Murder by the State

Policy Reports | Crime

No. 211
Monday, September 01, 1997
by Gerald W. Scully

Executive Summary

At least 170 million people - and perhaps as many as 360 million - have been murdered by their own governments in this century. This is more than four times the 42 million deaths from civil and international wars. When a state murders some of the general population, it is called democide; when it murders minorities, the term is genocide. Thus genocide is one type of democide.

Democide is employed to intimidate, demoralize or subjugate and to maintain power. Democracies have not entirely eschewed democide, but they have usually inflicted it on colonial populations.

  • Communist regimes have killed the most people in this century, followed by Nazi Germany, which killed more than 16 million people between 1933 and 1945.
  • The Soviet Union killed 54.7 million between 1917 and 1987, and China killed 35.6 million between 1949 and 1987.
  • The Khmer Rouge killed a much larger percentage of its nation's people, liquidating about a third of all Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

The more productive people are, the more governments can tax and confiscate. So the more productive people are, the more costly it is for governments to kill them. Evidence indicates that governments respond to this economic incentive. Other things being equal, a 1 percent increase in per capita real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) leads to about a 1.4 percent decline in killing. The increased value of a human life in the Soviet Union and China from increased output per capita may have done more to slow the pace of state murder in those countries than changes in policy after the deaths of Stalin and Mao Tse-tung:

  • During the Stalin era (1929-53), about 42.7 million people were killed in the Soviet Union, while 8.1 million were killed in the following 34 years.
  • In China, 34.4 million people were killed during the reign of Mao Tse-tung (1949-76), and 874,000 were killed in the following decade.

Countries that kill their own people are poorer and grow more slowly than countries that do not. A comparison of 33 less-developed countries that have not practiced state-sponsored killing with 23 that have shows the average annual real GDP of the murderous states to be about 20 percent less than it might have been. Among the nations that have paid the highest price:

  • Killing by the state in Rwanda during the years 1962-90 reduced annual GDP by 27 percent.
  • Killing in Burundi during 1965-90 reduced GDP by 54.8 percent.
  • Killing in Angola from 1975-89 reduced output by 61.6 percent.

Over several centuries, governments have tended to murder a smaller percentage of their people. However, the killing of massive numbers by Communist countries in the 20th century reversed that trend.

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