Sunday, January 26, 2014

How do peaceful societies come about?

Although this blog is still taking a long holiday, I want to write about this issue now because I have been turning it over in the back of my mind for a few months.  

A good place to start might be to think of a poor country, or even a developing country, with a law and order problem. In this country, the people who can afford to do so live behind high fences and they are protected by security guards. The rest of the population are highly vulnerable to criminal activity of many kinds. Crime has a dampening effect on all forms of commercial activity that cannot be adequately protected by high fences and security guards. For example, any economic activity involving road transport to and from the rural areas, where most people live, is constrained by the high risk of banditry by people living near the roads.

So, what should be done about this? The main options that seem to come up in public discussion are:
  1.  Promote higher ethical standards by encouraging increased religious observance.
  2. Deter crime by ensuring that criminals are more frequently caught and punished.
  3. Make a life of crime a less attractive option to potential criminals by promoting more widespread economic opportunity.

I don’t hold much hope for the first option. Church attendance is at record levels in the particular country that I am thinking of.  My reading of history also suggests to me that religion is not enough to promote peacefulness.

In my discussion of “the drivers of peacefulness” in Free to Flourish I wrote:
“Adherents of the major world religions all subscribe to a vision of ethical behaviour corresponding to the golden rule of treating others as one would like to be treated. It would seem reasonable to expect that followers of those religions would always have obtained satisfaction from acting in accordance with this ideal. Yet, this was not sufficient to bring about an outbreak of peacefulness outside of religious orders.
Why not? We would need a model of moral progress to answer that question. Such a model would specify that the way people behave and how they perceive themselves depends on the incentives in the environment in which they live. If they believe that people outside their family group or tribe are not to be trusted, they will not risk attempting to engage with them in cooperative ventures or mutually beneficial exchange. If they believe that the incentives in their environment favour predatory behaviour, they will tend to adopt a sense of personal identity that enables them to feel comfortable with such behaviour despite paying lip service to higher ideals.
A model of moral progress would recognise that the emergence of governments that showed greater respect for the rights of citizens ameliorated a major threat to life and property. It would recognise the importance of the emergence of mechanisms for contract enforcement in both promoting trustworthy behaviour and encouraging greater trust of strangers. This, in turn, enabled mutually beneficial exchange involving larger groups of people.”

That way of thinking emphasizes that the peacefulness of societies depends to a large extent on the attitudes of individuals and groups. Perceptions of incentives are important not just in affecting the expected rewards from crime relative to alternative pursuits, but also in influencing the perceptions that individuals have of themselves. 

So, we should be thinking about the impact that interventions might have on attitudes rather than just about altering incentives. Devoting more resources to fighting crime will not necessarily have much impact if perpetrators perceive themselves to be justified in their actions and are supported by their relatives and the community groups to which they belong. A post I wrote last year about crime in Tipperary, Ireland, at the beginning of the 19th Century illustrates the problem.

However, that doesn’t answer the question of what can actually be done to help induce a transition from a situation in which incentives tend to favour predatory attitudes and behaviour to one in which incentives favour productive activity and market exchange. Some would argue that more government spending to expand the police force is the only practical option. After all, the societies that have made the transition to peacefulness in the past have achieved the desired outcome by investing vast amounts of public money in protecting property and deterring crime, haven’t they?

Actually, when we look at the history of Britain, peacefulness didn’t happen quite like that. In his book, The Enlightened Economy, Joel Mokyr points out that the Hobbesian view that order can only be achieved through firm third-party (i.e. government) enforcement was not true of Britain in the 18th Century. Large parts of Britain were virtual “lawless zones” and in others, legal practice often deviated considerably from the letter of the law. Enforcement was largely a private enterprise with the courts at best serving as an enforcer of last resort. There was no professional police force. Daily law enforcement was in the hands of amateurs and part-time parish constables. Justice had to rely to a large extent on volunteers, local informers, vigilante groups and private associations specializing in prosecution of felons. Private law enforcement remained of substantial importance until well into the 19th Century (pages 376-379).

Mokyr argues that the economic system functioned because the crucial economic actors – merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers etc. – were bound by moral codes of concern about their reputations. (I wrote more about that here, as well as in Free to Flourish.) There were credible signals that property rights would be protected, even though such signals were, for the most part, not sent via government law enforcement agencies.

So, what does all that mean for promoting law and order in poor countries in which economic development is being held back by criminal activities? The only insight I have to offer is that history seems to support the view that economic opportunity holds the key to peacefulness. 

If you want to start a virtuous cycle where peacefulness supports the growth of economic opportunity, you first need to have sufficient numbers of people who are able to perceive of opportunities to engage productively in mutually beneficial activities, and hence, to want to live in peace. If politicians want to help (a big ‘if’ I know) they should be thinking about what they can do to encourage the relatives of people with predatory tendencies to engage productively in mutually beneficial activities. For example, if the risk of banditry is making it too costly for farmers to send their produce to market then, perhaps, there might be some way to get the some of the relatives of the bandits productively engaged in the transport of goods, perhaps even as security guards.  Anyhow, that might be an option worth thinking about as an alternative to expanding police numbers. 

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