Saturday, September 08, 2007

Understanding Government: Democide

Advocates of various government programs often justify their support with the argument that they will save lives. Thus it is ironic to note government's unparalleled record of taking lives.

Consider this question: What is the single largest non-natural cause of death in the world?

It isn't murder or suicide or AIDS or car crashes. It's being murdered by government. This does not include death in war.

How many people were murdered by government in the twentieth century?

The best estimate that we have is this: 262 million.

Think about that.

The world is indebted to political scientist R. J. Rummel for researching this subject. His estimate of 262 million murdered by government in the twentieth century is documented here. It includes 150 million murdered by communists. Rummel provides the name 'democide' for government murder of civilians. He provides a great amount of detail about democide in his book Death by Government.

This death toll does not include combat deaths in wars. That total, 36 million, is small in comparison (though only in comparison).

How did government accumulate such a horrific death toll? Government, by definition, has a near monopoly on the use of force. If the government targets someone for elimination, he has virtually no chance of survival. If someone is targeted by a private criminal, he has a reasonable chance of resisting successfully. But a lower chance of success makes resistance less likely. This likewise encourages the government, since it is less likely to face negative consequences. Thus it is the power of government that makes such widespread murder possible.

This indictment of government power in no way eliminates moral responsibility for those individuals who commit the murders. All moral responsibility falls on those who commit such acts. But we cannot ignore the fact that they can only accumulate such massive casualties through the use of government.

Likewise, some may blame ideologies like communism, Nazism, extreme nationalism, etc. Similarly, some may point out motives of greed or indifference to the welfare of others. While such ideologies and motives may justly be condemned, this does not change the fact that they can only become so deadly through the control of government.

Critics may point out that democide is not evenly distributed amongst powerful governments. But the fact that a correlation is not exact does not mean that it is not real. The fact is that the more powerful a government is, the greater the risk of widespread government murder.

So what can be done to stop democide? The solution is to limit government power. While any government will have more power than any other actor in society, exactly how powerful a government can be varies. The less powerful a government is, the less able it is to carry out acts of democide. The fewer employees it has, the fewer people will exist to facilitate democide. The fewer programs it has, the easier it will be for people to resist or avoid democide.

Some, including Rummel, point out that democracies do not commit democide, with occasional exceptions against enemies in wartime. They argue that we should promote democracy to reduce democide. This is fine, as long as countries remain democracies. However, this is not guaranteed. The classic example is the Wiemar Republic, which democratically elected Hitler, who transformed it into a dictatorship. Hitler's democide was facilitated by the powerful socialist government that was established before he took power. Making a democratic government less powerful will help to prevent democide in the event that it ceases to be democratic.

The fact that government is more deadly than war has significant implications. During the Cold War, some people argued that we should appease, or make concessions to, or outright surrender to the Soviet Union, because we were "better red than dead". Aside from any other considerations of freedom or prosperity, the facts show that being 'red' means that you are more likely to be dead than if you had fought for your freedom.

Another argument is that we should have world government or regional government to avoid the horrors of war. Efforts to create supranational governments such as the European Union have been justified based on this theory. But the larger and more centralized a government is, the less democratic it is. There is no reason to think that world government would be democratic at all. The facts show that there is much more to fear from tyrannical government than war. Thus any moves toward world government or loss of sovereignty should be resisted.

Instead, decentralization should be promoted. When government is decentralized, it is harder for any one person or faction to seize control of all of it. Such malefactors can be resisted by other parts of the government. Malevolent local governments can more easily be resisted by moving and can more easily be defeated.

Protecting civil liberties is critical to limiting government power. The most important civil liberties are gun rights. The private ownership of guns significantly weakens the government's near monopoly on force. It makes resistance to tyrannical government much more effective. While any individual may be overwhelmed, enough casualties can be imposed on a tyrannical government to render a campaign of democide ineffective.

The striking fact is that wherever democide occurred, the populace was disarmed. Most of the 262 million deaths by government could have been prevented had the victims been armed. Thus it is absolutely crucial to protect gun rights and resist any attempts to weaken them.

The fact of democide does not imply that all government is unnecessary. However, it does significantly weaken the rationale for government intervention. It is highly ironic that to prevent real or imagined threats to a handful of lives, some people advocate using an instrument that, when out of control, has killed more people than any other.

The horror of democide cannot be adequately understood through a few statistics. But they are enough to show that government must be strictly limited.


Anonymous said...

Yeah! So let's get out there an keep pushing for more government invervention and more money for the Iraq war. We can't forget our support for the dealth penalty either! Oh man. It's great that we support government killing when it suits our brand of politics...those liberals are so stupid for not seeing this.

Anonymous said...

Here's an interesting thought on government invervention:

I reckon this raises an interesting challenge to both Allan and Matt...once again, sorry Nick.