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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Is America really so violent?

by John MacBeath Watkins

People who compare the United States to European countries say we have an extraordinarily high murder rate. But is that the appropriate comparison?

For a country located in the Americas, the United states has a relatively low murder rate. Canada and Chile are the exceptions. I suspect the issue is cultural. One thing that has happened with colonization is that some cultural aspects of the mother country are preserved from the time of colonization. I would look to the murder rate in the mother country at the time the country was colonized to explain a high murder rate in that culture today.

The murder rate in Europe in the middle ages was extremely high, and dropped quite a bit during the time the
Murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012.
Americas were being settled. Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, states that murder rates were about 30 times higher in the middle ages than they are now. If my theory is correct, the earlier a country was settled, the more likely it should be to have a high murder rate.

This seems to go against the fact that Chile has a low murder rate, even though the conquest of Chile started in 1540. One answer to this is that the low murder rate in Chile reflects the relatively strong state there. A strong state tends to reduce the murder rate because it's not good for the state to have taxpayers killing each other, any more than it helps a farmer to have his livestock fighting.

The early Chilean state was small and homogenous, prevented from expanding northward by the desert or southward by the unconquered Mapuche Indians. The conquest of Chile was gradual, and as a consequence of failing to conquer the Mapuche, Chile relied more than most Spanish colonies on European settlers. In fact, parts of the country attracted German settlers in the mid-19th century. Much of the country's expansion occurred after it declared independence from Spain in 1818, and with many immigrants arriving after that, the country could be expected to be culturally closer to modern Europe that nations settled earlier.

One of the uses Britain made of its American colonies was as a place to transport criminals. Once transportation to America as a punishment became impossible, Australia and Canada began to absorb Britain's malcontents. And whereas the French had chosen mainly to trade with the Indians and send only people they could trust to the new world, the British sent people pushed off the land by the Inclosure Acts, criminals and pretty much anyone they felt they were well shed of. As a consequence, the British culture imported to Canada was that of the 19th century, while the British culture imported to America was that of the 17th century.

Contrast this to Venezuela, a country where Columbus actually landed, which was colonized to a great extent in the 16th century. We find that it has an intentional homicide rate of 53.7 per 100,000 annually, in contrast to the 3.1 of Chile  or the 1.6 of Canada, and the United States of America turns out to be one of the least dangerous countries in the new world with a murder rate of 4.7 per 100,000 (all figures are for 2012.)

So, if the culture of violence in new world countries reflects the timing of their formative European colonization, what made European murder rates fall so much?

For one thing, violence became harder to get away with. As European states became more centralized, policing got better, and it became harder to walk away from a murder and start over elsewhere. In addition, as states became more centralized, warfare within a country became less practical -- dukes who might have tried to expand their duchy found that they were restrained by the increasing power of kings.

Another factor was the decline of subsistence farming and the increase in trade and industry. The key to wealth and power became less how many farms you could subjugate by the sword, and more the trade and industry you could dominate. Power moved from men with horses and armor to men with ledgers and gold.

While many a duke had risen to his post by violence (a duke was originally a war leader) few merchant princes found violence the path to influence and wealth. Because commerce is not a zero sum game, cooperation was a better path.

The shift from agrarian empires to mercantilist empires was a shift from warring tribes to warring nations, in which the violent domination of resources and trade routes led to greater national wealth. This was the great era of colonization. The shift from mercantilist empires to capitalism put further emphasis on cooperation, and undermined the colonial empires. Modern global capital creates stateless income that undermines colonial empires and makes wars less rewarding. Because the capital doesn't enrich the state that spends money one wars, but goes where it won't be taxed, much of the feedback mechanism that made empires possible is gone.

So, it's easy enough to see why violence has become less common in Europe. From the top down, it has become less rewarding and harder to get away with. The question remains, why did their colonies preserve the barbaric attitudes of an earlier age, and what can be done to move them beyond that?

