Overkill: Excesses of the state in regulation, crime control and national security

Image: S. Hermann & F. Richter (Pixabay)

This seminar was recorded on Tuesday 10 March 2020 at the Australian National University. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This seminar will explore overreach of the state in each of three policy domains. Focusing primarily on liberal democratic states, it will seek to identify common explanations for state excess, based on structure, culture, psychology and politics. It will then specify appropriate institutions and practices for the control of overzealous government.

Measures taken by a state to protect its citizens from themselves, from each other, and from outsiders may entail behaviours that are horrific, or ridiculous, or both. So too may measures taken by the state to protect itself from domestic or foreign antagonists.

This seminar will explore examples of state excess drawn from three policy domains: conventional regulation, crime control, and national security. Examples of “overkill” may involve the decision of the state to intervene in the flow of events in the first place (such as regulating the consensual sexual activity of adults in private) or the manner in which the intervention occurs (for example, the use of fatal force against unarmed civilians by police or military forces).

The boundaries between the three policy domains may be blurred. Regulatory transgressions, especially (but not exclusively) those resulting in the risk or reality of serious harm, may elicit criminal sanctions. Crime control may be complemented by certain regulatory practices, such as restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages or controls on the manufacture and sale of chemicals capable of being used in the production of synthetic illicit drugs. Torture was, and in some countries, remains, an instrument to enhance national security as well as a technique of interrogating suspected criminals.

Explanations for state excess will vary from the psychological (excessive task orientation; risk aversion) to the structural (concentrations of power in the absence of accountability), to the organizational (bureaucratic inertia or momentum). State excess may also compound or cascade, where overkill flows from previous missteps. Attempts to conceal transgressions may thus produce even greater difficulties: Unsuccessful cover-ups neither began nor ended with the Dreyfus Affair.

Social control, when exercised by the state, itself requires social control. This is most effectively handled by a system of institutions, comprising elements of the state, to be sure, but also institutions of civil society, including those of a vigilant, vigorous news media.

About the speaker

Peter Grabosky is Professor Emeritus in the School of Regulation and Global Governance (RegNet) at the Australian National University. He was previously Deputy Director of the Australian Institute of Criminology. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Northwestern University and his interests lie in the areas of regulation, policing, the abuse of power and government secrecy.

A former Russell Sage Fellow at Yale Law School, he has received the Sellin Glueck Award from the American Society of Criminology; the Mannheim Prize from the Centre International de Criminologie Comparée, Université de Montréal; and the Gilbert Geis Lifetime Achievement Award from the White Collar Crime Research Consortium. His books include Wayward Governance: Illegality and its Control in the Public Sector; and States and Peoples in Conflict: Transformations of Conflict Studies (co-edited with Stohl and Lichbach).

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet