Nov. 27, 2017

Jane and I watched the HBO series The Pacific two weeks ago.  Produced by Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks, it is a moving story of marines fighting in WW2 for South Pacific islands, notably Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

Talk about violence! I’m amazed any marine could have survived. But as the final episode makes clear; quite a few did!

Steven Pinker, a Harvard scholar has written a welcome antidote, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. One story he tells strikes a particular tender spot in my heart. He claims that Parisian aristocrats in the not-so-long-ago 18th century had an amusement that I find un-thinkable (because Jane and I have a very old and very nice cat). They would string up a cat in a blazing fire and watch with roaring laughter as the cat writhed in agony until he or she was reduced to carbon.

He attributes the decline to two factors; evolution and the civilizing influence of the Modern Age, especially its freedom of religion and trade. Violent “humor” like the above would not happen in Modern Age Paris. Or London. Or New York. I have lived over 90 years in the Modern Age and have not been involved, or even witnessed, a single instance of violence! I suspect I’m not alone.

Believe it or not, this diabolic delight in real, not fictional, violence was common in the Agricultural Age. For that matter real violence was even more common in the Hunting/Gathering Age. The Modern Age may indeed surpass previous Ages in total numbers killed—in wars, Holocausts, Communist, and Fascist tyrannies. We have a few thousand times larger world population now. In earlier Ages, the quality and quantity of everyday mayhem were not even close to the actual violence of the Modern Age.

In pretty much all past Ages, large boisterous crowds would often gather to watch tortures, hangings, beheadings, or burning of heretics and thieves. Genghis Khan and many other warriors did not hesitate to wipe out an entire city—men, women, and children—if they did not surrender to his army of killers. Charlemagne, the fabled Holy Roman Emperor, did not hesitate to torture and kill hundreds of heretical Christians to ensure his followers would survive in their after-life.

The rationale for these cruel actions was simple enough—survival. Thieves stole goods essential to all human lives survival;. heretics denied truths essential to humans survival after death.

For a good example see the Japanese movie, The Ballad of Narayama. The original 1958 version film is a good example of what life was like in most earlier Ages. Once a person reached the age of 70 in this agricultural village, he or she must have a relative carry you to a remote mountain, Narayama, to die of starvation with a God. The story features Orin, who is 69, with sound health and good teeth. When she notes a neighbor dragging his father to the mountain, she resolves to not cling to life beyond her term. She proceeds to knock out all of her teeth in order to not eat too much of the families slim food stores. She leads a mob to punish a family of hoarders. The punishment is to bury the entire family alive! They do this unbelievably cruel thing because the family was hoarding potatoes and rice that the tiny village desperately needed for winter food.

Some readers object to my dwelling so much on memes from the past Ages that are still present in Modern times. What good does it do? Here’s one example!

Wealth in all past ages was measured in how much land and gold (or potatoes or rice!). Or how many serfs, slaves, or peasants they had to help them. Land, gold, and serfs, peasants, or slaves were desperately needed resources for getting and staying rich in all early Ages.

No wonder then that violence was honored and important. How else were poor individuals, families, or nations to survive or get richer?

The answer is clear today. The poor can go to Harvard, as Barack Obama did, and end up with a lot of power and wealth! Or drop out of Harvard, invent a programming language, and start a digital company as Bill Gates did, and end up the richest man in the world! Or invest early in profitable companies as Warren Buffet did.  Or sell a lot of books as Jeff Bezos did and start Amazon. Or drop out of a small college like Reed in Oregon and found a company now the wealthiest in the world! That’s the story of Steve Jobs.

No violence is required.

Instead, politicians today can raise taxes to steal from the rich on the feeble, but very popular, excuse of “paying their fair share”!

Remember Adam Smith, the moral philosopher of capitalism, pointed out that only three things were necessary to get and keep wealth in the Modern Age—private property, diversity of talents, and free trade. It’s true capitalists and politicians (and often the public) were fond of imperialism. But this was yet another hypocrisy meme inherited from past Ages. If they were consistent with the logic of free markets, they would abhor such thievery.

In other words, they could realize that wealth today depends on what you do with your talents, not on how much land, gold, and servants you have inherited or stolen. Denmark, Taiwan, and Japan are very rich. Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali are very poor.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President, Hawkhill

P.S. For the curious who want to know more details of my life-long journey through the idea swamp, from devout Catholic to left-liberal clergy to conservative libertarian. I suggest, or stronger, I beg you to buy and read one of my recent books (all dirt-cheap and, in my opinion, truly good reads)—Twilight or Dawn? A Traveler’s Guide to Free-Market Liberal Democracy, East Gilman Street, or Bill’s Blogs. At minimum view some ideas on science and society streamed free now on YouTube.

Leave a Reply