A Property-Rights Theory of Mass Murder

By Carson, Stephen W. | Freeman, September 2008 | Go to article overview

A Property-Rights Theory of Mass Murder


Carson, Stephen W., Freeman


In the study of mass murder by governments, R. J. Rummel stands tall. His theory, which focuses on the role of the state, is a giant step forward from previous theories that examined "cultural-ethnic differences, outgroup conflict, misperception, frustration aggression, relative deprivation, ideological imperatives, dehumanization, resource competition, etc." Oversimplifying somewhat for now, I characterize his theory as a regime-type theory: at one extreme, totalitarian dictatorships are the most deadly; authoritarian regimes are still deadly but less so; and, at the other extreme, democracies are the least deadly.

Besides presenting a theory that puts the state at center stage, Rummel has also made two other major contributions to this area of study. First, he has attempted to make the first full accounting of twentieth-century mass murder. No earlier investigators, for example, had tried to come up with a number for total Nazi mass-murder victims because they had focused on particular groups-Jews, Gypsies, and so forth. His most recent estimate is that 262 million civilians were killed by governments in the twentieth century.

Second, using what he learned about the number of government killings, he has emphasized the importance of understanding demodde (his term for mass murder of civilians by government) by pointing out that as horrendous as combat deaths were in the twentieth century, the truth is that many more noncombatants were murdered.

In this article I present an alternative theoretical approach, a property-rights theory, for understanding how governments came to slaughter unarmed civilians by the millions and tens of millions. The questions that Rummel and I are trying to answer are: First, how does a government gain the capability to murder millions of civilians? And second, what, if anything, can be done to prevent such monstrous crimes?

Rummel concentrates on the structure of government, pointing to the centralization of power in an authoritarian or dictatorial ruler as the primary problem and to "political freedom" and decentralization of power through democracy as the solutions. The propertyrights approach, by contrast, points to systematic invasions of private-property rights as the primary enabling acts and to defense of those rights as the solution. My proposed approach implies that, contra Rummel, democracy is not part of the solution, but rather part of the problem, because both democratic ideology and democratic practice undermine private-property rights.

What stands out about democide in the twentieth century is not the discrete "crimes of passion," such as the killings in Tiananmen Square, but the systematic bureaucratic killing that took place over years. Not only is this aspect of state murder horrifying to contemplate, but it also explains how the killing occurred on such a stupendous scale: Killing millions of people took a long time. This aspect of democide seems especially amenable to economic-or, more precisely, praxeological-analysis because the systematic killing took place over time, used resources, and even involved something like capital investment (for example, to build concentration camps). But mass killing is not a market phenomenon, so rather than turning to the familiar praxeology of cooperation, which starts with the mutual gains realized in peaceful exchange, we must turn to the analysis of the dark side of human action: the praxeology of aggression.

Aggression Against Property and its Praxeological Effects

Systematic aggression against property changes the time horizon for individuals. Because incentives for producing for the future are reduced, future income and consumption are also reduced, which results in a rise in time preference. Furthermore, taxation discourages time-consuming but productive efforts to earn income and encourages instead short time-horizon methods, including stealing or legally seizing goods through politics.

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