Posted by: Martin | January 1, 2011

Death by Government

I have long had an interest in understanding the causes and courses of genocide. Admittedly there are greater party-conversation starters.   Anyhow, one scholar that has done a terrific job in this area is University of Hawaii Professor Rudolph Rummel.

Rummel has gone through practically all available information on genocides (or more correctly democides*) during the 20th century and before that – it took him some 8 years – and managed among other things to come up with estimated number of deaths.

Rummel writes:

During this [the 20th] century’s wars, there were some 38 million battle deaths, but almost four times more people–at least 170 million–were killed by governments for ethnic, racial, tribal, religious, or political reasons. I call this phenomenon democide, and it means that authoritarian and totalitarian governments are more deadly than war.

Rummel has later revised up the “at least figure” to 262 million. It’s a bit like the UN figure of 173 dead in the Ivory Coast which is a minimum figure of confirmed deaths, whereas the real number is certainly higher.

Source: Power Kills, R.J. Rummel

One of Rummel’s key findings is that liberal democracies have much less democide than authoritarian regimes. From wikipedia:

He argues that there is a relation between political power and democide. Political mass murder grows increasingly common as political power becomes unconstrained. At the other end of the scale, where power is diffuse, checked, and balanced, political violence is a rarity. According to Rummel, “The more power a regime has, the more likely people will be killed. This is a major reason for promoting freedom.” Rummel concludes: “Concentrated political power is the most dangerous thing on earth.”

My take on this looking at the Ivory Coast is that maybe the “peace – good vs war – bad” dichotomy doesn’t tell the whole story. If you are a northerner and Ouattara supporter, peace under unconstrained Gbagbo power can be more deadly than war.

Given that historically, the number of unarmed civilians killed by undemocratic governments in peace and wartime is several times greater than combat deaths in wars, a more relevant scale to look at things might be checks and balances vs authoritarianism.

Some Rummel quotes from his very disorganised website after the jump. In some cases the parallels to the Ivory Coast are quite striking.

Lord Acton insisted government officials be judged by the same moral standards you apply to ordinary people, and I do that, often to the discomfort of my political science colleagues. For instance, at one conference where I delivered a paper, I could see people wince when I referred to the late North Korean dictator Kim Il-Sung as a murderer. He [probably] was responsible for about 1.7 million deaths. A lot of us can talk about an individual killer as a murderer–somebody like “Jack the Ripper,” who killed about a half-dozen people–but in polite society you don’t usually hear a famous “statesman” described as a murderer.

I was shocked to discover how officials at the highest levels of government planned mass murder. The killing they would delegate to humble cadres. So much for the notion of government benevolence. Powerful governments can be like gangs, stealing, raping, torturing, and killing on a whim.

In a few cases, regimes have publicized their murders, often to intimidate people. For instance, Communist Chinese government newspapers would report speeches by officials in which one might boast, “We killed 2 million bandits in the 10th region between November and January.” The term “bandit” was standard lingo for presumed “counterrevolutionaries.”

The corresponding term for anyone who opposes Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast is I believe “rebel”.

[totalitarian regimes] try to control all aspects of society and deal with conflict by force, coercion, and fear, that is, by power. Moreover, such power breeds political paranoia by the dictator or within a narrow ruling group. This is the fear that others are always plotting to take over rule and would execute those now in power. Finally, there is one hierarchical pyramid of power rather than a multitude of such pyramids as in a democracy, one single coercive organization. This turns all socio-political and economic issues and problems into a matter of us versus them, of those with power versus those without. We should therefore find that the less democratic a regime, the more unchecked and unbalanced power at the center, the more it should commit democide. Democide becomes a device of rule, as in eliminating possible opponents, or a means for achieving one’s ideological goal, as in the purification of one’s country of an alien race or the reconstruction of society.

Among a variety of social diversity (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, language), socio-economic, cultural, geographic, and other indicators, the best way of accounting for and predicting democide is by the degree to which a regime is totalitarian along a democratic-totalitarian scale. That is, the extent to which a regime controls absolutely all social, economic, and cultural groups and institutions, the degree to which its elite can rule arbitrarily, largely accounts for the magnitude and intensity of genocide and mass murder. The best assurance against democide is democratic openness, political competition, leaders responsible to their people, and limited government. In other words, Power kills, absolute Power kills absolutely.

However, the tendency of regimes to fight severe domestic rebellions or foreign wars also predicts to democide. But for both Power is a causal agent. The more totalitarian a regime’s power, the more total their wars or rebellions are likely to be, and the more totalitarian power and bloody their wars and rebellions, the more it probably will commit democide.

However, relative power never remains constant. It shifts as the interests, capabilities, and will of the parties change. The death of a charismatic leader, the outrage of significant groups, the loss of foreign support by out groups, the entry into war and the resulting freedom of the elite to use force under the guise of war-time necessity, and so on, can significantly alter the balance of power between groups. Where such a shift in power is in favor of the governing elite, Power can now achieve its potential. Where also the elite have built up frustrations regarding those who have lost power or nonetheless feel threatened by them, where they see them as outside the moral universe, where they have dehumanized them, where the outgroup is culturally or ethnically distinct and the elite perceive them as inferior, or where any other such factors are present, Power will achieve its murderous potential. It simply waits for an excuse, an event of some sort, an assassination, a massacre in a neighboring country, an attempted coup, a famine, or a natural disaster that will justify beginning the murder en masse.

The result of such violence will be a new balance of power and attendant social contract. In some cases this may end the democide, as by the elimination of the “inferior” group (as of the Armenians by the Turks). In many cases this will subdue and cower the survivors (as the Ukrainians who lived through Stalin’s collectivization campaign and intentional famine). In some cases, this establishes a new balance of power so skewed toward the elite that they may throughout their reign continue to murder at will. Murder as public policy becomes part of the new structure of expectations of the new social order. Consider the social orders of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and their henchmen.

Why liberal democracies tend to be peaceful?

Rummel: Power is dispersed through many different families, churches, schools, universities, corporations, partnerships, business associations, scientific societies, unions, clubs, and myriad other associations. There’s plenty of competition, and people have overlapping interests. The social order isn’t controlled by anybody–it evolves spontaneously.

Democracy is a culture of political compromise, free exchange, peaceful negotiation, toleration of differences. Because time is needed for a democratic culture to develop and gain widespread acceptance, I stress that a peace dividend is achieved as a democracy becomes well-established.

By contrast, as Hayek explained in The Road to Serfdom–in his famous chapter “Why the worst get on top”–centralized government power attracts aggressive, domineering personalities. They are the most likely to gain power. And the more power they have, naturally the less subject they are to restraint. The greater the likelihood such a country will pursue aggressive policies. The highest risks of war occur when two dictators face each other. There’s likely to be a struggle for supremacy.

*Rummel defines democide as:

“the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder”. For example, government-sponsored killings for political reasons would be considered democide. Democide can also include deaths arising from “intentionally or knowingly reckless and depraved disregard for life”; this brings into account many deaths arising through various neglects and abuses, such as forced mass starvation. Rummel explicitly excludes battle deaths in his definition. Capital punishment, actions taken against armed civilians during mob action or riot, and the deaths of noncombatants killed during attacks on military targets so long as the primary target is military, are not considered democide.

“I use the civil definition of murder, where someone can be guilty of murder if they are responsible in a reckless and wanton way for the loss of life, as in incarcerating people in camps where they may soon die of malnutrition, unattended disease, and forced labor, or deporting them into wastelands where they may die rapidly from exposure and disease.”


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