A love letter to Leviathan


Steven Pinker’s new book on violence is unblushingly a work of Whig history.

Its purpose, as he describes it, is ‘a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and… a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.’

For, so he claims, the long Hobbesian nightmare of seizing and fighting, dominant for tens of thousands of years of human history, has gradually been displaced by ‘changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.’

‘Readers of this book’ are assured they ‘no longer have to worry about… the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself’:

You would think that the disappearance of the gravest threat in the history of humanity would bring a sigh of relief among commentators on world affairs… Surely the experts have been acknolwedging the improvements in the world’s fortunes from a few decades ago.

But no — the pundits are glummer than ever! … Why the gloom? Partly it’s the result of market forces in the punditry business, which favor the Cassandras over the Pollyannas. Partly it arises from human temperament…

But, believe it or not, ‘from a global, historical and quantitative perspective, the dream of the 1960s  has come true: the world has (almost) put an end to war.’

Plainly enough, Pinker wants to downplay what others have (approvingly) described as the ‘industrial-scale killing machine’ assembled and deployed by Washington in its recent wave of external aggression.

Presumably, it’s with this evaluative purpose in mind that he opts to measure and compare each society’s degree of violence by its rate of violent deaths per head of population, granting no weight to the absolute volume of violent deaths, nor any to the rate of violent deaths per unit of time.

Defence of this metric, on which basis the book’s entire argument rests, is perfunctory and uncompelling. Once delivered, in a single paragraph and as if in passing, the ruling is treated as dispositive and the matter as entirely closed.

Chunks of the book’s 800 pages are consequently made up of embarrassingly uncritical and complacent sales talk:

By the 1990s the only politically acceptable American wars were surgical routs achieved with remote-control technology. They could no longer be wars of attrition that ground up soldiers by the tens of thousands, nor aerial holocausts visited on foreign civilians as in Dresden, Hiroshima, and North Vietnam.

The change is palpable within the American military itself. Military leaders at all levels have become aware that gratuitous killing is a public-relations disaster at home and counterproductive abroad, alienating allies and emboldening enemies. The Marine Corps has instituted a martial-arts program in which leathernecks are indoctrinated in a new code of honor, the Ethical Marine Warrior…

The code of the Ethical Warrior, even as an aspiration, shows that the American armed forces have come a long way from a time when its soldiers referred to Vietnamese peasants as gooksslopes, and slants and when the military was slow to investigate atrocities against civilians…

[The] American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century… are nothing like the wars of the past. In both conflicts the interstate war phase was quick and (by historical standards) low in battle deaths. Most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed… In Afghanistan, the US Air Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its “very good record of minimizing harm to civilians.”

Is there anything more to the argument, besides such rank boosterism?

To get more idea both of the book’s content and its ideological flavour, consider the historical episodes included in Pinker’s tale of gradual emancipation, by which the passions became slaves of Reason, and ‘civilization’ supplanted the ‘primitive’.

These instalments are called the ‘Pacifying Process’, ‘Civilizing Process’, ‘Gentle Commerce’, the ‘Expanding Circle’, the ‘Humanitarian Revolution’, the ‘Long Peace’, the ‘Rights Revolution’ and the ‘New Peace’.

The terms are borrowed from the likes of Norbert Elias, Peter Singer, Albert Hirschman and Kant. They correspond to the emergence of political hierarchy (chiefdoms, Big Men and proto-states), growth of the modern liberal constitutional state (the rule of law), ‘development of the institutions of money and finance’, spread of transport and communication links, mass literacy and secularism.

Such changes, says Pinker, have periodically upset and re-made the ‘rules of the game’ which defined, in a given society, courses of action available to ordinary people (their strategy sets) and specified the outcomes and consequences (payoffs) of those actions. In response to these ‘exogenous triggers’, introduced from outside into the game structure, individuals gradually developed the ‘better angels of their nature’: behavioural norms, ethical prescriptions and psychological preferences allowing them to interact in mutually beneficial ways.

In charting this progress along the path to modernity, Pinker appends himself to a lineage of ‘Enlightenment humanists’ — Hobbes, Locke, Hume and the classical liberals — who ‘placed the autonomy and flourishing of individuals as the ultimate goal of political systems.’

