Obama: 'The World Is Less Violent Than It Has Ever Been.' He's Right!


At a White House press event yesterday, President Barack Obama dropped some real wisdom on the youts during his answer to the last question from the crowd of Tumblr users (starting at around 49 minutes): 

The truth of the matter is that for all the challenges we face, all the problems that we have,…if you had to choose any moment to be born in human history, not knowing what your position was going to be, who you were going to be, you'd choose this time. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it's ever been. It is more educated than it's ever been.

Terrible things happen around the world every single day, but the trend lines of progress are unmistakable. 


Just ask Steven Pinker, who wrote a whole book about the decline of violence and the rise of tolerance and learning in human history, The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker spoke with Reason's own Ronald Bailey a couple of years ago about the thesis of his book:

reason: Let's go through some of the reasons and processes by which the world became less violent. It began with what you call the pacification process, which involved the creation of states.

Pinker: The first states seemed to have in their wake a massive reduction of death in tribal raiding and feuding, basically because it's a nuisance to the overlords. So you have things like the Pax Romana, the Pax Islamica, the Pax Sinica, in China, where the emperors would much rather have the peasants alive to stock their tax rolls and armies, and be slaves or serfs. So they had a selfish interest in preventing too much internecine feuding among their subject peoples and basically kept them from each other's throats. Not that it was a life that we would consider particularly pleasant. You're substituting a lot of violence among tribes and villages and clans for a lesser amount—but still a brutal form of violence—from the state against its citizens. 

The next transition, after you have the government preventing people from committing violence against each other, you now have the problem of preventing the government from committing violence against its own peoples. And that was, basically, the advent of democracy and the various reforms of the Enlightenment.

reason: The next reduction in violence occurred as a result of what you call the civilizing process.

Pinker: It's a term that I borrowed from the German sociologist Norbert Elias, in his book by that name, where he figured out—even in the absence of quantitative data —that Europe had become a less violent place in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. We now know that he was right, now that historical criminologists have gathered the quantitative data. But he had noticed it just from narrative accounts of what daily life was like. Just people cutting off each other's noses, stabbing each other over the dinner table in response to an insult—there seems to be less now than there was then. He had an immediate explanation and an ultimate explanation. The immediate explanation was a psychological change. Namely that people exercise more self-control and more empathy. They counted to 10 and swallowed their pride rather than lashing out with a dagger when they'd been insulted. They tried to get inside the heads of other people in general, to figure out what they wanted. 

Or check in with another Reason interviewee Lenore Skenazy as she advocates giving kids more freedom and responsibility in her great Free-Range Kids blog and book. One objection she often hears is that the world is more dangerous for kids than it used to be. But that's just not true, says Skenazy in this post from 2012 (and over and over on her blog):

This is the first time in 45 years that homicide is not among that top 15 causes of death in America. Put in Free-Range Kids terms: The murder rate was higher when most of us parents were growing up than it is now, for our kids. And since I know someone will say, "So what? That just means kids are safer because we are keeping them inside, or GPS'ing them, or making sure they are supervised at all times!" let me quickly note that murder is down among adults, too, and it's not because we are helicoptering them. Moreover, the murder rate is lower than it has been for almost two generations, which means it is lower now than even before parents began hovering….

Our parents didn't feel guilty or terrified when they let us play outside and the murder rate was higher. Today's kids deserve the even-less-risky chance to enjoy a Free-Range childhood. 

As for being better fed, here's Bailey again, reviewing Ramez Naam's The Infinite Resource

Take agriculture. 10,000 years ago it took an average of 3,000 acres to feed one hunter-gatherer; farmers today can feed one person using less than one-third of an acre. "Our innovation in farming technology has multiplied the value of a plot of land by nearly 10,000," Naam notes. If crop yields per acre had remained stuck at their 1960 level, half of the world's remaining forests would have been plowed down by now.

Obama frames this good news as a plea against cynicism. Reason prefers a spin that makes the broader case for individual freedom and human ingenuity. But good news no matter which way you slice it. 

