Ours are the most peaceful times in history


They are indeed. Four reasons, in order of importance:

1. Economic growth, with special reference to the advent of capital and the gains from trade. Simply put, economic growth means that you have something to lose when going to war, not merely a miserable existence.

For most of human history, the production function of any economy comprised of two factors: land and unskilled labour. With the amount of land fixed, unskilled labour is subject to diminishing returns; before long, the marginal worker is more productive yielding a sword than ploughing the land.

Enter physical capital. Your production function starts looking more interesting, and the amount of labour in peaceful production is now larger. In addition, assuming you do go to war, there is a limited amount of destruction you can wreak on agricultural land: burn the crops, and next year no-one will be able to tell the difference. Bomb a factory, and the chances of it miraculously re-emerging are not that good.

And if you think owning physical capital does wonders for your peaceful instincts, try human capital too - that is, skilled labour. The amount of workers that can now be productively employed in peaceful activities simply goes through the roof. Furthermore, if you found rebuilding that factory tricky, try growing doctors and lawyers or making portfolio managers out of slaves.

The threat of losing the gains from trade also provides an effective, if somewhat short-term, deterrent: if we attack China, where are we going to get our cheap victory T-shirts from?

2. Big guns. It's all nice and good declaring war and invading the land of a weaker enemy, but try messing with one that can cause real damage. The A-bomb, especially, not only raises the stakes (anyone for the billion-dollar poker table?) but also completely levels the field: get yourself an A-bomb (not so rare these days), and you have maxed-out on destructive potential.

3. Democracy. Not nearly as important as #1 and #2, but to the extent the masses stand to gain less, and lose more, from war than the elite, democracy is also a force for peace.

4. Better entertainment. It's difficult to beat real-time first-person battle action, raping and pillaging. Nonetheless, reading (since Gutenberg), TV (the past 60 years or so) and the rat-race are good alternatives, while the probability of surviving them is appreciably higher - a bonus when life is not such a pain living.

Is there anything readers would like to add to this list?

6 comments:

  1. Shuggy Says:

    The end of the Cold War. Our world became significantly less violent since 1989. Point #1 is wrong. How do you explain the fact that the 20th century was significantly more violent than the 19th? Point #4 is also probably wrong for this reason too. I'm afraid point #2 is wrong also. How do you explain the fact that the Cold War, when we lived under a much more realistic threat of nuclear obliteration was much more violent today when this threat has subsided?

  2. Shuggy Says:

    was much more violent today

    Oops! than today, that should be.

  3. dearieme Says:

    Shuggy, could it be because the Cold War side that was most conspicuously short of Wealth, Democracy, free access to books and telly, and general good stuff, was fomenting the trouble? Come to think of it, isn't that true of Crapistan today? It probably correlates with lack of ready access to delightful Sauvignon Blancs and such.

  4. datacharmer Says:

    Suggy - On point #1: Did the 19th century really witness fewer war-related deaths relative to population compared to the 20th? And even if that's indeed the case, during the 20th century there were a number of essentially idiosyncratic factors (e.g. the rise of nazism and communism) that had an effect on levels of warfare, so it's probably difficult to discern the effect of the underlying drivers. Also, keep in mind that during the 19th century there was free trade, during the 20th protectionism. On point #4, I don't really understand what you mean. Finally, on point #2, the probability of nuclear obliteration has changed, not our destructive capacity - and it's the latter that determines the optimal level of warfare.

    Dearieme - You are making very good points, and I agree on the Sauvignon Blanc (in fact I am on my way to enjoying one right now - doing my bit for world peace!)

  5. Shuggy Says:

    Did the 19th century really witness fewer war-related deaths relative to population compared to the 20th?

    Without a doubt. The century of mega-deaths. WWI, WWII, Stalin's pogroms, Mao's. To say nothing of Cambodia, Vietnam, the various internal conflicts in Latin America stoked and perpetuated by the Americans and the Soviets. Then there's the Middle East...

    Also, keep in mind that during the 19th century there was free trade, during the 20th protectionism.

    This sort of supports and undermines your point at the same time. What this record shows is not that economic growth per se is a cause of peace, but that certain forms of economic expansion are conducive to peace. You'd have been on firmer ground if you had argued that free-trade is a cause of peace. It's a sort of historical chicken and egg problem, though - because you could equally argue that peace is a cause of free trade.

    Also, it isn't accurate to describe the 20th century as protectionist. The first half of it was, but the long postwar boom was driven largely by the extraordinary growth in world trade and - much to the chagrin of Hayek's disciples - the expansion of the state. Which isn't to argue that the law of diminishing returns doesn't apply to either of these variables.

  6. Shuggy Says:

    On point #4, I don't really understand what you mean.

    I mean that mass entertainment - music halls, sporting events, cinema - was essentially a 20th century phenomenon, yet the 20th century was more violent than the 18th or the 19th and, if current trends persist, the 21st. That it can be shown to have been a factor at all is questionable - a significant factor, I would have thought impossible.

    Shuggy, could it be because the Cold War side that was most conspicuously short of Wealth, Democracy, free access to books and telly, and general good stuff, was fomenting the trouble?

    The democracy and liberty aspects I'd agree with. The wealth thing has to do with relative backwardness, not the absence of economic growth.