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?