Human governance has been violent and bloody throughout much of our history. Whether we think about modern government violence, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, somewhat older violence like the Holocaust, or much older violence like medieval kings using violence against peasants, images of government sponsored violence are easy to think of. Reducing government violence is one way to make the world a much less violent place overall.
Steven Pinker explains that reductions in state sponsored violence have been a major contributing factor to global pacification over human history. Despite the atrocities of WWII and other odious events in the 1900’s, Pinker demonstrates that we are gradually becoming less violent as a global population over time in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Part of the explanation for why violence has decreased is related to how we view government and what we expect from it. Changing our relationship to government has reduced government violence.
Pinker describes changing views of government during the enlightenment by writing, “people began to think of a government as a gadget – a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare.” Government, or governance institutions, Pinker explains, had existed long before thinkers of the enlightenment began to reimagine them. People had long organized themselves in collective groups that held power, directed scarce resources, established rules, and had the capacity for sanctioning violence. Seeing these institutions as tools for collective welfare was a new jump, and changed the state from an extension of a powerful group or individual’s influence to an institution responsive to the population.
This shift began to make governments less violent. Obviously it did not take violence out of the equation entirely, as the 1900s demonstrated, but it did mean that kings and lords couldn’t direct government to use violence against people to maintain order and power to the same extent. It changed the mandate under which governance institutions operated, reducing government violence.
As Russia is demonstrating with its war in Ukraine, as China is demonstrating with its possible genocide of Uyghur Muslims, and as the Untied States has demonstrated through police use of deadly force, governments still do commit a lot of violence. But the general trend across the globe is toward more peaceful governments. This is a good trend and something we should continue to work toward to continue to reduce overall global violence.