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Book Review: Power Kills

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Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence
by R.J. Rummel (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1997); 246 pages; $32.95.

In 1994, political scientist R.J. Rummel summarized the consequences of tyrannical government in the 20th century in his book Death by Government. (See the review in Freedom Daily, October 1994.) His research showed that governments around the world had killed almost 200 million unarmed men, women, and children during the last nine decades. When combat-related deaths in various wars, civil wars, and rebellions are added to this number, the total number of people killed by governments in the 20th century may be in the neighborhood of 370 million people.

If government has been and is the greatest mass murderer of human life, how can this beast be restrained? Besides his many detailed studies on the killing fields of government, Dr. Rummel has also devoted much of his time to trying to understand the political and social conditions most likely to bring about peace, both in and between nations. His most recent book, Power Kills: Democracy as a Method of Nonviolence, summarizes his conclusions on the topic of peace, after four decades of scholarly work.

The first part of the book is a historical and statistical study to test a strongly stated hypothesis: democracies do not go to war against each other. Yet, however extreme that hypothesis may sound, the historical documentation backs it up. For example, in 1964, Dean Babst published a study of the 116 wars between 1789 and 1941, involving 438 countries. In not one of these wars were democracies on opposite sides. And in 1972 and 1976, David Singer and Melvin Small published studies of all 50 interstate wars between 1816 and 1965 in which there were at least 1,000 battle-related deaths. In not one of these wars were democracies on opposite sides. Dr. Rummel shows that all similar studies demonstrate the same result.

Dr. Rummel also presents data on the severity of wars from 1900 to 1980. First, no two democracies ever fought each other; hence, the severity of war as measured by the number of war dead between democracies was zero. However, the number of war dead dramatically rises along a spectrum of democracies fighting either authoritarian or totalitarian regimes; authoritarian and totalitarian regimes fighting each other; and totalitarian regimes fighting each other. The less democratic the regimes in military combat, the more war dead resulting from their conflict.

He also found that the more democratic the regime, the more internally peaceful a country was likely to be. Furthermore, democratic societies do not systematically murder their own citizens. Over the 20th century, the regimes most responsible for the greatest amount of mass murder have been totalitarian governments. Dr. Rummel’s research also demonstrated that whether or not societies suffered mass murder from their governments had no correlation with the degree of social, ethnic, or linguistic diversity, or with the level of education, or with the amount and distribution of wealth. Instead, he explains,

“The bottom line is that it is the power of a regime that accounts for its killing. . . . The more power a regime has, the more it can act arbitrarily according to the whims and desires of the [political] elite, the more it will make war on others and murder its foreign and domestic subjects.”

So why are democracies more peaceful, more life-respecting than their political alternatives? Dr. Rummel explains that what he really means by a democratic regime is one that is “the classical liberal democratic (or libertarian) type of regime that governs least, with maximum civil liberties and political rights, and within a society dominated by exchange [relationships].” The less classical liberal or libertarian the political regime within a country, the more disregard will that government have for the life, liberty, and property of the citizenry. And with such increasing disregard for individual freedom come conflict, coercion, murder, and war. In short, as he entitles his book, political power kills.

He explains that a free society is one that has a developed and complex “social field.” By a social field, Dr. Rummel means what other social philosophers have called “civil society” or the “spontaneous order” that emerges as an intricate network of peaceful, voluntary human relationships when the state is limited in its powers and control. (See “Individual Freedom and Civil Society” by Richard M. Ebeling, Freedom Daily, February 1993.)

Such a free and open democratic society limits or prevents violence and war for the following reasons, Dr. Rummel argues. First, there is the “people’s will.” Under the assumption that the majority of a society will not wish to bear the costs of conflict and war in terms of taxes and the lives of loved ones, the democratic system places a check on what government can do when it goes too far beyond the bounds of what a majority wants or will tolerate. Why then has a supposedly democratic government such as the United States so frequently undertaken overt and covert military operations abroad in the post-World War II era? Part of the answer, Dr. Rummel says, is that

“the military, especially in wartime, and the secret services, such as the CIA . . . operate [as] . . . near isolated islands of power . . . outside of the democratic sunshine and processes, and do things that were they subject to democratic scrutiny would be forbidden.”

Second, the free society naturally is a pluralistic society, with individuals belonging to many different groups with many diverse interests; these groups and interests serve as countervailing forces that prevent the interests of any one group from dominating policy in one direction. As a consequence, any group or interest that sees value and advantage in conflict, violence, and war will be confronted by other groups that have competing interests in seeing that foreign adventures do not occur or only “go so far.”

Third, a free society is one based on exchange and peaceful mutual agreement. The hallmarks of such a society are negotiation, compromise, and tolerance of other points of view and competing interests. This generates a culture of nonviolence; that is, coercion comes increasingly to be considered “out of bounds” in human relationships. And this culture of peaceful human relationships creates a social field of expectations that coercive solutions to human differences and disagreements are unacceptable in normal circumstances.

Fourth, other peoples and nations who are perceived as having the same or similar democratic values as one’s own society tend to be treated by the same rules and standards as those that are applied among the people in one’s own country. Therefore, the peoples and governments of two or more countries that perceive each other as basically democratic in their values and behavior tend to use the same standards of negotiation, compromise, and tolerance for differences in views as they practice in disputes among their own citizens. Hence, democratic countries do not wage war on each other; instead, they bargain, deal, and compromise when they have differences.

Finally, and most important, Dr. Rummel insists that in the free society, government is not the primary source of power and influence. This is diffused among all the individuals in the society, in the form of their interdependent networks of human relationships, as epitomized by the competitive and peaceful relationships of the free marketplace. Governments do not have the power to direct and command men into the service of interests not their own, including any state interests in coercing neighbors and making war.

“In sum,” Dr. Rummel concludes,

“a key to understanding peace within the social field is the freedom people have to run their own lives, whether through exchange, or by tradition and custom, consistent of course with a like freedom of others. This not only creates the social diversity that isolates and moderates violence, but also a culture of negotiation and accommodation. And as democratic or republican leaders see other regimes as similar in this regard, they nearly always choose negotiation to fighting. ”

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).