The self-ascription is obviously false: the author’s other political commitments, as we’ve seen, push him in grotesquely illiberal directions. It’s worthwhile seeing why this is so.

Pinker first describes how the emergence of Leviathan suppressed the universal propensity of ungoverned hunter-gatherer and horticultural people to kill and wound each other, in opportunistic struggles over hunting grounds, foraging rights and women.

Of course, he says, if humans lacked ‘innate proclivities toward coalitional violence’, they ‘would not need a Leviathan, or any other institution, to keep them away from it.’ But he agrees with Hobbes that in ‘the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: gain (predatory raids), safety (preemptive raids), and reputation (retaliatory raids).’

Here he relies on research suggesting that the populations of pre-state and non-state societies (at least those in the ethnographic and archaeological record) exhibit very high fractions of death from warfare. This discussion, like much else in this new work, will be familiar from Pinker’s earlier book The Blank Slate.

Pinker then invokes — as he goes on to do throughout the book — John Maynard Smith’s ‘hawk-dove’ game, which formalizes the Hobbesian condition of animal contests over territory. This model is used to show that respect for ownership (what Maynard Smith called the ‘Bourgeois’ strategy) can settle conflicts without escalated fighting or a war of attrition. Good fences make good neighbours. Property rights beget personal rights.

This will be recognized as a version of the mainstream axiom which holds that there exists, in liberal capitalist societies, a harmonious ‘unity of rights’.  Milton Friedman’s identification of democracy with capitalism is perhaps the strongest version of the claim (empirical, normative or logical) that personal entitlements (e.g. to bodily integrity and freedom from molestation) imply, overlap with, confer, derive from or otherwise support ownership rights over property.

So it seems reasonable to suggest, as Timothy Snyder did in his book review for Foreign Affairs, that this argumentative thrust is ‘rooted in Pinker’s commitment to free-market libertarianism.’

But of what stripe? There is no entry in the index for ‘property’, and it’s scarcely mentioned throughout the main text (he prefers to speak of ‘commerce’, ‘gains from trade’ and ‘positive-sum interactions’).

Indeed, in Pinker’s presentation the historical emergence of possession-based property rights (with the domestication of plants and animals, along with innovations in storage that allowed people to claim crops and livestock as their own, etc.) is dissolved into an event that occurred 5000 years later: the birth of the state.

What accounts for this strange lack of emphasis and distinct analytic role afforded by Pinker to something which, apparently, holds a privileged place in his thinking? In part, it may be explained by a desire for explanatory simplicity, or attributed to a wish, on the author’s part, to avoid showing his ideological hand, the better to persuade unaligned readers.

But I think it also provides an accurate sense of where the book’s sympathies dwell. The hero of the day is not market but government.

On its surface, this is a familar version of the nightwatchman state, found in any libertarian catechism.

In that ideological tradition (see e.g. Robert Nozick’s ‘minimal state’), the police, courts and similar repressive organs have a crucial but limited role. They delineate property rights and enforce contracts, and thereby prevent contests between parties over rival claims to valued resources (land, food, water, cattle, etc.) degenerating into lawless, wasteful and opportunistic seizure.

There is, of course, a branch of libertarianism (associated with the likes of David D. Friedman and Bryan Caplan) which argues that such tasks (formation and enforcement of property rights) should be the responsibility of private actors, coordinating by tacit agreements, with none of them possessing the public authority’s monopoly on legitimate violence (as in the U.S. South West during the nineteenth century. Alternatively, the work of Elinor Ostrom shows that, through customary allocation rules and similar modes of coordination, populations can successfully manage use of open-access or unowned resources without the involvement of states and without formal property rights.)

But Pinker distances himself from such views: if people cannot enforce their resource claims by calling in the police, he insists, then they will do so by adopting a violent ‘culture on honour’, as on the Appalachian frontier, in Pashtunistan, or in the turf battles over US inner-city crack cocaine networks during the 1980s.

Indeed, Pinker emphasizes his broadminded tolerance for state violence and his hostility towards ‘anarchy’. The applause is not reserved for the abstract principle of the rule of law, but granted, as well, for its supposed institutional embodiment in the present-day USA and Europe.

