Monday, January 2, 2012

Pinker's Better Angels

Steven Pinker, who last scandalized us by insisting that humans are not The Blank Slate that social engineers want us to be is back with another.

This time in The Better Angels of Our Nature he is telling the story of the decline in violence--over the decades, centuries, millennia.  Then he tries to tell us why.

Yes, why is it that humans don't murder each other at the rate of 500 per 100,000 per year as they did in good old hunter-gatherer days?  Is it strong states, that suppress the private justice of feud and revenge?  Or the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th century when the public square opened up to civil discourse? Or "gentle commerce" in which it pays for people to be nice to each other?  Or maybe the good offices of liberals that midwifed the Rights Revolution of the second half of the 20th century, de-marginalizing blacks, women, children, animals, and gays? Or all of the above?

When Pinker sets up a Manichean opposition between the Inner Demons and the Better Angels of our nature, you get a little uncomfortable and Brookeish.  Maybe it's time to pull up.  It's true that, e.g., the Church put a lot of effort into raising the consciousness of Church members in the late Medieval period and states curb private wars.  But the rise of Nazism and Communism required an intensification of conflict skills: counter-ideologies and a will to dominate the hated Hun and the cruel Commie.

It is not that violence is bad and peace is good.  Different times and contexts call for different measures.

But it seems to me that, if you are a liberal, you have to credit Darwinian natural selection.   Societies these days that feature more cooperation and less conflict seem to outperform societies that license conflict and mayhem.  No wonderful elite, just the working out of nature's plan.  Until the Mongols appear at the gates of Beijing or the Arians on the plain of Mother Ganga.  Then, all of a sudden, the skills of peace don't seem quite so urgent.

Pinker does at least provide tons of references to a groaning load of research, good, bad, and indifferent.  And for me the big take-away is the Public Goods game.  Here's how it works.

You give the players a pile of chips.  You suggest to players that they secretly put chips in a pot, which will be multiplied by a factor (often 2) and then shared out equally to each of them.  Typically, after a few rounds, only a hard core of givers continue to contribute.  Everyone else decides to keep their chips and take whatever the hard-core givers contribute.  The only way to get free-riders to contribute is to punish them.

Well now.  Who knew?  The only way you can get people to contribute to the public good is either to force them to contribute or punish them if they don't.  What a concept.

Like I said.  Government is force, and politics is talking about force.  And the force of government putting its hand into my pocket and forcing me to contribute is violence without the billy club.

The irony of Better Angels is that while liberals like Pinker boost the wonders of peace and non-violence it is liberals that encourage violence in the underclass, free-riding in the middle class, and a huge state that takes, by force, 40 percent of the national product.

That's why the Frankfurt School noticed that, while actual violence might go up or down, instrumental reason is always a tool of domination.  It is not a Better Angel as Pinker suggests.  It is a tool, for good or for ill.

That is something that we conservatives wish that liberals would realize.  Their wonderful rational plans, however well-intentioned, still amount to plans of domination.  And domination, according to Pinker, is an Inner Demon.

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