When Nations Kill Their Own People

Speaking of the Red Terror, Josef Stalin said, "A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic."

The moral repugnancy of governments killing their own people for political reasons is the overarching tragedy of human history. Dictators, emperors and kings have killed to stay in power, to weaken or destroy opposing factions, because of racial or ethnic hatred, to enforce political or religious ideologies or to enrich themselves and their closest followers. Indeed, over the centuries, far more people have died at the hands of their own governments than in wars.

Much of this killing has taken the form of mass murder of groups – what economist Gerald Scully, a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, calls "democide."

While the economic consequences of democide are insignificant compared to its moral reprehensibility, the point is still worth making: democide is a tragedy for the living as well as the dead. In a new study Scully presents evidence that democide is destructive to a nation's economy. On average, he calculates, murdering its own people makes a country about 20 percent poorer. The killed, of course, can't work and pay taxes or tribute to the government. Further, when a dominant group uses the government to improve its economic position beyond what it could gain in the marketplace – called "rent seeking" by economists – many of the restrictions and requirements the government imposes distort the market and lower overall income, even as the dominant group may be enriching itself.

Scully points to the Philippines under Ferdinand Marcos as an example of how a democidal regime can affect a nation. The Philippines were averaging 2.9 percent annual economic growth until Marcos declared martial law and suspended the constitution in 1972 so he could stay in office. From that point, his regime practiced violence to keep its power and the Philippines experienced a negative growth rate. When Corazon Aquino became president after Marcos' death, the state-sponsored killing stopped – and the economy began growing again, averaging 3.6 percent annually from 1987 to 1990.

Nor was this an isolated case. Scully studied per capita output and how it grew – or didn't grow – in 23 less-developed nations that didn't practice democide and compared those nations with 33 other less-developed, democidal nations. By his estimate, the cost of killing in the democidal nations was 19.2 percent of real gross domestic product. He found the same pattern in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Conversely, even democidal governments seem to exercise some self-restraint as per capita income grows in a nation. Scully concluded that for every 1 percent a nation's real gross domestic product goes up, state-sponsored murder goes down 1.4 percent, probably because the more productive people are, the more costly it is for governments to kill them.

With the rise of Communism in the 20th century, every Communist regime that took power killed its own people in massive numbers – 55 million in the Soviet Union between 1917 and 1987 and 36 million in China between 1949 and 1987, for example. As a result of the Communist killings and genocide (another form of democide) by Nazi Germany, the 20th century is the bloodiest since the 13th century in terms of murder by the state, with 7.3 percent of the world's population struck down by their own governments.

The available data indicate that about 8.9 percent of the population were killed by their own governments in the 13th century, and that the proportion had dropped to about 3.7 percent by the 19th century. The reason? Probably a combination of more civilized behavior and rising real per capita income. In the noncommunist world in this century, the toll from state-sponsored killing has been about 3.6 percent of the population, even including the Nazi genocide.

But Scully suggests that even in parts of the Communist world, the population may have become too valuable to continue killing in such large numbers. Perhaps, he says, economic growth and a rising GDP may have contributed more to the decline in democide in the Soviet Union and China after the deaths of dictators Josef Stalin and Mao Tse-tung than any change in national policy.

A rising GDP and standard of living will not put an end to tribal or racial hatred, or envy, or greed. But other studies have shown that in a nation with rising per capita output, the population is likely to be healthier. Perhaps we can infer from Gerald Scully's research that such a population also has at least a better chance of staying alive instead of being murdered by their own government.