Archive for October, 2011

Is capitalism in a slump? … or worse

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

Oct. 31, 2011

If you judge by the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests, capitalism is in bad shape. Everyone loves to hate bankers and Wall Street. Even me. I know  they are essential cogs in the capitalist economy. Even so, I still shed tears in the perennial Christmas rerun, It’s a Wonderful Life, when Jimmy Stewart, the honest Main Street guy, outwits (with the help of his guardian angel) the fat-cat greedy banker, Lionel Barrymore.

It’s too bad Wall Street is traditionally seen as the center and symbol of capitalism. The Islamic terrorists made it clear whom they were attacking when they crashed their planes into the World Trade Center. The OWS people seem to be preaching the same gospel. Instead of airliners, the protesting campers use a heap of iPhones, iPods, iMacs and iPods to facilitate their efforts. They even took a break recently to mourn the death of Steve Jobs. Maybe we should promote Silicon Valley to take the place of Wall Street in our semiology.

Whatever the symbol, what about the big question—is capitalism in a slump? Or worse, is capitalism ripe to be replaced by a more humane and just system? … Well, like what? Socialism maybe?

Here I think our educational system (with a strong assist from Hollywood) must take a lion’s share of the blame for the confusion nowadays about capitalism and its necessary, but not sufficient, role in supporting our liberal democracy. Seldom taught nowadays is the amazing story of how we came to be a free-market liberal democracy. How the three pillars of our modern Western civilization—science and technology, free-market capitalism, and freedom of religion—have combined to make us the freest, most prosperous, least violent, and most humane and tolerant civilization ever created on this amazing planet.

If you disagree with this blanket claim you are proving me right. Your education was faulty.

Actually so was mine. When I was in college right after World War II the prevailing atmosphere (noosphere I call it—the intellectual taken-for-granted climate—see my blog Memes and Genes) in most liberal arts colleges, including mine, was sympathetic to socialist command-economy solutions but antagonistic to capitalist free-market ideas. In succeeding years it has gotten worse. After the Vietnam War, much worse.

“Liberal,” for instance, used to mean a person who believed in freedom, freedom from government and clerical power. Our founding fathers, in this sense, were strong liberals and they created a liberal democracy (they called it a republic). Today liberal is confused with progressive. A progressive today is a person whose key virtue is fairness, not freedom. Progressives are not satisfied with equal opportunity, they want equal results. And if freedom doesn’t bring equal results, progressives like the OWS protesters, expect the government to take charge and make things more equal. If that means coercion (they don’t like to talk about this part) so be it. Whatever this is, it is not liberal.

The OWS protests have a slogan, “We are the 99%.” Ironically the slogan itself shows their ignorance of history and their faulty education. When our country was founded in the late 1700s it was still the Agricultural Age of earth. In those days all of us ordinary folk were indeed the 99%. For ten thousand years before 1787—99% of the world’s people were slaves, serfs or peasants. All of our distant ancestors (even the top 1% who were the lords, ladies and priests) were subjects, not citizens. They had an average life expectancy of less than 35 years. They rarely traveled more than a few miles from where they were born. They watched most of their children die before the age of six. They were subject to terrible torture and deadly violence if they dared to be different in politics, religion or worldly wisdom. Even the elite 1%, who had all the wealth there was (not that much—they did have a lot of servants and slaves, but no anesthetics, antibiotics, airliners or air-conditioners), suffered and died young from disease, famine and war.

The United States is exceptional because we led the world to dramatically change that baleful situation. Karl Marx of course disagreed. In the mid 19th century he claimed, like the protesters today, that capitalism created wealth all right but the richest 1% took it all. Marx thought capitalism would make the 99% so poor they would revolt. Instead the 99% in most western countries became bourgeois, the same class Lenin swore to “wipe off the face of the earth.”

The 99% did not become as rich as the top 1% to be sure. But they sure became a lot richer than their slave, serf and peasant ancestors. So rich that the vast majority of that 99% in the U.S. today (and other Western Civilization countries) live more than 75 healthy years instead of 35 disease- and violence-filled ones; travel thousands of miles by auto and air in their lifetimes; rarely see their children die; have iPhones, TVs, campers, air-conditioners and Facebook pages; and are free to disagree in politics, religion and worldly wisdom without fear of prison, torture or death. All of the 99% in the U.S. today are citizens, not subjects.

