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Thursday
Jul072016

Why don't we have more gun control given that there is such overwhelming bipartisan public consensus in favor of that policy? WEKS strikes again . . .

So there have been a rash of news commentaries recently about “why” we don’t have more gun control given that there is overwhelming  “public support” for it.

I myself have offered explanations for this in the past.

But I’m wondering: is the premise really true? Is there really overwhelming public support for more gun control?

Or is this (like the “astonishing change in societal norms on gay marriage”) another instance of “WEKS” – “ ‘what everyone knows [is true]' syndrome,” the condition in which people with like-minded cultural outlooks convince themselves that “everyone” agrees with them on some issue that is in fact highly contested as a cultural matter?

Well, here’s some evidence for WEKS:

click for bigger viewAs the captions indicate, the data come from two separate APPC /CCP studies, one just concluded and the other from Jan.

They both show that gun control is not only massively polarizing but is among the most polarizing issue in American politial life—right up there with climate change and affirmative action.

The left-hand panel uses the tried-and-true Industrial Strength Risk Perception Meaure, which, as a result of the “affect heuristic” (Finucane, Alhakami, Slovic & Johnson 2000), magically encapuslates in one simple it the same level of covariance one would see when one relates the variable on the x-axis (here political outlooks) to any other more specific question that individuals would recognize as having to do with the risk in questin (e.g., on global warming, “is it happening,” “are humans causing it,” “are we all going to suffer horrendous harm as a result of it” etc).

It helps to show, then, that the proposition that there is as much polarization on guns—whether one frames the issue as one of the risks of allowing or not allowing people to have them—as there is on climate change, which is pretty much the most polarizing issue today (maybe ever) in American politics (there’s definitely a lot of “WEKS” on that, btw, although there is also the disturbing influence of attempts to “message” people with invalid surveys; maybe I’ll talk about that “tomorrow”).

click here for policy preference item wordingI put the right-hand panel in to help show that the sort of polarized affective responses look like when one cashes them out in terms of “policy positions.”

It shows, again, that proposals for stricter gun control laws have the same political-polarization profile as many of the issues we recognize as benchmarks of left-right factionalization.  I’ve also put in a couple of “non-polarized” issues just as a reference point (if you didn’t know vaccines were non-polarizing, you need to get out—of the WEKS bubble—more often).

Those data, again, are from Jan.

But another reason for putting in the left-hand side ISRPM panel is to help asnwer the question whether “something might have changed” given recent mass shooting.  Because the covariance from the ISRPM will always be nearly identical to the covariance on policy issues like this (for a miraclous proof of that propostion, check this out), we can be confident that if we are seeing the sort of ISRPM profile displayed in the left-hand panel, then we’d still see today the sort of division on “policy preferences,” or any other gun control question we might ask that people could actually understand.

So . . .

Why do so many people (but not all! there are plenty of people, it should be pointed out, who recognize gun control is polarizing) think there is consensus in the public for more gun control?

Like I said, I’ve definitely myself formed and expressed this impression myself!

But I do think it is almost certainly WEKS at work.  The people who say there is consensus for "more control" are on the “left” or at least tend to be inside the left’s political-communication bubble. Actually, people on the "right" think there is consensus against gun control; they live in their own bubble!

But there might be other explanations, too. . .

What do you think?

Reference

Finucane, Melissa L., Ali Alhakami, Paul Slovic, and Stephen M. Johnson. 2000. "The Affect Heuristic in Judgments of Risks and Benefits."  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 13 (1):1-17.

 

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Reader Comments (26)

I think that the answer here is not with the cultural cognitive powers of "people" directly, but how it is that there is an evil clone of this Dan Kahan guy who is probably making Billions and BILLIONS!!! working on perverse applications of these principles.

The main issue behind WEKS and the distortions of WEKS depending on which Big Media sources an individual chooses to use, are vested interests, skilled at pushing the tribal buttons and getting their special interest issues out. . They can take things that would otherwise slip by without notice, wedge them right to the middle of tribal intensities and then fan the flames. And the next thing you know, everybody knows it. Hunters, for example, if left to their own devices probably would not have correlated their love of hunting with any need to possess heavy duty semi-automatic weaponry with high capacity ammunition magazines. In fact, most hunters I know do so in what they regard as a sporting fashion, one they see as respectful to their prey. They despise the idiots who blast semi-tame elk in the middle of Estes Park, Colorado, or shoot at deer from their cars. The original concept of the NRA was to promote hunter safety. If not seemingly taken over by the gun manufacturers lobby, the hunters might have gone off in a different direction, opposed to the unsportsmanlike conduct behind blasting away with a stream of bullets.

