The Causes of Human Rights Violations (57): Some Clues From the Broken Windows Theory?

The Broken Windows Theory (henceforth BWT) was first described by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling in a 1982 article. The idea is that social disorder – exemplified by a neighborhood where many windows are broken – fosters crime. Disorder sets certain destructive norms and signals that those norms are OK. Broken windows, even a few, that are left unfixed will soon come to represent a lack of accountability and judicial redress. Unrepaired broken windows are a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. Hence people will not refrain from breaking more and you’ll have a vicious cycle of disorder. This is a kind of lawlessness that will eventually also lead to bigger crimes.

If, on the other hand, a part of town is well-maintained, people will be less likely to engage in acts of vandalism there because they know that they will be held accountable if they do. The same is true for other types of antisocial behavior such as littering. Throw one thing away in a clean environment, and you’ll have the police at your door. Throw something on an existing pile and you’ll feel better.

The BWT can perhaps explain certain human rights violations. I see two ways in which it can: it explains crime, and most crimes are human rights violations; and perhaps the same broken window logic applies to human rights violations themselves: one rights violation that goes unpunished may start a sequence of impunity and repeated violations.

However, this means assuming that the BWT is more than just a theory and can be supported by facts. There’s some controversy as to whether it can be.

NB: Wilson’s Broken Window theory should not be confused with Bastiat’s theory.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (56): The Weather, Ctd.

How does the weather affect people’s rights? In an older post I cited a study claiming that colder temperatures in pre-modern Europe made persecution of Jewish communities more likely. The economic hardship resulting from cold weather in agrarian societies is one possible cause of rights violations, but perhaps not a very relevant one in our post-industrial societies faced with the risk of global warming. A warmer climate can also have an effect on rights. First, higher temperatures may increase irritability, aggression and interpersonal violence resulting in small scale rights violations. Perhaps there’s an added risk that this type of violence escalates and becomes group violence or even war. Second, global warming may have devastating economic effects: drought may decimate crops or reduce the inhabitable surface of the earth, and these consequences of warming may in turn cause tensions between population groups, tensions which can become violent conflicts.

The first effect is well documented. For example,

hotter US cities still yield significantly higher violence rates than cooler cities, even after statistically controlling for 12 social risk factors, including age, education, race, and economic factors. (source)

Whether or not this can escalate and morph into larger scale conflicts is less clear. There is this study which found an

increase in conflict associated with increasing surface temperature in locations that are temperate or warm on average. … [C]limate’s influence on security persists in both historical and modern periods, is generalizable to populations around the globe, arises from climatic events that are both rapid and gradual, and influences numerous types of conflict that range across all spatial scales. The majority of studies suggest that conflict increases and social stability decreases when temperatures are hot and precipitation is extreme, but in situations where average temperature is already temperate, anomalously low temperatures may also undermine stability.

And then there’s also this:

for each one standard deviation change in climate toward warmer temperatures or more extreme rainfall, the median effect was a 14 percent increase in conflict between groups, and a 4 percent increase in conflict between individuals. (source)

If this is correct, future climate change may be truly apocalyptic if we don’t learn to adapt. How exactly higher temperatures cause conflict is unclear. The effect of heat on individual temper seems an unlikely explanation for large scale conflict. Perhaps the effect is indirect: heat may for example reduce economic output, which in turn may make conflict more likely. Perhaps drought causes conflicts over land, which in turn may map upon pre-existing ethnic tensions.

For a criticism of the cited studies, go here. Additional doubts regarding these findings come from this paper which found that cold could stir up as much trouble as heat. Generally speaking, colder periods force more people to stay inside more of the time. That’s due to both the cold and the fact that the cold usually comes with more hours of darkness. Hence there’s a lower risk of interpersonal conflict such as assault or robbery. Tempers are also generally subdued when it’s cold. However, prolonged spells of coldness can in theory have similar economic effects as heat and drought, as is shown by the study of anti-Semitism in pre-modern Europe cited above.

