David R. Henderson  

Should Libertarians Favor Denying Rights Because Those Denied Will Be More Likely to Agree With Them After?

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From the Horse's Mouth... The Meaning of Mood...

That is the longest title I've ever used. But I couldn't figure out a way to shorten it.

Why am I asking? Because in a post this morning, that's what Tyler Cowen advocates. In a piece on gun control and foreign policy, he writes:

There are the libertarians, who hate martial culture on the international scene, but who wish to allow it or maybe even encourage it (personally, not through the government) at home, through the medium of guns. They are inconsistent, and they should consider being more pro-gun control than is currently the case. But I don't expect them to budge: they will see this issue only through the lens of liberty, rather than through the lens of culture as well. They end up getting a lot of the gun liberties they wish to keep, but losing the broader cultural battle and somehow are perpetually surprised by this mix of outcomes.

So, according to Tyler, American libertarians, of whom I am one, should be more pro-gun control than we are because succeeding in gun control (he doesn't specify, crucially, how much) will make the culture less militaristic.

Tyler is right, I think, that most libertarians see the issue through the lens of liberty. That's certainly true in my case. Which is why I'm unwilling to favor gun control in order to change the culture. I don't have near the certainly Tyler seems to have that people with fewer guns would want the U.S. government to be less inclined to use even bigger weapons on people in other countries. If I did, I admit that that would be a tougher problem than I think it is. I'll have to think about it.

And why don't I see much connection? Because my impression is that the United States had a very uncontrolled gun situation in the 1930s, when the vast majority of Americans wanted their government to mind its own business abroad.

By the way, John Thacker, who often comments on these posts, has a very good response to Tyler on Tyler's site. He has a few, but here's his best:

Are you defining "being more pro-gun control" as being culturally opposed to owning guns, while steadfastly opposing most regulation as doing more harm than good and being unworkable? That seems to be what you argue regarding alcohol and other drugs. Most gun regulations are unworkable on practical grounds, and the "easy" solutions tend to have the same sort of drawbacks (especially for the poor, etc.) as the war on drugs, the war on carrying or transferring sums of cash privately, or the war on not cutting your grass in the middle class way in small suburbs of St. Louis.


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CATEGORIES: Regulation




COMMENTS (18 to date)
Justin Merrill writes:

And what about Switzerland? They have among the highest gun ownership rates and notoriously peaceful foreign policy.

I don't buy Tyler's logic here, nor do I think his argument holds well empirically.

Also, when gun ownership is banned, young men might join the military or police to join the exclusive club of people legally allowed to use firearms. I think this could have some negative effects on culture.

Chris H writes:

I read a blog post responding to this looking at the relationship between personal gun ownership and portion of the populace in the military (and paramilitary). You can find it here. The long and short of it is there doesn't look like there's any relationship whatsoever.

It's worth noting that percentage in the military is just an imperfect proxy for militarism, and would lead to the somewhat weird conclusions like Greece being more militaristic than Turkey, but for just looking for a first approximation the link between gun ownership and militarism seems a bit weak.

Colombo writes:

I think everyone should have at least one pocket sized nuclear bomb, just in case.

Gun control seems to imply that it is dangerous for people to have as much power as the government and other criminal gangs. Why equality for things like salary or healthcare, but not for defense? Why only Government officials have the right to defend the law and the life and property of the citizens?


Ak Mike writes:

Prof. Henderson- not only are you right about the 1930s in the United States, but even more specifically, the more gun-owning parts of the country (e.g., midwest and far west) tended then to also be the most isolationist (which was de facto pacifist).

James writes:

Colombo wrote "Gun control seems to imply that it is dangerous for people to have as much power as the government and other criminal gangs."

There is an interesting empirical angle here: If people in gun carrying government jobs (cops, corrections officers, etc) have a higher crime rate than civilians, then what is the right gun control policy?

There is also a philosophical issue: In the US, many people say governments have legitimacy because its various forms of authority have been delegated to it by the people. Since the people cannot delegate any authority that they do not already have, then governments can only have the authority to bear a subset of the weapons that civilians may bear. The is because either the people already have the authority to own some form of weapon. Or they never had any such authority in the first place and since they never had that authority to delegate, the government cannot have that authority either.

Anonymous writes:

I can certainly believe that those who support gun control also tend to oppose war and nuclear weapons and the army and similar. I'm less convinced that they favor non-interventionism, so long as it's a Democrat doing the intervening, and for a cause that the left would be sympathetic to, like overthrowing oppressive regimes and imposing liberal democracy. And I also suspect that they will tend to support more government intervention within the nation than the pro-gun, pro-war side do, even if that side aren't ideal in this regard either.

I've heard this argument before - that it's one side versus the other and always will be; that you should support the Blue Team, even the things they want that you don't want, because otherwise the Red Team will implement the things they want that you don't want. My view is that if this is really true then it's a wash and I'm not going to support either side. I would like to think that we can persuade people of the value of certain ideas from both sides of the political divide, but if we can't then I'm not going to join one established mainstream party, I'm going to consider politics an unsolvable problem and go argue about something else instead.

Bob Murphy writes:

I had the same reaction, David. I imagine someone has already made the point I'm about to make, but I don't see it in my quick scan of Tyler's comments or here.