As an example using a topic unrelated to the above;

It is also possible, with devious cleverness, to limit what even fair minded scientists are able to know. It was only a few years ago that NOAA scientists thought to measure ozone causing hydrocarbons at the tall tower site near Boulder described here: https://www3.epa.gov/ttnchie1/conference/ei20/session6/gpetron.pdf. Erie tower is in Erie, Colorado, in an area in which much fracking is currently going on. This area is also now the focus of suburban development. http://www.dailycamera.com/ci_20126684/noaa-study-erie-gas-drilling-moratorium-fracking-propane-butane and http://www.denverpost.com/2015/01/27/erie-rejects-fracking-freeze/

What to do about the pesky science? The obvious answer is to take down the tower and thus stop the measurements of course! Hear no evil, see no evil, smell no evil! Detect no evil!

As the US Congressional District 4 representative Ken Buck could tell you:
"In an October, 2010 meeting with supporters in Fort Collins, Colorado, Buck endorsed the views of Senator James Inhofe, saying "Sen. Inhofe was the first person to stand up and say this global warming is the greatest hoax that has been perpetrated. The evidence just keeps supporting his view, and more and more people’s view, of what’s going on."[18] According to a Buck spokesman, "Ken believes there is global warming but thinks the evidence points to it being natural rather than man-made."[19]" https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Buck#cite_note-18

And why should we give NOAA the ability to prove otherwise? "The evidence" is only that which can be collected.

I should note that the closing of the Erie Tower seems to be a State of Colorado decision. Our governor is actually a Democrat, John Hickenlooper, although behind his back he is frequently called either "Hick" or "Frackenlooper". I should also point out that like Hick, I also have an undergraduate degree in geology. I do not favor outlawing fracking, which I view, in some form, as essential to nearly all modern oil and gas operations. That does not mean that I agree with doing so next to schoolyards and homes or without stringent controls on fugitive gases or underground aquifer contamination. I think that the reason that we can't discuss things intelligently is not just that just plain folks are prone to responding tribally, but that Big Money interests have us boxed in such that angers are accentuated and access to the groundwork for rational conversations severely limited.

July 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Seems to me that there's a lot of space between saying that there is strong support for more gun control, such as tougher background checks, and saying that gun control is not a polarized issue.

Perhaps you could be more precise, Dan?

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/most-americans-agree-with-obama-that-more-gun-buyers-should-get-background-checks/

July 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua:

I say the issue is polarized given the high correlation between policy positions & a generic measure of affective responses toward the issue. What part is not precise? And what is that a long way from exactly?

It's easy to measure the wrong tihing & say that it "proves" the American people support things. If we fell for that, we'd not belive there was division over climate change.

Hence this from the story you (selectively) quote/cite: "Summarize all the conflicting views on gun control into one question, as the Pew Research Center has done, and you find a nation evenly split since 2010."

July 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -

==> It's easy to measure the wrong tihing & say that it "proves" the American people support things.

That runs in various directions. IOW, It's easy to measure polarization shown through unspecified questions about "gun control" and lose sight of the breakdown of views on specific issues, such as background checks.

Seems to me it's better let the data speak for itself. Yes, gun control is incredibly polarizing and a badge of identity orientation. Yes, there is broad support for tougher background checks (which could be described as "more gun control").

We see similar patterns play out, for example, health insurance reform - where there are discrepancies in polling on support for health insurance reform (broadly) reflecting extreme polarization and less polarization on questions about specific policy reform options. We see the same with polling on views about regulation, or cutting taxes.

The question becomes, Dan, by being unspecific you are unpacking or contributing to misconceptions about public opinions. Pointing out a discrepancy between overall polarization and support for tougher background checks is useful, IMO, but conflating the two isn't particularly so.

July 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua--

No, it doesn't run in various directions.

Validate items (as has been done w/ ISRPM) & confine yourself otherwise to ones that covary in patterns that show they are measuring the attitude of interest. It's pretty simple, really.

The story you cited revealed the item you are relying on to be invalid by those criteria.

But believe what you like! That's your point, right?

July 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

@Gaythia--

attempts to cut off evidence gathering should be criminal offenses in the Liberal REpublic of Science. It's really sickening, I agree.

July 7, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Dan -


My point is that it isn't surprising to find much greater opposition to "stricter gun laws" than to "tougher background checks."- despite the inherent contradiction. I find that discrepancy and logical incoherence meaningful, reflective of greater patterns of cultural cognition and motivated reasoning, and not something that should be ignored/conflated.

As I said, we find the same patterns on a variety of issues.

I'm rather perplexed that you don't seem to agree.

If you have data that contradict what the 538 article presented re: views on background checks, I'd love to see it. Otherwise, in absence of contradicting data, I will use the data presented by them to evaluate the public's views on background checks, and not on "gun control" which is a pretty meaningless concept anyway (except as a badge of identity") absent anything specific.

Nor would I use your data on "gun control" to inform my understanding of views on background checks.

I already know that the issue of gun control is polarized. If someone would say that "gun control" isn't polarized by using data on background checks as proof, I would find their argument unconvincing.

IMO, it's better all around to be precise. Gun control is very polarizing. Views on tougher background checks less so.

