Cleverer but no wiser

A C Grayling

A discussion last week between A C Grayling and Mark Kurlansky on the subject “Fighting Talk: Pacifism, War and International Relations” raised the question of whether things are getting better or worse. Is there more war and violence in the world these days, or less?

Mark Kurlansky, author of such works as Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, and, most recently, Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, suggested that things are getting worse – look at the carnage in Iraq, for example – demonstrating that violence does not solve problems and suggesting that people should be more willing to give non-violence a try.

A C Grayling, who was on the platform as the author of Among the dead cities, an exploration of the morality behind the area bombing campaigns of the second world war, had a more nuanced view, suggesting that in some ways things were getting better. He quoted Theodor Adorno, who had observed that mankind was becoming cleverer but no wiser: the guided missile has succeeded the spear.

I take a different view, though. There is some good evidence on the question.

First, there is an overall decline in the incidence of violent death. This is a matter of society in general, rather than war in particular. And over the centuries it has become much less common. This is shown both in the records of criminal activity within individual countries – falling to perhaps one hundredth of its mediaeval levels in Europe now, suggests Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate – and also by comparison with primitive societies that have been encountered during the 20th century. Jared Diamond’s descriptions of society in New Guinea in Guns, Germs and Steel include a litany of violent death among societies with no formal civil order.

Over time, the notion of civil order has grown. Criminal offences are punished by the state rather than by the victim taking revenge. The parts of the world where blood feuds remain are fewer and fewer. The extension of public order has reduced the extent of private violence.

Present-day Iraq, where things are getting worse, may seem like an exception to this, but actually it is an illustration of this. Kick away the props of public administration, and the roof of public order falls in.

Secondly, there is the extent of war. There is some positive news here, too.

Let us think about the resources absorbed by war. Looking back over the last 150 years, expenditure on the military is as low as it has ever been: around 2 per cent of GDP (Niall Ferguson reports this in The Cash Nexus). The sheer sums of money may seem huge, but then so is the modern economy.

Of course, expenditure grows during wartime, but wartime itself is becoming less common, too. Data collected by political scientists show a decrease in the number of wars involving the great powers as the centuries have passed, and in particular (according to Niall Ferguson) in Europe. This European experience has not been followed so closely elsewhere in the world, but I think that strengthens my point rather than weakening it.

My argument is that wisdom on this subject does indeed exist. It is possible to reduce the incidence of violence within society by instituting civil order. Iraq today is a visible demonstration of life when that civil order is gone. (Do not mistake this blog entry for any kind of defence of how that civil order was maintained, though.) And as with the society of individuals, so with the society of states.

Europe since 1945 is marked by an almost eerie absence of war. It is also marked by an unparalleled growth of a legal order among its states. Never before have different countries been so constrained in their relations with one another; never before have they been so peaceful. This cannot be coincidence.

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