To accomplish this miracle our Constitution established freedom of religion, encouraged free markets and free trade, and laid the foundations for science and technology to blossom. We did not originate these ideas made explicit in the Constitution. The ideas came out of the medieval Judeo-Christian past, modified and expanded in the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. We didn’t originate them, but we did put them into practice on a continental scale.

I recognize that this broad historical background (that should have been taught in our schools and colleges but wasn’t) does not automatically solve all of our present problems with unemployment, mortgages, taxes, etc. But it does point us in the right directions—programs that build on successes in the past and programs that avoid mistakes. If we want success we need to encourage science and technology, free-markets and free trade, and support religions with a small r (see my last week’s blog).

We also need to be very suspicious of programs that promote zero-sum solutions. That means most (not all—we are rich enough to have a modest safety-not for all citizens) command-economy programs. The world went through a hellish period last century where we saw clearly what a disaster command-economy fascism and socialism were for hundreds of millions of dependent subjects. Apparently the OWS protesters and many of their sympathetic progressive-liberals were not paying attention.

It’s time ladies and gentlemen to pay attention.

Bill Stonebarger, Hawkhill Owner/President

P.S. Broken record. For details see my new book TWILIGHT OR DAWN? a Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy. (Formerly called The Road to a Tea Party.)

Is religion waxing or waning?

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Oct. 24, 2011

There is religion. And there is Religion.

When I graduated from high school in 1944 I gave the valedictorian address. I chose as my title, “Return to Religion.” I don’t remember what I said. If I stressed the virtues of Religion with a capital R it wasn’t a very good idea then and is an even worse one now.

We need religion but we don’t need Religion. We need the kind that nudges us to love our neighbors, be kind to strangers, forgive those who trespass against us, have humility and awe in the face of the mysteries of the universe, mysteries that are the bedrock of all true science and art. And we need the kind that urges us to be fair, brave and honorable in all dealings with neighbors.

The kind of Religion we don’t need is the kind Vladimir Lenin was talking about when he wrote, “to belittle the socialist ideology in any way, to turn aside from it in the slightest degree means to strengthen bourgeois ideology.” Or the kind Helen Caldicott was promoting when she claimed, “bacteria have as much right to live as we do” or “every time you turn on an electric light you are making another brainless baby.” Or the kind Osama bin Laden was following when he planned 9/11.

Communism, Radical Environmentalism and Radical Islam respectively—are Religions with a capital R. The kind we don’t need.

Christianity had its days when Religion with a capital R dominated. Remember the story of Sir Thomas More in England. He was a martyr who paid with his life for his dogmatic faith when Henry VIII founded the Anglican branch of Christianity and outlawed the Catholic version. Thomas courageously stood up for his Catholic version, was beheaded, and later canonized a saint for his sacrifice. Earlier though as Henry’s Chancellor when Henry was Catholic, More condemned six Protestants to be burned at the stake because they refused to renounce their faith.

Four hundred years ago millions of Christians were sacrificed in a bitter 30-years war between Catholics and Protestants in northern Europe. Today Christians, for the most part, are not of the capital R variety. Islam, in some places, is still in that capital R phase. The death toll in recent conflicts between Shiite and Sunni versions in Iraq and Iran numbered in the millions. The secular Religion of Communism was responsible for more than a hundred million deaths in the 20th century. Not in international wars, but in citizens killed by their own governments. The secular Religion, Radical Environmentalism, can already count a few million victims from malaria and famine in Africa and Asia as testament to its devotion to environmental dogma.

The founding fathers insisted on putting into our Constitution an amendment that demanded freedom of religion and prohibited the government from recognizing any church as The Religion. As a result today we have a wide variety of religions, but no state Religion that can demand we all follow its rules.

