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Likewise [with] slavery. If you don’t examine your practices too deeply, if you do things because that’s the way my father did it, and that’s the way it’s always been done, and the Bible says it’s OK, and it would be disruptive if we changed, then you might think that slavery is not so bad. But if you start to argue with someone, if someone says, “Hey, slavery really can’t be defended,” and you try to defend it, you’re eventually going to lose the argument, just the way you’d lose a fallacious mathematical argument.
I argue that both the technologies of exchange of ideas and the political infrastructure, namely the freedom of speech—not getting burned or broken or disemboweled if you come up with a heretical idea—will, just in the nature of social relations, push in certain directions, and they’re going to be humanitarian directions. Because humanitarian treatment is just a better way for people to live together than constant war or exploitation.
reason: Moving to this century, you claim we are now in the midst of the Long Peace and the New Peace. What is the Long Peace, and what is the New Peace?
Pinker: Long Peace is a term that I took from the historian John Gaddis, referring narrowly to the absence of war, direct war, between the U.S. and the USSR, confounding all predictions in the late ’80s when he coined the phrase. He and a number of military historians, even in the ’80s, said, “Hey, something very weird is going on. The U.S. and the USSR aren’t going to war. Everyone said they would. How come they haven’t?” And more generally, people noticed, “Hey, what about Western Europe, France and Germany? They’ve gone an awful long time without fighting a war. This is kind of historically unusual.”
There were predictions even then in the late ’80s that something had changed historically, that the use of war, as Clausewitz put it, as continuation of policy by other means, had really changed. War had been taken off the table as a live option. The absence of war involving developed countries, say the 40 or 45 richest countries, and between the great powers, was unusual even in the ’80s. And here we are 25 years after that, and our luck has held out.
The New Peace is another phenomenon that very few people are aware of. Namely, there are war nerds who meticulously tabulate the number of battle deaths year by year in each of a number of categories of armed conflict: civil wars, interstate wars, colonial wars, and so on. They have been stunned, in plotting their data, to notice there’s been a big decline in wars in the rest of the world, starting around the end of the Cold War. All of those nasty little civil wars in Africa, South Asia, and Central and Latin America kind of fizzled out, and no one’s even noticed. More important, the number of people killed has plunged. This past decade, even with all of the wars that we read about, has had the lowest rate of battle deaths of any decade since they started keeping score in 1946. That’s the phenomenon I call the New Peace—that the Long Peace is starting to spread to the rest of the world.
What’s also [interesting is] a finding that I came across after the book had come out, by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan—nonviolent vs. violent resistance movements. If you want to topple your government, what works better: mass protests in the street or arming guerrillas? The answer is you can’t tell if you just think of anecdotes, because there are some on each side that work and don’t work. So they tabulated numbers, and they found that about 75 percent of nonviolent resistance movements work, and about 25 percent of violent resistance movements work. Unless you do the counting, you’d never know that there was this massive difference.
reason: Over what period was that?
Pinker: I think it’s over the last 40 to 50 years.
reason: With regard to the Long Peace and the New Peace, some people are going to think, “Steven Pinker is over-interpreting this random fluctuation which just happened to be a peaceful period.”
Pinker: There is a big dose of randomness in human history, and some coming fanatic somewhere might be promoting a new movement that will gain adherents and lead to brutal insurgencies and repression. Stuff happens. What doesn’t happen, though, is cycles of build-up and release: [the notion that] every year that has passed without a war means we’re more and more due for the next one. Tensions have been building up; it’s only a matter of time before they’ll burst. That doesn’t happen. And that’s the mental model that a lot of people have.
reason: Going back to the pacifying effects of gentle commerce that you mentioned, you note that this period could be called the Capitalist Peace.
Pinker: This is a heretical idea coming out of, of all places, Scandinavia. There are war nerds who run regressions trying to predict what leads to escalation, military tensions, or de-escalation. There was a lot of statistical support for an idea called the Democratic Peace. The extreme form is that no two democracies have ever waged war on one another. There’s a new movement to try to argue it’s actually the capitalism, more than the democracy, that’s doing the work in this correlation. And there seem to be data that capitalist countries are less likely to go to war with each other. They’re less likely to go to war, period, including against noncapitalist countries, [and are] less likely to have civil wars, and less likely to have genocides.
reason: In other words, “Make money, not war.”
Pinker: Yes, exactly.