It seems that it’s too early to be certain about the effect of the weather on rights violations. If there’s an effect, it’s not large enough to be immediately obvious, as is the case for other effects such as tyranny, poverty and war.

More posts in this series are here. More on the link between rights and environmental concerns is here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (55): Bad Luck

To what extent does luck determine the level of realization of our human rights? We have our rights, whether we’re lucky or not, oppressed or not, free or not. The level at which we can actually enjoy those rights, on the other hand, is determined by lots of things: for example, the nature and actions of our government, the practices and beliefs of the culture that we inhabit, the state of the economy and also, it seems, the degree of good or back luck we have as individuals.

First and probably foremost: where we are born is a matter of luck, good or bad. Emigration is sometimes an option. Citizens of poor countries and subjects of oppressive states – those are often the same people – are not, or usually not, prisoners of their countries. However, emigration does imply a cost and entry rights in better countries aren’t unlimited. The bad luck of being born in and being stuck in a dictatorship obviously has a general and continuous impact on the rights of most subjects of the dictator. But luck also plays a role in the degree of this impact. Dictators are known for their random behavior, and some subjects may have the additional bad luck of receiving some special governmental attention. However, if you’re unfortunate enough to be born or stuck in the wrong place, you’re suffering from a decidedly man-made type of bad luck. If people gave each other freedom of movement and stopped oppressing each other, place of birth would no longer be a matter of luck.

When we are born is arguable just as important as where we are born. Life in the Middle Ages was in many respects of inferior quality compared to life today, and inferior quality often meant rights violations. One can also wonder to what extent our behavior today will impact the rights of future generations. A different time of birth can make the difference between good and bad luck. But again, this is a man-made difference.

Disability is to some extent a matter of bad luck, whether it is inborn or acquired disability. And disability has an impact on a lot of human rights. However, it’s wrong to view disability as only a matter of bad luck; the way in which we organize society determines what counts as a disability. A society that has decided to communicate principally through written language makes blindness a much bigger problem than a society based on oral communication. As in the previous examples, if disability is bad luck, it’s to a large extent man-made bad luck.

It seems that poverty as well is due to bad luck, at least in some cases. Bad luck can make you poor, and not just because it means being born in a poor country. If you happen to be black, ugly or obese, you have a much higher risk of being poor. Skin color, appearance and in some cases obesity are, unfortunately, instances of bad luck given some widespread opinions on the proper way to treat black, ugly or obese people. Poverty itself is a human rights violation, but it also has a negative impact on other human rights, such as the right to education, the right to health etc. However, as in the case of disability, appearance and skin color are not in themselves causes of bad luck; the way society is organized turns them into causes of bad luck.

More speculative: our genes are obviously also a matter of luck. If it would turn out that our genes determine whether or not we’re suicidal, criminal or self-destructive in other manners, then that would explain a lot of rights violations and unrealized rights.

More posts is this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (54): Self-Perpetuating Human Rights Violations

Take the case of slavery in the American South. That’s an obvious human rights violation if there ever was one. Among the causes of this rights violation was the belief in white supremacy and black inferiority.

However, the practice of slavery was also a cause of white supremacy: the living conditions of enslaved blacks, the effect slavery had on the black psyche, the lack or insufficiency of slave rebellions and a series of other facts strengthened the belief in some that whites are indeed superior, and created this belief in others.

Another example is intolerance of religious or ethnic minorities. In many European countries, young Muslims are discriminated in the labor market and elsewhere (see this paper for some evidence). Unsurprisingly, this discrimination fosters feelings of marginalization, which in turn promote retrenchment and radicalization. Radicalized Muslims then become a rationale for further discrimination (see also here).

As is clear from these examples, the self-perpetuating circle of human rights violations typically occurs when violations are massive and systematic. Small scale and individual violations can’t usually be explained in this way, as I argued in this older post.