Here as elsewhere, the United States has been the leader. Our immigrant founding fathers inherited a legacy of negative Religious memes from their European forefathers. Congregationalists in the colonies had bitter disagreements with Presbyterians. Baptists could not abide Anglicans. In Massachusetts they had the infamous Salem witch trials. Protestants hated Catholics, who were considered the anti-Christ.

Today is different. No one in the Christian world believes witches should be killed; heretics should be tortured or burned; that Catholics are the anti-Christ; or that Muslims should be murdered if they do not convert. We have made progress.

Islam is a mixed bag today. Radical Muslims still believe they have the Truth and The Religion. They still believe that heretics should be killed, that Christians should be destroyed if they do not convert. They also believe that women should be forced to marry, should be stoned to death for adultery, and should be denied an education on Religious grounds.

Most Muslims do not follow Radical beliefs today. Islam, in other words, is fast becoming a religion rather than a Religion. Anything we can do to speed up the process would be good.

When we come to the modern secular Religions it gets fuzzier. Once it ruled almost half of the world’s people, but today only a few die-hards take Communism seriously. Marxist/Leninist theories, on the other hand, are having a rebirth with new labels in many countries, west and east, north and south. Many scientific, political and intellectual leaders still believe that strong command-economy actions are the only solution to current economic problems. Unlike old style communists, they deny this calls for coercion or violence. Whether that denial will be borne out in practice remains to be seen. The past history of command-economy solutions is not promising. As Friedrich Hayek pointed out in the Great Depression days of the 1930s, “many a professor has found his students returning from Europe uncertain whether they were fascists or communists.”

The other popular secular religion is Radical Environmentalism. This one is an odd-ball with not much historical background to judge it fairly. If you personally and rigorously follow its tenets (the “dark green” variety that is—see my blog for an explanation of difference between “light green” and “dark green”) you will take immediate steps to use less energy, use fewer resources, travel less by auto and air, give up eating foods imported from abroad or from other regions of the U.S, and move from your roomy air-conditioned suburban house to live in a smaller apartment in the city. You will return to a simpler poorer standard of living. Few actually do this so Radical Environmentalism is a Religion with not many devout communicants.

In its “sustainability” format this Religion has gained tremendous popularity with scientists, intellectuals and politicians. When it fosters greater efficiency, doing more with less, it is good. But when it spawns government action to demand inefficient recycling, restrict drilling, stop mining, cripple nuclear power and biotechnology, over-regulate manufacturing, subsidize inefficient energy sources, take away private property, oppose globalization, protect any and all species no matter how helpful or harmful to humans, and oppose free trade and capitalism—when it claims that a “growing economy means a shrinking ecosystem”—it is not good. It is especially popular with people who cling to the utopian hope that socialism is the right wave of the future. In the meantime the regulations, prohibitions and advice have a lot to do with our current economic slump, lack of job growth, growing inequality of wealth and resurgence of class warfare.

In 1944 we had just emerged from the Great Depression and were in the middle of World War II. I was an optimist.

If I were giving that graduation speech today what would I say? I am still an optimist. If by Religion you mean the kind the far-left is flirting with in their class warfare and environmental protests—I hope it will wane. If by Religion you mean the kind the far-right is flirting with in subtle racism and Religion with a capital R —I hope it will wane. If by Religion you mean Radical Islam—it is waning, but still is powerful.

If by religion you mean the kind the vast majority of middle class people in the Western world practice today (see paragraph 3 above)—I think it is the religion of the future. We are at the dawn, not the twilight of free-market liberal democratic history.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Like a broken record, if you want more details, data and evidence to back up some of these ideas see my new book scheduled now to come out the first of the new year. TWILIGHT OR DAWN? A Traveler’s Guide to Free Market Liberal Democracy.

Is science in a slump?

Saturday, October 15th, 2011

Oct. 17, 2011

Even the best hitters in baseball have slumps. Some think that science, too, is in a bit of slump.

Consider:

In my lifetime science has taken giant steps. We (scientists and technologists that is) put the first man on the moon; conquered polio and smallpox; added 30 years to the average citizen’s life in western industrial countries; reduced infant and maternal mortality by 99%; discovered a new source of energy in nuclear power; invented television, computers, cell phones and the Internet; discovered the codes for life (DNA) and laid foundations for revolutions to come in biotechnology; found ways to increase our agricultural output so that we could feed seven billion people, three times as many as there were on earth when I was born.

