Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Deterrence and Human Nature

By Victor Davis Hanson// National Review

The dream of a therapeutic utopia without punishment for wrongdoing fails in practice.

Deterrence is the strategy of persuading someone in advance not to do something, often by raising the likelihood of punishment.

But in the 21st century, we apparently think deterrence is Neanderthal and appeals to the worst aspects of our natures. The alternative view insists that innately nice people respond better to discussion and outreach.

History is largely the story of the tensions between, and the combination of, these two very different views of human nature — one tragic and one therapeutic.

The recent presidential election results favor a more pessimistic view of humans: that without enforceable rules, humans are likely to run amok — quite in contrast to the prior therapeutic mindset of the Obama administration.

Take illegal immigration. The Trump administration believed the answer was to persuade people not to come illegally into the United States, and to convince those who are already residing here illegally and who have broken American laws to go home. So his proposed wall on the border with Mexico and beefed-up patrols are a sort of insurance policy in case immigrants do not heed appeals to follow the law. Deportation and even the threat of deportation also serve as deterrents to persuade others not to enter the U.S. illegally, given the likelihood of being sent back home promptly.

The early result of that proposed deterrent policy is that in just two months, attempted illegal entries into the U.S. have fallen dramatically.

Past approaches to illegal immigration were largely therapeutic. Bilateral talks with Mexico, sanctuary cities, de facto amnesties, and non-enforcement of immigration laws supposedly would ensure that immigration was orderly and a positive experience for both hosts and guests. Instead, the border effectively became wide open and chaos ensued.

Currently, there are no real repercussions on campus for students who disrupt public discourse or prevent invited speakers from presenting lectures. Universities in theory claim this is a bad thing — a violation of the constitutional rights of free expression and assembly. But campuses rarely punish students for violating the rules. They seldom ask local law enforcement to apply the full force of local and state laws to (often violent) student lawbreakers.

If the intent of universities was to persuade students to respect free speech, then their therapeutic policies seem an utter failure. University laxity is seen by protestors as weakness to be held in contempt rather than magnanimity to be appreciated.

The tragic view would hold that had the University of California expelled students for recently disrupting free speech — and had it encouraged law enforcement to arrest miscreants for destroying property and using violence against others — such deterrence would have prevented such unrest in the future.

Such a precedent at Berkeley might have dissuaded Middlebury College students from trying to shout down and even injure the political and social scientist Charles Murray when he was invited to deliver a lecture. The students who charged Murray, apparently intending to physically force him off campus, might not have been so bold had they known in advance that they would be brought up on charges for any such violence.

Middlebury is an elite school where mostly rich kids fear that a criminal record would be fatal to the sort of high-power resumes they hope to compile for the good life to follow graduation.

The same tragic/therapeutic tension characterizes approaches to radical Islamic terrorism. Does vetting incoming refugees from the Middle East deter potential terrorists from entering the country, or does such scrutiny turn off people, radicalize the,m and encourage terrorism?

Did the Obama administration’s euphemistic effort to eradicate the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” — along with Obama’s apology tour and therapeutic Cairo speech — win hearts and minds in the Middle East? Or did such outreach convince radicals that the U.S. was hardly to be feared, thus encouraging anti-American sentiment?

In the past eight years, the U.S. has backed off the red lines and deadlines it issued to Syria, Russia, and Iran. Did such equivocation earn America appreciation and respect for circumspection — or contempt for empty rhetoric?

There is no clear-cut divide between deterrence and therapy. Each at times has its place in warning or wooing people and nations. But in general, anytime a government errs on the side of therapy and communicates to individuals and foreign powers that laws are flexible, that punishment is iffy, and that consequences are negotiable, it gets less of what it wants.

It is unfortunate but true that North Korea is deterred more by U.S. military strength than by United Nations resolutions.

In much the same way, radical campus lawbreakers probably respect (and fear) the local district attorney a lot more than the college president.

In other words, the more we feel we have entered a 21st-century therapeutic utopia, the more tragic that human nature seems not to have changed all that much from the Stone Age.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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