Friday, November 14, 2014

Anomie and the search for meaning

by John MacBeath Watkins

The French have a word for it: Anomie. No norms. It is a condition when people find themselves so disconnected from social norms that they cannot find their place in the world. Emile Durheim used the term in his book, Suicide, published in 1887.

His theory was that a rapid change in the values and standards of society would lead to a feeling of alienation
and purposelessness. Picture the situation; society is changing rapidly, and while it may try to prepare you for your place in it, that place is no longer there by the time you are trained for it. Your entire life plan, the existence you have spent your childhood and adolescence preparing for, is nowhere to be found.

Are you a failure? No, worse. There was no path to a life of honorable labor, no place for you in the world.

You cannot even fail, because all that you have prepared for is simply not there. You were groomed to play a part in a pantomime that has been cancelled. And here you are, alone on the stage in a parody of makeup for a part no one cares to see you play. How meaningful is your life, then? If society were a dictionary, you would not even be a word, just an indecipherable squiggle in the margin.

That is anomie, diagnosed at the end of the 19th century, discussed to death to 20th century, a wallflower at the party in the early 21st century.

As you might expect from the title of Durkheim's book, suicide was one common response to this condition. Perhaps it still is. We don't talk about anomie much anymore. People still kill themselves, people still feel disconnected from social norms, but that 19th century term is less common than it once was. It's a shame, because the term explains a lot.

Much of what makes us human is in our interaction with others. It is in the social realm that we display our sanity or madness, and our very humanity. That is why solitary confinement is such a severe punishment, one that can even produce psychological effects such as hallucinations, paranoia and obsessive thoughts. We are meant to be social creatures, incomplete without interaction with others.

Once, society changed slowly, and when we spoke of the Old Kingdom, the Middle Kingdom, and the New Kingdom, we meant social orders that differed little and lasted a thousand years each. Then it was possible for generation following generation to fall easily into their social roles, and we can suppose anomie was not a problem. Those days ended in the Axial age, which we discussed in this post..

When the world started changing too rapidly for an entire society's structure to adapt new places for its members, individuals had to find their own places. That may seem hard enough, but when they invented their new positions, they had no norms established for the new ways of life they were inventing. They needed guidance, and they got it in a great age of prophesy. Across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, prophets told people that they should be compassionate, that they should do unto others as they would have done unto them. And that was enough, for two or three millennium. People could think for themselves, and still think about others, with the guidance of the prophets.

And then, the world started changing faster, and faster, and faster. The feeling of disconnection from social norms, social roles, spread wider and wider. Some felt the change, and said “God is dead.” Some felt the change, and said, “God, save me!” and started churches dedicated to preventing change. Some felt the change, and the loneliness, and the pain, and became angry, and said, “God, I will kill those who caused this!” and became terrorists. And some, strangely enough, said, “God is dead. I bet we can build a better one,” and started dreaming of an all-knowing computer.

Do you want to know how they felt? Do you know who's to blame? Look in a mirror. No, seriously, that's one way to study the problem. Psychologists have people look in a mirror in order to get them to focus on themselves, in order to study one of the central problems of psychotherapy.

People come to see a psychologist very often because they are depressed. The psychologist needs to assess the problem, so has the client talk about themselves.

This self-focus causes the people talking about themselves to become sadder if they perform this self-focus in private, or to experience social anxiety if they do it in public. In essence, they experience a heightened sense of anomie, of disassociation from the warmth and comfort of human contact, because they are focused on themselves.

There is the problem, then. To be human requires participation in human society, and rapid social change can cast us adrift, maroon us in an island of the self. And as we try to understand ourselves, we focus on ourselves, and feel more isolated and alone as a consequence.

The shared hallucinations of our social constructs are meaningless if we are alone. If we are only animals, eating, sleeping, reproducing, we are only the appetites our genes have programmed us to have. If we are human, we live in a world invisible to most animals, a world of language and symbol, in which what we pass on to others may not even be physical matter, such as genes. It may be our ideas, ideals, songs and gods. It may be the world of meaning, the most human world of all.

