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We all know the story of the Palestinian childern who spaked a bloodbath by throwing rocks at Israeli tanks. This is the textbook case of a “disporportionate reaction,” a phrase that musters leers from many international relations scholars. What prompts reactions like this? Are we hard-wired to react? To over-react?

Self-defense is a natural occurence. But maybe it’s our puzzling neurological framework that makes international affairs as messy are they are. Human beings have an innate tendency to overreact, writes Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist. Psychological studies have shown that human beings have outwardly-directed memories. In other words, we are much more aware of others’ actions than our own. Small wonder then, given this fact, that recent study has shown humans will respond, on average, with 40 percent more force than the initial attack.

He hit me first, so I’ll hit him back– harder. This is not a new phenomenon by any measure, but Gilbert seems to think it has some bearing on international relations:

Until we learn to stop trusting everything our brains tell us about others — and to start trusting others themselves — there will continue to be tears and recriminations in the wayback.

I’m a bit more skeptical.

In short, Gilbert’s insights are incredibly useful in the realm of interpersonal relations, but perhaps irrelevant in the realm of international relations. True, I as an individual can “turn the other cheek.” Mental life, as Gilbert duly noted, is a private affair. Ultimately, we are only responsible for our thoughts and our reactions. And I don’t think it’s too much to expect some people to act according to a virtue of harmony rather than a neurological dictum. But if this theory is to have any relevance in IR– if we are to see the better world Gilbert envisions– there must be a groundswell of individuals acting against their neurological urges. Politics makes clear the fact that the human animal is still, at some level, bound by biology.

If there’s an answer to the vexing problem Gilbert has presented– violence, instability, and fractionation– it lies not in understanding human psychology, but in understanding human institutions. Diplomacy, economics, and international law have enjoyed mostly good track records because they framed their debates in stark terms. They looked at the reality of human psychology– our imperfect, often selfish dispositions– rather than hoping for a transcendent moment of collective human virtue. And through these dark, pragmatic lenses, we have begun to see (at least on the whole) a paradoxical movement by societies toward these virtues.

Morgan and readership, a few questions for you: First, am I underestimating the human condition here? Can people really overcome their nature en masse? Economics assumes a rational, selfish actor– is this accurate? What are the dangers in assuming this?
– –Daniel Corbett

Tomorrow my sister and I are driving to IndianaMichiganOhio for a week of blitzkrieg family reunions. Blogging will be commensurately more sparse, though I’m looking forward to addressing the questions you just posed, Dan.

Better yet, let’s meet up next weekend, say, in Cincinnati, for beer and talk. Good? Good. See you then, friend.

– Morgan Hubbard

True, Morgan, we don’t have at hand a tidy constitutional argument against traffic enforcement cameras. Our argument hangs on a messy premise: that there should be a “human element in law enforcement.” How can we defend such a claim? You are right that we won’t find our answer in the the constitution or the rule of law. We’d be barking up the tree, because, as you noted, you (and countless others) have indeed broken the law. Simple as that. So the debate then shifts to matters of institutional policy and implementation, how cops do their jobs.

The letter of the law says nothing of how many cops should be on the street. Nor should it attempt to. Rather, it simply determines legal questions such as the correct speed limit. We could have, under the rule of law, a state of perfect enforcement, a cop on every corner. Every speeder, every red light runner, and any other violater of law would be caught and punished accordingly. They were in the wrong, and they were caught. No problems from a legal perspective here.

But why do we limit the scope of law enforcement?

We do it for a number of reasons. Sometimes, for instance, it’s because a new technology is not as perfect and certainly not as desirable as we once thought. And other times it’s because, simply put, we don’t want a cop on every corner. We can argue this along myriad lines. Economically, there is a point at which administrative and judicial costs (because we won’t jettison that pesky thing we call due process) will exceed incoming revenues. In other words, a glut of speeders would create a case backlog that would be– well– not worth it. Or we can take this on from a very different perspective and focus on the new technology’s effect on personal autonomy. If I know there is a finite number of cops on the road, I can make a choice whether to speed. I assess the costs and the benefits for myself and, likely, extract some benefit from making that choice. But in a world of perfect law enforcement, that choice is gone. One will blindly obey the speed limit, for fear of being caught at any time.

What changes about law when the choice to break the law disappears? Is it still a “law” as we know it?
Daniel Corbett

It’s happened to two of my friends already. And Morgan, unfortunately, you’re one of them.

Yes, you’ve been nabbed (twice, is it?) by the newest, and perhaps most irksome, law enforcement technology: the traffic camera. Cities across the country have installed the cameras in an effort to expand law enforcement’s watchful eye. Some have hailed these efforts as an essential step in making our roads safer. But others, often those who have received their bills– er, tickets– in the mail, have lashed against the technology for its imperfections and its prying nature.

What are these cameras and how do they work? Under the general mantle of “road-rule enforcement cameras” there are various cameras with many different designs: to catch people speeding, running red lights, or even driving unauthorized in bus/HOV lanes. These technologies trace their roots– as do many “nanny-state” innovations– to the UK. And it’s certainly worth noting that if I run a red light in Pittsburgh, up to 80 percent of the revenue from my ticket will not go to my city, but instead will be sent overseas to the UK or Australia to the corporations that manage traffic cameras. So much for the revenue generation trope local governments often try to play.

