The Decline and Fall of Violence

Our latest Freakonomics Radio segment on Marketplace concerns a topic we’ve been writing about for a long time: violent crime — and especially why it rises and falls. In this segment, Levitt and I discuss the fact that overall crime and violence are likely at a historic low these days, and not by a little bit either. The conversation builds off the fascinating new book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Pinker has just completed a very good Q&A on our blog, and you’ll hear him in the Marketplace segment as well. Even though many people are convinced that the world today is more violent than ever (can you say “media effect”?), Pinker lays out the facts of the decline and fall of violence in a way that is hard to dispute:

In tribal societies, hunter-gatherers and hunter-horticulturalists, an average of about 15 percent of people met their ends through violence. In the 20th century, if you try to come up with the highest estimate you can, combining all the wars, all the genocides, all the man-made famines, you get to about 3 percent.

Here’s where you can find Marketplace on the radio near you.


Ryan

Steven Pinker is awesome. You guys really need to find some psychologists in a similar vein to post on your blog. Us social sciences have to stick together.

MW

I haven't had the opportunity to listen to your radio segment, so perhaps you discuss this.

Crime is at an historic low. Imprisonment rates are at an historic high. Therefore the imprisonment-to-crime ratio is hugely greater than historical norms.

One extreme interpretation: We're obsessed by the idea that crime is a huge problem and imprisonment is the way to deal with it. We're wasting fortunes and the primes of people's lives on imprisoning people who could be productive members of society.

The other extreme interpretation: Crime is low because imprisonment is high.

Where does the truth lie? (No answers without statistical evidence, please.)

Michel

This is surely an interesting topic. Is there somewhere a valid study about imprisonment rates in different countries compared to the crime rate? I don't think imprisonment rates are at an historic high in all countries.

A second thing I wonder about is if the definition of violent crime is broadened in more civilised societies?

Fitty Stim

@MW: You're only thinking in terms of the US - which has the world's highest percentage of the population in prison and some of the harshest prison sentencing.

Take a look at Scandinavia. The Vikings were some of the most violent "businessmen" the world has ever experienced. Now Scandinavia has very low violent crime rates - even though prison sentencing is a joke (especially if the violent perpetrator is a woman).

I would suggest that any decrease in violence has everything to do with raising the standard of living for people.

A.R.Yngve

It has got to be the standard of living. The more you've got to lose, the more careful you are.

Or how about boredom (or the lack of it)? Having nothing to do is a great incentive to mischief. The more distractions a society has to offer (especially to restless, sullen young males), the less energy will be left over for violent behavior.

Ben

Joshua Goldstein has written a related book, called "Winning the War on War" that's just been published. http://winningthewaronwar.com/

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Nils

I will allow myself to be extremely skeptical of the accuracy of violent death rates of hunter/gatherers being 15%. Where does that number come from? How reliable is it? How large is the variation?
It would seem to me that any such number would be attached with enormous uncertainty.

Rew

The 15% number probably comes from (relatively, 150-200 years ago) recent observations of tribal hunter-gatherer societies - which could reasonably be extrapolated backwards.

I would speculate a wide variation, of course. In resource-poor environments, tribal conflict and violence would be far more prevalent than in resource-rich environments, where there is little competition for food.

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