Most people may want to make the world a better place, but relatively few have given a moment’s thought to what may actually work to achieve that goal.
Instead, most of us pick teams and outsource our thinking to them — and the quality of that “thinking” is, on the whole, simply terrible.
In general, we pick the “team” we are on based upon cultural values much more than self-interest, reasoned ideas or policy preferences. In fact, for most of us, policy preferences don’t precede choosing a side but are a result of that choice.
It’s dispiriting, if not surprising. It has ever been thus, although some political cultures are better at dealing with the problem than others. In many ways, the United States avoided many of the most serious consequences of this fact of life by limiting the powers of government itself; in other words, no matter what “team” won the political battles, there were natural limits to the damage that could be done.
Unfortunately, that is less and less true.
America is blessed with many fine schools of “public policy” and quite a large class of professional government administrators, but remarkably little government policy is actually set through careful analysis of data, genuinely open experiments or any kind of rational decision-making.
Instead, on issues big or small, policy discussions tend to be veiled (or not so veiled) battles between culturally opposed groups. The only issues where real public policy can be set rationally are those few people care about — and even there, you find that economic interests motivate the few people who do care, and those interests tend to override the public good.
The issue du jour is, of course, guns. Lots of heat and very little light is shed in the so-called “debates” over how to deal with gun violence, and the reason for that is simple: Few of the participants actually are focused on dealing with the issue of gun violence, regardless of what they say or even believe.
Each side in the “debate” is focused on discrediting the other side. That is the purpose of the debate, not actually setting any public policy that will change things in the “real world.”
How do I know that? (I think you know that too.) Simple: Think of how little discussion there has been regarding actual data and what realistic changes in public policy could actually accomplish. Partisans wield statistics occasionally, but only as rhetorical weapons — not to enlighten.
The data are pretty clear: gun violence and other violence has been on a serious decline in the United States for quite a while. Murder rates are about half of what they were 20 or 30 years ago. A 50 percent decline in murders is pretty impressive by any standard. Yet during this period of time, the right to carry guns in the United States has expanded quite dramatically. (I am not suggesting a causal relationship here.) Even here in liberal Minnesota, it is not hard to get a permit to carry a gun.
The United States’ violent crime rate is actually somewhere between 1/2 and 1/5 that of Great Britain. (Apples-to-apples comparisons are difficult due to different methodologies in counting.) More of our violent crimes involve guns, obviously, because they are more readily available. But most Americans would not trade a lower rate of gun violence for two to five times as much violent crime.
More importantly, even if we could legally ban guns, register them, or simply make it harder to get them, it would have absolutely no effect on the availability of guns in the United States for those who are willing to break the law. Between 40 percent and 50 percent of all households have guns already, and there are about as many guns as people in the US.
Criminals have absolutely no trouble getting illegal guns — automatic weapons are illegal, but not uncommon for gangs to possess. They are so common, in fact, that the US government actually “walked” guns to gangs in order to track them to the bad guys.
Most of the gun laws passed in recent years have clearly not accomplished their goals. Murder rates are generally the highest precisely where guns are most proscribed. Criminals are proven lawbreakers, so passing a law restricting guns doesn’t deter them a whit.
I have yet to read a persuasive, much less convincing, argument that any achievable public policy could substantially change the number of mass shootings. Frankly, we should spend a lot more time trying to understand the reasons why violence has declined so much, and less on the availability of any particular weapon.
So why the fruitless debate about guns?
It is, as I suggested above, about culture, not policy. One “team” likes or is tolerant of guns, while the other dislikes guns and gun culture. The debate appears to be about gun violence, but it is in fact about who should dominate the culture.
The debate, in other words, is about whose “team” will win the match. (The “teams,” by the way, are not 100 percent correlated with political party.)
Fine. That is a big part of human relations, but unfortunately the “winners” don’t just get bragging rights; they get to use the power of government to push other people around.
That’s one reason why government should be less powerful.
David Strom is a Senior Policy Fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are his own.
Cross-posted at Center of the American Experiment