08 October 2015

Don't just stand there do something.

I've noticed a common quotation for (some) libertarians. It comes from "Yes Minister." We must do something, this is something, lets do it".

One intended aspect of this position is to say that in times of crisis or suffering or peril, there is a strong compulsion to be seen to act on a problem (and presumably to take credit for having successfully solved that problem), whether or not those actions have anything to do with the causes of strife under which we are laboring. Libertarians, at least those concerned with public policy, are fond of deriding this variety of common and very public thinking I suspect because it implicitly suggests we are running around doing a lot of foolish things and probably not fixing things via the public policy routes that are often preferred. Sometimes this is undoubtedly true. It is one of the reasons libertarians are potentially quite useful to the political process is they can quickly point out where the system sucks, finding low-hanging fruits that need to be plucked out.

The impulse of this insight and thinking is pretty strong and there are often sound objections to a great many popular responses; from opposition to same sex marriage, to demands to drug test welfare recipients, to protectionism in borders or trade, to some forms of gun control, and so on. This does not make these objections automatically correct over and above potential gains, but it often helps clarify the proposed gains to be something other than the stated goals. So for instance, much complaining about immigration turns out not to have much to do about jobs, which are not really impacted anyway. But instead vague worries about culture. As though either a) historically "American culture" has dramatically changed via massive waves of immigration far larger than we have had in the last 3-5 decades and b) getting more "foreign" restaurants around is a bad thing, suggesting that if there are changes, they're likely to be pretty good things. This is one of those scenarios where the impulse is a very good one. Leave it alone at worst, and if anything, make it easier to get here and live here. If we must do something, doing the wrong thing is worse. Pushing against doing the wrong thing, restricting immigration further, is simply a nice side benefit.

One of the stronger logical basis for this kind of thinking is to point out not merely that the proposed idea may not do much about a problem, or will identify the wrong thing as a problem in the first place, as with the case of immigration reforms demanded by anti-immigration groups, but also to suggest that a proposed idea has "unintended" consequences that will be harmful and present themselves as substantial costs over and above what we are intending to do. Much anti-immigration policy would fall under this category. Much anti-trade policy likewise. Terrorism policy post 9-11 largely falls into this category as well.

More paranoid positions suggest that these "unintended" consequences are intended. I'm more of the opinion that they are often exploited by people who have their own agendas within the bureaucratic chain than that they are intended policy shifts. I don't think governments are fundamentally evil. But they're not fundamentally good and decent either.

A more challenging subject.

I've written quite about skeptically about gun control proposals. I have maintained relative agnosticism about background checks and their effectiveness. I think they are possibly helpful, but there are a lot of reforms I would propose within them. I'm not sure a felony conviction should be indicative of anything on its own as we have over-criminalized a lot of behavior that is not fundamentally violent (drug distribution for example). Many other popularly proposed ideas, I'm less positive on still even from this rather tepid position of endorsement of the status quo, or what amounts to it, to say that I'd rather do nothing than try them as they seem very much less tied to the proposed problem and very much more in the category of "we must do something" thinking that often leads to unintended consequences. "Assault weapons" seem more to do with cosmetic features of weapons than the causes of violence, as rifles in general are rarely used in the commission of violent crime and death and fundamentally a gun that propels a shaped fragment of metal at high speed and potentially into or through human tissue and bone in a lethal way isn't that different from any other type of weapon. Cosmetic adjustments aren't the issue. "Mental health" doesn't have much to do with anything we can put into policy either as it is too hard to determine who might be violent without reliance upon who has already been violent, which is probably a more reliable marker. Violent video games have been around for 20 years or more in mass markets, and that's precisely the same span that we have seen a large decline in violent crime (this is also true of pornography and rape). All this stuff always comes up and swirls around. Most of it smells like an awful backed-up bathroom toilet by now as it's been so heavily recycled and overused. It sucks up valuable attention and time to discuss these questions.

One of the problems with this system seems to be that it is frequently tied in public debate to the question of what to do about these horrible shootings we have that make national news for killing a handful of people at one time at a school or a church or some other public place. But it is not abundantly clear that backgrounds checks, the more popular suggestion of something to do about gun violence in general, have much of anything to do with helping us prevent these. People who become deranged or angry enough to want to try to casually kill possibly dozens of strangers don't have to have had any outward signs of mental disorder and distress beforehand. In part because not everyone has sought treatment, but also in part because I'm not convinced this is directly related. It's not a universal truth that everyone who kills other people in these events was determined to be some variety of what we have popularly termed as crazy. They don't have to have had a criminal record. They don't have to have had these as problems at the time they acquired the weapons perfectly legally, possibly years before.

We also don't have a very good model that most of these are things that would help us either. Mental illness is virtually impossible to note as having a direct link to violence and mayhem. If it has one, it's more likely as victims of violence and mayhem than as a causal agent itself and there doesn't appear to be any meaningful way we can screen out who is or is not a threat, leading a lot of misguided fear-based policies and potentially stripping millions of people of basic civil rights and decency if policies are not done very, very carefully. The types of policies that are unlikely to be crafted in the wake of major national news stories. As pointed out above, a criminal record doesn't have much either to suggest much in many cases that we will be dealing with a violent person who shouldn't be trusted around firearms. Finally, I'm not sure there's a good and safe way to go in and by some means of force remove someone's firearms they have purchased legally on the idea that they had developed some kind of noticeable mental defect that could lead to trouble. There are undoubtedly good ways to approach this as a problem, but they are less likely to do with requiring people to surrender weapons/property they have legally purchased in times of personal crisis en masse and more likely to do with people discussing their problems with a doctor and friends or family who could do things like help to secure such weapons privately (and voluntarily) while someone seeks help. That isn't something that is easily done through national policy. Which is to say: it might be that some one should do something about these as a terrible problem, but it might not be the politician who gets to take credit for it if it works. It would be ordinary people instead who stepped forward to help and they who achieved some successful change in society.

Spending a lot of time focusing a policy agenda upon these events seems like a rather poor use of the politicizing attention. Spending a lot of time focusing on that there's a whole huge mess of other gun violence that goes on (still), or that there are thousands of suicides with firearms every year. That seems like a better use of the time. Bring that up and talk about it. Spin it somewhere we can more effectively do something or discuss different political solutions. That's where the conversation on policy still has ground to cover for now.
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