Globalization through increasing worldwide trade is arguably one of the most important economic developments in the past half century, but its impact on human behavior is widely disputed. It has been criticized for taking jobs from some segments of the labor market, intensifying competition between workers, and increasing within-country inequality. By contrast, globalization supporters argue that it strengthens social networks and encourages efficient labor specialization, increases worldwide prosperity and reduces country-level income inequality. While interest in globalization has continued to grow, with few exceptions researchers have rarely linked it to crime rates. However, prior theorizing about globalization suggests that it encourages changes in human behavior that could reasonably be expected to affect crime rates.
The idea that increased trade calms exchanges between individuals can be traced back to antiquity but is especially associated with the scholars of the Enlightenment. Montesquieu, Voltaire, Smith and Hume were all supporters of the “doux commerce” (i.e., gentle commerce) thesis, that the spread of trade and commerce decreases all types of violence, including homicide and other violent crime. While Enlightenment philosophers considered the social benefits of doux commerce in general, Elias (1939) argued specifically that violent crime declines along with the self-restraint imposed by increasingly complex social networks driven by trade. More recently, Hirschman (1997) revived the doux-commerce thesis and claimed that increasing trade is a powerful moralizing agent capable of bringing important nonmaterial benefits to society. While varying in terms of specific emphasis, these theoretical traditions all lead us to expect that growing trade globalization will reduce violent crime.
But not all experts share this view. For example, Marx (1972) famously claimed that commerce and trade erode traditional values and institutions and as social bonds are weakened, interpersonal violence increases. Similarly, Sassen (2018, 2290) argues that increased inequality in earnings and in profit-making abilities among firms has relegated large segments of the population of developing countries to low paying informal economies. This theme is also picked up by advocates of various conflict perspectives who argue that as globalization intensifies, rising rates of poverty, economic inequality, and unemployment increasingly separate highly industrialized core nations from developing peripheral nations, exacerbate the economic gap between the industrial “haves” and industrializing “have nots” and lead to increases in crime.
There is also support for the conclusion that trade globalization will have no connection to cross-national homicide rates. Supporters of the doux commerce perspective like Elias and Hirschman argue that all trade and commerce have a civilizing influence on human behavior and do not focus on international trade. To the extent that the effects of trade globalization are too small, or too macro-level to influence micro-level behavior like violent crime, globalization may have no significant effect on cross-national homicide rates.
While the putative effects of globalization are closely related to sharply contrasting perspectives on crime, we could find few cross-national tests. Moreover, prior research on cross-national comparative crime has often been limited by small, unrepresentative samples. In response, our goal in this analysis is to test the effects of trade globalization on cross-national homicide rates with the most inclusive data base possible both in terms of total countries included and number of years analyzed. We rely on homicide data because they are generally recognized to be the most valid measure of cross-national crime and assemble a homicide database with 78 countries over more than five decades (1960–2013). We operationalize globalization as trade openness, the measure most frequently used by economists. We control for common rival explanations, test for interaction between globalization and GDP per capita and perform several post estimation robustness tests.
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