The Better State of Our Nature: Violence in Oklahoma

Posted: April 4, 2013 in Books, politics

We are living in the most peaceful time in history. There is less violence in the world today, on average per person, than at any other period. Not only that, but rates of violence in the United States is lower now than it has ever been. Oklahoma is almost certainly no exception.

Except for the Oklahoma part, this is the thesis of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues effectively that violence has declined both in the long and short run, and proposes explanations for why this is the case. Wikipedia summarizes Pinker’s position as well as anyone:

Among these social changes cited as bringing about the ascendancy of our “better angels” are: the emergence of a strong government/authority with a monopoly on violence, the interconnectivity of cultures through the need for trade; increased literacy, urbanisation, mobility and access to mass media – all of which have exposed different cultures to each other – and the spread of democracy. Pinker stresses, however, that “The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth; it has not brought violence down to zero; and it is not guaranteed to continue”.

Pinker does a wonderful job in the first half of his book demonstrating that violence genuinely has declined throughout history. The key to understanding Pinker’s case is to keep in mind that he isn’t talking about actual incidents of violence, which very well could have increased, but to look at rates of violence compared against the overall population. Incidents of violence per 100,000 people has plummeted to all-time historical lows.

While some people have tried to argue that Pinker may be mistaken in the long-term, his argument that violence declined in the last half of the twentieth century, particularly in Western democracies, goes undisputed. In the United States, there was a peak in the 1960s, followed by a steady decline in all kinds of violence since. In just the last twenty years, the United States has seen the rate of violence decline so much that the incidence drops have outpaced population growth. Incidences of violence have dropped by over 37 percent at the same time that the population has grown by over 22 percent. If you combine the numbers, the actual rate of violent crimes per 100,000 people in the United States has dropped by nearly half in just twenty years.

I’m not going to try to argue for or against Pinker’s explanations for why this trend has occurred. I’m not qualified to do so. What I’m interested in is how Oklahoma holds up under this trend, and whether Pinker’s explanations might shed light on the areas where Oklahoma differs from the trends in other parts of the United States and broader world.

Oklahoma has not bucked the national trend. It has also become less violent in the last twenty years. In 1993, there were 20,498 violent crimes reported in Oklahoma. That number peaked in 1995 at 21,748. Since then, the number of reported violent crimes dropped to 17,630 in 2011.

At the same time, Oklahoma’s population grew. There is no census data for 1993, but if you go back to 1990, the state population was estimated at 3,145,585. In 2010 it had grown to 3,751,351.  That’s an increase of over 19 percent.

If you combine the violent crime and population numbers, the Oklahoma violent crime rate per 100,000 dropped by more than 25 percent between the early 1990s and 2010. This may seem like a lot, but Oklahoma has not kept up with national trends.

For example, when Oklahoma’s violent crime rate peaked in 1995 at something like 660 per 100,000. That was still below the national average of 684.5. While the Oklahoma and national rates both dropped, Oklahoma’s did not keep pace. In 2010, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate was 478 per 100,000, while the national average was down to 404.5.

Here is a useful visual comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rates to the national average since 2002.

The sections of the country that are the most violent might be surprising. Wikipedia has a nice graphic showing the most violent states as of 2004.


As you can see, southern states tend to be more violent than northern states. Pinker’s explanation for this is that the people who tended to immigrate to the southern US were herders and just happened to live in a more anarchic situation than the agrarian settlers of the northern half of the nation. Add onto this America’s frontier history in which the cliche of the lawless cow town and dangerous gold rush community depicted in popular culture isn’t too far off the mark. After all, Deadwood is based on a true story.

Pinker sums up the impact of this cultural remnant in an editorial he wrote for the New York Times called “Why Are States So Red and Blue?”:

But then why, once stable government did arrive, did it not lay claim to the monopoly on violence that is the very definition of government? The historian Pieter Spierenburg has suggested that “democracy came too soon to America,” namely, before the government had disarmed its citizens. Since American governance was more or less democratic from the start, the people could choose not to cede to it the safeguarding of their personal safety but to keep it as their prerogative. The unhappy result of this vigilante justice is that American homicide rates are far higher than those of Europe, and those of the South higher than those of the North.

If this history is right, the American political divide may have arisen not so much from different conceptions of human nature as from differences in how best to tame it. The North and coasts are extensions of Europe and continued the government-driven civilizing process that had been gathering momentum since the Middle Ages. The South and West preserved the culture of honor that emerged in the anarchic territories of the growing country, tempered by their own civilizing forces of churches, families and temperance.

Oklahoma was one of the last states fully tamed by government, with only Alaska coming relatively later. Another book I’ve been reading through, “An Oklahoma I Had Never Seen Before,” is a progressive history of Oklahoma. It openly discusses how weak the territorial government was in the decades prior to statehood, and how there was a time in Oklahoma’s pre-state history where a majority of the population was illegal settlers. These settlers would have not had the same level of recourse to government intervention in disputes as nearly everyone else in the country.

One thing that hasn’t dropped as much in Oklahoma over the last few years is the murder rate. The number dropped from a high of 400 in 1995 (the Murrah Building bombing accounts for 168 of that number), down to around 200 a year in 2000, and has hovered around that amount ever since. The murder rate in Oklahoma in 2010 was 5 per 100,000.

There is a very useful chart in the Performance Statistics section of that shows that Oklahoma’s murder rate has either met or been above the national rate every year for the last decade.

Comparing Oklahoma’s violent crime rate to some other states might also prove interesting. Remember, Oklahoma’s violent crime rate per 100,000 in 2010 was, by my count, 478. New York’s was 391.3. California’s was 413.3. Even Texas beats us just barely at 450.6. Oklahoma doesn’t compare that well to any of the places we begrudgingly glance toward when trying to decide whether we’ve arrived.

According to the arguments laid out by Steven Pinker, if Oklahoma lawmakers and leaders want to make this as safe a place to live as say, New York, they have to embrace role of government as the only legitimate use of force in settling disputes, encourage urbanization, and accept that government has a legitimate role to play in spreading the Enlightenment ideals through education and rational inquiry. Unfortunately, we have a political climate right now where counter-Enlightenment groups like OCPAC and the Oklahoma Tea Party have a disproportionate role to play in the state’s public discourse.

Edit: There has been some hubbub online today about the fact that the murder incidents in Oklahoma City in 2012 were some of the highest on record. One year does not make a trend. Time will tell if this is an outlier or something to worry about. It is also important to point out that the population of Oklahoma City has grown drastically in the last few years. It would be surprising if the murder numbers didn’t go up. I’ll try to gather the info for a story looking at murder rates in OKC soon.

  1. […] 9. The Better State of Our Nature, Violence in Oklahoma […]

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