OK, so maybe we don’t buy that argument. There is little appeal to a cash-strapped municipality asking its citizens for more money. But what about the public safety argument? Don’t traffic cameras make us safer? Well, if we look at a study by U.S. Department of Transportation,  “the results do not support the view that red light cameras reduce crashes. Instead, we find that RLCs are associated with higher levels of many types and severity categories of crashes.” The study found cameras have a statistically insignificant effect on severe and fatal crashes, but cause a 40 percent increase in less serious crashes, especially rear-end accidents. Makes sense, right? People are slamming on their brakes because they’re afraid of that eerie white structure protruding above their heads and the $150 ticket that looms in the mail.

So why are we seeing a proliferation of these cameras? First, it isn’t just corporate greed. Local and city governments, by dint of the sheer number of extra tickets, often make more in revenue than they would otherwise. So why not put in a few more cameras? Second, the public safety numbers can support either side. And it’s a lackadaisical citizenry– people who will trade their freedom for protection– that allows governments to push these cameras on them in the name of the public good.

So how do we respond? Jim Raussen R-Springdale is an Ohio senator who is currently fighting the plan in his home state. He is proposing a bill that would require that a police officer be present in order for any ticket to be written.

Raussen’s efforts, I believe, are a step in the right direction. Our law is a human system– messy, confusing, and often brilliant in adapting to particulars. If we take the human element out of law enforcement, we are taking out one of its most essential components– its problem-solving ability. A police officer can often see by the look on your face, your circumstances either in your car or with fellow motorists, things crucial in fairly deciding whether you should be ticketed. A machine cannot make a gut-level decision like that. So for now, we need humans, not machines, running law enforcement.

Daniel Corbett 


You have raised an excellent question: when (if ever) does the “marketplace of ideas” fail us? I believe our libertarian impulses naturally pull us toward supporting an untrammeled intellectual exchange. And, based on my experience, this is not a bad thing. For me, many important discoveries have come out of heated, controversial, and unusual discussions. Just as John Stuart Mill argued we needed “experiments in living” in order for society to evolve to its fullest potential, so do we need “experiments in thinking” in order for the best ideas to become even better. As Milton (the erstwhile inspiration for this blog) wrote “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”

This triumphalist language calls for some unpacking. First, what do we mean by a “free and open encounter” or an “experiment in thinking?” It seems these phrases might be nothing more than abstractions– perhaps useful, but in no way perfect or attainable it some pure form. The fact is, even our most free and open exchanges are bound by some sort of structure, be it institutional rules, norms and tastes, or legal mandates.

My argument is this: we must seek to make the structures that govern our exchanges as limited as possible– especially where law is concerned.

The example of Holocaust denial is a good one. Our institutional rules (university hiring and evaluation practice) cancel out any chance for an academic groundswell of Holocaust deniers. Our norms and our good taste have also made the argument nothing short of heretical. These restraints on speech are generally good. Free speech does not mean the right to be given a tenure-track position or to be respected at a cocktail party. Rather, it is an obligation the state has to let its citizens express themselves.

The liberal state is not in the interest of generating outcomes. It rather focuses on setting up a framework in which free individuals operate, ideally, to create a better society. Liberal societies have been operating under this principle since the Enlightenment. Small wonder the most tolerant, creative, and economically prosperous societies on the planet right now are liberal ones. Liberal states have thrived because their citizens have known what to expect from their governments. Denying the Holocaust (or saying any other idiotic thing) will not go from legal to illegal overnight. Whether society will give you much credence (as we have discussed) is another issue. But suffice it to say, liberalism allows us to say whatever we want, and this is not a bad thing.

At the end of the day, free speech is one component in a bundle of rights governed by the rule of law. These are rights that citizens can count on not to go away. How these rights play out– in the “funkiness of life,” the specific instances of speech– is not up to the state, but to us. We decide what to say, who to hire and fire, and ultimately what we value. It’s a responsibility I would never want to pass off to the state.

Daniel Corbett


I believe you have actually read the political pulse quite well; it would, indeed, take a drastic move (excluding gays writ large from military service) to spur any action on the part of Democrats. Right now, any elected Democrat who would stand against the logic of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” would be labeled a radical and shunned by the party elite. In today’s bizarre politics, liberals are afraid of looking “too liberal.”

Absent a well-received, genuinely liberal Democrat, or a dismantling of the current political duopoly, we are left with one– admittedly strange– option: a pro-gay Republican. In many areas, the Republican Party is the champion of classical liberalism. It supports (when it does not infringe on corporate interests) free markets and economic liberalization and (when it does not infringe upon its moral sensibilities) individual freedom. The Democratic party, erstwhile champion of some civil liberties, is still, at the end of the day, a progressive organ, and have become increasingly so as time marches on. A renewed commitment to liberalism on the part of Republicans may be the antidote for the current political malaise concerning gays in the military.

It’s far-fetched, I know, but it’s something worth considering. As both parties annex more control over citizens’ lives, it becomes necessary, I think, to seriously discuss the principles of the Enlightenment, our political keystone, and ask who will take up the cause.

Daniel Corbett

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