Consequences of Exposure to Violence

Marginal Revolution pointed me to a paper by Edward Miguel, Sebastian Saiegh, and Shanker Satyanath (of UCB, UCSD, NYU) titled Civil war exposure and violence. Their key result is: Football players from countries which have experienced civil wars are more violent on the field (after controlling for a host of things). This supports the idea that exposure to violence coarsens human sensibilities.

The authors mention the World Values Survey, and I dug out a small table out of this about responses to the proposition: Using violence for political goals is not justified. Here is what we see for 1995:

India Russia
Strongly agree 59.6% 44.2%
Agree 19.3% 37.3%

I picked Russia because they have suffered terrible violence through the combination of World War II and Communism. We see a difference in “Strongly agree” but not much of a difference in “do not agree” (i.e. the residual category).

I have often wondered about these issues in the context of India’s story. In the period after the fall of the Mughal empire, many parts of India experienced extreme violence. But the last big war that was fought in India was 1858. After this, there have only been wars at the border; these wars have not brought violence and barbarism to civilians. We were incredibly lucky to have been the lab for Gandhiji’s revolutionary idea, of political change without violence. So we have had 151 years without war. But the roots of India’s sustained peace today lie not just in Gandhiji and the nature of the freedom movement, but deeper in history to the peace that has reigned from 1858 onwards. If anything, the puzzle in India is about how badly law and order has fared, given such benign initial conditions.

Going by the argument of Miguel et al, this sustained peace would have helped shift mores towards reduced violence. I feel that when peace is established, and for many generations the incentives guide young men towards participating in the market economy, this exerts a civilising force.

The great bursts of violence that we have had have been like Partition (1947), Delhi (1984), Punjab (1984-1990) and Gujarat (2002). (I’m curious: What other big episodes would you classify alongside these?) Each of these would scar an entire generation near that location. Time heals, but the clock takes 25 years after one such episode of large-scale violence. Part of what has worked better for South India is that there has been less violence there all the way from 1858 onwards.

This perspective tells us something about places like Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan. It is not enough to bring about peace; what is of critical importance is to have sustained decades under conditions of peace. This would yield the incidence of non-violent behaviour and trust capital which might help in graduating to the double helix of capitalism and freedom.


Originally published at Ajay Shah’s Blog and reproduced here with the author’s permission.