Declines in Elite Violence

Violence among the elites and upper classes isn’t something that never happens, but it is less common than violence within lower socioeconomic status groups. This feels obvious and not really worth calling out, unless you take a long view at human history and violence. Medieval Europe was a place of great violence inflicted by elites. Even the American South from the inception of chattel slavery on the continent to the Civil War was a region of violence inflicted by elites. It has not always been the case that in human societies the elites and highest socioeconomic status individuals were the least likely to use violence against other humans.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “The European decline of violence was spearheaded by a decline in elite violence. Today statistics from every Western country show that the overwhelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by people in the lowest socioeconomic classes.” Humanity has gotten more peaceful in part because violence among elites has fallen. We no longer live in a world with economic systems (in WEIRD countries) where feudal lords and slave owners can use violence to drive workers and manage their estates.
Pinker continues, “One obvious reason for the shift is that in medieval times, one achieved high status through the use of force.” Gang violence, black markets, and crime syndicates can be a pathway to riches today, but they are not the dominant ways or preferred ways to riches. They are risky, particularly because they operate outside of the state and the legal protections of the state. In medieval times, however, the state did not have the ability to prevent violence and illegal means of wealth creation in the ways the state can today. Similarly, slave owners could use violence to force and compel their workforce of subjugated humans. Violence was a necessary and even expected tool in wealth creation in the Antebellum South.
What this demonstrates is that changing economic systems and structures changes levels of violence in human cultures among socioeconomic strata. When incentives existed to use violence to obtain wealth, then it was common for elites to use violence. When institutions and incentives shifted, elites became less violent. In the Untied States we view ourselves and our decisions, actions, and behaviors through a lens of individualism, often forgetting the larger institutions and incentives that push us to make certain decisions, take certain actions, and generally behave in certain ways. But what Pinker shows is that incentives matter, even for our elites, and that shifting incentives has been key in driving down violence at the highest level of our socioeconomic system.

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