Or, liberty tolerant, depending upon your preferences

In the wake of the Connecticut tragedy, I’ve been troubled by a host of tweets and Facebook posts by many colleagues, all of which share this essential gist: How much more of this is it going to take before you gun-loving US morons take sensible action?! I say “troubling” because embedded in this sentiment are two fatal flaws that serious social scientists should strive to avoid.

The first issue is the desire to draw conclusions with respect to public safety policy from a single, emotionally-charged incident. To many of my colleagues, it seems “obvious” that banning or introducing tight restrictions on gun ownership will improve public safety. Yet, economists (perhaps better than practitioners in any other branch of social science) know that what seems obvious to many at first glance, very rarely is. And, indeed, when we look carefully (as Joshua does in his post), we find that what we know with respect to gun policy and public safety is indeterminate.

For example, while the number of gun-related homicides have gone down in Australia since the gun ban, the overall number of homicides has not changed (and is now increasing). The same is true in the UK and Canada. Oddly, as the number of gun owners has increased in the US, the number of gun-related deaths has actually dropped. These are only stylized facts – no causal relationships are identified. Still, they suggest the story is not as obvious as intuition suggests – which should come as no surprise to economists (whose skepticism toward common intuition is legendary).

There remains, however, a second issue — namely, pasting one’s own preferences on people from another country with a different culture. (In fairness to Josh, he is very up-front about this.) Because he is afraid of people with guns (and, hence, would prefer to live somewhere with strict gun laws), Josh concludes that people in the US have a greater tolerance for fear. This must imply, therefore, that  Americans have simply fallen into a “bad” equilibrium (his term). Here, my only fear is that he’s succumbed to issue #2 …

First, I grew up around guns. On my thirteenth birthday, I was given my own rifle. It was a coming-of-age present that symbolized the expectation and trust of my community that I henceforth be responsible, serious and adult-like. All of my friends had guns. None were accidentally shot or committed suicide. Friends with guns don’t scare me. Indeed, I would feel very safe in a class knowing that a couple of armed students with concealed carry permits were attending. Alternatively, leaving a law-abiding population defenseless and prey to random street thugs – even if the latter’s weapons “only” include clubs, bottles and knives – strikes me as a policy more deserving of the “fear tolerant” moniker.

Second, at some point during my five years in Australia, it began to dawn on me that it was a place where the governance system moved from having social bosses selected via inheritance to one in which they get selected via elections. From the traditional US point-of-view, this is bizarre – why would anyone not prefer to be their own boss? The US, system – set up by people with a vivid, recent experience of state-sanctioned persecution by the majority – maxed-out on the individual rights dimension. Greater freedom comes with many benefits. It also comes with costs – freedom to fail, freedom to use poor judgment, and so on. How one weights those benefits versus costs is a personal call.

Joshua’s post is almost perfect. He is right on the money in emphasizing calm, dispassionate assessment of public policy in the wake of this terrible tragedy and in presenting an even-handed review of the extant social science on the issue. His intellectual honesty with respect to not getting US culture is also commendable. Where he slips is in suggesting that the choices of those whose preferences he openly admits to not understanding are “bad” relative to his own.  My preference is to live in a community where my neighbors and I are granted maximal leeway to make our own decisions – with eyes wide open to the accompanying costs. That’s not bad, irrational, immoral or even hard to understand. It’s just different.

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