Propensity to violate others – taking checks and balances seriously

Polls have found that more than 3 American men in 10 would rape or coerce a woman into sexual intercourse if they could get away with it.[i] Those findings have mostly been discussed only in conjunction with the issue of rape. But I think it has a broader meaning. I think it means that there is a proportion of people who will take advantage of defenseless others for their own benefit when they think that they can.

That creates problems in lots of areas. Like soldiers of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American soldiers have resorted to forms of torture like waterboarding. Some go berserk, others are mean, but the misbehavior is predictable, if not who will do what. And like police of countries that we think are less civilized then we, some proportion of American police have also victimized demonstrators, people down on their luck, the homeless and racial minorities. That’s certainly not democratic policing. And it’s made worse by codes of silence in some police departments that are almost as sinister and sometimes worse than the codes among thieves.

I don’t think that most police are bad guys. But when we set things up so that people can get away with bad stuff, it is predictable that a significant proportion will. When we hand people guns and then make excuses for whatever they do because it’s a stressful job, we should expect that a significant proportion of them will do very bad things with the freedom we give them. A system of impunity encourages bad behavior. So one question is how we can set up our police forces so that policemen have the right incentives, incentives appropriate to a free and democratic country? Transparency and accountability matter.

The same is true of business, both international and local. When we take all the tools out of the hands of consumers and courts, we should expect a significant proportion of businesses to misbehave and take people for a ride, often for very dangerous rides. And in business the market mechanism can sometimes make things worse because it punishes those businesses which can’t bring their costs as low and their profits as high even when the mechanism is to take advantage of people, take their money, injure, and leave their lives in shambles. Responsible businesses need responsible regulation to keep the competition in line.

The same of course is true in politics. That’s why we value free speech so highly. But as my colleague, Timothy Lytton pointed out in a book called Kosher,[ii] a study of private marketplaces that do and don’t work, accountability depends on a sufficient number of people with intense interest in the subject, people the rest of us trust to check on what is happening, and a way to get the information out. It’s not automatic – there’s too much to know, too much work to find out.

So transparency is only the beginning. We have to have a culture in which we expect to hold people and organizations to account – without fear or favor for any of the groups and institutions that can hurt us. But in law, the Roberts Court seems to be developing the opposite – a legal culture of defenses and protections buried in contracts and doctrine. And in popular culture, stereotypes, ideology and polarization now substitute for facts. Heaven help us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 28, 2015.

[i] See Sarah R. Edwards,  Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz, Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders, 1 VIOLENCE AND GENDER 188, 190 (2014) available at Though the survey size was small and localized, similar results have been reported before. See Only Psychos Think Rape is OK…Right? in Web Info on Sexual Assault and Abuse (University of Illinois at Chicago, Office of Women’s Affairs, Campus Advocacy Network), collecting some of the studies.

[ii] Timothy D. Lytton, Kosher: Private Regulation in the Age of Industrial Food (Harvard Univ. Press 2013).


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