I really don't understand your point. Honestly. You will need to simplify your argument if you want me to follow. If you don't want to do that, that's cool. I can't have an expectation that you would dumb down stuff enough for me to understand.

July 7, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I think another way to put Joshua's question is: how do we know when a specific policy proposal triggers the affect heuristic such that ISRPM is a valid measure of people's reactions to that proposal?

He seems to be suggesting that background checks might prompt a different response from other gun control proposals. And it must be true that you're not going to find deep polarization on every possible proposal related to a polarized issue: a large majority of Americans might agree that police officers should carry guns, or that use of fossil fuels should not be immediately banned, or the death penalty souls not be imposed on pretty thieves. So what gives us confidence that ISRPM for gun control measures people's reactions to background checks?

(This may well be in the literature you cite, but I haven't gotten to check it out yet. I'm mostly just reframing his question.)

July 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterMW

"It was only a few years ago that NOAA scientists thought to measure ozone causing hydrocarbons at the tall tower site near Boulder described here"


that's an interesting one. They had the same attitude when somebody proposed that they perform the same sort of monitoring on domestic gas supply leaks. (Thousands of miles of pipes through the ground, running from central distribution points to everyone's houses - of course there are a few leaks!) But the proposal was rejected on the grounds that it would only be misused by proponents of banning domestic gas, and that cows and termites produced a lot more naturally - did we propose to monitor and ban them, too?

And then there was the argument about the sewer pipes. Apparently, there are unmonitored pipes running through the ground near people's homes that contain raw sewage, and other pollutants! Again, some of those pipes leak, potentially contaminating the environment. The naysayers pointed out that in fact there were thousands of animals - both wild and domestic - that dropped raw sewage directly onto the ground where it could be washed down by rainfall directly into the rivers and water tables. As if that excused it! The animals are causing environmental polution, too. The environmental damage caused by all these uncontrolled contamination events is incalculable! And nobody thinks it worthwhile to even measure it!

And so on. On the one hand I'd disagree with banning *any* scientific measurement being done, whatever the purpose. But I think that people making scientific measurements with the specific intention of misusing the data to propagandize for their political preferences, relying on the general public's ignorance to misinterpret the data as some sort of safety issue, should not be able to advertise themselves as 'impartial scientists'. That's false advertising, like claiming to be a lawyer or gynaecologist when you're not.

"And why should we give NOAA the ability to prove otherwise?"

Because science progresses by attempting falsification. You prove a hypothesis by making effery effort to prove it *wrong* and failing. Hence, if you want to prove that global warming is a concern, then you should fund NOAA to try to prove it isn't. If they're not able to do so, despite and extensive, sincere and well-motivated effort, the case is supported. Not funding climate-sceptical research is the same sin, only the other way round. I'd be interested to know if you all condemn that in equal measure?

"a large majority of Americans might agree that police officers should carry guns"

It would make for an entertaining poll result! "We propose that we start implementing gun control by banning guns for the police, secret service, and national guard, and then after a few years to see how that policy works out, consider extending it to the rest of the population. Do you agree/disagree with this policy?" I'm wondering if we would see a consensus emerge?

The difference in policy position seems to be related not to people's opinions on guns, but on their opinions on people. (It's a hypothesis.) Everyone agrees that the good/trustworthy people should be allowed guns and the bad people not. One side thinks the ordinary citizen is good/trustworthy and has the right to defend themselves with superior firepower (even against the state), the other seems to think only the authorities can be trusted, and the ordinary citizens should be disarmed and have to rely on the state for protection. It's a classic liberal-vs-authoritarian issue.

It would be interesting to do a 'gun control' survey coupled with questions about views on what sort of people can be trusted. Are most people naturally criminal, unless the state makes them behave? Or are most people naturally law-abiding, unless adverse circumstances force them not to be? What sort of people do they imagine gun-owners to be? And if the difference turns out not to be based on opinions about trust, what other alternatives are there?

July 8, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

-- snip --

While only 37% of Americans viewed the ACA favorably in a March 2013 Kaiser poll, most liked what the healthcare bill is scheduled to do. Over 55%, and up to 88%, of Americans regard the following facets of Obamacare at least somewhat favorably: tax credits to small businesses to buy insurance, closing the Medicare "doughnut hole", creating insurance exchanges, giving rebates to customers of insurance customers that spend too much on administrative costs, and the employer mandate. Even Republicans like all of them except the Medicaid expansion, increase in Medicare tax, employer mandate, and individual mandate.

-- snip --

July 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

==> One side thinks the ordinary citizen is good/trustworthy and has the right to defend themselves with superior firepower (even against the state), the other seems to think only the authorities can be trusted, and the ordinary citizens should be disarmed and have to rely on the state for protection. ==>

I love this. Such a neat little package, where a "side" is reduced to a single viewpoint, that supports the preconceived framework of "liberal vs. authoritarian," as if that binary frame applies any better than any other (ideology-confirming) arbitrary choice of definitional criteria.