NEXT: Steven Greenhut on Kids Triumphing Over Teachers Unions

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  1. I am pretty sure there are some people in Iraq, Syria and Iran right now who are working very hard to change that.

    1. Yeah, but when has there not been something like that happening somewhere in the world?

      1. Before colonialism, obviously.


  2. With a tad more central planning, we can keep those trends going!

  3. The world is less violent…as long as you’re not targeted by a murderdrone. Without trial.

    1. One of my fondest Obama moments was during his first inaugural speech, when he blathered about giving “all women and children” a better life.

      It was only a month or so later that one of his shiny new drone toys took out a wedding party.

    2. Everyone’s just trying to have a good time here and then you come in and shit all over it. This is why nobody invites you to sex parties anymore.

      1. I thought I wasn’t invited to the sex parties anymore because I had been bringing capsaicin cream as a lube.

        “Great, look who just ruined Halloween! You know you’re like the A-bomb, everyone’s laughing, having a good time and you show up BOOM! Everything’s dead!”

        1. I thought I wasn’t invited to the sex parties anymore because I had been bringing capsaicin cream as a lube.

          If that isn’t legal grounds for murder, it should be.

        2. I didn’t even know KY sells wasabi-flavored products.


            1. I was riffing more than… asserting that it does.


          2. Some people use Tiger Balm for everything.

  4. Speaking of tolerance the Iraqi parliament seems to have decided that the recent events in Mosul are not all that urgent. Now that is tolerance in action.

  5. I’m sure he went on to point out that, despite hype, there’s less gun violence in the USA than there’s ever been, so we can just leave well enough alone there too, right?

  6. Oh, everyone has to come and be all negative. I think it’s worth taking a moment every now and then to consider that it really is, despite all of the terrible shit that still happens, a good time to be alive.

    1. This is the Peanut Gallery. It is their role to heckle and bray.

      1. And since all you do is heckle and bray at everyone else, that makes you…?

        1. He would be an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb

        2. The nosebleed section of the peanut gallery?

    2. This may be true, but for how long? We have out of control governments that are increasingly spending more and more, becoming more and more totalitarian, and believe they should control more and more of our lives. What happens when the money really starts to run out?

      Prosperity made the world a less violent place. It also fueled an unbelievable growth in government. At some point there’s going to be a reckoning for that, and I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but the potential for violence is very real.

      1. I think that the biggest question is what happens in the developing world. If they can continue becoming more prosperous, I think the trend toward less violence in the world in general will continue for some time even if some developed places become less prosperous and more violent.

        1. This was common thought in pre-1914 Europe as awell.

          1. Lots of stuff could happen to spoil my idea. I suppose world war 3 is always a possibility.
            I’m going to stick with some optimism though. There’s no prize for being right in predicting doom.

          2. Straw Man. The world is much, much different than 1914.

      2. Progressives will be in for a rude awakening when they discover that government really isn’t “We the people.” Yeah right. I say that like they’d learn someone from a government collapse. They wouldn’t.

        1. Obviously this collapse was caused because of free market capitalism that wrested power away from Our Dear Leader, Redeemer of Sinners, Untarnished by our Disbelief, Lord and Savior Barack Obama.

          /Prog acolyte

      3. Spending is flat under Obama and the deficit has been cut 60%.

        I know you are impervious to the truth but I am not.

        1. Only if you use Bush’s bailouts as a baseline. Figures don’t like, but liars sure can figure.

          1. Only about 25% of TARP accrued to the $3.5 trillion spending number Bush left.

            About $180 billion. I have linked RC Dean to the CBO report. All of that number was paid back in 2012-13.

            I think for accounting reasons only the GSEs went on budget.

            1. You are such a worthless scum-sucking intellectually dishonest little roach. And if you TRULY believe that your little concocted “figure”is the “truth” then you have bigger problems than just being a half-witted troll on a site where literally everyone makes fun of you.

        2. Spending is flat under Obama and

          Only if you count the stimulus passed after Obama took office as BOOOOSH’s spending.

          the deficit has been cut 60%.

