Why do civilisations rise and fall? Many factors have been identified including geography, climate, disease and technology. Although a case can be made for the importance of each of these variables, I would suggest that there is a factor that has not been properly appreciated – the increasing prevalence of psychopaths in complex civilisations.
In my previous blog, I argued that the complex structure of corporations allowed intelligent psychopaths to evade removal due to their superior ability to manipulate rules and the opportunities large businesses afford them to jump to a new division of the company when they are detected in their current position. Similarly, I will argue that complex civilisations provide opportunities for psychopaths to enter government and rise to positions of power undetected by the majority of the public.
In primitive societies, people are grouped in small tribes where all the members know each other well. Such tribes may not practice democracy as we know it, but leaders who impose their will on others will survive only if most of the members of the tribe believe that this is to their benefit. In these sorts of close quarters, psychopaths are unlikely to survive for long.
In contrast, in complex civilisations, few of us have direct knowledge of the character of our rulers. What we are told about them comes either from their PR machine or that of their political enemies. I believe that this information is largely unreliable. In democracies, we do have a means for removing leaders who we have come to realise are not acting in our interests: elections. In dictatorships, no such mechanism exists. Thus, psychopaths are almost guaranteed to rise to the top in authoritarian governments – and stay there. This creates hardship for the citizens of such countries, but may bring trouble to other countries as well.
If War is Hell, why do we engage in it so frequently? The vast majority of humans would prefer to be left alone to earn a decent livelihood and enjoy their families and friends. Risking their lives and killing other people is something most would seek to avoid. Sometimes the environment becomes more challenging, either due to population increase or climate change, and resources become so scarce that War may be seen as the only way to survive. However, there are many instances of Wars being fought when no such constraints are in operation or where cooperation would result in a better outcome for all groups.
Recall that psychopaths have no feelings of guilt. Hence, they place no value on any human life but their own. Hence, for a psychopathic leader, War is a perfectly acceptable way to obtain something he wants. Whether 1 person dies or 10 million die, it is all the same to a psychopath. In Wars, there are frequently clear cut winners and losers. The prospect of losing might be seen as an inhibitory factor to any rational actor. However, recall that psychopaths are neurologically incapable of fully appreciating the consequences of their actions. They also usually overestimate their own abilities. Hence, a psychopathic leader will be quick to declare War because he will assign a much higher probability to success than the facts warrant.
Democracies rarely start wars, especially against other democracies. This is because their leaders must answer to their people. Indeed, most democracies require a very strong threat to their existence before they will mobilise for war. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, are much quicker to start wars because they are almost always run by psychopaths who overestimate their chances of success and have the means to compel their citizens to fight, whether they wish to or not. Consider the long line of provocations by the North Korean government in comparison to the relatively weak response, to date, from the South Korean government. The authoritarian North is careless with the lives of its citizens while the democratic South is fearful of bloodshed among its citizens. Only in extremis is the democratic South Korea considering responding to the Acts of War committed by the North Korean government.
The History of the World is written in blood, sadly. Many Wars of the past have been between Authoritarian leaders (Kings, et cetera) who cared little about the lives of their subjects. As democracy has spread, some of the most notable modern wars have been between Authoritarian and Democratic governments. When considered in terms of psychopath theory, such wars are inevitable. Any psychopathic Leader of a powerful authoritarian country will declare War on weaker countries as soon as his skewed calculations suggest he has a chance at victory. Thus far, the Democracies have either defeated Authoritarian governments or battled them to a stalemate. However, whether this has been due to fortune or is a law of History remains to be seen.