In between these achievements we invented ballpoint pens, frozen pizza, plastics, ATM and GPS machines, calculators, word processors, CDs, DVDs, fast foods, credit cards and skateboards. Oh, and I almost forgot, we discovered the environment.

We have not conquered the common cold, cancer or Alzheimer’s. And—we have not made much progress in transportation technology or basic energy production.

Automobiles, buses, trains, elevators, airplanes, bicycles and ships are bigger, more powerful, more efficient and safer, but they don’t get us around that much faster and fundamentally they are not much different than they were in 1946 when I began college, or when I was born twenty years earlier.

Discoveries in energy came fastest in the 19th century and we haven’t made much progress since then. Fossil fuels, steam and internal combustion engines gave citizens in industrial countries the power of 100 slaves apiece. These contributions from our scientists, engineers, mechanics and entrepreneurial wizards revolutionized lives everywhere on earth.

In the 20th century there was a breakthrough in energy. We found out how to tame nuclear reactions to make explosives, propel submarines and make electricity. Environmentalists have dampened this breakthrough with what seems to me excessive concern about potential environmental harm. There may be time for a comeback as concerns about climate change become more urgent.

We are still waiting for science to give us needed breakthroughs in renewable energy sources. The most powerful renewable source was discovered more than a hundred years ago—hydroelectric dams. Now we find that the dams sometimes interfere with fish migrations and have other environmental handicaps, so we are taking them down almost as fast as they were built. Windmills and solar panels are having a splash, but so far they have only been able to produce a tiny fraction of our needed energy at a hefty price. Instead of doing more with less, right now they are doing a lot less with a lot more. See Solyndra.

What happened to taming fusion power, the power that the sun and stars use? What about dark energy, the power that propels billions of galaxies expanding at breakneck speeds? Little or no progress. Or what about … well, what about any new something for producing energy?

Are we in a scientific slump?

I guess so, and yet …

In a less acknowledged way, science and technology have made changes as important as all of the above technology achievements. We are living now in the most peaceable time in human history. That peace may be due, in large part, to progress in rational (scientific) ways of thinking. At least that is the view of Stephen Pinker, Harvard Professor of Psychology, in his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. I think he is on to something important.

Reducing violence to its lowest point in human history (see my recent blog Violence) is no small thing. If that isn’t enough, Pinker points out another result of the change from traditional emotional and theologically based thinking to rational (science inspired) thinking …

People are getting smarter!

James Flynn, a psychologist and intelligence researcher from New Zealand, found that IQ test scores have been increasing all over the world. A given IQ test is standardized with a median score of 100. When a new test is devised ten years later and given to same students who scored 100 on the previous test, this time they score 103. Every decade there has been an increase of 3 points on the average. This means that the student who scores an average 100 today—if he or she could take the test of 1911—would score at the gifted level of 130. This would make them smarter than 99% of the population.

How come?

These increases in brainpower are not the result of genetic changes. The time spans are much too short. The increases also don’t seem to be related to years or quality of schooling. The tests that show the most reliable increases in intelligence scores are not those that measure vocabulary, knowledge or math skills. Instead they are tests that measure the ability to separate oneself from immediate practical concerns and frame ideas in universal abstract terms. Tests that show how well someone can think like a scientist (or what used to be called a natural philosopher).

Pinker claims that the growing spread and power of rational scientific thought, along with the win-win virtues of trade, are the most likely causes for the decrease in violence and for the increase in intelligence.

The virtues of trade are obvious. The virtues, the reality, and the causes of the slow spread of rational thought are not so obvious. Here is my hypothesis.

There is a geosphere (rocks, air and water), a biosphere (living things) and a noosphere (a world of conscious thought). All three change over time. In the distant past the geosphere, atoms and radiation, was all there was. When life came along a billion or so years ago, genes became top dogs. When human life became conscious maybe ten thousand or so years ago, the noosphere began to slowly grow and memes took charge.  Today with the sudden spurt of growth that come with the cloud— Internet, computers and satellites—the world’s geosphere and biosphere are being shaped more and more by the world’s noosphere. And this noosphere is itself turning more and more in the direction of rational scientific memes.

