I found the article, “Canada’s History of Violence,” by Pascual Restrepo in today’s New York Times to be quite fascinating.
In the article Restrepo describes Steven Pinker’s hypothesis that the reason why Canadian society is less violent than American society can be explained, at least in part, by their different histories.
“Before the settlement of the Canadian West…the Mounties established a series of forts. That’s where they exercised authority, enforced contracts and protected the property of settlers. Where Mounties were present, self-justice was rare. Canadians on the whole developed a less violent culture.”
The American frontier, in contrast, more closely resembled Thomas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature,’ as settlers were responsible, to a great extent, for defending themselves and their property. (I think that something like this claim is in fact quite old and is not Pinker’s creation. I recall being familiar with some version of this hypothesis decades ago as a student. So I suspect that Pinker, who is Canadian himself, simply reformulated a claim that has been around for some time. But no matter.)
What is especially interesting is that those Canadian settlers who lived close to Mountie forts were more peaceful than those who lived farther away. Restrepo writes:
“I compared settlements that in the late 1890s were near Mountie forts with those that were not. There are no homicide statistics for that period, but the 1911 census reveals male mortality patterns. Settlements far from the Mounties’ reach had more widows than widowers, suggesting unusually high adult male death rates. In fact, remote Canadian settlements during this period looked a lot like those of the Wild West. We do not know for certain why male death rates in these communities were high, but homicide is the prime suspect. After all, men kill other men more often than they kill women.”
Restrepo goes on to explain how these patterns remain today, as shown by the propensity of hockey players from different regions of the Canadian West to engage in violence on the ice (viz., those from regions near those early Mountie forts generally are less violent than those from regions farther away).
Here is what Hobbes says about the importance of the sovereign in Leviathan:
“The office of the sovereign, be it a monarch or an assembly, consisteth in the end for which he was trusted with the sovereign power, namely the procuration of the safety of the people, to which he is obliged by the law of nature… But by safety here is not meant a bare preservation, but also all other contentments of life, which every man by lawful industry, without danger or hurt to the Commonwealth, shall acquire to himself.”
[From The 2nd Part of Leviathan, Ch. 30, “Of the Office of the Sovereign Representative”.]
So the agents and symbols of the Western Canadian version of Hobbes’s sovereign – the Mounties – managed to instill adequate awe and fear in those citizens directly subject to their effective authority, that is, near their forts. This sovereign power allowed Canada to develop into a more peaceful society than the one to its immediate south. And the impact on people’s behavior of living closer to or farther away from the institutions of sovereign authority and power, the Mountie forts, continues to this day (long after those forts have disappeared).
Interesting stuff. I think that I’ll use this article the next time I teach Hobbes.
[Agents of the Canadian Leviathan.]