The book is peppered with anodyne expressions of indifference and, indeed, fondness for ‘actually-existing’ centralized coercion, including when directed inwards at its own citizens: ‘Leviathan’, he notes repeatedly, ‘may be the most consistent violence-reducer’ there is.

Murder rates in the US fell from the 1990s because, he says, ‘the Leviathan got bigger, smarter, and more effective… But in present-day America a “death sentence” is a bit of a fiction, because mandatory legal reviews delay most executions indefinitely, and only a few tenths of a percentage point of the nation’s murderers are ever put to death.’

He defends the views on torture expressed by his Harvard colleague Alan Dershowitz (with whom Pinker teaches a course on Morality and Taboo).

To place this line of thought in ideological context, the libertarians at the Cato Institute can be relied upon to describe Bill Clinton’s Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which began the rollback of habeas corpus rights, as ‘draconian’ and its precursor ‘one of the most repressive measures ever enacted by the U.S. Congress’.

Pinker, on the other hand, does not consider such epochal changes worth mentioning. He appears to cherish the nightwatchman state less than he does the status quo.

Thus the most fitting ideological label for Pinker would seem to be that used by Bernard Harcourt to describe Richard Posner: pragmatic authoritarian libertarian.

Indeed, mounting a consistent and effective defence of property rights nowadays compels the honest ideologue to adopt such a position. For if ‘gentle commerce’ transforms ‘zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit’, this same growth of productivity and cooperative non-rivalry (i.e. the necessity for team production by co-workers in factories and offices) also raises the costs of excluding non-owners from access to resources and enforcing private claims to wealth.

In today’s Garrison USA, it takes more than one-quarter of the labour force (up from 6% in 1890 and 7% in 1929) to maintain order and to enforce the existing allocation of ownership claims over economic resources. A colossal number of citizen-soldiers now work as supervisors with the authority to discipline, sanction and fire, or as prison guards, private security personnel, employees of the military, lawyers, etc. This is what mainstream economics calls the ‘technology of conflict’, in which resources are devoted to enforcing, adjudicating, seizing or redistributing private claims to social wealth.

At the heart of US society beats a massive disciplinary apparatus, public and private.

This is the repressive foundation for what Jonathan Turley recently described as an authoritarian ‘mosaic of powers’ gained by the government in recent decades. In this setting, ‘all rights become little more than a discretionary grant subject to executive will’. To fulfil its role as the ultimate global backstop for property rights, the US state must sacrifice, rather than preserve, personal liberty.

And it is this Leviathan — rather rather than that of Hobbes, Locke, the classical liberals or even Nozick — to which Pinker’s book is dedicated as one long hosanna, much as president Obama hails the US armed forces as ‘the greatest force for freedom and human dignity the world has ever known.’

As my reference to judge Posner was intended to suggest, the theories Pinker assembles to defend his authoritarian sympathies are derived, directly or indirectly, from influential thinkers associated with the University of Chicago Law School (Posner, Ronald Coase, Cass Sunstein, etc.), and specifically with the Law and economics movement.

Yet, curiously, there is no direct trace in the book (either in the main text or bibliography) of Pinker’s having consulted a closely related branch of the social sciences — the one most attentive, as he is, to ‘getting the institutions right’. By this I mean the New Institutional economics, started by Coase at Chicago, and with notable contributions on the topic of property rights by Alchian and Demsetz.

It is especially odd, given Pinker’s historical focus, that he does not cite a host of economic historians (Robert Fogel, Kenneth Sokoloff, Stanley Engerman, Daron Acemoglu, James Robinson, etc.) whose research, on the legal and political institutions most propitious for economic growth, is close to his topic of interest.

I suspect this is because the work of those (thoroughly Whiggish and orthodox) scholars leads too obviously to a conclusion Pinker wants to avoid at all costs: that the institution he lauds (the liberal-capitalist state that first emerged in Western Europe) eclipsed its competitors largely because of the former’s superior war-making capacity.

This is the unpleasant lesson of the last 500 years: that one type of political entity (and social structure) survives at the expense of other forms of governance, and successfully proliferates, because it can mobilize and dispose of more economic resources for military and coercive use, including populations willing and able to fight for the sovereign, than its opponents can.

