A History of Force - Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem
If we had been alive in times past, we say, we would have condemned human sacrifice, the torturing of criminal suspects, the slaying of religious heretics, and so on. How - we ask in disbelief - could anyone have endorsed these practices? This attitude of superiority blinds us to the real complexity of the evolution that operates against force-based institutions. When a coercive practice is ascendant, it is not condemned. To the contrary, it is seen as essential for the health of civilization. It is endorsed by the best citizens, and its critics, if it has any, tend to be society's deviants and outsiders.
I have previously commented on Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. The present book by James L. Payne came seven years earlier than Pinker’s impressive treatise and puts forward the same general thesis: that there is a broad historical trend against physical force. Pinker quotes and refers to Payne's book on numerous occasions and rightly calls A History of Force an insightful book. While Pinker is a psychologist, Payne is a political scientist. As such their perspectives differ somewhat which makes the two books excellent companions to each other.
Like Pinker, Payne too emphasizes just how vital it is for freedom and prosperity to overcome violence. Without overcoming political murder (political actors killing each other to gain access to power; not to be confused with politicians being murdered by political outsiders with no prospects of assuming power themselves as a result of the murders), democracy could never have replaced more authoritarian political systems. And without overcoming widespread violence in the streets, the economic development we have seen would not have been possible.
Payne discusses separately human sacrifice, genocide, war, revolution, criminal punishment, terrorism, street violence, slavery, and more. All of these forms of violence have declined and some have even disappeared altogether. He makes the following general comments concerning those uses of force that have been abandoned:
At first, people believed that life couldn't go on without these violent practices, that civilization would "collapse" if they were set aside. Yet history did set them aside - and life went on, indeed somewhat better than before because human beings have the ingenuity to devise noncoercive approaches.
In their heyday, [these uses of force] are thought to be inevitable, something no one can do anything about. Nevertheless, generations later, they have disappeared. It is likely that the same pattern still applies, and that uses of force that today seem ingrained and even essential are also destined to disappear.
Payne believes that war and taxation and ultimately government itself will eventually go the same way as slavery and human sacrifice. While most of the force-based practices he discusses more or less belong to the past, he devotes a few chapters at the end of the book to force-based practices of the present. One of these is taxation. He says that
... taxation gives a fair picture of how a force-based practice looks in its heyday. On the one hand, the practice provokes a great deal of dissatisfaction and a pervasive feeling that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. But, on the other hand, there is a virtually universal belief that the practice is inevitable and necessary.
He traces taxation to its historical origin and notes that it is almost as old as war and closely bound up with war. He comments that it is indeed paradoxical that a practice with such a disreputable background has become the foundation of the modern welfare state: "It is rather like a finding a day care center set up in a medieval torture chamber". Payne claims to detect a growing tension between taxation and our sensitive modern values. He thinks that the ancient technology of extracting funds through force and the threat of force fits increasingly badly with modern ethical, cultural, and political values.
It is also noted that there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with politics that increasingly undermines the (supposed) legitimacy of the state. Payne comments on the future of contemporary electoral politics thus:
We no doubt shall go on using elections that make voters choose between candidates, even undesirable ones, thus maintaining the pretense that the victors have public support. But in the long run, growing apathy and political dissatisfaction seem bound to have an effect, in one form or another, in undermining government's vitality, scope, and importance.
In the final chapter of the book Swimming in History's Tide: Lessons for Voluntarists, Payne outlines his own voluntarist attitude. He points out that force isn't the only way to get people to do the right thing and that force-based methods are very often counterproductive. He also stresses that the evolution away from force and towards voluntary alternatives is slow and uneven, and that those who associate themselves with voluntary efforts are on a "more secure path to progress".
A History of Force is highly recommended reading!