Mass shooting in perspective

Each of the past few years, about 35,000 Americans died in traffic accidents. This fact should be taken into account when considering recent massacres of civilians. I was wondering if anyone else would be cold hearted enough to go that way. So I waited a few days to comment on the massacres in Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, to avoid duplicating others’ commentaries. Plus, I have technical difficulties associated with my current location. Please, comment or wave if you see this.

Of the approximately 35,000 victims about half died in accidents involving alcohol. I will assume, against my thesis, that only 10,000 people each year died indirectly or directly because someone drank too much alcohol and drove.

How to count victims of mass shootings has become – strangely enough- controversial. Nevertheless, I am quite certain that shootings, specifically, of strangers for other than greed, or jealousy, or disappointed love have not caused 10,000 deaths in any of the past few years, not even close.

Do you agree; do you see where I am going?

So drunk drivers kill many more people – about 10,000 annually – than mass shooters. The victims of the ones are just as dead as the victims of the others; the loss and grief associated with the ones must be similar to those associated with the others. The deaths from one cause seem to me to be as meaningless as the deaths from the other. (That’s by contrast with the death of a firefighter in the line of duty, for example.)

A rational collective response should give priority to the avoidance of the many deaths from drunk driving over the much fewer deaths caused by mass assassins. Yet, the public reactions of the left are exactly the reverse of those rational expectations. In part, this inversion of priorities is due to the magnification the media affords mass shootings but not the slow massacre on the roads. In part, it may be due to the sometimes concentrated nature of the death tolls by mass shooting. This explanation, however, has only limited value because the small death toll at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, for example, was given much more publicity than is conceivable for any drunk driving accident with three lethal casualties.

This irrational ordering of priorities is made all the more puzzling by the fact that it would be much easier to reduce the number of deaths from drunk driving than by domestic mass shootings. Two reasons. First, people in jail can’t kill anyone with a car. The second reason is a little more subtle; bear with me.

Drunk drivers fall into two main categories, alcoholics who think they have to drive, and self-indulgent slobs. My intuition is that there are many more of the latter than of the former (especially among the young, who are overrepresented in car accidents) but I don’t have any figures. Self-indulgent slobs are capable of rational calculus. If the relevant punishment is severe enough and certain enough, they will become less self-indulgent. I used to be one of them. When the penalty for drunk driving went from about $100 to several thousand during my lifetime, I discovered that I could take a taxi, or pay a friend to drive me back, or drink at home. The quality of my life declined but it was worth it. It’s likely that my fear of heavy punishment saved someone’s life over the long run.

So, a credible remedial scheme is simple: withdrawal of driver’s license for a long period on the first offense associated with heavy fines for driving without a license. A significant jail term without possibility of parole would punish each subsequent infraction. Again, imprisoned drivers don’t kill anyone through their drunk driving. That’s a valid reason in itself to keep them locked up for a long time. It’s probably also economically reasonable.

So, I wonder why is there not a passionate public outcry on the political left and among its media partners in favor of a nation-wide remedial endeavor of the kind I just described?

Drunk driving kills many more Americans than do criminal mass shootings of the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton kind. This, although suppressive remedies to drunk driving are conceptually straightforward. My friend Vernon Bohr pointed out in a comment on Facebook that accidental drownings of children alone claim more lives of all categories of Americans than do mass shootings. There are better priorities.

The indifference of the left to those more important preventable causes of mortality as compared to its display of strong collective emotion with respect to sudden death by shooting seems strange, on the surface. This strong emotion is usually, almost always associated with urgent calls for some sort of federal gun control.

The contrast is made all the more striking by the following legal facts: First, the regulation of behavior that is potentially harmful to others – such as driving automobiles – falls squarely within the purview of state legislatures, primarily, of Congress, secondarily. Number two, driving is nowhere a right, except by default. Possessing weapons, by contrast, is a right explicitly guaranteed by the US Constitution, and twice reaffirmed by the US Supreme Court.

So, why would the considerable emotional and political resources of the left, aptly guided by the mass media, be expanded on the deaths of comparatively few, on a problem that is difficult to understand, one whose resolution would also encounter strong legal obstacles? Why this relentless emphasis when there are obvious, bigger, more rational objects of collective compassion?

