From Poverty to Prosperity Watch
By Arnold Kling
I am interviewed on Australian radio.
Also, Don Boudreaux recommends this talk by Stephen Davies. I assume that the “surprising prediction” to which Don refers is that young people today will live hundreds of years. I have been making that prediction for years, based on my reading of Aubrey de Grey. See Nonlinear Thinking. During the Q&A, Davies alludes to his thinking on political realignment. It sounds like he may be rediscovering what Virginia Postrel wrote in The Future and its Enemies.
As familiar as I was with the themes in the lecture, there were several ideas that struck me.
1. Davies draws a distinction between authority and power. Think of power as when people obey you out of fear. Authority is when people obey out of respect.
2. Until modern times government was an extension of the household. That is, a monarchy was a household, and thanks to cultural tradition it was a household with a great deal of authority.
3. The average person is much less violent than a few hundred years ago. Note that stating this in terms of the average person helps to get around the issue of violence undertaken by governments, which one could argue was at its worst in the 20th century.
a. Davies claims that in prehistoric times, the most common cause of death was homicide. What is his source for that claim? I am pretty sure that not every anthropologist would agree.
b. Davies points out that the criminal justice system now prosecutes more nonviolent crime than violent crime, when historically this was not the case. In addition, I would point out that the criminal justice system itself used to be much more violent, reflecting popular opinion.
c. Does the decline in the average person’s propensity for violence reflect genetic changes? Perhaps selection mechanisms that once favored violence now favor the ability to get along in society. Or does it reflect cultural evolution–peer pressure now rewards restraint rather than violence? Or does it depend on social and economic conditions–are our violent impulses ready to resurface if we suffer a sudden loss of status?
d. Does the decline in the average person’s propensity for violence increase the power of those who do engage in violence? I am thinking of terrorists and governments. My sense is that in the developed world the chances of violent revolution have fallen sharply. Eighty years ago, the level of violence in German politics was very high. Both the Communists and the Nazis were outlets for street thugs. There were attempts in the 1960’s and 1970’s to reintroduce violence into politics, such as the Weather Underground in the U.S. or the Red Army Faction in Germany (see Bryan’s post), but these failed, perhaps because the average person’s propensity for violence has declined. If governments do not have to fear violence from their own people, does that give them tremendous leeway to exercise power?