January 25, 2013

The Efficacy of Banning Guns

The gun control controversy has raised its head once again, and though there has been more heat than usual, there has been a typical lack of serious reflection. Let’s consider the issues underneath the slogans.

Let’s imagine, for sake of argument, that the most extreme regulatory measures could be enacted into law – a full repeal of the 2nd Amendment and a Federal ban on the possession of any firearm by any private individual in America. In such a scenario, many law-abiding people would undoubtedly turn in their guns. Many other basically law-abiding people would not, and would thus become felons on principle. The percentage who would choose to disobey the law is impossible to estimate accurately, but unquestionably some firearms would be taken out of circulation and, presumably, would be destroyed.

The NRA has always put forward the argument that criminals would not turn in their guns. This is a perfectly reasonable assumption. If a person makes a living by illegal means, he is certainly not likely to meekly give up his pistol either because “it’s the right thing to do,” or because the possession of it is made a crime. Still, one might expect a certain gradual decline in gun crime, simply through attrition. Guns do get seized in arrests, they break, they get lost, ammunition gets consumed or goes bad through improper storage, etc. So, although gun crime would not stop immediately, it would have to dwindle away eventually – right?

For better or worse, I believe that answer, at least in America, is almost certainly “no.” Consider guns as a market commodity like any other. As long as there is a demand for a commodity that someone can profitably supply, that commodity will be supplied. For example, a great variety of narcotics and other drugs are illegal in the US, but decades of law enforcement efforts have failed to put an end to their use, or even come close to doing so. The same would be true of firearms. There is no reason to assume that a narcotrafficker with the means of smuggling cocaine and marijuana into the country in large quantities either could not or would not engage in gunrunning if such a market came into existence. Indeed, the customer base and distribution networks created for narcotics would serve narcotraffickers well for distributing illegal guns and ammunition. It is reasonable to assume that gunrunning would more than compensate for the attrition one would expect through breakage and confiscation. Criminals would not only ignore the law, but would have a fairly reliable source of illegal supply. Gun violence might decline slightly due to the inflation of prices resulting from a restricted market, but would probably still plateau at a high level. To the extent that criminals find guns desirable for their mystique alone, banning them would only make them more attractive by endowing them with more prestige.

The left believes that the Mexican drug cartels acquire their weapons at American gun shows. I doubt this happens often, but even if it does it is merely a supply of convenience. People with the resources to control whole regions of Mexico have the resources to import weapons from the international market. Likewise, evidence that gun crime has declined in England and Australia is inapplicable. Neither England nor Australia have the border issues that America does.

Another common argument against banning guns, the argument that an armed public is a deterrent to crime, is harder to prove. Armed citizens do successfully stop or prevent crimes occasionally, but the argument that this is statistically relevant is still the subject of some controversy. There is at least one credible study that shows that armed citizens reduce the rate of street crime (see John Lott, 2000). The argument has to work to some degree – being practically certain that a homeowner would not have a gun wouldn’t make a home invader less likely to break in. Statistics comparing the US with gun-free England do support this. You can play this argument off against the rate of gun accidents and other considerations, but, with regard to violent crime, being armed must give a person at least some advantage over being unarmed.

The final common argument against gun control – and against a ban on militarily useful firearms in particular – rests on the belief that the public itself should have the capacity to throw off tyranny, foreign or domestic, by force if necessary. This is an entirely different kind of argument – an argument for a specific kind of individual liberty, not an argument for more effective crime prevention. It is a romantic notion for some, and a terrifying one for others. A look at popular uprisings and insurgencies around the world, including those we have recently faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, shows that this is not a wholly unworkable idea. Still, professional military forces are formidable things, and only an extremely lucky private militia would survive a single battle against one. Whether one finds the idea of a violent revolution heroic or unspeakable, any honest look at history reveals all wars to be brutal, ugly, and indiscriminant. Revolutions are sometimes inevitable, but what follows them is usually worse than what preceded them. Ginning up a civil war is not something that should be taken lightly by anyone, but utterly stripping the people of the capacity to resist oppression should not be taken lightly either.