          Total debt outstanding on February 1, 2008 (the beginning of Bush’s last year in office) was $9.210TT. On January 31, 209 (call it the end of Bush’s last year in office), it was $10.632TT, for a deficit of $1.4TT.

          A reduction of 60% would be a deficit of $568BB.

          The deficit for the current fiscal year to date (10/10/2013 through 06/11/14) is $808BB. The deficit never goes down in the summer and fall, so it will go up from there, and I’m quite confident that the predictions earlier this year of a sub-$1TT deficit will be proven dead wrong.

          So, no, Obama hasn’t reduced the deficit by 60%. At best, he can claim to have reduced it by @ 25%.

          1. Current run rate is a deficit of $1.2TT, which would give Obama a reduction in the deficit of $200BB, or a 14% reduction.

            1. Despite your factual corrections, PB will say the same thing the next time the topic comes up. He is impervious to the truth.

            2. The Congressional Budget Office in April projected that the federal deficit will decline to $492 billion this fiscal year, the smallest in six years, from $680 billion in 2013 and a record $1.4 trillion when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009



              1. Ummm, a projection from the CBA does NOT trump an actual factual declaration of the debt, which he provided, you moron.

              2. Let’s see here. Some deficit numbers.

                2013: $680 billion
                2012: $1,087 billion
                2011: $1,300 billion
                2010: $1,294 billion
                2009: $1,413 billion
                2008: $458 billion
                2007: $161 billion
                2006: $248 billion
                2005: $318 billion

                An intellectually honest person will look at that and see that Obama has only cut the deficit if you use Bush’s bailouts as a baseline.

          2. You are wrong again. Jan 9, 2009 CBO report put spending at $3.52 trillion BEFORE Obama even proposed the ARRA.



            1. He said Bush deficits were unpatriotic before elected. Now, not so much. But liars gotta lie and tools have to drool.

  7. The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed then it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.

    There’s an F-word noticeably missing from that list.

    1. Flatulent?

    2. Something that starts with F and ends with dom…. Femdom right!?

    3. Fahrvergn?gen has been missing from most lists since the ’90s, DwT.

  8. Hmm, the world is less violent than it’s ever been, and climate change is increasing…

    What if all the dust and smoke stirred up by war was reflecting IR back into space?

    1. What if we replaced all the dead bodies with carbon footprints?

      Time to literally fight climate change…

  9. Or check in with another Reason interviewee Lenore Skenazy as she advocates giving kids more freedom and responsibility in her great Free-Range Kids blog and book.

    I can’t be the only one who thinks the free-range kids movement’s connection to libertarianism to be even more spurious and annoying than the Paleo Diet, can I?

    1. My BiL and his wife raised their kids that way – to be ‘free thinkers devoid of all boundaries and restrictions, or ‘free-range’ in their lefty parlance – and it was a complete disaster.

      1. That’s just lazy parenting. Kids need discipline or, like you said, it ends in disaster.

      2. Isn’t the free range parenting thing more about giving your kids the opportunity to take independent action and make mistakes more than it is about letting them run wild? I don’t think Skenazy is talking about anything goes permissiveness.

        1. Correct – If you don’t let your kids explore, try, fail, succeed, etc, they end up little hothouse flowers that won’t make it the minute you quit helicoptering over them.

          1. By the time I was 12 or 13 and my younger sister was 6 or 7, my parents were dropping me off at LAX with our tickets and we’d transit in Chicago or ATL to NY without assistance. We only came close to missing our plane once when I decided I wasn’t leaving the Philly airport without a goddamned cheesesteak.

            I think my tendency to get on a plane and go someplace by myself has a lot to do with that.

            1. And I would give away cheesesteak to escape Filthadelphia…

              1. Only ever transited the airport. And dragged my 9 year old sister half-way across it to find a food court with a cheesesteak place.

                1. I’m not sure an airport cheesesteak place counts…

                  1. My 14 or 15 year old self declines to be judged on this issue. At the time it seemed like a thing that should be done. In hindsight this was before airports started upscaling their food establishments, so it was probably worse than cheesesteaks available in LA.

