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.

Why Hayek was Wrong about American and European Conservatism IV

Continuing a discussion from here inspired by F.A. Hayek’s essay ‘Why I am Not a Conservative’.

One central claim of Hayek’s essay is that American conservatism is not the same as European conservatism, as it is rooted in the classical liberalism of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. He notes that ‘European’ style conservatism exists in the US but claims it is an artificial import that looks odd. A really big problem here is Hayek’s assumption that there are native national forms of political culture which are authentic compared with alien intrusions. Of course national context and tradition are important, but that should not conceal understanding of pluralism, emergence from the margins of positions that have always been there, change, and influences across national frontiers.

Hayek’s talk of odd looking imports into American conservatism may cover Russell Kirk and William Buckley, both major influences on American conservatism in second half of the twentieth century and their influence lingers in central parts of US conservatism. Buckley’s conservatism was connected with his traditionalist Catholics. The founders of the American Republic were Protestants and anti-Catholicism has been a significant force in the United States until well into the 20th century.

Hayek himself was a person without religious belief from a Catholic culture who attributed great importance to the Catholicism of Alexis de Tocqueville and David Acton (see my comments in last post). He considered naming the Mont Pelerin Society the Acton-Tocqueville society, apparently because of the role Catholics played in the German groups resisting Hitler. This is all very strange, as it was certainly not only Catholics who resisted Hitler and there is no need to name a free market institution after a British and a French Catholic to get support from German liberals. Even leaving that aside there is an extraordinary tangle here with regard to how American conservatism relates to American and European religious traditions, along with the question of where Hayek fits.

Kirk brought Burkean conservatism into the US, where Burke’s most famous critic, Thomas Paine (what we might now call a left libertarian), is more associated with the early republican heritage. Of course, as I have pointed out, Hayek was a big Burke fan. So we see another tangle about how to connect American conservatism with Europe. In general the imports into American conservatism come from sources Hayek liked, Catholicism (though he was an atheist as well as divorced and twice married), and Burke. What was Hayek’s presence at the University of Chicago or his impact on US conservatives and libertarians then? Hayek was very much a late Habsburg in character, not at all American.

I also question how far US conservatism can be seen as an outgrowth of classical liberalism – distinct from a supposed European conservatism tied to non-liberal tradition and slowing down change. An account of American conservatism must acknowledge paleoconservatism along with paleolibertarianism, which are both outgrowths of neo-Confederate thought idealising the slave-holding and then white supremacist societies of the southern states, turning Abraham Lincoln into a villain. There is also southern Agrarianism, an idealisation of southern rural society. Most significantly for party politics, there is the tradition which goes back to the Bourbon Democrats (that is southern pro-slavery and segregationist Democrats) which became the Old Right of the Republican Party from which Ron Paul emerged.

We cannot go very far in discussing American conservatism without running into nostalgia for pre-liberal societies and organicist rural tradition, which looks remarkably like traditionalist conservatism in Europe. The early foundational documents of the American Republic are great things, but do not in themselves stand in the way of local illiberal communities undisturbed by the federal state. This is how slavery and then Jim Crow (segregationism and white supremacism) survived.

The story of an American system with a truly individualist, equal rights way-of-thinking enforced by the federal state for all only really starts with Abraham Lincoln (main text here is the Gettysburg Address of course, which in essence advocates ‘a new birth of freedom’ as the transformation of the union of states into a democratic nation), followed by the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which abolished slavery, gave the Federal state a bigger role in enforcing constitutional protections, and created a federal guarantee for voting rights.

Sadly the triumph of southern ‘Redemption’ over Congressional Reconstruction after the Civil war prevented proper protection of basic rights for African-Americans until the 1960s. Of course most American conservatives now see the slavery and Jim Crow periods as the wrong kind of conservatism, based on a failure to apply the best parts of constitutional and natural law thinking.

There are many other aspects to American conservatism, the important point is to emphasise that significant parts of it have been based on traditionalist admiration for pre-liberal communities and the violent state imposition of social hierarchies (often accompanied by illegal violence tolerated, or even encouraged by the state) denying basic rights to humans of the wrong ‘race’. This has also influenced the more ‘paleo’ forms of libertarianism.