I am thinking of two answers. One, the unpredictability of shooting events make them seem more disruptive than the somewhat routinized highway deaths, including by drunk drivers. The logical implication of this explanation is that if mass shootings became more frequent, they would appear more routine, and thus, less disruptive, and less deserving of left-wing attention. Note that there is a long way to go between the few hundred annual casualties by mass killings, and the 10,000 I attribute to drunk driving alone.

Thus, mass shootings garner both attention and emotion – including on the left – precisely because they are comparatively rare. If this were correct, attention and emotion would diminish with an increased frequency of such events. That is not a trend I observe. Others may see it.

Two, the left, and its media component, may focus on mass shootings in preference to making more rational choices, not in spite of the legal obstacles in their path but because of them. In this perspective, the focus on mass shootings may not be an exercise in misguided compassion, but a means to a higher end.

Americans are, on the whole, much attached to their Constitution. Modifying it is an arduous and uncertain task. Shortcuts to this effect are much appreciated. It would be difficult to find a more effective shortcut than the guided emotionalism the left supplies on the occasion of each mass shooting perpetuated by an American who is not also a violent jihadist. The spectacle of perfectly innocent victims, including children, cut down by someone seemingly exercising his constitutional right to bear arms must be the most formidable nonrational argument against that constitutional right. It can be mustered to sidestep collective choices – such as further reductions in deaths by drunk drivers – that would make the most sense from the standpoint of simple compassion. Thus, a one tenth reduction in deaths by drunk driver, and the corresponding shrinking of human misery, would do about twice more good than would the total (total) elimination of mass shootings.

The outburst of emotionalism expertly guided by the media we witnessed following three civilian mass shootings in quick succession is not about compassion, it’s about power. Every reduction in the autonomy of individuals increases the power of government, of those who are in charge of it through legitimate political means, and of the permanent bureaucracy.

Incidentally, I suspect there must be libertarian solutions to the vast and continuing problem of death by drunk driver, solutions that don’t involve putting people in jail. I don’t know what those are. I would like to hear about them.

Will the conservatives usher in a federal Europe?

Bill Wirtz does a great job reporting, in the American Conservative, on recent developments in European politics. Basically, the “populists,” who are socially conservative by European standards and anti-immigrant, are not actually opposed to the European Union. In fact, these right-wing parties are building international coalitions as you read this in order to better wield the dormant power of the EU; nobody is “actively seeking to leave the EU.”

Wirtz concludes that the anti-immigrant populist parties will spell the end of the European Union as we know it, but how can this be if these populists now want to use the EU rather than leave it? Wirtz is a great reporter but I think he wanted to mock Europhiles and the dreams of Euro-federalists rather than think things through. I’m happy to pick up where he leaves off, though.

For example, what if these populists succeed in federating Europe, rather than breaking it up? It’s not as radical as it sounds. The populists are small-d democrats. The populists are actively working with each other in an internationalist framework. The populists share the same anti-immigrant goals. The populist parties of Europe share the same opinion of Western civilization and believe their way of life is under threat. The populists realize that the EU can help them achieve their goals, and they share an affinity for some semblance of local (“national”) sovereignty. The ideological underpinning of these populist parties seems to be, then, that their way of life – their freedom – is under threat, and that they are not united and therefore susceptible to outside threats, and that the European Union is a great way to help them achieve some semblance of unity and security. Why not federate? Why not cure the mischiefs of faction?

Conservatives have a long track record of supporting radical change if it suits their worldview, too. The best example of this in politics is Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian diplomat who patched together a unified German state in a federal manner, but you don’t have to stop there. Examples abound everywhere.

The populists and could-be federalists aren’t going to usher in a new era of fascism, either. Today’s anti-immigrant sentiments are very different from the anti-Semitism that has plagued Europe for centuries. While I am disappointed that the European elections were essentially won by the anti-immigration faction, I am not surprised. I would not be surprised, either, to see a strong federalist push by these populists.

RCH: The secession of Texas from Mexico

My latest at RealClearHistory deals with Texas and its secession from Mexico. An excerpt:

There are other similarities, too, starting with the fact that Texas was not the only state in Mexico to try and secede from Mexico City. The self-declared republics of Rio Grande, Zacatecas, and Yucután also asserted their independence from Mexico, though Texas was the only state to actually succeed in its rebellion. Unlike the 13 North American states attempting to secede from the British Empire, the Mexican provinces did not band together to form a united front against a common enemy.