Douglass North and Barry Weingast famously argued that the reforms initiated by the so-called Glorious Revolution (enabling the monarch to ‘credibly commit’ to respecting property rights) better allowed the English Crown to tax and borrow from merchants and property holders the large sums it needed to defeat its foreign opponents in military conflict.

As a result of its greater war-making prowess, institutional replicas of capitalism and the British state (and similar west European varieties) were diffused (often at gunpoint) successfully throughout the world, displacing competitors by exterminating or absorbing their populations, attracting emulators, or by exporting their own members.

The institutional arrangements which Pinker lauds as bringers of peace thrive because they support the greatest war machine in history.

Reviewers such as Herbert Gintis have praised the broad scholarly scope of Pinker’s book. In truth its pages are filled with the sort of shallow and indulgent excursions that might suggest, in other circumstances, a mocking parody of Thomas Friedman, and of which the following vapidities are representative:

Social dominance is a guy thing… Dominance is an adaptation to anarchy, and it serves no purpose in a society that has undergone a civilizing process or in an international system regulated by agreements and norms… The mid- and late 20th century saw a deconstruction of the concept of dominance… Partly it has come from women’s inroads into professional life. Women have the psychological distance to see contests of dominance as boys making noise, so as they have become more influential, dominance has lost some of its aura.


The appearance of Marxist ideology in particular was a historical tsunami that is breathtaking in its total human impact. It led to the dekamegamurders by Marxist regimes in the Soviet Union and China, and more circuitously, it contributed to the one committed by the Nazi regime in Germany. Hitler read Marx in 1913, and although he detested Marxist socialism, his National Socialism substituted races for classes in its ideology of a dialectical struggle toward utopia, which is why some historians consider the two ideologies “fraternal twins.”

There are many more things that could be said about Pinker’s book, most of them bad (Peter Singer loved it). That isn’t my concern here, and of course this wasn’t meant as a general review.

I hoped merely to prepare the post to follow this one, by highlighting Pinker’s shameful defence (is anyone willing to suggest this wasn’t a chief goal?) of the US war machine, and his encouragement of Panglossian attitudes towards ‘modernity’.

For Pinker recently has made a habit of repackaging conventional pieties (‘The positive-sum cooperation of commerce flourishes best inside a big tent presided over by a Leviathan’), congenial to the powerful and favourable to their policy objectives, into bracing or scandalous truths, kept inaccessible, embattled or ignored by prevailing opinion. (A publicity interview for the book described Pinker as an enemy of the ‘chattering classes’; Niall Ferguson is tediously promoted, in similar style, as ‘saying the sort of thing that drives liberal England mad’. Pinker’s book catches the mood of the times as expertly as did Ferguson, the Harvard historian whose Empire [2003] and Colossus [2004] sought to rehabilitate the colonial record of the British Empire, criticize the subsequent decades of self-rule, and suggest that the United States would serve everyone’s welfare by formally annexing overseas territory.)

But the promotion of violence and bellicosity, in the guise of taboo-busting, sometimes takes a form more agreeable to ‘progressive’ tastes. Expressions of facile Whiggishness, may — with a defter hand than Pinker has managed in his book — be elevated to the status of keen insight and daring iconoclasm.

They may, as I’ll suggest in the following post, attract the support of people who identify as ‘progressive’ (Pinker’s ‘chattering classes’, spanning from the centre-left to self-described ‘radicals’).


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3 Responses to “A love letter to Leviathan”

  1. Rewarding and pleasurable « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] ancestral environment, etc. to explain the popularity of hyper-violent video games. This leads him, like Pinker, to pronounce on the violent proclivities of people before the domestication of plants and animals, […]

  2. ‘Group’-based property rights and collective guilt « Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] In attributing the behaviour, public pronouncements and military interventions of state leaders to the diffusion of some new ‘international morality’, a global ecumene of human rights, it gave a Panglossian rendering of contemporary imperialism that bears comparison to Steven Pinker’s recent fluff. […]

  3. A frightening abyss | Churls Gone Wild Says:

    […] clue to this development is found here, in Steven Pinker’s fondness for state violence, the latter approved as a queller of rowdy […]

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