                    1. It was probably shipped in from LA.

                    2. I imagine PHL was pretty bleak about 15 years ago. It’s mostly a shithole now.

        2. I don’t think Skenazy is talking about anything goes permissiveness.

          That’s true, and to her credit she makes that clear many times in her work, but that often gets lost in translation when others attempt to parent in the same way.

        3. Yeah, “free-range” is really just “anti-helicopter”. As a parent of 11 and 14 year old girls it’s just unbelievable how much “worst first thinking” (to use a phrase from Skenazy) there is out there. There are too many parents who almost literally think there’s a windowless van with child molesters around every corner just waiting to get their kid if they leave their sight for even a minute. We’ve seen plenty of parents who won’t let a 10 year old ever leave their backyard, let alone ride a bike alone in an extremely low crime, upper middle class subdivision.

          I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve heard another parent say “how much worse it is now then back in ‘our’ day” when the exact opposite is the case. We were the ones who lived with some of the highest crime rates growing up in the 70s to early 90s.

          It’s really just trying to return to a philosophy of “be back home before the street lights come on” and giving the kids some space to figure shit out on their own. It’s not about giving up all discipline and direction, it’s about not suffocating their every impulse in the name of “safety”.

          1. I find it really weird how terrified my parents were for the well-being of my overly sheltered little shit of a younger brother.

            I came home complaining that some guy had repeatedly tried to get me into his car to go and save a stolen bike when I was 12 or so and they thought it was nice that the guy was willing to help me get my bike back.

            When I asked them why they didn’t expect my then highschool aged brother to bicycle to school (shorter distance than I walked alone to get to elementary) they said it just wasn’t safe for kids to be running around.

            Pod people. That’s the only fucking explanation. That or the advent of the 24 hour news cycle.

          2. My wife is a total helicopter parent. I’m always at odds with her about letting the little one do things for or by herself.

            1. Mine too. And while I can’t completely recommend the method, I will say that having more kids corrects that behavior.

      3. I think that the “free range kids” think is more like letting them go places on their own and not constantly monitoring and planning for them. Which I think is exactly what kids need. Your example has a different name that I can’t think of right now.

        1. I think sarc characterized it correctly – much more laziness than actual free-range.

      4. Just because they failed doesn’t mean that it is a bad philosophy on the whole. Do you have any idea what reasoning is? A single anecdote proves nothing. Genius.

    2. I think there is much more of a libertarian connection than to paleo diet and things like that.

      Being a libertarian doesn’t mean you have to raise your kids a certain way. But there is a libertarian angle in making sure that the law allows you to raise your kids in a free range sort of way if that’s what you think is appropriate. I think that there is some danger of that. I was walking to town to go to the store when I was 6. I think parents who do that now are a lot more likely to get a visit from the police, even if it isn’t specifically illegal to let your kids do that.

      1. But there is a libertarian angle in making sure that the law allows you to raise your kids in a free range sort of way if that’s what you think is appropriate.

        That’s a good point, though it’s not often framed that way.

        1. I’d assume that kids who are raised with more independence would also chafe more at being nannied later in life and have higher expectations that other people are able to wipe their own asses.

          Unfortunately not enough studies have been done on this topic and I am awaiting a federal grant to research this further.

          1. Eh, kids always turn against how they were raised.

            1. ANECDOTAL, needs moar government funded research!

            2. I don’t think I did. I actually always thought my parents were quite reasonable people, even as a teenager (though there was some of the usual sort of friction). My parents weren’t libertarians, but they did raise me to be independent and think for myself.

    3. Free range seems to be very anti public school, which I do not mind being connected to.

  10. All of Human History:
    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  11. He’s not wrong. But it’s not for lack of his own efforts to change that.

    1. What I came here to say. May no politician succeed in reversing the trends.

      1. Reversion to the mean. The horrors, cruelty and depradations of the first half of the 20th century will come again. We can’t help ourselves.

        1. First half?

          The Great Chinese Famine didn’t happen until ’58 and the Khmer Rouge didn’t take power until ’63.

          And, I guess, Kennedy and Khrushchev daring each other to vaporize humanity doesn’t exactly count as horror, cruelty, or depredation, but I wouldn’t exactly call it social bliss.

