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Mass Killings and the Economic Approach to Human Behavior

Giving Thanks... Old classical macro plus reall...

by Pierre Lemieux

mass killing.jpg Whether or not mass killings without Islamist terrorism are on an upward trend is a debated question. In their article "Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown," criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur argue that, as of 2012, the number of such mass shootings and their victims has been quite stable for 35 years in America. Recently, many terrorist mass killings have occurred in Europe, while non-political ones, like in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, have dominated the news in America. Why do individuals commit mass killings?

Perhaps we can gain some understanding with what Gary Becker called the economic approach to human behavior. In Becker's view, which is standard economics, individuals make choices on the basis of both their preferences and the constraints they face. We take preferences as given, because a change in preferences can provide an ad hoc explanation for anything. (I will relax this assumption later.)

Most people are not tempted to commit mass killings but, obviously, some are. Casual observation suggests that mass killers are nearly always, and perhaps always, losers - in the Merriam-Webster sense of "a person who is incompetent or unable to succeed." Of course, not all losers have the preferences of mass killers, but for some of them, mass killing is not out of the realm of utility. But when losers face the proper constraints, they don't commit mass killings. The crimes they are likely to commit are more standard crimes, petty or serious. Two sorts of constraints have long prevented losers from committing mass killings.

The first kind of constraint is a straight budget constraint. For most of mankind's history and in most countries, losers were or are busy trying not to starve. They do not have the physical means - cars, guns, bombs, or other costly items - to commit mass killings. But in today's rich countries, a loser can rent a truck at Home Depot with a credit card. By enriching everybody and recognizing rights such as Second-Amendment rights, a free society empowers everybody, including losers. Some of the latter may yield to the mass-killing temptation.

The second kinds of constraints are moral constraints, often inspired by religion (but perhaps also, or consequently, by a general sense of decency). Adam Smith wrote:

Religion, even in its crudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy. That the terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty, was of too much importance to the happiness of mankind for nature to leave it dependent upon the slowness and uncertainty of philosophical researches. The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Friedrich Hayek, despite describing himself as a "professed agnostic," also recognized the importance of religion in a free society (see chapter 9 of The Fatal Conceit).

We should not idealize the past, which was generally more violent than today. Yet, in times past, there were things that one simply must not do, and even losers knew that. Losers were humble. There is no doubt that today moral constraints have been weakened, if only through the decline of religion.

There were exceptions to losers' restraint. In 356 BC, Herostratus burnt the temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Greece in order to immortalize his name. He succeeded, at the cost of torture and execution. The desire for immortality may still motivate losers to become mass killers. Islamist terrorists yearn for a specific form of eternal life. Today, any loser can achieve some posthumous fame if not the hope of eternal life with a gun or a rented truck (Saipov, the recent bicycle path terrorist, did not even have a gun).

Other constraints would, to some extent, include the capacity of the victims to shoot in self-defense. In Paris, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, witnesses could only capture the killers on their phone cameras.

Relaxing the earlier assumption of stable preferences compounds the consequences of the attenuation of moral constraints. Some individuals can acquire nihilist, death-loving preferences, or lose sympathy for other human beings. Even in the short run, losers' preferences can be changed by propaganda. Islam comes to mind but, historically, other religions have also justified mass killings. Eternal life in paradise is a powerful motivator, for better and for worse.

The impact of Islamist propaganda could help explain the disproportionate number of terrorist mass killings in Europe. The hypothesis that individuals, including losers, are more empowered in America than in other countries might explain the frequency of non-political mass killings here. That Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, a country slightly above the United States in terms of per capita income, underlines the empowerment factor.

Individual preferences are also influenced by culture, in the "learned" sense of an appreciation for the human adventure. This may explain why non-terrorist mass killings are rarer in culture-heavy European countries; or, at least, it would be an interesting hypothesis to test.

Trade-offs are part of the bread and butter of economists, and mass killings remind us of the trade-off between tyranny and the risk that comes with liberty. As Fox and DeLateur admit,

People cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange, or act in an odd manner. ... Mass murder just may be a price we pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.

Strangely, however, they also write:

Gun restrictions and other initiatives may not stop the next mass murderer, wherever he or she may strike, but we can enhance the well-being of millions of Americans in the process. Besides, doing something is better than doing nothing. At least, it will reduce the debilitating feeling of helplessness.

A public-choice approach may suggest that disempowering individuals and giving a monopoly of self-defense to the state is not a good solution. My late friend George Jonas, who fled communist Hungary when he was 21, illustrated this trade-off with all his literary talents. In his memoirs, he wrote:

Public safety was relatively high in Communist regimes. The only unlawful activities that flourished were smuggling and petty thievery. ... In the Communist state, crime was nationalized, along with other human endeavours. The state reserved the privilege to rob, mug, and murder to itself.