As to credit, the ancient Greeks and Romans made a start. In modern times we can trace our slowly increasing reliance on rational thought (science) rather than tradition and theological dogma to the big changes in Western societies called the Renaissance, Reformation and the Enlightenment. Those changes got their most powerful boost when the United States of America was founded in 1776. Since that time they have spread across the continent and around the globe until now they dominate almost everywhere.

And people almost everywhere (not quite everywhere of course) are getting smarter and less violent.

Science may be in a slump but, like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, it might surprise you soon with a home run. In the meantime science has a pretty decent batting average.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. You might want to look at our classic program, THE SOUL OF SCIENCE for more details. See also our best-selling program RENAISSANCE, REFORMATION AND ENLIGHTENMENT for more enlightenment. Both are available at much reduced prices on www.amazon.com or www.hawkhill.com

P.P.S. Sorry about this. I changed my mind again. After last week’s firm decision and pronouncement and subsequent (negative) response from readers I am going back to an earlier suggested title: TWILIGHT OR DAWN? A Traveler’s Guide to the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. The original misnamed book, The Road to a Tea Party is still available on www.amazon.com or www.hawkhill.com.

A new title

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Oct. 10, 2011

I have decided. With thanks to Jack Paulson, Larry Larrabee and Mike Brockmeyer for suggestions, below is a shortened version of the revised Preface in my new book.

THE BOOK YOU ARE READING is an edited version of the book formerly titled The Road to a Tea Party. After publishing with that title in May of 2011, I realized I had made a serious mistake. The title is misleading. I emphasized in the preface that I meant A Tea Party, not THE Tea Party. But the implication remained that I am a supporter of the Tea Party and that my book is about the Tea Party. Not so.

Ergo. I needed a new title, one that is honest, represents more accurately what the book is about, and one that will tweak people’s curiosity enough to buy a copy. I chose the former title more for the tweak than the honesty. The choice backfired. Many readers confessed they would never read a book about the Tea Party. So I recalculated and am republishing under a new title.

FROM ANTIOCH TO COMMON STOCK: a Traveler’s Guide to the Right Road for Progress.

AS A YOUNG WW2 VETERAN I attended and graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. In the late 1940s Antioch, like most liberal arts colleges then and now, was left-liberal in political and social direction. Actually Antioch was more left-liberal than average in those days. So was I.

Socialism had a warm if fuzzy appeal. Capitalism was suspect. Stocks, profits and Wall Street were synonyms for greed. I still remember the shock when one of my close friends graduated and took a job on the Wall Street Journal. How could he be such a sell-out?

In subsequent decades Antioch traveled so far in the left-progressive direction it became, as a popular t-shirt put it, a “boot camp for the revolution.” It also lost most of its student body and financial backing and suspended operations in 2008. (It has reopened in 2011 with 35 scholarship students and 6 professors. I wish them well.)

I have moved slowly in the opposite direction, toward a more conservative-libertarian point of view with a growing appreciation for the value of free-market capitalism. After teaching science for 18 years, I changed gears and founded an educational media business, Hawkhill Associates. This new work entailed heavy reading in science and history, and many domestic and foreign travel adventures. Both the reading and the travel helped change my values and my thinking.

I chose Right Road for its ambiguity. Right does imply a political direction. In my case somewhere along the line from libertarian to conservative. (See pages 42-46 of the revised book for details.) Right also implies correct. Which this book is.

Progress is also ambiguous. In one sense it is linked to political progressives, those on the left side of the political winds. In its original sense it simply means what it says—progress, something everyone is for. Me too.

A Traveler’s Guide points to the memoir segments between each chapter that complement and give personal flavors to my explorations of history, economics, science and religion. …

THERE WAS A LOVELY CARTOON of Sydney Harris in The American Scientist a few decades ago. A cave man’s family is going to bed and the concerned father says to his mate and children, “We have to get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is the dawn of history.”

