Rich, highly developed countries tend to have fewer murders than poorer ones. The thinking is that when more people have more to lose by not playing by the rules, and when there is effective law enforcement to enforce said rules, they will increasingly pursue alternate means of conflict resolution. If the best government can provide you is sporadic electricity and police officers seeking bribes, joining the local rebel movement or street gang becomes more appealing.
A quick and dirty scatter plot of UN member states with their UN Human Development Index score from 2011 on the x-axis and their average homicide rate from 1995-2011 on the y-axis backs up this association. I added a linear trendline for clarity.
By the preceding logic, it stands to reason that as a country experiences sustained gains in prosperity, its murder rate would decline. Mexican cartels bring a lot of cash into the country, but it is outside of the official financial system and does not trickle down in a transformative way. (Legalizing marijuana in the NAFTA zone might provide such growth, but that’s a topic for a different day.) Therefore, we should expect any chart comparing an economic well-being indicator (in this case, GDP per capita) with the murder rate over a sufficiently long period of time to look something like this one, showing both measurements for the United States:
Italy, another high-income country but one that suffered more from the recent economic crisis, looks similar. Note how there is no spike in murders even as the last few years have not been kind to its economy. My thought is that Italy’s long road toward its advanced status has entrenched certain good behaviors that won’t immediately be undone by a handful of bad years. This explains the relative lack of violent crime we’ve seen in Spain and Greece over the last few years, despite their economies teetering on the brink.
I’m composing this post on a laptop plugged into an LG monitor, with a Samsung HDTV a few feet away. Most of us don’t need to be told about South Korea’s dynamic economy—we’re carrying reminders in our pockets every day. It seems like there’s nothing South Korea can’t do—except keep homicides from rising with its living standards:
This chart was a surprise, but digging deeper into South Korea crime data revealed a real shocker. More than half of South Korean murder victims are women. Brunei, Malta, Slovenia and Nauru were the only other countries where this was the case, and since nobody lives in Brunei, Malta and Nauru, their ratios were likely distorted by a small sample size. Who knows what’s going on with Slovenia.
It’s tempting to play armchair evolutionist and point toward the crack cocaine-like grip online video games seem to have over South Korean men of prime philandering age and how it might retard their ability to fraternize with women, but being a socially awkward nerd obviously does not necessarily lead to domestic violence.
South Korea’s homicide rate for women is 2.3 per 100,000 people. In the U.S., it’s 1.9 per 100,000. What may be most disturbing about this is that this level of killing is happening in a country where there are only 1.1 guns per 100 people (it’s nearly 90 per 100 in the U.S.), meaning that the overwhelming majority of these murders are committed with a blade or some blunt instrument, making them personal and primal in a way a gunshot from across the room is not.
The mysterious growing South Korean murder rate really stands out when compared with other countries on the same chart. I used the U.S. and Italy as comparisons and also added Australia, another country that has experienced recent rapid GDP growth.
Here it is:
The widening green band says it all.