Homicide and the State

I am one of the hundreds of thousands, possibly of millions of conservatives with strong libertarian leanings. Incidentally, I am not just talking, I showed it in several things I wrote and published. (Please, ask me.) There are several things however that prevent me from stating unambiguously that I am a libertarian, and much less, a Libertarian.

Of the two main philosophical obstacles the first is the mainstream libertarians’ barely concealed pacifism. I deal with this issue in several postings in factsmatter.wordpress.com that include the name “Paul” in their title (I also have objections to Ron Paul, the politician, another topic treated in some of the same postings.) My second problem is that it seems to me that serious libertarians have not dealt adequately with the central issue of the state as peacemaker.

Let me say before I proceed that it may well be the case that I am simply exposing my ignorance, that the subject has been examined by many good minds and that I have simply not come across their efforts. There might even be forums where the issue is discussed frequently and about which I am ignorant because of my bad habit of spending a lot of time watching French television series. And by the way, I propose (forcefully) the following rule: No one must give anyone a reading assignment if he/she has not even done the assignment. Don’t tell me to read what you have not read thoroughly yourself!

Now back to the state as peacemaker.

Implicitly, and even explicitly, libertarians desire a reduction in the power, scope, and reach of the state vis-a-vis civil society. The ultimate situation to which this wish would lead is anarchy. The word simply means a social system with no chiefs, no formal leaders, no durable power structure, no government without an end in sight. The word means above all the absence of coercion as a way to get things done in society.

My own analysis of the causes of progress and of the barriers to progress converges with my personal temperament to move me powerfully in the direction of anarchy, as just described. However, the facts as I understand them would cause me to apply the brakes while I am still quite far from the goal. (Again, I am not speaking here about pacifism but about the role of the state in procuring civil, domestic peace.)

I have been reading a book that brought back to the front of my thinking things I have known for a long time but not really entertained for many years. The book is:

Steven Pinker’s: 2011 The Better Angels of Our Nature; Why Violence Has Declined (Viking [ Penguin]: New York.)

Before I proceed with what I learned in this good book, let me say that I think Pinker does not much or often violate scientific canons. In general, he handles data, makes data speak, in ways that are scientifically responsible and respectable. It’s not his fault if he is also a very good writer and one should not blame him too much for enjoying a great deal of commercial success! The girl all the village boys love is not necessarily a whore; she might just be of pleasant manners, intelligent, kind and helpful, in addition to being beautiful.

Anyway, Pinker dedicates about one hundred pages (pp. 31-120) and several graphs to demonstrate the following trend:

Historically, the probability of dying a violent death began to decline abruptly when state societies emerged. In hunter- gatherer, pastoral, and horticultural societies, people died like swatted flies from violent acts. It seems that everywhere and at all times, no state, or a weak state are associated with a very high frequency of killings. The differences in homicide rates between state and non-state societies appear to be expressed in orders of magnitude. Hobbes was right, Rousseau was a ninny!

Of course, to the extent that Pinker is correct, my pursuit of smaller government must stop before it becomes conducive to a much increased likelihood of early termination for myself and for those I love. If Pinker is right, my complete success would herald a quick return to the barbarism that makes the good life in general and creativity in particular rare. I mean the kind of barbarism that would make the very idea of discussing libertarianism bitterly laughable.

As a conservative with strong libertarian leanings, I cannot simply pretend that Pinker’s persuasive demonstration does not exist. I can’t just drop the subject. I think it’s self- evident that the difference between a responsible grass-root movement and a cult is that the former must be constrained by facts while the latter merrily ignores them.

What do you think? What are we supposed to do?

© Jacques Delacroix 2012

3 thoughts on “Homicide and the State

  1. A good point but I think that Pinker and those who acknowledge his basic argument are wrong in a couple of places.

    First: states have also been responsible for the carnage associated with the last two world wars, the Holocaust, and the starvation of hundreds of millions of peasants in Russia and China.

    The second point follows the first: I think many observers are confusing correlation with causation. Yes, violence has declined precipitously since the establishment of the modern nation-state, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the nation-state is responsible for declines in violence. I would look at the structural foundations of the nation-state to find out why violence has declined.

    Think of it this way: the nation-state didn’t just appear out of nowhere, nor was it the only model available or wielded by societies. We should be looking at what institutions have enabled the nation-state to establish itself, survive, and eventually thrive (at least in western Europe and Japan; the US is a republic, not a nation-state) in the world today.

    A couple possible answers to this question may be 1) a more inclusive system of property rights coupled by more interconnectedness with other societies (especially in regard to markets) and 2) a radical change in socially accepted norms of behavior spurred on by Christianity, atheism, a decentralized political climate and the threat of being conquered by the Islamic Ottoman empire.

  2. […] Again, readers of this blog will not find anything new in the Atlantic’s piece, but I would like to connect the argument that more states are better for the world to Dr. Delacroix’s argument that libertarian policies would lead directly to anarchy, and that this is an ill-advised position to take because the state has, historically, been responsible for declines in violence within a society when they are implemented. Allow Dr. Delacroix to speak for himself: […]

  3. […] Have you bothered to calculate your rough share of the expenditure connected to the American military presence in Afghanistan? Is it $1,000 per year, $100? $10? If you don’t know the answer, you really have no right to complain. If you think that any expenditure there is too much, you are either in bad faith or a pacifist fool. […]

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