It is plain that the present furor over gun control has little to do with guns and even less to do with the unfortunate children who died in Sandy Hook. Neither side wants a repetition of that, but neither side has a viable solution. Politically, the Sandy Hook massacre is just the latest flash point in the conflict between liberal and conservative cultures. The liberal culture believes it is the role of government to protect us not only from imminent harm, but from the very possibility of harm – not only from each other, but from ourselves. Conservatives wish chiefly to be left alone, and chafe under the progressive erosion of individual freedoms. This division is at times quite explicit. During a speech announcing his state’s recent passage of particularly stringent gun laws, Governor Andrew Cuomo harangued his audience -- “This is New York, the Progressive Capitol! – You show them how we lead!” Statements like this have nothing to do with the merits of a particular public policy. Public policies do not have Capitols – separate peoples do.

It must be said, too, that one particular argument for gun control is particularly alarming. That argument was stated very succinctly by Nancy Pelosi years ago, and has continued to reverberate through the confrontation ever since. “No one needs a gun.” In one sense, this is a simple fact. No one, even a soldier or a police officer, will immediately drop dead without a gun. The problem with this argument, however, is that it sets the threshold for government intervention not at the limits set by the US Constitution, nor even by a standard of public safety, but at the bare threshold of need. It is equally true, for example, that no one needs a motorcycle. They are noisy, they are prone to accidents in which innocent people are sometimes killed, and they have social associations with lawlessness and antisocial behavior. Would we not be better, as a society, if we got rid of them? If we go very far with a standard of bare need, we can start throwing books into the fire as well. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in Rye has topped the reading list of an alarming number of killers – why not ban it as a precaution? No one needs to read it.

To return to my original scenario, it does seem likely that a total ban on firearms would reduce the frequency of mass killings like Sandy Hook in the short run. Typically, the people who shoot up schools and theaters are disturbed, isolated, middle class young men. They are not hardened criminals who would have access to guns smuggled over the border. They get them from gun stores or family members. Mass shootings per se could be expected to decline.

In the long run, I suspect that even this benefit would be fleeting. The killer who shot up the theater in Colorado last year also built a substantial collection of bombs, but didn’t use them. The Oklahoma City bomber did spectacular damage with a bomb, and the largest criminal massacre of American school children in history was the product of a bomb. It isn’t reasonable to think that whatever motivates mass murders would disappear with the elimination of firearms. Firearms are merely one means to an end. Bombs, too, are effectively immune to any sort of ban. The formulas for bomb making are widely disseminated. The component materials are so common and varied that they cannot be effectively regulated or monitored. Further, I have little doubt that in the wake of another serious bombing some enterprising filmmaker would make bombing “cool,” and some equally enterprising software company would make a video game on that theme. Grandpa’s favorite shotgun would be chopped up, but unless that is an end in itself very little would be accomplished.

Lesser measures, like limiting magazine capacity or banning guns that look especially scary to certain people, will, of course, be even less effective in reducing both types of crime than a total ban on firearms would. But then – stopping crime is really not the point. Welcome to the culture war.

January 2, 2013

Race and Culture

Race and culture are two ideas often tightly if unconsciously intertwined in contemporary political discourse. My purpose here is to untangle them.

Race, if it exists at all, is probably not a relevant determinant of anything important in and of itself. In other words, being white, black, Asian – or Jewish or Indian, if you care to parse those particular gradations – probably does not bequeath to an individual anything of much importance genetically. Blacks are prone to sickle-cell anemia, Jews to Tay-Sachs disease, and so forth – but I am aware of no one who has ever made a serious case for the superiority of one race over another based on disease resistance. Cases have been made for the intellectual superiority of one group or another on the basis of various tests (Herrnstein and Murray being only the most recent of many). None of these surveys, not surprisingly, have ever eliminated environmental considerations as a major factor in their results, or probably will ever do so. If you give two individuals intelligence tests and one of them is a university grad student while the other was until recently being raised by dogs, you will get entirely predictable results. Such comparisons, frankly, aren’t even very interesting.

