December 29, 2011
War No More
Timothy Snyder in Foreign Affairs (via Andrew Sullivan):
Treating Nazi Germany as a historical aberration also allows Pinker to sidestep the question of how Germans and central and western Europeans became such peaceful people after the demise of Nazism. This is a strange oversight, since European pacifism and low European homicide rates are where he begins the book. Today's Europe is Pinker's gold standard, but he does not ask why its levels of violence are the lowest in all of his charts. If, as he contends, the "pleasures of bourgeois life" prevent people from fighting, Pinker should also consider the place where these are most fully developed, and how they became so. Pinker persuasively relates how postwar economic cooperation among European states led to a pacifying interdependence, but he fails to stress that the postwar rebirth of European economies was a state-led enterprise funded by a massive U.S. subsidy known as the Marshall Plan. And he says very little about the concurrent development of redistributive social policy within those states. State power goes missing in the very places where states became preoccupied with welfare rather than warfare.
Pinker believes that people are more pacific when they have the time and the occasion to repeat interactions and reconsider their actions. Yet he has trouble acknowledging that, according to his own story, the one and only agent that can create that sort of cushioned society with educated minds and spare time has been the functional welfare state. This refusal seems rooted in Pinker's commitment to free-market libertarianism. His book's vision of a coming age of peace is a good example of how two trends favoring political passivity -- the narcissistic discursiveness of the American left and the antistate prejudices of the American right -- conspire in the same delusion: that while we talk, talk, talk, markets do the work of history. Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers he lauds, Pinker fails to see that the state is not simply, as he puts it, "an exogenous first domino" that fell long ago, beginning a chain of events but remaining motionless itself. L'état, c'est nous: the state is what we do, how we vote, the military service we do or do not perform, the taxes we do or do not pay, the federal grants that we do or do not apply for.
Pinker shows his libertarian hand when he casually claims that "economic illiteracy" causes redistributive policies and thus "class conflict." Many have made this claim, of course, but as he notes without seeming to realize he is disproving his own hypothesis, today's redistributive European welfare states are the most peaceful in world history. Pinker, who exhibits no economic expertise, confuses economic literacy with a blind faith that unconstrained markets are a self-sustaining good.
Posted by Robin Varghese at 11:29 AM | Permalink