a group of economists associated with Milton Friedman who were disciples of Hayek. In order to insert the Chilean economy into global capitalism they had to depose the democratically-elected regime by means of a military coup. Countries emerging from the Soviet bloc collapse also fit the pattern.


    Comment by ktismatics — 11 July 2012 @ 6:25 am

  16. This is a great post and discussion. One thought:

    ” The alternative interpretation I suggested in my post—and it’s certainly not unique to me—is that the elite, having fought each other for dominance, eventually decided to form alliances with each other in order to solidify their position at the top of the heap.”

    I don’t think you can tell the story this way without addressing, as you do elsewhere, the shift in the basis of the elite from direct violence to commerce and finance. This happened as the historical noblesse d’epee came increasingly to rely on financing of their squabbling from the rising bourgeoisie, who charged not just interest but positions in a new noblesse de robe and demanded greater political stability to manage the risks of their investments.


    Comment by CarlD — 12 July 2012 @ 10:52 am

  17. Thanks for the compliment and the contribution, Carl. You put your finger on the integral material link between Western government and capitalism, a link that Pinker treats mostly as statistical correlation with cursory ideological support from guys like Hobbes and Locke. See, I knew we needed a real historian around here. Pinker needed one too.


    Comment by ktismatics — 12 July 2012 @ 11:46 am

  18. Here’s an article about Honduras.Until recently the homicide there had been second highest in the world. Street gangs have been the main source of homicides.

    “Formed in the 1980s in the United States by Central American immigrants, many refugees from the region’s civil wars, the gangs or “maras” grew into an international franchise when criminals were deported back home.They have grown dramatically in the last two decades and El Salvador alone has an estimated 64,000 gang members. Branches operate across Central America and in at least 42 states in the United States. “

    So here’s another means of reducing violent crime in the US over the past two decades: deportation. But the US was the incubator, exporting gang violence. Now the two biggest gangs have called a truce, with homicide rates dropping by half over the past 4 months.

    “The government has lauded the truce and is trying to help its long-term success by working with business leaders to offer work and rehabilitation programs for gang members. It is a policy U-turn from the “iron fist” tactics used against the gangs for years in Central America. Under Funes’ conservative predecessor, teenagers could be arrested just for sporting gang tattoos without having committed any crime, filling the jails to dangerous levels.”

    Evidently the US also exported its strategy of rounding up the usual suspects based on profiling, with poor results to show for it. Now the OAS is visiting El Salvador to investigate the turnaround, assessing its potential in neighboring countries. Government spokespeople in Honduras and Guatemala express skepticism. Those governments are run by military strongmen promising to get tough on crime, so it’s not surprising that they’d reject less heavy-handed methods. To what extent are these law-and-order promises being made to the US in exchange for military and economic support? I confess ignorance about the political landscape in Central America. There were regionwide civil wars in which the US intervened heavily. Many of the emigres to the US were political refugees allied with the US-backed factions in those countries. And of course the gangs too are international, with significant connections to the US drug trade. To regard the Central American countries/peoples as separate independent variables in a study of international homicide rates is thus unlikely to yield any meaningful statistical results.


    Comment by ktismatics — 15 July 2012 @ 6:29 am

  19. Here’s a review of Pinker’s book from Ed Herman and David Peterson (who I generally have a lot of time for). It’s a pretty lengthy and thorough debunking, but handily they seem to have focused on completely different aspects of it from you.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 25 July 2012 @ 6:37 am

  20. Ah, yes, the link thing:



    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 25 July 2012 @ 6:38 am

  21. Thanks for the link, lafayette. I’m sitting in Washington Dulles Airport waiting for my flight so I won’t be too thorough. I didn’t read most of the sections referenced in this review, but evidently the book suffers throughout from the same sorts of ideological biases. Since the population of the world has increased geometrically, Pinker contends that proportionately speaking the two World Wars weren’t all that big of a deal body-count-wise compared to organized slaughters perpetrated earlier in world history. Jesus. Regarding the “peace” since WW2, here’s an excerpt early in the review that recapitulates an objection I registered in my discussion with Erdman:

    “He contends not only that the “democracies avoid disputes with each other,” but that they “tend to stay out of disputes across the board,” (283) an idea he refers to as the “Democratic Peace.”[12] (278-284) This will surely come as a surprise to the many victims of U.S. assassinations, sanctions, subversions, bombings and invasions since 1945.”

