book review

Death by Government
R. J. Rummel, Transaction, 2004, 496 pages
Reviewed By

T he more power a government has, says Professor R.J. Rummel in this important book, the more its leaders are unconstrained in murdering its foreign and domestic subjects. No government has a perfectly clean history; but his painstakingly accumulated evidence clearly shows that, as Rummel says, "Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely." Regardless of their ideology, power—not religion, race, gender, or any other factor—is the root motivation. They did it to control others.

Up until the twentieth century, the Mongols were probably the worst mass-murderers of all time, having killed at least 30,000,000 people. A graph of population vs. time in China, who suffered almost as much from the Mongols as from their own leaders, is a classic sawtooth curve. During the two-year transition of the Eastern Han Dynasty to the Three Kingdom period, for example, 6/7 of the Chinese population died or were killed.

In the 20th century, the Soviet Union was the biggest mass murderer, having slaughtered 61,911,000 people. Communist China is second with 35.2 million. The Nazis come in at number three, with 20,946,000. The Chinese nationalist KMT killed 10 million. But in terms of percentage of their population, the Cambodian Communist Khmer Rouge was by far the worst, having murdered more than 31 percent of their own population. This is ten times higher than the rate in Nazi Germany.

Next on the hit parade are:

The statistics convincingly show that democracies are by far the most peaceful form of government. Out of 353 wars between 1815 and 1991, no war has ever been fought between two democracies. But during wartime, as power flows away from the citizens and to their governments, even democracies murdered people. Often, this was done in secret, as democratic leaders are usually forced to lie to commit their murders. Ninety percent of these were committed by the less-stable democracies of Spain, India, and Peru. But authoritarian governments have killed a hundred times more, whether calculated as total numbers or as percentages.

In terms of percentages, communist regimes have killed 133 times more people than democracies. For other totalitarian regimes (mainly military dictatorships), the ratio is 104. In absolute numbers, communists are by far the worst. The numbers in this book corroborate those documented in The Black Book of Communism, which is the origin of the widely-quoted estimate of 100,000,000 people killed by communist governments in the 20th century.

(The Black Book of Communism, by the way, is an outstanding work. I defy anyone to read it without grieving for the millions who were worked to death, starved, shot, or forced to cannibalize their own children by communist dictatorships in the 20th century.)

The numbers call into question the conventional view that the purpose of government is to protect its citizens from anarchy. Rummel says that government is often more like a gang of thugs terrorizing and killing a group of hikers in the woods. Pure freedom may always be a distant dream, given our genetic predisposition to create governments to subjugate, control, and steal from our fellow man. But the cold numbers in this book prove beyond a doubt that, as far as government is concerned, less is more.