History

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

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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. 

Amen. 

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.