The attack in Barcelona has been the latest in a chain of terrorist acts performed following a similar modus operandi to the one in Nice which happened more than one year ago, when a truck was deliberately driven over the crowd celebrating Bastille Day. In its turn, this was a "copycat" of the Palestinian terrorist campaign started in Israel in 2014. Terrorism is all the more shocking and frightening when it uses means that are seemingly cheap and ordinary.
In an earlier post, I made the point that over-regulation would not greatly affect terrorist behaviour. My understanding is that engaging in a terrorist act, particularly a suicidal terrorist act, involves such a commitment that it would easily override existing bans or regulations, as the terrorist sets to put his (as terrorists are almost invariably young males) will into practice. Commentators seem not to agree with me very much, and they raised some interesting points. JFA, in particular, argues that "a person decides to participate given the costs and benefits" and therefore "if those costs are raised, those marginal terrorists will not commit the act." JFA strikes a point, alluding to the fact libertarians are all too eager to abandon the economic way of thinking when they want to defend their preference for little or no regulation.
And yet I would propose the opposite may be true too: a certain widespread belief in the powers of regulation, the view by which government can effectively engineer people's behaviour, may be so strong as to make terrorism nothing else than another matter which can be "fixed" with a proper regulatory arrangement. I wish it was so, but I fear this attitude may divert attention and resources from more needed anti-terrorist activities.
Co-blogger Bryan Caplan has one of his great papers on the subject, "Terrorism: the relevance of the rational choice model". Bryan distinguishes between three types--sympathizers, active terrorists, and suicidal terrorists--and considers their different "rationality." The point which is relevant to our discussion is the responsiveness to incentives. Building on the findings of qualitative literature, Bryan acknowledges that "the common sense view that suicide attacks are self-destructive, not self interested, is probably correct." His paper is a much worth reading defense of the rational choice model, updated with his own analysis of irrationality, applied to terrorism.."
I didn't want, however, to argue on terrorists' rationality, but only on the likelihood that regulations on purchases of some specific items may be good in deterring them. This is different from anti-terrorist deterrence, of the sort which is practiced, every day, by police and intelligence forces. My post was actually sparked by the idea, emerging from British left wing circles, that the London attacks were made easier by some deregulation of sales of chemicals.
This may be a car hire version of the "if you see something, say something" principle.
Stricter regulation, that applies uniformly to anybody renting a car or a van, seems to me a different matter. For one thing, how could such "stricter" regulation actually help in identifying, let alone fighting, terrorists? I would suppose that document forgery is something a person that plans to kill tens of people would see no problem in getting: which is my original point.
Let's put it in other terms: if you despise the established order, legality, and human life to the point of becoming a terrorist, do we really think that, being prohibited to hire a van, you would not simply steal one? I know some may argue that this way the police force can catch you because of such a stolen property: but, at least in my part of the world, I would doubt that policemen are better at retrieving stolen cars than they are at fighting terrorism.
It's true that incentives matter, but let's think for a moment about non-suicidal terrorists. The sanctions they face are far higher than those faced by a car thief. Can we really believe that the extra time in jail for stealing a car would affect their behaviour?
Sure,s regulation can make it harder for everybody to hire a van: this "everybody" includes criminals and terrorists. But their motivations seem to me to be such that they would have little hesitation in resorting to substitutes.