However out of place we may feel, however useless our social skills and unattainable our aspirations, what makes us human is the people who have shaped us. We are never alone, because they are a part of us, and we are a part of those whose lives we've touched. Even the worst families teach their children to be human. What those children rejects from those who have shaped them sets the boundaries of their souls, what they accept gives those souls their content.

Unlike most animals, we can cooperate with one another even without family ties. This is because in that ethereal world of symbolic thought, we can pass on a part of who we are to people genetically unrelated to us. Our thoughts are at least as fecund as our bodies, and we lust for the sort of social intercourse that will allow us to transmit our wisdom to each other and build up something greater than ourselves.

Anomie is a symptom of the failure to do this, a sign that we must find a way to reach one another and find comfortable niches for ourselves in the great body of civilization.

Friday, November 7, 2014

How democracy ends: The Sjem-Wiemar problem

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was once a force to be reckoned with, a country more powerful than Russia and far bigger than most of the countries of Europe. What happened to that empire?

Well, the commonwealth was one of the few countries in Europe that had a really influential parliament. It was called the Sjem, and it operated as a legislative body starting in 1493 and became the legislative body of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth when that was founded in 1569. It was, like many republics prior to the modern era, not particularly democratic. Its members were indirectly (by regional bodies) elected by the nobility, which amounted to about 10% of the population.

For much of its existence, any member could nullify legislation that had just passed and end the session by shouting "Nie pozwalam!" (I do not allow.) This is known as a liberum veto.

Harvard political scientist Grzegorz Ekiert argued that:
The principle of the liberum veto preserved the feudal features of Poland's political system, weakened the role of the monarchy, led to anarchy in political life, and contributed to the economic and political decline of the Polish state. Such a situation made the country vulnerable to foreign invasions and ultimately led to its collapse.
For one thing, foreign regimes discovered they could bribe legislators to use their veto, thereby paralyzing the government. This led to the partition of the empire and foreign occupation.

In Germany,  the Wiemar Republic had a rough start, but after the hyperinflation got tamped down, there were some very good years -- until the crash of 1929. The American banks that were helping Germany pay its reparations for WW I had to call their loans in, unemployment went up just as it did in other countries, and the people responded by throwing the bums out. Unfortunately, the bums they threw in tended to be people who didn't believe in democracy, like the the German National Peoples' Party, the Communists, and the Nazis.

Unable to form a majority coalition, Heinrich Brüning formed a minority coalition, but was forced to often rule by emergency decree, because the Reichstag could not pass legislation. Unfortunately, his policies for dealing with the Depression were exactly wrong -- he tightened credit and rolled back wage increases, making him unpopular with the electorate and the Reichstag.

Since his decrees were actually ruining the country, Brüning opened the door for the election of populists like the Nationalist Party and the Nazis. Even business interests turned against him, though it must be admitted that some started financing Hitler long before Brüning became chancellor.

In each case, democracy failed because it could not govern. Francis Fukuyama, in Political Order and Political Decay, argues that American political order is decaying because it has become to easy for special interests to veto decisions. This, he claims, leads to a government unable to function well enough to address the nation's challenges, which undermines the peoples' faith in the ability to address their problems, which leads them to deny it the resources to address their problems, which leads to...well, you get the idea.

The destruction of the Polish Commonwealth and the descent of Germany into the totalitarian hell of Nazi dictatorship had this in common -- democratic, representative government ceased to function. When democracy can't address the peoples' problems, they will turn to a strongman or watch things get worse and worse.

So it is with real dread that I read this:
To prevent Obama from becoming the hero who fixed Washington, McConnell decided to break it. And it worked. Six years into the affair, we now take it for granted that nothing will pass on a bipartisan basis, no appointment will go through smoothly, and everything the administration tries to get done will take the form of controversial use of executive power.
 Sound familiar? This is the way democracy is destroyed. As long as politicians find they can increase their clout by making sure government does not address peoples' problems, and not take the blame for how things turn out as a result, our democratic system is in danger.