All Commentary
Monday, July 5, 2010

A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem

The World Is Not Nearly as Violent as It Used to Be

Contributing editor James L. Payne has written a book that deserves the attention of every advocate of liberty. The nemesis of freedom is the initiation of physical force. Force, or the threat of its use, interferes with the mutually advantageous exchanges people seek. It is the enemy of natural rights, the free market, and the rule of law.

Champions of liberty often lament the extent to which aggressive force stains social life, even in relatively free societies. It should concern everyone. But that should not keep us from being grateful to Payne for bringing a good measure of perspective to the discussion. As he well documents, the world, especially the West, is not nearly as violent as it used to be.

Skepticism will understandably greet Payne’s thesis. Fresh from the bloody twentieth century, complete with two horribly violent world wars and large-scale totalitarianism, how can anyone suggest our era is more placid than times past? He has a good answer: our view is biased. This is called “presentism,” and Payne has several explanations for it. For example, we are more interested in the present than the past because we’re living it. Although we can’t do anything about then, we can do something about now. But to do something — and to get others to help us—we have to point out the problems. “There is but a small degree of difference between emphasizing a wrong and exaggerating it,” Payne writes. Both militarists and peace activists share an interest in portraying the present as unprecedentedly perilous.

Payne also shows that the mass media create a sampling bias: “In an earlier age, cities, countries, and even civilizations could be swallowed up in bloodshed without other parts of the world even knowing about it. Today, tragedies in the farthest corner of the globe are comprehensively reported” — 24/7 at the speed of light. Finally, some of the most grisly forms of violence have gone extinct. As Payne notes, “Certain coercive customs and practices [such as human sacrifice] disappeared so long ago in our culture that we don’t register them as changes.”

Payne documents the declining use of force in several areas: human sacrifice, genocide, military conquest, political murder, revolution, criminal punishment, violence in the streets, slavery and debt bondage, taxation (“robbery”), and freedom of expression. The reader will be astounded at how cruel and common both official and freelance violence was until the fairly recent past — and thus how good our own time looks in comparison.

Why has violence fallen from favor? Because, Payne writes, people’s attitude toward the value of life slowly and fitfully has changed. This strikes me as more a tautology than an explanation. Surely the rise of liberal individualism had much to do with the change. But why did this philosophy spread? I’m inclined to think Ludwig von Mises tells a more complete story: people’s appreciation for human life grew as they realized the benefits of exchange in a division of labor.

Payne does not overlook terrorism, which has diminished in some forms while surging in others. “Islam and Global Terrorism” is his most controversial chapter. Payne’s attribution of Islamic terrorism to Mohammed’s being a “warlord” and to the perception of the West as a threatening carrier of modernity should spark much debate. In my estimation, Payne gives too little attention to the impositions on the Muslim world by Western governments since World War I.

Payne believes that the progress toward a force-free world will continue, and he urges those he calls “voluntarists” to help history along where possible. But he warns that if many people want some peaceful behavior suppressed, simply having the government cease suppressing it won’t accomplish the voluntarists’ ends. Often, Payne says, governments have restricted liberty in order to placate a population that would put down the “offending” conduct in a more extreme manner. I take Payne here to be saying what FEE has long maintained: the future of liberty depends on changing people’s minds, not just current government policy.

I should point out two sources of dissatisfactions with this impressive book. First, the diminution of assertive force may in part be explained by people’s becoming habituated to government decrees. It is often noted that the American people put up with regulations and taxes that would have incited violence in their revolutionary ancestors. Have we just gotten used to taking orders?

Second, I was disappointed to see no mention of the coercive state-mental-health system’s role in controlling deviant but lawabiding behavior. This entails assertive force — preventive confinement, forced drugging, electroshock — against some two million unwilling people each year. No full accounting of violence in our society can neglect what Thomas Szasz calls the Therapeutic State.

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles. 

  • Dr. James L. Payne is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and author. He earned his PhD in political science from the University of California at Berkeley, and he has taught political science at a number of universities including Yale University.