However many good things we can find in the US constitution, it was not applied so as to guarantee citizen and personal rights for all more than a century and a half after its adoption. Its initial design incorporated measures to allow the persistence of slavery. Whatever one might think about its proper meaning, the reality is that veneration for it was not a barrier to slavery or Jim Crow, along with many other abuses.

Hayek was no doubt sincere in wishing to distinguish his thought from conservatism and I certainly do not think his best insights can be applied within a conservative framework, but clearly he prefers conservatism to the more radical republican end of liberal thought (which did have an impact on some of the best moments in American politics) and it is not a surprise that conservatives have found it easy to digest a version of Hayek. Hayek’s thoughts about European conservatism are inadequate and he becomes stuck in an extraordinary tangle in his view of American conservatism.

My brief thoughts on Ferguson

  • When I first heard the ruling, a few hours after it had been announced, I checked the webpages of the international press. Only two outlets – Germany’s Der Spiegel and Al-Jazeera‘s Arabic language webpage (its English and Turkish language websites were different stories) – had front page headlines not highlighting the riots in the US. The Turkish and British media had the most extensive coverage of events when I checked them out (again, this was a couple of hours after the ruling was announced).
  • The United States has a racist past, and a racist present, that has yet to be fully addressed. Tocqueville saw this coming in 1825. Reparations for stolen labor is the only way I can see this issue being resolved. I don’t see anything that needs to be fixed about black culture. Black culture is an important component of the United States and its image abroad. Every kid in every Ghanaian village knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States. Every teenager in every Chinese city knows who 2Pac, Nas, and Jay-Z are, and as a result they implicitly respect the people of the United States.
  • Ending the War on Drugs will also go a long way to addressing the issue of state-sponsored oppression.
  • Affirmative Action is what you get when you try to address state-sponsored oppression through the legislative process rather than through the judicial process. Few, if any, blacks benefit from AA, and the few who do are highly educated and do not reflect the general population of blacks in the US.
  • Nationalizing policing duties, or giving Washington a more prominent role in policing matters, is a horrible idea that needs to die a thousand, painful deaths.
  • The people who loot and damage private property should be pursued and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
  • There are few things that make me smile more than seeing a police car burning. I hope the bill comes out of the pensions – themselves extracted from the taxpayer by public sector unions – of policemen, though I know this will not happen.
  • I have seen a lot of white, Asian, and Hispanic faces at the protests. There are some blacks who have made a living in academia and in the activist world by claiming that non-blacks are more racist than blacks (“micro-aggression”). I hope these protests will convince the neutral black observer that racism is a structural issue in this country, not a cultural one. I think, through my own anecdotal experience, that most blacks are both neutral and implicitly understand that this is a structural issue.

“In Praise of Midterms”

That’s the title of this short blog post by Professor John McGinnis of Northwestern’s School of Law. An excerpt:

An op-ed in in The New York Times yesterday argued  that it would be a good idea to eliminate the midterms and the amend the Constitution in favor of longer terms for members of Congress.  They analogize the federal offices to state and local offices, like school boards, which have longer tenure. This argument gets things perversely backwards. We put checks on the power of the federal government in part to make it harder for the government to displace the more local ordering of state officials, thus preserving federalism.  The more  potentially powerful their political agents, the more opportunities the people need to check them.

The authors of the op-ed also argued that the President needs sufficient time to pursue his democratic mandate with a sympathetic Congress.  This point ignores the weakness of any Presidential mandate in the first place.   As Ilya Somin emphasizes in an excellent recent book, most voters are rationally ignorant of politics and do not have a strong grasp of the specific program of the candidate for whom they vote. Moreover, the vote takes place at a particular time with a specific mix of issues that may soon change. Often the vote is so close that the difference amounts to no mandate at all. Think Bush-Gore. Sometimes the result would have been different if the election had happened a week later. Think Carter-Ford. It is precisely because any election is only a blurry snapshot of democratic sentiment that it is essential to take more pictures.

[…]

Midterms are often lambasted because they allow more spending on yet more elections. But another perspective is that midterms provide an opportunity for people who do not influence politics for a living to band together and try to persuade their fellow citizens about which candidates and policies are better. It takes money to get out their message. But the alternative is a much more insular politics, shaped to an even greater extent by the symbolic class of the media and academics, a class that leans sharply to one side of the political spectrum. Not surprisingly most of the voices for curbing the midterms come from this crowd of the like-minded.

