Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Violence: The Great Moderation, with all that implies

I too haven't and (barring major advances in gerontology) won't read Stephen Pinker's book on violence. In general, I am allergic to Pinker's tone (I suspect that many of the people who, according to him, are always mocking him for not knowing about Milton, are actually just asking him to stop acting such a twat), and you can usually find the same views that he expresses written up much less annoyingly elsewhere.

In the case of the violence book, however, and rather hilariously, if I am correct in understanding that his main thesis is that modern societies have developed more effective methods of social control over the years, and that these advances in social conditioning have reduced the incidence of physical violence, then I know where the less-irritating writeup is - it's in "Discipline and Punish", by Michel Foucault. This is actually quite a common trait in New Rationalist writing, by the way - a lot of the time, while they will take pot shots and swipes at their ideological enemies, the real vitriol is reserved for their competitors (after all, enemies can make up, but competitors can't). Sigmund Freud said right back in the nineteenth century that a lot of human behaviour is caused by basic animal drives that have their root in Darwinian evolution, but my god if you read Dawkins or Dennett, you'll be aware that Freud is considered a bounder these days by people who believe the same thing.[1]

We are of course much less violent now, we have robotic drones to murder people from the sky rather than fighting them ... which raises another question in my mind. It's true, as I have written here before, that in many ways it was a fantastic achievement that the West managed to defeat Soviet communism without firing a shot [2], and that actually in many ways a lot of the credit for that deserves to go to those nemeses of mankind, economists.

But hell - although it is true that strategic deterrence worked, the way in which it worked was to spend forty years with both sides literally threatening something close to the complete destruction of life on earth! Which if it had happened, would have been considered by the survivors as a pretty violent thing to do.

Fair enough, as I say, strategic deterrence worked. But, sample size of one here? It might not have worked. It certainly did involve taking a risk of something very bad happening. And I think what we've all learned from the last five years is that when you take a risk that something bad might happen, there is a risk that something very bad actually will happen. I think I will, rather gratuitously, give Pinker a small dose of his own medicine, by suggesting that it is fairly obvious that a risk of a very horrible amount of violence, is clearly equivalent to a proportionately smaller amount of violence, and that it is disgusting, shameful, comical, etc etc etc, that someone who looks down his nose at you for not having heard of Maynard Smith apparently hasn't bothered to look up the relevant chapter of Schelling.

[1] It is true that Freud took this basic insight and went with it to a lot of rather ridiculous places and some fairly disgusting sexual politics, but evolutionary psychology is not exactly in the best position to comment.

[2] By which I mean "without having another massive war in Europe"; the objection about secondary theatres and Third World conflicts was well made (although not necessarily totally agreed with by me) last time round.
6 comments this item posted by the management 10/18/2011 05:05:00 AM

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