We too are living in a changeover time—from the Agricultural Age to the Industrial-Scientific-Democratic Age.  The Agricultural Age lasted over ten thousand years. The Industrial-Scientific-Democratic Age had its precursors in Western Europe and began to take off about the time of our American Revolution. It is still in its early childhood, if not its infancy. Just as the cave man proclaiming the dawn of history is funny, so people who think our Western Civilization is getting senile are fair game for ridicule.

Ridiculous or not, that seems to be the view among many pundits today. Western Civilization, many claim, is on a deathwatch. Unless we promptly make some sharp turns—the most common suggestion today is “sustainable” living—we are goners.

In my youth the popular choice for the next act was socialism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the winds of socialism have calmed a bit and been replaced by the windmills and solar panels of the sustainable age. The late Osama bin Laden wanted us to return to religion—his brand of course.

This book explores these claims and concludes that collectives are not the answer. Sustainable communities can’t and won’t happen. Some leaders in the West, like Christian bin Ladens, are urging us to return to religion. All bad ideas. What we need instead is vigorous effort to continue the progress that began in the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment of the Western World—the progress that has resulted today in the near worldwide triumph of Free-Market Liberal Democracy—the progress this book is written to encourage.

In practice this means continuing to promote science and technology, building on the proven win-win principles of capitalist economic systems, and paying closer attention to the freedom and humanistic bent of our founding father’s tolerant versions of Judeo-Christianity. Pursue these directions in synergy and we will surely find that Free-Market Liberal Democracy is the most progressive road to the future as it has been in the past and the present. …

MUCH HAS HAPPENED in the 20th century to help us learn what works and what does not work for modern economies and governance. When we take a close look at the Cold War, at 9/11, at the rise and present state of capitalism, religion and science, and finally at the emergence of “green” environmental movements in the late 20th century, we can find clues to preserve, promote and expand the progress that free-market liberal democracy has brought us in the past.

Nobody saw the emperor had no clothes until a child pointed it out. In my view the lessons of recent history are not that subtle. In this case perhaps it takes an old man to see what others have overlooked. The big picture, that is. The obvious. …

Not that many people have lived through the Great Depression, WW2, the booming 50s, the inflationary and chaotic 60s and 70s, the prosperous 80s and 90s and now the gloom and doom first decade of the 21st century.

I have.

Not that many people today are optimistic about the future of this amazing country. I am.

Let’s start with the Great Depression …

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. It is going to take me a month or so, to get a new cover and a finished edition with the new title. In the meantime you can still buy (what may end up a collector’s edition) The Road to a Tea Party on www.amazon.com or www.hawkhill.com.

Violence

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Oct. 3, 2011

I have another confession. I am 85 years old and I have never experienced violence in my personal life. Zero. None.

Vicariously I have experienced a ton of violence in movies, on TV, and you can’t pick up a newspaper that is not chock-full of assaults, riots, wars, rapes, beheadings, murders, you name it.

The fact that my life has been so free of violence is not as unusual as you might think. True, I am a peaceable sort, don’t often frequent bars, don’t have a drug habit and am not given to aggressive encounters. Most muggings and murders happen in the early hours of the morning, like 2 or 3 am. In my youth I occasionally stayed up that late. Nowadays I rarely leave the house after dark except to walk our dog Frankie before bedtime. When we lived in New York back in the 1950s there was a murder right outside our apartment. We didn’t know about it until we read about it in the morning newspaper.

On the other hand I have not been a shrinking violet. I lived for more than a few years in poor, inner-city areas of New York and Pittsburgh. I have traveled in more than 30 foreign countries including many not known for their pacifism. Like Russia, Mexico, Germany, South Africa, Haiti, Turkey, Kenya and Cambodia.

I realize that some children in this country are violently disciplined. Most are not. I realize that some women are assaulted and raped. Most are not. I realize that many blacks, homosexuals and other minority members have been assaulted, beaten and killed. Most are not. I know from reading that the numbers of victims in all of these categories has gone down dramatically from what it was when I was a child, not to mention what it was in the hundreds of years past.