Several years after fleeing Hungary, George travelled to his still-communist former country with a woman companion. In Eastern Europe, he explains, everything was dark, even during daytime, a darkness "completed by a literal, pitch-black darkness at night." One night, George and his companion were walking in a dark, ghostly street of Budapest. George's companion became apprehensive: "She reached for my hand and huddled closer to me." "Relax," he told her. "You're in Hungary. Here you've nothing to worry about, until you see a policeman."

Pierre Lemieux is an economist affiliated with the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais. His forthcoming book, to be published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, will aim at answering common objections to free trade. Email:

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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

This is an extremely thought-provoking article, in particular, the anecdote of communist Hungary. It made me recall a story from the reign of Vlad Tepes (aka Vlad the Impaler). I don't know how accurate it is, but the story goes that a man had a sum of gold stolen from him. He reports the theft to Tepes. Tepes finds the robber, tortures him, and returns the gold to the man, plus one piece extra. The man says nothing about the extra gold. Later that day, Tepes has the man arrested, tortured, and killed for dishonesty. Under Tepes' rule, the story goes, crime was virtually non-existent.

There is a big trade-off between liberty and security.

JFA writes:

While I consider myself a relatively small state kinda guy, I find the tendency of those on the right (yes, including many libertarians) to dismiss gun control because then the state will just murder and rob you to be utterly lacking in nuance.

Mr. Lemieux's "public choice approach" should consider not only when you have an extractive state but when you also have an inclusive state (to use Acemoglu's terms). I don't know what outcome is more likely for the US, but instead of just blithely suggesting that the only alternative to current US law (where you can relatively easily get a military-style assault weapon) is Soviet-style government, perhaps analyses going forward should account for the heterogeneity of outcomes.

Thaomas writes:

I do not the the 2nd Amendment constrains prohibitions of the kinds of weapons (one capable of firing large numbers of rounds in a short time) which can be used most efficiently in a mass murder nor people whose behavior (e.g. stalking or domestic abuse) have shown a higher likelihood of criminal use of firearms. This would raise the implicit "price" of mass murder.

I listened to an interview with a guy who immigrated from India and he said something similar to the guy from Hungary. The police are the organized crime. I think you'll find that true in much of the world.

A couple of economists have tracked the crimes prevented by private people having guns and the estimates go over one million. Do we really want to trade a million crimes prevented to prevent a few of the mass shootings? Making all guns illegal will not prevent mass shootings, as Europe has proven. It might prevent a few of them.

Thanks for the plug for religion. Even libertarians are suckers for the atheist nonsense that people are created good and society makes them bad. Christianity teaches that the worst evil runs through all mankind and humans cannot change that. The Bible, in the first chapter of the book of Romans, says that a respect for God restrains evil, but when people reject God he quits trying to restrain them and allows them to pursue the evil they want. Sometimes that evil murders innocent people. Mass murders are empirical evidence for the Christian doctrine of original sin.

JFA writes:

@Roger could you give a citation. I would like to take a look at the research.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

I suspect that Roger refers to JR Lott and DB Mustard, "Crime, deterrence, and right-to-carry concealed handguns," Journal of Legal Studies 26 (1), 1-68, 1997. Lott has since published a few editions of his book More Guns, Less Crime. I also recommend two books by Joyce Lee Malcolm, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right, and Guns and Violence: The English Experience.

Thanks Pierre! Also, it's not scientific, but the NRA's magazine every month has really good stories of people defending themselves with guns.

JFA writes:

My reading of the literature (I dove into it around 3 years ago but haven't kept up with it) is that (on the whole) the conclusion more guns leads to more crime (or at least more murders). Also, Lott and Mustard's result were found to be not that robust. See Duggan, Mark (2001-10-01). "More Guns, More Crime". Journal of Political Economy. 109 (5): 1086–1114.

Regardless of whether or not you believe the results from the Lott and Mustard study, it seems that your conclusions should come from the body of literature rather than one single paper.

Are there instances in which widespread gun ownership can lead to decreases in crime and increased protection of personal property? Probably. Are those conditions met in the US? Probably not (though I'm open to changing my mind).

Going back to my initial point, it seems that individuals on both sides of the debate need to determine whether gun restrictions in the US would lead to something more like Ukraine and India or something like Switzerland (if guns were tightly regulated) or the UK (if guns were tightly restricted). My sense is that it wouldn't be like India or Ukraine.

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