Texas itself was the northern part of a larger state called Coahuila y Tejas. When Mexico originally seceded from Spain, Coahuila y Tejas joined the new republic as its poorest, most sparsely populated member state. In addition to economic and demographic problems, Coahuila y Tejas shared a border with the Comanche and Apache Indians, who in the 1820s were still powerful players in regional geopolitics. Life in Coahuila y Tejas was nasty, brutal, and short.

Please, read the rest.

The Americanism of Aureliano Cândido Tavares Bastos

Life has been very busy, and so I am not blogging nearly as much as I would like to. Nevertheless, I would like to share my last published paper with you guys. Here is the abstract:

Aureliano Cândido Tavares Bastos was one of the main ideologists of the Brazilian Liberal Party in the 1860s and 1870s. Through several books, pamphlets and articles, Tavares Bastos defended that Brazil should follow a greater political and administrative decentralization, granting greater autonomy to the provinces. Another way to summarize Tavares Bastos’s political thinking is to say that he had great admiration for the United States, and understood that Brazil should, within the possibilities, copy more the political model of this country. Thus, this text interprets the political thinking of Tavares Bastos emphasizing as central factor of this the proposal that Brazil should not only more closely copy US federalism, but also get closer to the US in its foreign policy.

I do believe that Tavares Bastos is a great political thinker in Brazilian history and even beyond. Someone very worth knowing. Today Brazil is turning right, and the debate between Conservatives, Classical Liberals, and Libertarians is getting hotter. That is one reason why I believe Tavares Bastos is important today. A classical liberal, he opposed the nationalists/conservatives of his day. Here is the link for the complete article.

Afternoon Tea: “Magna Carta for the World? The Merchants’ Chapter and Foreign Capital in the Early American Republic”

This Article examines the early modern revival and subtle transformation in what is here called the merchants’ chapter of Magna Carta and then analyzes how lawyers, judges, and government officeholders invoked it in the new American federal courts and in debates over congressional power. In the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1790s, a British creditor and an American State debated the meaning and applicability of the merchants’ chapter, which guaranteed two rights to foreign merchants: free entry and exit during peacetime, without being subjected to arbitrary taxes; and, in wartime, the promise that their persons and goods would not be harmed or confiscated, unless their own king attacked and confiscated English merchants. In other words, no harm to enemy aliens, except as retaliation. Tit for tat.

The idea that reciprocity was a fundamental mechanism of international (and interpersonal) relations became something like a social science axiom in the early modern Enlightenment. Edward Coke claimed to find that mechanism in the merchants’ chapter and publicized it to lawyers throughout the emerging British Empire and beyond. Montesquieu lauded the English for protecting foreign commerce in their fundamental law, and Blackstone basked in that praise. American lawyers derived their understanding of the merchants’ chapter from these sources and then, in the early Republic, stretched the principle behind it to protect foreign capital, not just resident merchants. The vindication of old imperial debt contracts would signal to all international creditors that, in the United States, credit was safe. Federalists then invoked the chapter outside of the courts to resist Republican attempts to embargo commerce and sequester foreign credit. For Republicans, doux commerce had become the Achilles heel of the great Atlantic empires: their reliance on American trade could be used to gain diplomatic leverage without risking war. For Federalists, economic sanctions threatened not just their fiscal policy but their entire vision of an Atlantic world that increasingly insulated international capital from national politics. They all agreed, however, that the role of foreign capital in the American constitutional system was a central issue for the new and developing nation.

This is from Daniel J. Hulsebosch, a historian at NYU’s law school. Here is the link.

Nightcap

  1. Symmetry and Asymmetry as Elements of Federalism: A Theoretical Speculation Charles Tarlton, Journal of Politics
  2. The asymmetry of European integration, or why the EU cannot be a ‘social market economy’ Fritz Scharpf, Socio-Economic Review
  3. The past and future of European federalism: Spinelli vs. Hayek Federico Ottavio Reho, Martens Centre
  4. Secular Nationalism, Islamism, and Making the Arab World Luma Simms, Law & Liberty

Brexit Breakdown

Ir has been obvious for at least a month now that soft Brexit has won out in the UK, though the Prime Minister Theresa May would never admit such a thing directly. Government discussion of access to the EU internal market at its existing level, or very close, and keeping the border open between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (a fundamental of the peace settlement in the north) would at the very least require continuing regulatory alignment in goods (that is, following the rules made by the European Union).