Notice that missing is any possibility of "liberal" and/or authoritarian tendencies existing on both sides. So, if I disagree with NiV about gun regulation, I am in no way "liberal" but certainly a died-in-the-wool authoritarian, as a definitional trait, who wants nothing other than to pass complete power and control over to the state.

Missing is any possibility that any of these non-liberal authoritarians who disagree with NiV (I mean if they disagree w/ NiV they must be "authoritarians, right?) have variance in degree in view about the rights of self-defense, the trustworthiness/goodness of "the ordinary citizen" or of the role of the state.

For example, it can't be that they have somewhat conflicted views, but in the end fall out on one side vs. the other w/r/t the tradeoffs in a cost/benefit analysis...in that they think that some tradeoff of individual access to guns should is warranted because, whether rightly or wrongly, they believe that the tradeoff will reduce unwanted gun violence in the end.

There is no nuance, and there nothing less than a binary state of the world, freedom lovers vs. totalitarians... There is not disagreement about tactics to achieve shared goals, but instead there is a mutually exclusive value distinction between two sides.

Or at least that's how it "seems," as a statement of fact...not how NiV interprets it, or how it seems to NiV...but how it seems

July 9, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Mw--

1. Internal validation: any single measure has to cohere w/ others before one knows whether any of them is measuring anything. Never trust a single attitudinal item that hasn't been shown to correlate w/ others. Ever.

2.External validation: Figuring out whether the thing that's being measured is the in-the-world attitude of interest. ISRPM has been exernally validated & been shown to be super robust. So long as there's a real-world attitude to be measured (there isn't, e.g., on nanotechnology or GM foods; good luck explaining variance in those -- it's noise all the way down, as turtle lady would say), responses to it will correlate w/ that attidude.

3. It follows that individual attitudinal items that don't cohere w/ a cluster that itself loads or correlates w/ ISRPM are almost certainly invalid-- fodder for people trying to "message" w/ polls or who after discovering people won't agree w/ them in the world "fix" the problem by finding a single quirky poll item & saying a ha! we've been asking the wrong question all this time!"

July 10, 2016 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"Notice that missing is any possibility of "liberal" and/or authoritarian tendencies existing on both sides."

So argue with me. Give me a liberal reason for restricting access by non-State/non-Authority citizens to guns, or an authoritarian reason for allowing it. If guns per se are the problem, why is it OK for the police to have them?

As I said, it's a hypothesis. And as always, normal people are capable of understanding that generalisations are frequently intended statistically, and are used only for conversational conciseness. People generally only resort to such pedantry when they're writing legal small print, or when they have no better arguments. :-)

I simply observe that - statistically, based on 100% of the sample I've seen speaking on the matter - advocates for gun control do appear to support continued access to guns for the State authorities, like the police or secret service protection squads, so logically it would appear that the difference of opinion is not about guns, but about the subset people allowed to own them. You can refute me by either demonstrating that advocates for gun control would be happy to take guns away from the State first, or giving some other (hypothesised?) reason for the difference in treatment besides who they trust.

"So, if I disagree with NiV about gun regulation, I am in no way "liberal" but certainly a died-in-the-wool authoritarian,"

That's not logically implied, but you've shown definite authoritarian tendencies and policies in our past conversations, so I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Why so touchy? I thought you approved of authoritarianism?

July 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I think another way to put Joshua's question is: how do we know when a specific policy proposal triggers the affect heuristic such that ISRPM is a valid measure of people's reactions to that proposal?

QFT. Totally agree with MW here; this is a generally policy-relevant question, and the solution I suspect is more of a social physics issue. I think this is what Dan is trying to get at with his insistence that pollution of the science communication environment is at play.

There are different ways for people to present issues; some will induce risk-averse SCRD-cat thinking in others, and others will induce risk-neutral thinking. There's evidence somewhere on the Internet that an idea's peak popularity is well predicted by the number and connectivity of its "first-sharers" (my term) : i.e., the people who hear of it firsthand, and share it with their friends. So if the second wave of people to hear about an issue heard it in a way that induced their SCRDness, the issue will remain politicized - and I suspect the issue may remain policitized even if later communication efforts do not trigger affect, because I'd bet that un-scaring someone who is already scared involves different communication strategies than simply informing someone who is uninformed.

So argue with me. Give me a liberal reason for restricting access by non-State/non-Authority citizens to guns, or an authoritarian reason for allowing it. If guns per se are the problem, why is it OK for the police to have them?

A liberal reason for restricting access to general people? Sure, because gun proliferation causes uninsured (and some uninsurable, like suicide) losses of life. Modern liberal consensus sensu Obama is to make laws/regulations for greatest net public benefit.

An authoritarian reason to allow access to general people? Sure, because the US Constitution says that the right to keep and bear arms is not to be abridged by the governments of the United States, and the Second Amendment is Founder-era canonical.

Even if guns themselves are bad, is it OK for the police to have guns? Sure, because the police are the domestic arm of the law's monopoly on legal violence, which is established as part of a modern social contract that seeks even to minimize the use of self-defence. We arm few to disarm many, and in those few is placed our trust. (Where that trust is eroded you see different attitudes, of course.)