Based on the accomplishments of a few gifted individuals of all races, it is evident that no human group is genetically incapable of high achievement in the mental realm. My intuition is that looking for decisive differences between the races is likely to be not only an offensive pursuit, but also a fruitless one. I believe people should be free to pursue offensive and fruitless questions, but I don’t expect anything interesting to come of that one. My further intuition is that if you could devise a perfect test for intelligence that excluded all environmental factors (first assuming you could decide what “intelligence” even is) you would indeed find that the average intelligence scores of the various human genetic groups would not be identical. Biology doesn’t have equality as a goal, so no doubt if there were some absolute standard of intelligence we would not discover perfect symmetry empirically. However, I believe the variance between groups would be insignificant compared to the variance between individuals within groups. Every group has geniuses; every group has imbeciles. We know that with reasonable certainty.

What I have said above about intelligence I believe to be true of other “mental” attributes – creativity, memory, intuition, etc. – as well. No doubt you could tease out the occasional subtle difference due to long term environmental effects on genetics, but I believe these would be minor. In short, I have no reason to believe that the phenotypical characteristics of race are anything more than superficial. It is important to understand this before we continue.

Culture, obviously, is a different kind of entity. I use the term “culture” in a broad sense, to mean the set of values and beliefs one gets from identification with a particular group. I make no distinction between the terms “culture” and “subculture.” Religions, in my view, are also chiefly cultural entities. While they entail certain kinds of beliefs about the nature of reality, possession of such beliefs help to define an individual culturally. By “culture” I mean that part of us which was shaped by environment rather than by genes, but which is not the product or our uniquely individual experience. If you hate cats because a cat scratched you as a child, that is not a feature of your culture. If you hate cats because everyone you know hates cats, that’s a feature of your culture.

Apart from the gene-environment distinction (or nature-nurture, if you prefer) it should also be obvious that race and culture differ in another important way. To say that one race is superior to another in some non-superficial sense is doubtful, suspect, and probably impossible to prove. To say that one culture is superior to another by some particular specified criteria is, on the other hand, a reasonable claim. There may be no absolute standard of cultural superiority, but it is accurate to say that given any single criteria for achievement, some cultures meet that standard better than others. If this sounds bigoted, consider that Nazism meets my definition of a culture. Any flaccid notion that everyone’s beliefs are good, equal, and compatible has to either embrace Nazism, or artificially exclude it from the cultural sphere.

The question of whether one culture is perceived as superior to another is, in most cases, a question of values. Since the values one has are largely a question of the culture one is a part of, the matter of cultural superiority is also largely circular. If what is most important to you is some belief that only members of your culture hold, then your culture is superior to all others by definition. Cultures are self-perpetuating, self-protecting sets of ideas – memes, if you like Richard Dawkins’ word.1

Very few people look at cultures as abstract entities with particular strengths and weakness. Rather, most of us view other cultures through the lens of our own. If we could achieve an entirely detached perspective, we could see that certain patterns of beliefs and behaviors produce certain outcomes, and that cultures, stripped of our prejudices for or against them, participate like any other entity in the causal universe. Nazism, for example, was an evolutionary dead end – not because it was nasty (many cultures are nasty) but because it brought about its own rapid demise. Conversely, the culture of the Kalahari Bushmen, as appealing or as unappealing as it might be to us, must be given credit for its longevity. Still, if what some Nazis wanted was a Wagnerian opera with a dramatic ending, then their culture was a complete success while the culture of the Bushmen remains a boring failure. Causation is neutral; it offers neither awards nor censures – only outcomes.

The interplay between cultures is a complex thing, but some insight may be had by an analogy. Imagine a culture as an individual, and the interplay of different cultures around the globe as a kind of community. It is easy to understand that individuals have different abilities and different ways of living, that they have various attachments to one another as well as various grievances. It is understandable that individuals compete over the same resources; that they sometimes cooperate and sometimes settle their differences less amiably through force or coercion. Some individuals are relatively productive and independent. Others, for any number of reasons, are wholly or largely dependent on the productivity of others. This far, at least, the analogy between individuals and cultures holds good. To use a relatively non-controversial example, if one considers the American entertainment industry as a kind of subculture it can be seen to exhibit characteristics as outline above.2 It makes a living amusing others – there are no farms or manufacturing plants in Hollywood. It sometimes cooperates with other subcultures by championing their causes. It sometimes attacks other subcultures by demonizing them. During the Second World War, it championed American values we would now consider conservative and it demonized the Japanese. Currently, it champions the left and demonizes conservatives. It gets along very happily with commerce. It buckled under pressure to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Like Congress, the banking industry, and the Catholic Church, is has its own internal customs and traditions, its own brand of self identity, but it could not exist without some other more pedestrian culture to feed and clothe it. A country populated solely by actors, directors, publicists and producers would obviously be unsustainable.