It seems very likely that negotiations of the terms of exit with the EU itself would make even this partial alignment with the internal market inadequate in order to get the desired level of access. At the very least EU negotiators would demand some inclusion of services (financial services are the big issue here) and something at least resembling free movement of labour.

That inclusion would be full UK access to the internal market after exiting and would require at least a Swiss style relationship with the EU, in which there is full market access in exchange for accepting EU rules and something close to free movement of labour. Such a relationship would mean accepting judgments of the European Court of Justice even if they are not incorporated into UK law. The UK might not follow Switzerland into EFTA (European Free Trade Association, see paragraph below).

It has even been suggested that the UK might find it necessary to adopt a ‘Norway’ solution, in which the UK is directly a member of the European Economic Area. Norway has free movement but opts out of common agricultural and fisheries agreements. It is not part of the EU customs agreement. Like Iceland, Lichtenstein, and Switzerland, it is a member of the European Free Trade Area, which essentially harmonises regulations between these countries and the EU; that is, EU regulations are enforced by EFTA institutions.

It is clear that most Conservative MPs and businesses (though more large business than small business) regard something like the arrangements above, soft Brexit, as preferable to hard Brexit (trade agreement with the EU as a completely external country, possibility of no deal). These MPs and business people, along with most Treasury economists and economists in general, believe that keeping complete access to EU markets is more valuable than vague claims of a trade boom through deals with non-EU states across the world.

Hard Brexiteers believe that economic growth of other parts of the world requires breaking free of EU shackles on global free trade. The soft Brexit, as well as Remain, argument is that membership of the EU does not prevent trade with the rest of the world and that some EU countries are already doing that very well compared with the UK. On this argument, geographical proximity will always make EU trade disproportionately important so that limiting access to EU markets in the hope that non-EU countries will want free trade agreements is unnecessary and probably very damaging.

May’s drift towards soft Brexit after presenting herself as the guardian of hard Brexit has the support of most of the Cabinet, and Conservative MPs, but has been disappointing hard Brexiteers for some time. An agreement of the full cabinet at the Prime Minister’s country residence for soft Brexit has led to the resignation of the two most hard Brexit-oriented ministers.

It seems unlikely this this will deter May from a soft Brexit policy, which everyone agrees can only become more soft in negotiations with the EU to achieve an agreed exit. It also seems unlikely that most Conservative MPs will resist this policy. The biggest problem for May could be that the opposition parties want to vote against the government in call circumstances, so could vote with hard Brexit Conservative MPs to bring down any Brexit agreement.

At this point Brexit might completely break down, with the UK becoming a full member of EFTA, so in practice a member of the EU which exchanges some opt-outs for absence from the decision making processes and institutions. It might even lead to a suspension of Brexit, or a second referendum in which the electorate chooses between the exit package and staying in the EU.

At present, the most likely options in descending order are: 1. soft Brexit, outside formal association with the EU, but like that in practice, 2. formal association with the EU, maybe meaning membership of EFTA, 3. the complete breakdown of Brexit. This could change and so far change has been to move further and further away from hard Brexit.

Personally I support continuing membership of the EU. It is inevitable that large parts of the UK economy will ‘align’ with EU regulations, so it is best to be part of the institutions and processes which decide on these regulations. That is the most pragmatic version of my argument.

I am also a strong European integrationist, even a federalist romantic. The qualification of this idealism is that integration should not go further than public opinion or institutional capacity can accept at any one moment and that economic realities should guide the relationship with Europe for and against the kind of integration I favour at heart.

My own ideal is a kind of revival of the medieval dreams of ‘universal’ (i.e. European) Empire. The poet Dante was a great exponent of such a vision in his classic of political thought On Monarchy, which does not exclude city republics, even favours them under a high European sovereign. We can join it with Marsiglio of Padua’s slightly later call for an empire with elections to have something like democratic federation for Europe.

Leaving my European romanticism aside for the moment, the current realities are that the UK’s exit from the EU has become more and more complicated by the disadvantages of disentangling complex and far reaching institutional and economic links, particularly when most people involved want to keep an open border with the Republic of Ireland and keep 100% of the current level of access to the internal market.