A long time back I criticized Pinker’s “better angels of our nature”, arguing that he mistakes leftism for progress and goodness, arguing that criminal violence by citizens against each other is at extraordinarily high levels, that state violence against citizens in the form of imprisonment and policing is at levels unprecedented except when a state is crushing a hostile enemy population in a condition of war or near war, and that levels of warfare between states are pretty much what they always have been, arguably considerably worse.
For example Pinker complacently observes that the Victorians were shocked and horrified by a crime wave, but neglects to observe that this crime wave consisted of one mugging in London every few months – which crime wave never went away, but instead people got used to it, and then it got vastly worse, and people got used to it again, and then it got vastly worse still, and people attempted to abandon much of their cities to savages, and then the crime wave followed them, and there is now no safe area in London. The idea of the inner city as some kind of jungle is new, starting in the late nineteen forties, early fifties. Early in the twentieth century, the idea that the affluent and respectable might have to abandon vast expanses of wealth and property, of huge, beautiful and high status buildings where once the wealthy and fashionable lived, to the vandalism and depravity of savages would have been as unimaginable as wolves and bears prowling the streets of London to devour passers by.
My criticism of his argument on war is that war is a bursty phenomenon, sometimes there are a lot of mighty big wars, and sometimes, when one hegemon has the upper hand, or several hegemons remember the last big war too well, not many wars. This peace lasts until the dominant hegemon weakens, or people forget how bad the last big war was, forget how easy it is to start wars, and how hard it is to stop them, whereupon they go at it again. And the generation that remembers the last big war is now mostly dead.
Taleb, arguably the worlds leading expert on the statistics of bursty phenomena, makes the same argument in a more scientific fashion backed by statistics. War follows a power law with an exponent substantially less than one and substantially greater than zero, rather than a normal distribution, meaning that risk is dominated by large rare events – the risk of losing life and property in a big war is far greater than the risk of losing life and property in a small war, even though small wars are common and big wars are rare.
Pinker tells us.
wars between great powers and developed nations have fallen to historically unprecedented levels. This empirical fact has been repeatedly noted with astonishment by many military historians and international relations scholars…
Taleb tells us that because war follows a power law rather than a normal distribution, if one analyzes the level of warfare using statistics appropriate to a normal distribution, at any given time, chances are it has either fallen to historically unprecedented levels, or a great war has broken out and one is too busy trying to stay alive to do statistics.
With a power law phenomenon, recent experience almost always massively under estimates the risk of large rare events, recent experience is almost always nicer than experience over a longer period. Until it is not.