    I’ll have to read the rest of this later after I return from this trip. I’d like to point out though that I’m nearly finished reading Understanding Consciousness by Max Velmans and agree with your strong endorsement — an excellent book.


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 July 2012 @ 6:28 pm

  22. Good, are you a reflexive monist now?


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 26 July 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  23. I only skimmed Herman and Peterson’s demolition of Pinker’s book, but from my sampling of the book and their review I’d say they’ve got it right. I also just noticed the publication date: 25 July 2012, hot off the presses. Based on the parts of Pinker’s book I read and commented on in this post, I support this general observation from near the middle of the piece…

    “Pinker employs the “preferential method” of research, uncritically using sources that support his claims and ideological agenda, and ignoring or criticizing harshly those that take positions incompatible with his.”

    … as well as this one from the next-to-last paragraph:

    In the final analysis, The Better Angels of Our Nature is an inflated political tract that misuses data and rewrites history in accord with its author’s clear ideological biases, while finding ideology at work only in the actions of his opponents.”

    Read as a stand-alone piece H&P’s treatment is slanted sharply away from the US- and West-centric view of Pinker, which may be justified in its own right. But mostly they’ve chosen specific incidents to illustrate Pinker’s thoroughgoing bias. They remark frequently and with evident surprise that Pinker’s analysis has been well-received by critics. I’m surprised too


    Comment by ktismatics — 26 July 2012 @ 6:36 pm

  24. Well, I’m surprised that they’re surprised. I thought Ed Herman would be beyond that by now ( excuse me if you’re well aware of this, he co-wrote ‘Manufacturing Dissent’ with Noam Chomsky decades ago).

    They do tend to make the review a springboard for a tour of a lot of topics that are routinely misrepresented by the propaganda system, things which not just Pinker but all the ‘establishment’ writers would get wrong, even something – their critique of the MSM Rwanda genocide story – which just about no-one else would touch (and I’m persuaded that Herman has a case, and there is increasing evidence to support it); so, as well as being a critique of Pinker, it’s also a quick introduction the critique that Chomsky and Herman have been trying to get across for decades. That’s fine by me – plenty still need to hear it.

    I laughed out loud at the bit I’ve quoted below, which touches on the side of Pinker you’ve written about above:

    “The Rights Revolutions are the liberal revolutions,” Pinker tells us. “Each has been associated with liberal movements, and each is currently distributed along a gradient that runs, more or less, from Western Europe to… [guess] with Africa and most of the Islamic world pulling up the rear.” (475) We doubt that the canonical Orientalist map of the world has ever been expressed more succinctly.[110]

    Within the Western imperial powers, Pinker believes that a similar process runs from the earliest civilizers among the upper strata of society (royalty and aristocrats and elites in general) downward to the “lower strata of the socioeconomic scale,” the savages in whom the “Civilizing process never fully penetrated,” (81) with many of them ending up behind bars—where Pinker thinks a lot of them belong.[111] “


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 27 July 2012 @ 10:05 am

  25. A psycholinguist at MIT who veers sharply into the political discourse — I wonder what Chomsky thinks of his neoliberal protégé.


    Comment by ktismatics — 27 July 2012 @ 12:16 pm

  26. Chomsky sees them come and he sees them go, these eager bright young things with their schemes for selling themselves to the rich and powerful.

    That Herman/Edwards piece is VERY long. I’ve been ploughing through it for days it seems, and the end is still a long way and a lot of graphs off. Still, you’ve got to hand it to them for thoroughness.


    Comment by lafayettesennacherib — 27 July 2012 @ 3:18 pm

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