Those actually are my most natural understandings of the issue, for what it's worth. Over the years I've come to disagree more with the idea that the use of self-defence should be minimized, and so support the disarming of the police more. I'm curious, NiV, in your experience do these factors not shape the gun control debate in Commonwealth countries?

July 11, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

==> So argue with me. Give me a liberal reason for restricting access by non-State/non-Authority citizens to guns, or an authoritarian reason for allowing it. If guns per se are the problem, why is it OK for the police to have them?

I don't think that there 'liberal" reasons and "authoritarian reasons" are particularly meaningful concepts, except for those who are ideologically focused on making those criteria explanatory for societal organization - such as libertarian extremists. Hammer/nails and such...

I think that there is a continuum of "liberal" and "authoritarian" frames for understanding these issues, among many other frames.

In particular, with gun control, I think a more useful frame is how people break down in views as to what policies, ultimately, will result in less undesirable gun violence - with an eye towards what sacrifices might be reasonable to achieve those goals.

==> As I said, it's a hypothesis. And as always, normal people are capable of understanding that generalisations are frequently intended statistically, and are used only for conversational conciseness. People generally only resort to such pedantry when they're writing legal small print, or when they have no better arguments. :-) ==>

Well, I see "normal" people cramming complex phenomena into simplistic frames so as to confirm identities - such as libertarian ideologues determined to distinguish themselves as freedom-lovers in contrast to "authoritarians" when, in fact, such an framework doesn't explain much at all.

==> I simply observe that - statistically, based on 100% of the sample I've seen speaking on the matter - advocates for gun control do appear to support continued access to guns for the State authorities,...

I see a lot of people to generally favor "gun control" policies who are very concerned about a militarized police force, and a lot of people generally opposed to "gun control" policies who support a "law and order" approach, including the use of military-style arsenals, from law enforcement.

But less simplistically, I see a lot of people struggling with how best to enforce laws and prevent violence and protect communities. Those concerns don't break down upon ideological lines such as "authoritarian" and "liberal,' unless, of course, the intent is to confirm identity by imposing those, essentially, arbitrary definitional criteria.

==> so logically it would appear that the difference of opinion is not about guns, but about the subset people allowed to own them.

I see a logical framework that distinguishes policy orientation not on the basis of how owns guns, but on what are effective policies to achieve desired goals.


==> That's not logically implied, but you've shown definite authoritarian tendencies and policies in our past conversations, so I wouldn't be at all surprised.

Do share.

==> Why so touchy? I thought you approved of authoritarianism?

Lol! No doubt. To you it must "seem" that I approve of authoritarianism. Of course, no one who knows me would share your interpretation of what I do and/or don't "approve" of...but they probably lack your sharp and clear vision.

July 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I"m not diving in with Joshua and NiV, but I saw that Dan had just tweeted this link, and I think it is relevant here: http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/presidential-campaign/286964-how-the-decline-of-the-working-class-explains-trump

July 11, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

dypoon,

I fear we may be using different definitions of 'liberal'. I'm talking about the tradition arising from the 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, as set out in essays like Mill's 'On Liberty'. It's the original definition of 'liberal'.
http://www.bartleby.com/130/

Preventing suicide isn't liberal, since it is nobody else's business what a person does with their own life, and Mill explains that using force to preserve liberty and prevent harm to others is justified, so causing loss of life is not per se unacceptable - hence the police being armed, and constitutional constraints to preserve liberty are allowed too.

Mill discussed a similar matter in part 5 of his essay on the subject of poisons. Even though poisons can be used to kill people, there were plenty of legitimate uses for them too, and therefore it would be wrong to ban them, because that would be to ban actions resulting in no harm. "If poisons were never bought or used for any purpose except the commission of murder, it would be right to prohibit their manufacture and sale. They may, however, be wanted not only for innocent but for useful purposes, and restrictions cannot be imposed in the one case without operating in the other."

It's worth reading the whole thing - he has space to go into the nuances that I can't cover here.

But I wasn't so much interested in people's reasons to control guns generally, but reasons for *not* wanting to take them away from the police, just other citizens. Why the distinction? Since the police shoot on the order of 1000 people a year, taking their guns away would by that argument save all those lives. Why does the argument not apply here? How do people's reasons for advocating gun control lead to them making this distinction?

" I'm curious, NiV, in your experience do these factors not shape the gun control debate in Commonwealth countries?"

They banned guns here some time ago, so it's no loner an item of debate (any more than the ban on civilians carrying shoulder-mounted SAMs on the street is an issue in the US). Actually, the police being unarmed dates back to Robert Peel's Principles in 1829. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peelian_principles, most of the rest went a lot more recently.

