The Worst Killer of the Modern Age

This is a holiday in the US. We take the occasion to connect dots. What we see is one of the most curious patterns ever.

Human experience is marked by two contradictory ways of doing things. Longtime Diary sufferers will be quick to raise their hands when we ask, ‘What are they?’

Of course, they are the familiar win-win or win-lose.

But today, we look at them through a wider lens. We see that they are not merely ways of gaining wealth or doing business deals.

Instead, they are two opposed impulses — both of them etched deeply onto human hardware.

Violence and persuasion

There are only two ways to get what you want in life. Either you get it peacefully, offering something in trade. Or you take it by violence or the threat of violence.

Even the most common, everyday things are illustrations of one or the other of these approaches. Do you want more sex, Dear Reader?

Well, you have your choice. You can either ask for it politely, perhaps making your request in the alluring, seductive tones of a real paramour; or you can rape someone.

Sometimes, the frontier between rape and request can be unclear.

Sometimes, it shifts with cultural trends.

What was considered acceptable to the baby boomers, for example, may be considered quasi-rape to millennials. Just ask Al Franken.

There is always some grey area between violence and persuasion.

But that is for the courts to figure out. For our purposes, it hardly matters. We are just looking at the black and white parts and telling you what we see. Finer intellects with better eyesight can draw the boundaries.

A new book

This theme, by the way, is one we are developing in a new book. We took it up because we thought it offered a simpler and better way to understand public life. It surprised us when we saw that it helped us understand the rest of life, too.

In our book, due out later this year, we will explore the difference between the two approaches. We will see that…

…win-win promotes long-term relationships; win-lose is strictly short-term…

…win-win describes the world of the jungle; win-lose is like a zoo…

…win-win provides constant feedback and correction; win-lose cuts the feedback loop, allowing mistakes to continue…

…win-win is the place for entrepreneurs; win-lose gathers in MBAs…

…win-win is best governed by common law; win-lose is favoured by edicts and diktats…

…win-win is based on the individual; win-lose targets tribes and groups…

…win-win is local; win-lose is usually national…

…win-win is what they do on Main Street and in markets; win-lose finds a cosy home in Washington…

…win-win creates voluntary collectives; win-lose forces people into involuntary collectives.

We could go on. And we do…in our forthcoming book. But let us today lay a bit of the groundwork.

The routine of killing

There was a time when humans lived almost entirely by violence. Plants may have been useful sources of minerals and vitamins.

But the early man had no fires (we are talking about long ago…even before humans became the people we know as Homo sapien sapiens), so he couldn’t eat what are major staples today. Rice, beans, potatoes, and wheat are indigestible when they are uncooked.

In order to get the protein they needed, they had to kill and eat other animals. That’s why humans have eyes on the front of their heads, like other predators, instead of eyes on the side, like grass-fed prey.

The bone records, as well as the oldest oral and written records, show that our ancestors didn’t mind killing each other, either. Killing was routine. And it made sense.

If you killed a stranger, you could take his weapons, his women, his children, and his hunting lands. And you could eat him, too.

If you didn’t kill him, on the other hand, what did you gain? Perhaps you could get a piece of amber from him, trading it for flint. But what else? Not much.

There is plenty of evidence of prehistoric trade. That is, objects are found where they are not native. But we don’t know how they got there. Persuasion? Or violence?

Downward drift of violence

In today’s world, between private citizens, violence is rare.

There are bar fights, domestic abuse, murders — but they are relatively few. And becoming fewer. The murder rate, for example, has come down dramatically over the last few centuries.

With a generous dose of doubt and guesswork, here are the figures for the US:

The private murder rate for the 1700s was roughly 30 per 100,000 per year. In the 1800s, the rate fell to 20 per 100,000. Then, in the 20th century, the rate declined to 10 and below. Today, the US murder rate is just 6.

That said, there are local particularities. In Baltimore, for example, the murder rate in 2017 was even higher than it was for the entire US in the 18th century, with 55 murders per 100,000.

And occasionally, there are spectacular murders that make the news and distort popular impressions.

This week, for example, 17 youngsters were killed at a public school in Florida, making huge headlines, but not significantly changing the downward drift of violence.

Why the murder rate has generally gone down is fairly clear; it just doesn’t pay the way it used to.

The police come after you. It’s hard to take the victim’s money. Or his women. Or anything else.

All you get is a peck of trouble. So why bother? You’d be better off spending your time otherwise.

A whole ‘nuther side

‘Thou shalt not kill’ was a lesson that was not learned overnight. It took centuries for it to sink in. Still, there are people who haven’t gotten the memo.

Today, the typical killer is a psycho. He doesn’t make a rational calculation leading him to his act. Instead, he is moved by passion, ideology, or delusion.

He is mad. He is upset. He is a nut.

And then, there’s a whole ‘nuther side to the killing story.

While private murder rates declined, the last century saw a big boom in killing as a matter of public policy, a type of murder that the government promotes rather than proscribes.

Mao, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot — these four men alone were responsible for an estimated 120 million deaths.

Hitler is generally credited with 14 million war casualties and another 28 million civilian deaths.

Stalin killed some 20 million in his purges and mass starvations. Another 25 million or so died in the Second World War — many because of political and tactical directives that were criminally negligent or intentionally lethal.

Mao killed 30 to 45 million in his Great Leap Forward, most of whom starved to death; others were tortured and murdered in the zealous application of his agricultural policies.

In this company, Pol Pot hardly deserves a footnote.

Still, he murdered (or caused the deaths) of some two million people. His claim to fame is his market share. As a percentage of the population (25%), he killed more than any of them. This figure even surpasses the murder rates recorded in the bloodiest bone pits ever discovered.

But the astonishing thing about this record of violence is what thinking people make of it.

Disarm governments

While private citizens have generally become less violent (win-win is a better way to get what you want in a modern, civilised society), public policy — at least if the last century is anything to go by — has become more violent. Or perhaps simply more capable of killing on a grander scale.

Taking the 20th century US murder rate and applying it grossly to the populations of Russia, China, Germany, and Cambodia in the 20th century, we can guess that there were no more than about 10 million private killings in those countries during the entire century.

But in a few short years (we do not even mention the First World War, in which public policy carried off some 16 million…or any other wars, pogroms, purges, and government-caused famines in these countries), public policies promoted by Mao, Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot alone murdered more than 10 times as many.

A logical and impartial spectator might conclude that it was time to disarm governments.

Yet, despite this evidence of clear and present danger from malign public policy, the do-gooders, world-improvers, media, and academic and political activists — both Republican and Democrat — can think of nothing more original than: more public policy!

Following the Florida school shootings, for example, the call went out to take guns away from private citizens…and to buy more guns for the feds. Military spending is set to increase by $716 billion over the next 10 years.

Among private citizens, win-lose deals are still rare…and unfortunate. But government only does one kind of deal. The more scope you give it, the more win-lose deals you get.


Bill Bonner,
For Markets & Money

Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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