Pinker, meet Piketty
Historical statistics giveth, and historical statistics taketh away. According to Steven Pinker’s historical statistics, humankind has, over the decades and centuries and millennia, become ever less violent. But... according to Thomas Piketty’s historical statistics, civilization is almost always oligarchic, with the rich getting richer due to wealth, not merit, and the market has no correcting mechanism.
So the good news is, we’re civilizing ourselves. The bad news is, civilization is usually run by coupon-clippers.
In “The Better Angels of our Nature”, Pinker says that even the worst state-societies have one-tenth the homicide rate of even the most peaceful hunter-gatherer societies; and democracies are one-tenth less violent still. So Hobbes was right; life under Leviathan is better than nasty-brutish-and-short: and Washington was righter still; government is better as servant than master. Also it turns out that trade helps, as do culture, art, compassion and philosophy. All of this advice is well-known, but it’s good to have scientific confirmation.
But... Pinker finds that the distribution of deadly quarrels has a ‘fat tail’; meaning that the biggest crimes are rare, but not astronomically rare, and un-rare enough to be, on aggregate, second only to individual homicide.
About Piketty; I haven’t read “Capital in the 21st Century” yet, 35 people are waiting in front of me at the library. I gather that he says that usually r>g, where r is the growth rate of capital and g is the growth rate of the economy. This has historically been true for centuries, with rare exceptional periods such as 1945-1973; and it automatically implies, by the magic of compound interest, that the rich dominate by coupon-clipping alone, never mind industry or merit. He also says that there does not exist any automatic market mechanisms to check this process.
Does this explain the fat tail? The rich get richer just from being rich, until everyone is Pharaoh’s slave, and then the 99.99% starts to pray for ten plagues? Does it really take depression and two world wars to tell the heirs-in-charge that they’d better spread it around if they don’t want big trouble? And then their heirs forget it all over again?
Just to add to the fun; Jared Diamond’s “Collapse” says that complex societies collapse when under two stresses; environmental change and elite impunity. I say that ‘uneasy lies the head that bears the crown’ is prescriptive, not descriptive; it says what ought to be, not necessarily what is. If the rain fails but the boss has something to lose, then the city will survive; ditto if the boss is clueless during good weather; but come the drought under Mister Never-Wrong, then game over. Also part of the fat tail?
I don’t like that fat tail, and I don’t like Pharaoh. Isn’t there a better way to do this civilization thing? Any suggestions?