Great Powers Wars

Great Powers Wars

“Countries that slip in or out of the great power league fight far more wars when they are in than when they are out,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
 
 
When we try to study the history of armed conflict we have to look at more modern examples of war and project backwards. We don’t have to go too far into the human past to start running into problems with records. Writing systems have been around for a while, but that doesn’t mean that everything that was written down was preserved and saved to today. It also doesn’t mean that since the time that humans developed writing systems humans have been recording wars and violent conflicts. Warring political factions and state based (however loosely you define a state) coalitions have likely been engaged in violent conflicts as far back as humans have organized themselves into political units, but can we tell if violent conflicts have gotten more or less common over history?
 
 
Pinker argues that conflicts have gotten less common throughout human history, especially in more recent history. Studying great powers helps us see that. Historically, humans are better record keepers when part of a major political unit. Great powers are better at documenting what they do, so their wars and conflicts are more likely to have been recorded and more of those records are likely to have survived to today. The evidence, as shown by Pinker’s quote, is that great powers fight more than minor powers. This means that studying the great powers gives us a good sense of the frequency of violent conflicts between political entities throughout history.
 
 
When we study great powers we see that violence has declined over time. The two wars of the 1900s were outliers. They were immense great power conflicts, and while great powers fight more than lesser powers, they generally have fought less and less over time. While it often doesn’t feel like it, war is becoming less common in human history. We are better at recording and documenting war, and evidence shows that we turn to war with less frequency than we did in the past.
Reducing Government Violence

Reducing Government Violence

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.
Economic Indicators and Crime

Economic Indicators and Crime

“Criminologists have long known that unemployment rates don’t correlate well with rates of violent crime,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Despite what feels like it must be true, that national unemployment rates influence crime, there is not a correlation between rising unemployment and rising crime. We all have ideas about what causes crime, and for many of us unemployment is an explanation, but it turns out crime is much more complex and doesn’t fall in line with many of our economic indicators.
 
 
Pinker continues, “In the three years after the financial meltdown of 2008, which caused the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, the American homicide rate fell by another 14 percent.” Every time I read this statistic I am surprised. It is hard to believe that when unemployment gets worse people do not resort to more crime. I imagine that many of us would expect more crime as desperate people try to get money and resources through illicit means when jobs are not available to provide those things for them. But that is not what has happened recently. Until 2020 crime was falling, going through the economic downturn of the early 2000s and the subsequent rise and record low unemployment of the late 2010s.
 
 
It also turns out that inequality isn’t much better at predicting crime. Regarding inequality Pinker writes, “the problem with invoking inequality to explain changes in violence is that while it correlates with violence across states and countries, it does not correlate with violence over time within a state or country.” Like unemployment, I would expect that more unequal societies would have more crime, as those at the bottom fight among themselves and are unhappy with the wealth and opulence they see in the lives of others. However, inequality was at a low point in the 1960s in the United States, when crime was  much worse across the United States. In the last couple of decades inequality has worsened in the US, but with the exception of the slight increase in crime since 2020, crime trends have gone downward. The global differences we see in crime rates, Joseph Henrich would argue in The WEIRDest People in the World, are probably better explained by factors other than a single measure of inequality.
 
 
The crime waves that have occurred since the end of WWII and our explanations for those crime waves are an interesting example of how quickly we can jump to inaccurate conclusions about the world. Humans make causal observations and connections in the world around them, but sometimes those causal links are invalid. While I do believe we have the ability to use math, statistics, causal observations, and experiments to be able to deduce and understand root causes, the process is difficult. Crime is an example of how far off our causal reasoning can be from reality. Explaining social phenomena is difficult, and even the best theories rarely seem to be able to explain more than 40% of the variance we see in a given phenomenon. We can do lots of studies of crime and start to get a better understanding, but simply assuming that a couple of economic indicators will explain crime is an inadequate way to think about trends and phenomena.
Organized Violence

Organizing Violence

“Of all human collective activities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, “the one most difficult to organize is violence.”
 
 
I generally think we have a lot of misunderstandings of violence. When it comes to violent crimes, catastrophic wars, or mass genocide, I think that most of us misunderstand what is at the heart of violence. I think we also misjudge how much violence and danger there is in the world and what is driving the actual trends that exist.
 
 
First, in the book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues the world is becoming less violent, even as most people believe the world to be more violent. In 2020 the trend reversed slightly, with violence picking up relative to the downward trend we had been seeing since the 1990s, but it is still to early to say if it is a small blip or the end of a downward trend in violence. We also don’t know exactly what caused the upward tick in violence in 2020 with great certainty yet. Nevertheless, Pinker’s argument that humans are becoming more civil, less impulsive, and less violent seems to violate our basic intuition on violence, and it hints at different causes of violence than what we typically believe.
 
 
Second, it is worth noting that when it comes to denouncing violence, we are often motivated by signaling more than by high minded ideas such as crime reduction, rehabilitation of dangerous individuals, or long-term reductions in recidivism. This perspective is in line with Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s view who suggest in The Elephant in the Brain that we are often doing things to make ourselves look better, to signal desirable traits about ourselves, and hiding our true intentions (even from ourselves) while we do so. Denouncing violence is a chance for us to demonstrate how much more moral, kind, and nice we are than dangerous, violent, and degenerate criminals. Heaping as much negativity and outrage on criminals as possible just shows how good we are in comparison. Moral outrage can be more about the outraged individual than the outrageous thing.
 
 
The end result is a misunderstanding of violence. We have trouble understanding crimes of convenience, even violent crimes of convenience. We fail to recognize that most crime and murder occurs between people who know each other, not complete strangers. We fail to consider the larger social and contextual factors which may drive people toward violent crime – such as age, levels of lead in the body, and other factors – and we tend to view bad guys as alternative, evil versions of ourselves. We are inundated with media reports and social media posts about random violent attacks, making us feel as though the violence is all around us.
 
 
But we don’t just misunderstand individual level violence. We also constantly fear that an evil regime (possibly an American regime led by the wrong political party) is going to drive a massive global war. But as Harari argues, large scale organized violence is difficult to maintain. “Why should the soldiers, jailors, judges, and police maintain an imagined order in which they do not believe?” writes Harari. To organize large scale violence takes a very compelling narrative and imagined order, one that few men or nations have been able to truly muster for long term wars – even though our history books like to focus on such wars. It is true that we can be incredibly violent and that violence can exist on massive scales, but it is harder to maintain and build than we like to believe, and it is also likely that violence of all forms is on a downward trend that we can work to understand and maintain into the future. Doing so will likely make it even less likely that large scale organized violence can occur.