Some sports like football, hockey, and boxing are violent but controlled (most of the time). Many of us watch these sports but not that many actually play. Those that do rarely suffer permanent damage or death.

Few police officers ever fire a gun or wield a club, except in practice. The majority of men and women in our armed forces like my wife and me (in the Navy and Marines respectively during WW2) train with guns but never experience combat.

Statistics on violent crime in the U.S. have shown a consistent decline over past decades (huge declines over the past two centuries) and are today at or near all-time lows. So I was not surprised to read of a new book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: How Violence Has Decreased. Dr. Pinker, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, points out that violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we are living in the most peaceable era our species has ever known.

Pinker, along with historians like Azar Gat (see his book, War in Human Civilization) and anthropologist Carol A. Travis-Henikoff (Dinner with a Cannibal), claims that a common view of primitive people as “noble savages,” peaceful and environmentally correct (as in the recent blockbuster movie Avatar) is a myth. Archeologists study bones in ancient burial sites of hunting/gathering tribes. Anthropologists study tribes still living today in prehistoric lifestyles. Judging by the percentage of skulls and bones broken or pierced by arrows and blunt objects they calculate that about 15% of people in primitive societies die a violent death. With a similar rate of violent death in this country, 45 million of our youth would die of violence before they could graduate from high school or college.

When the Agricultural Age brought the first cities and civilizations violence was still common but not as widespread as in hunting/gathering days. Just as a farmer does not want his animals to kill each other, kings and lords took care that their slaves or serfs did not kill one another.

Agricultural kingdoms were very often at war with rival kingdoms. Pinker calculates that the rate of violent deaths in Agricultural Age societies, despite their constant wars, was reduced from 15% to around 3% a year. If we had violence at that rate each year, nine million of us would perish at the hands of a neighbor. (Last year around fifty thousand people in U.S. died of violence. Two-thirds were by suicide, one-third by murder.)

Pinker is correct. We live in a peaceable time.

What is it about our time that makes us more peaceful?

Here I go back to the big picture. The biggest changes came in the Western Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. True, in the early days of these happenings violence was still at Agricultural Age levels. Maybe worse. In the Thirty-Years War during the sixteenth century Reformation days more than third of the population in Northern Europe was wiped out in wars between Protestants and Catholics. In the days of Henry VIII in England people were tortured without mercy to get a confession. Then they were burned at the stake or maybe had their bodies ripped apart by galloping horses. Often these cruel and inhuman punishments were for crimes like heresy or poaching the lord’s deer.

This was in Europe. It was much the same—or worse—in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The cruel and inhuman violence was often followed by cannibalism.

Slowly though, slowly in terms of human history, progress began to be made—in the West. Three major factors led the way: science and technology, religious freedom, and free-market capitalism.

Science and technology supplied the energy and inventions that gave each individual in Western countries (and in recent years all countries of the world are catching on) the power of a hundred slaves each. This power has helped make all of us richer, healthier and longer-lived.

Freedom of religion, pioneered in this country, released individuals from the bondage of fundamentalist religions, supernatural and secular. When rulers could demand strict adherence to the dogmas of Paganism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Communism or Fascism, violence was the rule not the exception. See the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages in Europe, the Crusades, the almost constant tribal wars, revolutions and internal repressions in Japan, China, India, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas. And in the 20th century—Nazism, Fascism, Communism, India/Pakistan, Iraq/Iran and 9/11.

The most important change of all was from zero-sum Agricultural Age memes to win-win Free-Market ones, also pioneered in this country. If you live in a zero-sum economic system, violence is inevitable. If there is only one pie, no matter how large or small, the only way to get a bigger piece is theft or war and both require violence. If you live in a free-market society you can trade what you make or provide with other makers and providers so both of you get richer. Theft or war may survive the changeover but eventually people realize (as they are slowly doing now) that all citizens can be winners.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. To bring you up to date, I thank the many readers who responded to my last blog with suggestions for titles for my new book. I haven’t made a final choice yet. At the moment the leading candidate is: FROM ANTIOCH TO COMMON STOCK: a Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy. In second place is: TWILIGHT OR DAWN? A Fresh Look at the Past, Present and Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. What do you think?