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Surprising Science

Governments Really Are Good for Something

There are some familiar facts and a few surprises in David McCandless’s fascinating new graphic, a visualization of how people died during the 20th century:

(For a larger copy, click here.) 

After finding persuasive confirmation of the old adage that air travel is markedly safer (600 times less likely to kill you, it turns out) than driving, the big thing to notice in the info-graphic is that the three largest circles represent deaths by illness: infectious disease, cardiovascular disease and non-communicable disease. (Cancer, also non-communicable, gets its own circle.) The 20th century did tally almost a billion deaths attributable to “humanity,” but about a third of those were accidents and a fifth were due to air pollution or drugs. All told, war, murder and “ideology”  causes of death that political societies are responsible for protecting against or propagating  amounted to some 400 million deaths. That’s only 7.5 percent of the total 5,266,195,053 (or so) people who kicked the can between 1900 and 1999. 

In his 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature,Steven Pinker puts the violent-death figure as low as 3 percent. Whichever figure you accept, the point is clear: violent death rates are not what they used to be. The notoriously bloody 20th century was a lot less sanguinary than previous eras, when up to 15 percent of people lost their lives in violent conflicts. And things have gotten a lot better still since the end of World War II.

Why the improvement? Pinker lists a host of positive influences, from rising IQs and the expansion of women’s rights to surges in global commerce and literacy. All these trends have pointed us away from the Devil and closer to the “better angels of our nature.” 

And what is responsible for these trends? Governments! Good old-fashioned nation states, Weberian monopolies on violence. It turns out one of Hobbes’ central contentions was dead right: the most important function of political society, its primary mission, is to bring peace. Here is the full paragraph Hobbes’s most famous line comes from:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

So as you peruse the infographic and ponder the circumstances that will spell your own demise, take a moment to thank the modern state for making it much less likely that you will perish in a war or at the hands of your overaggressive neighbor. Put all the sequester stupidity, filibuster frustration and partisan posturing to one side. Government really is good for something: your life is less nasty, less brutal, less short. Raise a glass!


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