But then people started carrying knives instead. So they banned knives too. So people started carrying workmen's tools. So they banned that too, unless you could prove you was in the trade. It eventually got to the point where even advocates for control of weapons had to admit that it was all getting very silly. (There were quite a lot of jokes around the time of the last Olympics here when it was pointed out that it would be illegal for our team to practice for the shooting event!) Anyway, they've pretty much run out of things to ban, so we've not heard about it for a while now.

As far as there is still any debate on guns here, it's accepted that the bad guys can and do get hold of guns, and there's nothing much anyone can do to stop it, but it's not actually seen as all that much of an issue because there are so many other easily accessible ways to kill people, that it's regarded as stupid and amateurish even by most criminals to take the risk of carrying a gun. They're still used in a few specialised sorts of crime where they're necessary, but for routine business a baseball bat works just fine.

There *is*, though, still a debate on whether the *police* should be routinely armed. With all the fuss about terrorism, police working in sensitive areas (like around Parliament) have recently taken to carrying around assault rifles, and a lot of people don't like it, and see it as an over-reaction. The consensus feeling is still that they shouldn't. But it's not something people get very excited about.

Gaythia,

"I"m not diving in with Joshua and NiV"

Very wise!

July 12, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

NiV:

I fear we may be using different definitions of 'liberal'. I'm talking about the tradition arising from the 18th century Enlightenment philosophy, as set out in essays like Mill's 'On Liberty'. It's the original definition of 'liberal'.
http://www.bartleby.com/130/

The tradition? My understanding is this: When the classical liberalism of Mill's day met the challenges of the Great Depression, it basically split into two traditions, one adopting utilitarianism (which, I note, was also promoted by Mill), advocating a more active social welfare state, and the other not. In America, the latter version is what called itself conservative throughout the mid-20th century - I think of the modern radical religious right as attempting to usurp the term. In contrast, Obama's liberalism is quite markedly of the former, utilitarian bent; as President, he explicitly ordered the agencies in his Administration to regulate for the greatest public benefit. (I speculate this is one of many good reasons why Obama nominated Garland to SCOTUS - Obama has an understated legacy of revolutionizing the regulatory state to protect, and Garland, by all appearances, will do just that.)

The 18th/19th-century liberal movement more or less completely won the American political debate during the Cold War; almost all the mainstream economic policymakers now accept its tenets. I think the last few years have really seen the resurgence of some newer political movements that have advocated policymaking on the basis of what Mill derided as "social rights". I believe this will be the social focus of the 21st century in the United States, if we're successful in avoiding a major episode of unrest; whether illiberal democracy as Mill would have construed it can better serve its citizens than liberal democracy.

But I wasn't so much interested in people's reasons to control guns generally, but reasons for *not* wanting to take them away from the police, just other citizens. Why the distinction? Since the police shoot on the order of 1000 people a year, taking their guns away would by that argument save all those lives. Why does the argument not apply here? How do people's reasons for advocating gun control lead to them making this distinction?

That argument totally does apply - there's a lot of people who are both concerned about mass shootings and police violence. I don't think there is the distinction you're trying to draw; it's far more common for people to look at gun proliferation and police brutality as two sides of the same coin, and want -everyone- to disarm. There are just so many darned guns in the US that the police themselves are perma-escalated for good reason. I think people in the US who are in support of gun control still think it would be bad political tactics to legislate that the police should disarm -first- before taking measures to reduce the prevalence of firearms in the general population.

In that context, it's entirely possible that people in the US would benefit from hearing about the UK experience with Peel's Principles, etc. Thank you for relating it. I think that there are lot of people here who are still in the mindset, and possibly rightfully so, that criminals will still want guns for routine business even if the police don't carry them. Whether they're right or not, I don't know and can't say.

July 13, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"In contrast, Obama's liberalism is quite markedly of the former, utilitarian bent; as President, he explicitly ordered the agencies in his Administration to regulate for the greatest public benefit."

The problem with the Obama* style of 'liberalism' is who decides what is for the greatest public benefit? The public? Or Obama and his political allies?

The arguments generally arise when the public disagrees with the elite about what's best for them. The public like taking drugs. The elite think they shouldn't. So the elite legislate away the people's freedom to choose 'for their own good'. That's the sort of thing I'm talking about with the term 'authoritarian'.

* (And the Republicans are no better.)

"In that context, it's entirely possible that people in the US would benefit from hearing about the UK experience with Peel's Principles, etc. Thank you for relating it. I think that there are lot of people here who are still in the mindset, and possibly rightfully so, that criminals will still want guns for routine business even if the police don't carry them."

The lesson Peel's principles are based on, and that I think the US could best learn from, is that ultimately the only way to stop people killing one another is to stop them wanting to. And that strength comes not from bigger guns but from bigger alliances. The idea of disarming the police was to enable the public to trust them, to not see them as a threat, and allies with them against the criminals. The police are the public and the public are the police, with the same rights and responsibilities, and power. They're not a separate elite set over us, where they have all the power and we have none.