In the contest of cultures currently underway in the United States, and perhaps in Western Europe as well, accusations of racism are frequent. While genuine racism still exists, both among conservatives and liberals, most such accusations are misplaced. True racism entails what we were discussing earlier – a belief that the genetics that make you look a certain way also make you behave a certain way. The Nazis were true racists, as were the many Americans who believed, during the Second World War, that every last Japanese on the planet should be killed, regardless of their upbringing or their citizenship. The Klu Klux Klan is a truly racist organization, as is Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. Most of what is called racism now, however, is something rather different – a conflict between cultures.

The United States of America is, frankly, an oxymoron. While we are bound together by a thin web of pseudo-communication technologies (like Facebook) and a massive media-driven outpouring of clich├ęs that have taken the place of tradition, we are divided by politics, religion, outlook, values and many other distinctions – most of them more important than race. Race, which used to be a major delineator in and of itself, has, I think, become chiefly relevant as an indicator of a person’s probable membership in a certain culture. Not many people judge a person’s race per se, but rather they judge the culture that most members of the person’s race bear allegiance too. Race, then, has become like any other visible characteristic.

If one sees a large white man in black leather with tattoos and a beard, it is not bigoted to assume he probably rides a motorcycle. He may not, and some motorcycle riders do not fit such a description, but the correlation is close enough that a reasonable person will make the connection. And so it is with race. I have, for example, met uneducated, unsuccessful Jews – but they are few and far between. I tend to assume, on meeting someone Jewish, that I’m meeting a fairly successful, fairly educated person and I treat them accordingly until proven wrong. I don’t assume they came out of the womb with a diploma and well-paying job; I assume they are a member of a culture which values education and material success. Everyone is prejudiced in at least this sense. When we see another human being, we do not see a gray, genderless, raceless object in nondescript clothing. Rather, we see a collection of clues about who and what they are. It is a virtue to be open-minded enough to overrule our initial impressions in light of new information, but it is neither virtuous nor possible not to have initial impressions. It is good to learn not to discriminate in the face of contrary evidence – but it would be absurd never to discriminate on any basis at all.

Very very few of the conservatives that I know are racists. Rather, they are partisans of a particular culture – a culture that most of them are delighted to see minorities participate in. They are not racists – they are just not multiculturalists. While this was obviously not the case in the 1950s, it is the case now. Many in the Tea Party loved Herman Cain, not because they wished to conceal some dark inner racism by pretending to embrace a black man, but because he was one of them – a genuine embodiment of their values. They do not feel compelled, however, to pretend to love the hip-hop culture, which has nothing constructive to offer. They do not hate Mexicans – they hate illegals. Many liberals, on the other hand, are so afraid of seeming racist that they will attempt to throw their arms around any cultural views at all, no matter how restrictive or bigoted, so long as they were not originated by conservative white people. At some point during my lifetime, the tables turned.

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1 Cultures are also quite amorphous things. One’s association with a certain culture is not always cleanly definable. I, for example, find myself roughly on the conservative side of most issues. However, I wasn’t born into a conservative family, and I hold a number of positions most conservatives would disagree with. I do not believe in God, I am not blindly pro-military, etc. Even people born into cultures can have certain non-conforming beliefs, and any discussion of cultures in the abstract tends to ignore this. In some sense, cultures are only discussible as stereotypes – and I don’t claim any special exemption from this difficulty.

2 I want to make it clear that I am not asserting that every occupation or every industry is a culture. There is a certain critical mass of common rituals, beliefs, and institutions that are required to make a group of human beings cohesive. I doubt there is a culture of optometrists. While one finds a certain commonality among police officers, there is no police culture at a national level because they lack any organizational institution at that level. The American entertainment industry, on the other hand, is bound together by a limited number of studios, networks, and common unions. Individual police departments can have cultures in a small but relevant sense, but lacking national institutions their cultures end at the city limits. The cultures of corporations are similar in the sense that they tend to dissolve at the end of the work day.