Besides celebrating the victory of any favorite candidate this evening, take some time to celebrate the Framers’ design. It permits citizens to better control their rulers and protects decentralized social ordering from evanescent passions.

The rest of his post is worth the click. McGinnis makes my point (first update) in a much more coherent fashion than I could ever hope to. See also this piece by Fred. Check out Rick’s and Warren’s thoughts on the voting process itself.

Libertarians and World Government, Part 3

I have briefly blogged about the problem libertarians face when confronted with world government and the inherent internationalism of their creed before (here and here), but none of those musings were as deep as I’d have liked them to be. I think I have a better understanding of this puzzle now, and therefore you’re gonna get a longer than usual post.

First up is the task of confronting the skepticism of all government that comes from most American libertarians. This is a skepticism that becomes all the more hostile as the level of government rises. So, for example, many libertarians are contemptuous of local government but don’t mind it all that much. This contemptuousness rises a little when the next level of government is involved: that of the administrative unit (in the US this is known as a “state” for reasons I hope to explain a little further below; elsewhere the administrative unit is usually known as a “province”). When the federal government is involved, in US politics, the libertarian becomes deeply suspicious and hostile to its intents and actions. Much of this is warranted, of course, and the American libertarian usually allows the federal level of government room to maneuver in matters of foreign policy and the courts (the two legitimate functions of the state).

When a level of governance rises up any further than that, though, to the regional level (NAFTA, CAFTA, etc.) or the supranational level (the UN, World Bank, EU, etc.), the animosity displayed towards government is vicious and reactionary rather than thoughtful and penetrating. Again, much of this is warranted, as these levels of governance usually act beyond the scope of democracy and seem only to serve the interests of those who belong to the regional and supranational organizations (unelected – i.e. politically appointed – bureaucrats). The nature of these “higher levels” of government is the main reason the patron saints of modern-day libertarians – the interwar economist Ludwig von Mises and the legal philosopher FA Hayek chief among them – were highly critical of the creation of these organizations (as well as the short-lived League of Nations).

It does not follow, however, that the inter- and post-war libertarians disavowed the earlier writings of classical liberals on world government. Indeed, Ludwig von Mises himself, in his 1927 book Liberalism (pdf), observed:

Just as, in the eyes of the liberal, the state is not the highest ideal, so it is also not the best apparatus of compulsion. The metaphysical theory of the state declares—approaching, in this respect, the vanity and presumption of the absolute monarchs—that each individual state is sovereign, i.e., that it represents the last and highest court of appeals. But, for the liberal, the world does not end at the borders of the state. In his eyes, whatever significance national boundaries have is only incidental and subordinate. His political thinking encompasses the whole of mankind. The starting-point of his entire political philosophy is the conviction that the division of labor is international and not merely national. He realizes from the very first that it is not sufficient to establish peace within each country, that it is much more important that all nations live at peace with one another. The liberal therefore demands that the political organization of society be extended until it reaches its culmination in a world state that unites all nations on an equal basis. For this reason he sees the law of each nation as subordinate to international law, and that is why he demands supranational tribunals and administrative authorities to assure peace among nations in the same way that the judicial and executive organs of each country are charged with the maintenance of peace within its own territory.

For a long time the demand for the establishment of such a supranational world organization was confined to a few thinkers who were considered utopians and went unheeded. To be sure, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the world repeatedly witnessed the spectacle of the statesmen of the leading powers gathered around the conference table to arrive at a common accord, and after the middle of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of supranational institutions were established, the most widely noted of which are the Red Cross and the International Postal Union. Yet all of this was still a very far cry from the creation of a genuine supranational organization. Even the Hague Peace Conference signified hardly any progress in this respect. It was only the horrors of the World War that first made it possible to win widespread support for the idea of an organization of all nations that would be in a position to prevent future conflicts. (147-148)

What Mises and other interwar liberals missed in regards to establishing a supranational state is the very nature of the US constitution. Interwar liberals were more interested in pointing out the blatant inconsistencies of the multilateral institutions being erected after the war than they were with elaborating upon the idea of a world state. My guess is that they viewed the world state as too far out of reach for their goals at the time, and thus fell back on the ‘balance of power’ option (pdf) that was still popular among liberals at the time. The US constitution is, at its core, a pact between sovereign states to join together politically for the mutual self-interests of foreign affairs and legal standardization (a standardization that is very minimal, as it allows for plenty of flexibility and competition).