          1900-1950 vs. Post-1950 is too small a time scale to see the benefits of which the president is speaking.

          1. I think people are focusing too much on state violence and forgetting how much more violent people used to be just in ordinary interpersonal relations.

            Not to say that state violence shouldn’t be a major concern.

            1. Nobody runs up body counts like the state. Nobody

            2. I think people are focusing too much on state violence and forgetting how much more violent people used to be just in ordinary interpersonal relations.

              Even if true, Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc. isn’t what made people be nicer to each other.

              A cultural habit of dumping your feces on the people in the apartment below you is a pretty bad thing, but people and cultures don’t fail as phenomenally as when they organize themselves into a state or take over the existing state structures.

              I can’t imagine the most adamantly xenophobic German village killing as many Jews the way the Nazi’s did. Even if they managed to rise to the occasion, I certainly can’t imagine said village mobilizing an army to rid the neighboring village of them.

              I’d say the averages have gotten better, but the extremes have gotten worse.

        2. Doesn’t work, sorry. The have conditions have changed dramatically during that time period. That type of statistical analysis only works when the conditions are static. They will never come again.

    2. It happened despite him (and other politicians) not because of him.

      His conceit is to believe he contributes to the prosperity and peace. He doesn’t.

  12. “The world is less violent than it has ever been.”

    And Mr. Nobel Peace Prize has done no much to help that along.

    (Apologies to anyone who just bought a new sarcasm meter.)

  13. Isn’t it a bit conceited to think that our period of history is somehow special and different than any other period of history? As if, somehow this group of humans who happen to be alive now has found the secret formula to happiness that has eluded thousands of previous generations.

    And wouldn’t it be at this exact moment when this false sense of confidence is the strongest that disaster would strike?

    Our society is poisoned by positive, elitist thinking and we’ll pay the price for it.

    1. As if, somehow this group of humans who happen to be alive now has found the secret formula to happiness that has eluded thousands of previous generations.

      We finally exposed all the intolerants and put the right TOP MAN in place!!!!!!1!

      And wouldn’t it be at this exact moment when this false sense of confidence is the strongest that disaster would strike?

      Obviously not… that why there have been no wars since “the war to end all wars” in the 1910’s.

    2. Certainly in terms of most measures of health, wealth, and comfort this is the best time in history to be alive. For all this are we happier? I don’t know, but indoor plumbing and toilet paper are pretty nice.

    3. Not even a tiny bit. You are 0% correct, I guess I am trying to say you are completely wrong. Every period is different, and numerous objective studies of human behavior prove indisputably that people are better now than they have ever been. Not perfect, and there will always be bad apples, but that is irrelevant to the matter. Even the people shitty places are less shitty than they used to be. Why would there have to be a secret formula? Positive thinking has been proven to produce positive results. You sound like my brother, who likes to be contrarian just to be contrarian, even when it doesn’t fit the facts.

    4. Maybe I’m making the same mistake as people in the past, but in some ways I think that our period of history is special in some important ways (compared to the past, who knows what it will look like from the future).
      Nearly instantaneous communication is a big thing that changes everything and is truly new. As is the ability to search and access huge amounts of information from nearly anywhere. And a truly scientific approach to understanding the world is really a pretty new thing too.

      None of this necessarily means that we are entering a time of permanent peace and prosperity, but I think that those things really do make our time different from the rest of history in some singular ways.

      1. Zeb


        I cannot even imagine the difference in my life if the 2014 internet was available when I was a 4 yr old in 1968.

  14. Normally I’m pretty optimistic, but currently I’m a bit freaked-out about all the negative stuff just over the horizon. Inch by inch, everything just seems like it’s slipping out of control.

    1. I’ll just add: My husband works on Wall St. We socialize with other Wall St. people. There is a general feeling of Weimar Republic in the air. Like soon this will all end, so Carpe Diem, baby – spend it while you got it.

  15. So …. Assuming this is all true, and that the President believes it … Explain his policies again? I thought all of the social prog drivel was because we have to fix all of our problems.

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