So anyway, not trying to be inflammatory, but we have a pretty big counterexample to the claim that domestic gun control leads to a less bellicose foreign policy. I hate to be that guy, but I think the example is actually quite fair in this particular case.

R Richard Schweizter writes:

"Lens" of Liberty.

"Lens" of "Culture."

What a false dichotomy!

IF (as suspected) "culture" is determined by the commonalities of motivations of members of a group, the motivations for individual liberty form a "culture."

Motivational concerns with violence (and its means), as concerns, do not differ, necessarily, with concerns for freedom from or freedom to. There are individual differences in the "weight" of those respective concerns, but not in how they affect motivations.

Jesse C writes:

@Colombo

Gun control seems to imply that it is dangerous for people to have as much power as the government and other criminal gangs.
I would include the rich and famous in the same camp as the government and criminal gangs. All of the gun control advocacy I hear includes exceptions for ex-military and former/off-duty police, otherwise where would the elite get their body guards?

I wish the pro-second amendment crowd would draw a line in the sand on this one: Former and off-duty police and military should NOT have any additional right to be armed than any other citizens.

Thomas Leahey writes:

The US has a very particular form of martial culture, inherited from Scotch-Irish (a well armed bunch) immigrants; see the book Born Fighting by former VA senator Jim Webb. They seek to be left alone (cf. the 1930s) but when attacked they retaliate with overwhelming ferocity. A fine expression of this attitude is in the video, "Courtesy of the red, white and blue" released by singer Toby Keith just after 9/11. The key lines are "we'll put a boot in their ass -- it's the American way," and "we'll rain down hell." The soldiers present at the live performance cheered heartily.
A consequence, fortunate or unfortunate depending on your point of view, is that America is bad at long wars, and our leadership knows this (or did). In WW II for example, the British (true imperialists) did not want to invade Europe until 1948-9, but were pressured by the Americans (with prodding also by Stalin) to go sooner, knowing that we don't tolerate long wars.
In my view, after the war we found ourselves as an inadvertent imperial nation without the right martial culture to run one (cf. Britain, Rome). Niall Ferguson seems to be of the same view.

Levi Russell writes:

@James

"If people in gun carrying government jobs (cops, corrections officers, etc) have a higher crime rate than civilians, then what is the right gun control policy?"

Civilians who have the legal right to carry firearms are far less likely (based on conviction rate data) to commit a crime than the average person.

https://www.txdps.state.tx.us/RSD/CHL/Reports/ConvictionRatesReport2013.pdf

Shane L writes:

"Most gun regulations are unworkable on practical grounds, and the "easy" solutions tend to have the same sort of drawbacks (especially for the poor, etc.) as the war on drugs, the war on carrying or transferring sums of cash privately, or the war on not cutting your grass in the middle class way in small suburbs of St. Louis."

I wonder what is the evidence for this? Drugs appear to be used and sought by fairly large proportions of populations, but I'm not aware of significant demand among ordinary people for illegal firearms in countries with strong gun control. Hence I wonder if gun regulations really are at all "unworkable". Many countries have gun control and relatively low crime rates.

Tom West writes:

Many countries have gun control and relatively low crime rates.

Actually, I use Canada as a counter-example. it has pretty much the same violent crime rate as the US, is very close culturally, but has about 1/6th the homicide rate.

It's pretty common sense. Harder to get guns that are harder to use (i.e. banning handguns) means a lot fewer people get shot.

It's a pretty simple trade-off. How many lives is having easily accessible guns worth? And for a lot, if not most, Americans, 25,000 American lives is a reasonable price.

Anonymous writes:

@Tom West

My impression is that problems relating to gangs are much worse in the US than in Canada. Is that wrong?

Levi Russell writes:

"It's pretty common sense. Harder to get guns that are harder to use (i.e. banning handguns) means a lot fewer people get shot.

It's a pretty simple trade-off. How many lives is having easily accessible guns worth? And for a lot, if not most, Americans, 25,000 American lives is a reasonable price."

High quality research on the subject begs to differ with your overly simplistic presentation. Thankfully we have multiple regression techniques to control for many of the relevant factors (one of which Anonymous points out above).

Greg Wilson writes:

I don't own a gun, and I don't favor gun control. I would argue that the need to change the culture of an over-reaching, invasive government is a far, far greater need than to change the culture to become less militaristic. In fact, allowing the current trajectory of government intrusion to continue and introducing greater gun control is socialistic not Libertarian.

Focusing on gun control is a selective application of restrictions. The number of homicides by firearms (11k/yr) is roughly equal to the number of drunk driving deaths (10k/yr). Should we also reintroduce prohibition? Just because some prefer not to own a firearm, is it fair for them to apply their personal preferences that reduces the liberties of others?

You can't selectively advocate liberty and still call it liberty.

AS writes:

Gun ownership does not necessarily make one more militant. Guns are used for self-defense. Having a strong military is perfectly compatible with liberty as long as the military is used to defend borders and not invade other countries at whim. The key is defense, not offense.

ThomasH writes:

There are many kinds of "gun control." I too doubt that even the best kind of gun control, licensing on the basis of skill in the proposed use (pretty rigorous in the case of "home defense and more so for concealed carry), would do much to make the culture less militaristic (or prevent mass shootings). But it would prevent a lot of accidental gun deaths and suicides in my estimate.

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