This pact, aside from explaining why US administrative units are known as ‘states’ rather than ‘provinces,’ is the key to slowly building a world state that is both representative and liberal (in that it exists to protect the rights of individuals first and foremost).

One of the biggest weaknesses of the US constitution to date is its inability to expand upon the notion that it is a legal charter outlining the duties of a supranational organization. Creating a mechanism that allows for the recognition of foreign provinces  as US member states by incorporating them into the federal apparatus would be a step in the right direction. This mechanism would obviously have to be slowed down in some way. It would have to be approved, for example, by two-thirds of all state legislatures (Utah and California say ‘Yes’ while Georgia says ‘No’) as well as two-thirds of both legislative bodies in the federal government (67% ‘Yes’ vote from both the House and the Senate).

There would also have to be a mechanism allowing for states in the federal union to exit if they so pleased (again in a way that is slow and deliberate so that as many factions as possible could have their voices heard). Contra to some musings by paleolibertarians here in the US, the constitution and the Bill of Rights actually has a sophisticated method of dealing with intrastate conflict within its sphere of jurisdiction; secession is allowed between states, as is the merging of two or more states, although secession from the federal government is so far prohibited (this failing would also have to be addressed before a world state could be contemplated).

It seems to me that the US has practiced unpolished versions of my argument in the past. Texas, for example, seceded from Mexico before becoming a US “state” through annexation.

Does any of this make sense, or do I just sound like a mad man?

Heads up Pennsylvanians you just became less free!

Cops can now search your car without a warrant in Pa.

So much for due process?  Or unreasonable search and siezure…
That’s right, not only do police have the legal authority (thanks positivists!) to search a vehicle with absolutely no cause whatsoever but you can be arrested and charged for the simple act of having “secret compartments” in your vehicle.  I will leave it up to you to decide if this power will be abused or not.

Abstract Ideas Don’t Deserve Patents [NY Times]

In preparation for something special that I will finally complete this week (Rothbard willing) lets talk about this editorial from the New York Times.

 

The article starts accurately enough explaining the US government’s monopoly power of ideas saying:

The Constitution gives Congress the power to grant inventors a temporary monopoly over their creations to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

 

I am actually shocked at the strong language used here, the four letter word “monopoly” is rarely used in reference to any government service.  At least in polite company.  I would also like to point out the subjective language quoted from the constitution.  “Useful arts”.  Useful to whom?  To the inventor?  To consumers?  To the government?  To humanity?  Like most state activities the ability to decide what is “useful” is left to bureaucrats in service to the government rather than in the free market where useful services will generate profits and those that generate disuse (or disutility) are met with losses.  Back to the article though:

“But in recent years, the government has too often given patent protection to inventions that do not represent real scientific advances.”

 

No argument there.  The “copyright troll” phenomenon is more than enough to make this libertarian squeamish.  Where is this editorial going I wonder?

  “The issue in this case, Alice Corporation Pty. v. CLS Bank International, is whether using a computer to implement a well-established economic concept can be patented. The court should rule that such ideas are not eligible for patent protection.

 

Alice Corporation obtained four American patents that cover a method of settling trades between investors in currency and other financial markets. The approach depends on a neutral middleman to make sure traders complete the transactions they have agreed to. The corporation, which is based in Australia, has accused CLS Bank, a London-based company that settles foreign exchange trades for investors around the world, of infringing its patents.”  

To make a long story short the US patent office granted the Alice Corporation a copyright on a form of interaction between a buyer, a middleman and a seller.  An absurd concept to be sure.  Now the question is what does the editorial suggest?

“The Supreme Court should make clear that nobody should be allowed to claim a monopoly over an abstract idea simply by tying it to a computer.”

I agree; but why stop there?  Why the artificial endpoint of “abstract ideas tied to a computer”?  If we shouldn’t allow patents on abstract ideas what would the author suggest if we proved that all ideas are necessarily abstract and therefore not able to be owned, sold, or monopolized?  Would he follow his logic to the conclusion that perhaps all patents are invalid?