Disarmament probably wouldn't work in the US, at least in the short-term - the good guys do at least need parity with the bad guys. But neither are guns an answer. The police need to join/form the bigger alliance with the public, and thereby outnumber the criminals. And they need to stop making rules that large segments of the public disagree with, that creates the market and motivation for crime.

July 13, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

The problem with the Obama* style of 'liberalism' is who decides what is for the greatest public benefit? The public? Or Obama and his political allies?

In practice, it's usually a cost-benefit analysis, which means that what the elites value gets valuated. Yes, it's a giant problem. Your position here is that the giant problem is intractable and that utilitarianism is inherently authoritarian. I disagree; I think that implementing some utilitarianism may not be authoritarian in the presence of good-faith negotiations between government and the governed. I'm actually really excited to see the US begin tackling it head-on with a relatively mature regulatory administrative process. It may become a great achievement of American government.

I think I understand what you meant by 'authoritarian' the first time now. You meant 'authoritarian' as opposed to 'liberal', instead of the kind of argument that authoritarian leaders make to authoritarian followers to win their support, which was what I provided.

And they need to stop making rules that large segments of the public disagree with, that creates the market and motivation for crime.

Yeah, that's very important. Agents of law don't warrant respect, much less identification as the own-tribe, when most of what the law does is beat on people for no just reason. The big outlier in the US, bigger even than gun control/armed police, is weed legalization. I wish the President would do something about this and simply order DEA to re-review its ancient scheduling determinations. The Feds are now unambiguously years out of step with several States in drug legalization policies. They really have no right to remain that way.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"Your position here is that the giant problem is intractable and that utilitarianism is inherently authoritarian. I disagree;"

Me too. The problem isn't in the least intractable - all you have to do is implement liberty and free markets. Utilitarianism depends on people to define their own utility. Nobody else can do it for them. Free markets provide what the people want, measured by what they choose to buy for what price - rather than what the elites think they ought to want. If they stopped getting in the way, it would all sort itself out automatically, with no guidance or effort needed.

People choose not to, because there are enough authoritarians among them who believe liberty to be impractical/impossible/undesirable. But there's nothing difficult about it in theory.

July 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

The problem isn't in the least intractable - all you have to do is implement liberty and free markets. [...] If they stopped getting in the way, it would all sort itself out automatically, with no guidance or effort needed.

No, NiV. All that liberty and free markets will get society to is Nash equilibria, from which no one will choose to make anyone else worse off for their own self-interest. There are no general theoretical guarantees that such equilibria are Pareto-optimal, to say less of utilitarian-optimal, and it can be argued that any time a Nash equilibrium is Pareto-inefficient, a market externality exists that should be corrected with a policy change.

It's true that people, as social agents, will sometimes consistently find social outcomes that beat the Nash equilibria (i.e., Nash-unstable, but Pareto-optimal, outcomes). The question of how you induce society to consistently beat Nash equilibria is fundamentally an illiberal one; which freedoms do you impose costs on exerting, and what kind of costs are they?

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

Do you mean the first fundamental theorem of welfare economics? I think the point of it was that the result *does* tend to weak Pareto optimality, so I'm guessing you mean the conditions are never satisfied in practice? That's true. But the first theorem isn't meant as a description of how things actually work in the real world - it's an idealised approximation intended to make plausible the common belief that to the extent the conditions are approximately true, the result will be approximately optimal.

Nash equilibria may not be perfect, but they're better than any of the alternatives on offer, which is the point.

Everyone's got a system. Everyone thinks they can beat the market. And they never do. You have to optimise and trade-off the complex unarticulated preferences of seven billion people considering a trillion-squared trades and potential trades, to decide what's worth doing, for who, when, where, and with what. It's an impossible calculation - most of the data needed to do it is inaccessible, in people's heads.

So no, there's not going to be any proof of utilitarian optimality until Google/Amazon marketing AIs learn to read minds. But that is to make perfection the enemy of the good. In the meantime, free markets are the best we've got. And they're pretty good, at that.

July 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I wasn't thinking about the 1st theorem; I didn't even know about it before now actually. Thank you for introducing it to me. It's a very powerful idea. So to adopt your framing completely, perhaps this following discussion might make my position clearer to you. Let me know if it helps.

The 1st theorem of welfare economics assumes that markets for all goods in an economy exist. Yet there are many situations where a public good exists, but no market for it does. If a government policymaker is trying to create conditions for the 1st theorem to apply, then they could say it's the government's job to make a market for those public goods, and in so doing, let that market find a new price for them. Only then can the 1st theorem apply and assure at least some Pareto-optimality.

But is that market "free" anymore, when the government has stepped in and, via policy, created a price on a purported "public good" that was previously unpriced? Should we instead decide not to price that purported good, and run the risk of not getting a Pareto-optimal outcome out of the market at all, to preserve "liberty"?

If I'm understanding your position correctly, you would concede that such intervention would be illiberal, and yet also concede that such intervention is necessary to ensure that the market's mechanisms work to society's (purported) advantage. Hence I think the liberal-free-market synthesis conceptually fails in these situations; it begs the questions of who decides what public goods are worth valuing and why. You can't just say, "all you have to do is implement liberty and free markets," because the people with whom you disagree will claim, "that's exactly what we are doing!"