This is probably a cause for pessimism: the most outrageous human rights violations are also the toughest to deal with. However, slavery did end eventually, as will discrimination.

More posts is this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (52): Not Enough Bias

If I count correctly, I have blogged about at least 12 ways in which our psychological or mental biases can lead us to violate other people’s rights:

  1. spurious reasoning justifying our actions to ourselves post hoc
  2. the role distance plays in our regard for fellow human beings
  3. the notion that what comes first is also best
  4. a preference for the status quo
  5. the anchoring effect
  6. last place aversion
  7. learned helplessness
  8. the just world fallacy
  9. adaptive preferences
  10. the bystander effect
  11. inattentional blindness, and
  12. stereotype threat

So it may come as a surprise that rationality – in the sense of the absence of biases that distort our proper thinking – can also cause rights violations. But when you think about it, it’s just plain obvious: whatever the irrational basis of Nazi anti-Semitism, the Holocaust was an example of rational planning; many people argue that Hiroshima and Nagasaki made perfect military sense; and others say the same about torture in the ticking bomb scenario.

However, the point is not just that rationality can be harmful, but that biases can be helpful. For example:

Take crime. The rational person weighs the benefit of mugging someone – the financial reward and the buzz of the violence netted off against the feeling of guilt afterwards – against the cost; the probability of being caught multiplied by the punishment.

But we don’t really want people to think so rationally because it would lead them to actually mug someone occasionally. It would be better if they had the heuristic “don’t mug people.” Such a heuristic is, however, irrational in the narrow economistic sense, as it would cause people to reject occasionally profitable actions. (source)

Given the low probability of getting caught for any crime, we would encourage crime if we would favor rationality over bias. If, on the other hand we could adopt a bias that people like us are highly likely to get caught (or, for that matter, another bias, such as the one that rich people deserve their wealth), then crime would go down.

All this is related to the question of whether false beliefs are useful for human rights.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (51): Nature or Nurture?

Are we born as blank slates, and do we get our violent and malevolent inclinations through upbringing and social contact? Or are we born evil? I can’t possibly answer those questions in a blog post, or anywhere else for that matter. But we can get some clues if we focus on one type of rights violation, namely racism.

The available evidence seems to suggest that people are not naturally racist. I’ve discussed some recent findings here. Human evolution has indeed fostered a strong sense of group solidarity, and the dark side of this solidarity is a natural tendency to define outsiders as enemies. This is problematic from the point of view of human rights because it means that the interests and rights of outsiders are routinely discounted. However, “groupism” isn’t necessarily the same as racism. Outsiders can be virtually anyone: foreigners, heretics, infidels, Manchester United fans etc. Race can but doesn’t have to determine the inside-outside border. In fact, throughout much of early human history, when contact between races was the exception, groups have defined insiders and outsiders on other grounds than race. Racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the words of Robert Wright:

So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races. (source)

It seems we are ourselves responsible for the rights we violate. We can’t accuse nature or evolution.

More on groupism here. More posts in this series here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (50): The Weather?

[T]he persecution and expelling of Jewish people by pre-modern European states is linked to agrarian variations. Based on historical weather data, evidence suggests that during the 15th and 16th centuries, colder temperatures made it significantly more likely that a Jewish community would be expelled. … [A] Jewish individual from the 15th or 16th century, who lived to 50 years old, faced roughly an 18% chance of being expelled during their lifetime. This risk was almost twice as great during a cold year. (source)

Apparently, persecution of Jewish groups follows from the economic hardship that in turn follows from colder temperatures during the growing seasons (that is, April to September). Agrarian economies were more vulnerable to weather shocks, and these shocks produced negative economic outcomes which then led to the scapegoating of minorities. Cities with poorer quality soil also saw an increased chance in the occurrence of expulsions of Jewish groups.

Interesting, but I doubt it has much relevance for the problems of today.

More posts in this series are here.