July 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

"Yet there are many situations where a public good exists, but no market for it does."

Yes, public goods are a difficult case, that markets don't handle well. The question, of course, is whether government can handle them any better?

"If a government policymaker is trying to create conditions for the 1st theorem to apply, then they could say it's the government's job to make a market for those public goods, and in so doing, let that market find a new price for them."

If the government creates a market (e.g. by granting 'ownership' to otherwise public goods) that enables the *market* to determine prices, that's good - that's what government should be doing, and because prices are set by the market, the market is free. The problem arises when the government not only creates the market, it *sets the prices* as well. That's not free, and causes problems. Those problems may be less than they would be had the government not intervened, but it's far worse than a market could do if a way was found to make one apply.

Two examples: the enclosures of the commons, and intellectual property.

Back in the old days, there was a phenomenon called the tragedy of the commons. The public had the right to graze their animals on common land. Since profits were individual, but the costs were shared, the result was that people overgrazed the land and destroyed it. The solution was to divide up the common land and sell it. With individual ownership, the owner paid the cost of overgrazing as well as gained the profits, and so the overgrazing stopped. Productivity of the land went up. But what was once free and held in common by the poor was now rented out for a profit. The prices set by the market allocated resources to conserve their productivity, but in the process were now allocated only to those who could make most productive use of them. That obviously has a social cost to go with the benefits.

Alternative example - invention. Because it costs a lot to research and develop a new idea, but once invented nothing at all to copy it, people were not investing in R&D because they couldn't make a profit to pay for that research. Who would invest a billion to invent a new drug only to have someone copy it for pennies a pill and undercut them? That billion has to be paid for somehow. So the government granted patents, in which an inventor could 'own' an idea, and have an exclusive legally-endorsed monopoly by which they could get a return and so pay for that investment. The problem was that instead of letting the market set the price, the government fixed it at 20 years profit. This meant that some trivial inventions with no R&D cost (like Apple's 'boxes with rounded corners') could get locked up for far longer than needed to pay for their development, and others would still not be developed, because they couldn't be paid for even in 20 years. Drugs for the diseases endemic in poor countries are the classic example - the poor can't afford the prices you'd have to charge to pay for the R&D if it's spread over only two decades.

The problem is that the market isn't free. You need some way to allow the market to set prices - e.g. by bidding on the period of monopoly.

I'm not saying there's no role for the government to intervene - although the circumstances where it's appropriate are a lot more limited than governments seem to think - but my point remains: the solution is to *create* a free market to set prices. If prices are set by the market, as when common land was taken into private ownership, that works. But when prices are set by the government, they can't help but get the price wrong for most goods - the distributed market calculation being impossible to do centrally - with a resulting misallocation of resources, and persistent gluts or shortages of the goods involved. 20-year patents are better than no patents (sometimes, maybe), but they inevitably lead to market abuse and failure, because the market isn't free.

"You can't just say, "all you have to do is implement liberty and free markets," because the people with whom you disagree will claim, "that's exactly what we are doing!""

If they are, that's fine. If they're not, which usually they're not, they shouldn't claim it. If it's impossible to organise as a free market, it's impossible to allocate resources optimally anyway. It's fine to admit you're botching it if you can prove it can't be done properly - but don't pretend you can do what you can't.

However, the inability to solve every single problem (yet!) shouldn't lead us to make perfection the enemy of the good. The problems we *can* solve with free markets, we should. Where we can only approximate free markets, we should get as close as we can. And we should be very cautious about deciding to intervene in cases where they can't be applied - we may end up creating more problems than we solve.

And in particular - and to come back to the original topic - the problem of organised crime gangs murdering one another *would* be mostly solved by implementing a free market in narcotics. Drugs are *not* a public good - the exception doesn't apply. We might not be able to solve every problem, or every crime, but if you take all the money out of the black market that fuels it, you'll get a hell of a lot less of it.

A lot of people in the police forces think so, anyway. It's not entirely a fringe a point of view.

July 17, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

And in particular - and to come back to the original topic - the problem of organised crime gangs murdering one another *would* be mostly solved by implementing a free market in narcotics. Drugs are *not* a public good - the exception doesn't apply. We might not be able to solve every problem, or every crime, but if you take all the money out of the black market that fuels it, you'll get a hell of a lot less of it.

A lot of people in the police forces think so, anyway. It's not entirely a fringe a point of view.

On this, we're in complete agreement. The US experience with the War on Drugs has basically been this. Instead of a free, legal market for drugs and insurance for their harms, we instead have a black market for illegal drugs and a collusion of police and private-prison interests to maintain the flow of money used to enforce illegality. Why haven't we chosen the former? I can't really explain, and neither can a lot of people in my generation. The government sure burns a lot of cred with youth on that front...

July 17, 2016 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

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