Decentralisation and Liberty

Leave a comment

In some recent essays concerning the UK’s referendum in June to determine its membership of the European Union, and the virtues of small states as opposed to larger states, we elaborated some themes regarding how decentralisation and decentralising processes are a boon for individual liberty and a step towards harmony and economic progress. This essay will gather these thoughts together with an emphasis on how small or, rather, optimally sized institutional units pave the way towards two things that not only libertarians, but also everyone else, will claim to want to achieve – economic prosperity on the one hand, and minimal war and conflict on the other.

The mantra of statist and, indeed, mainstream political thinking is that unity, centralisation and the consolidation of states and state institutions is the way forward for peace and prosperity. Not only does this mean larger state institutions with more power but also the fusion of individual states into larger territories under a single jurisdiction. In some ways this seems plausible, even to the libertarian. Wouldn’t unified laws will aid certainty? Wouldn’t we be better off if there were no borders or tariffs to impede the trade goods and workers? And surely the possibility of war will be diminished if we all join together under one, unified banner?

The main problem with this view, however, is that it places the state, state institutions and what these institutions wish to achieve at the centre of society. All of the millions of individual people and thousands of non-state, voluntary institutions that are motivated by their own desires, values and choices are ignored or at least subsumed by the grander edifice. Most lay people who hold the centralising view probably do so naively, but it is the primary preoccupation of statists and intellectual elites that society is something to be managed, controlled or directed by them and those like them while all of the lesser beings should be made to obey quietly with the confidence that their highly educated masters are doing what is best for them. Indeed, rather than seeing any value in individual, voluntary and non-state institutions, the centralising view treats the human race as one, giant, amorphous blob, like a lump of play dough that can be shaped in any way and manner that can be chosen at will – and that the easier it is for the dough to be shaped then the better society will be. Hence, the holders of this view are likely to look favourably upon institutional centralisation and consolidation which conveniently places more power in the hands of people such as themselves to achieve their shaping of society according to their visions. This attitude was rife, at least implicitly, among the so-called “Remainers” in the UK’s “Brexit” vote on June 23rd. Not only, is it believed, that all good things flow from the top down like manna from heaven, but that anyone who was in favour of leaving the EU was, in some way, stupid, backward or a kind of provincial, country hillbilly. For instance, shortly after the referendum, Professor A C Grayling called on Parliament to block Britain’s exit from the EU on the grounds that it is Parliament’s job to determine what is best for the electorate, the latter of which lack “the expertise, patience and time” to make decisions via a direct vote. The implication of this is that the people do not know what is best for them and they have blindingly walked down the path of sheer folly by voting to leave the EU, and they should instead have placed their trust in those better educated than themselves. However, he has completely missed the lesson that should have been learned from this result. The establishment wheeled out all of the big guns in order to persuade the electorate to vote for “Remain” – including the current and the three former living Prime Ministers, most of Parliament and the Cabinet, the Bank of England’s chief and other big bank bosses, the IMF, directors from at least fifty-one FTSE 100 companies, and many heads of foreign governments including the President of the United States – and yet “Leave” still won the vote. When the advice of all of these heavyweights is rejected by the British public then, instead of stooping into a sulk over the supposed stupidity of the great unwashed and demanding that they defer to the “expertise” of their so-called representatives, Grayling and his ilk should realise that such a rejection indicates that everyone is just a bit fed up of being told what is good for them and having decisions made for them by political elites. Such decisions and endless promises of peace and prosperity have brought us, in the last twenty years, two burst financial bubbles, massive money printing that has made the rich richer while failing to provide productive jobs and increasing incomes for everyone else, and at least half a dozen disastrous wars and interventions that are producing deadly blowback in the form of terrorism. What the elitist attitude ignores is that society is not something that is there to be engineered and moulded like a lump of metal in a blacksmith’s forge. Rather, it is made up of individual people who shape it according to their individual thoughts, feelings and desires, motivated by what they believe is best for themselves and for their families. An economy is not some giant machine into which goes “input” to be processed by “jobs” into some kind of “output”, nor is it necessarily true that the higher the numbers of “input”, “jobs” and “output” the better everything is. Rather, a prosperous economy is the product of individual people trading resources voluntarily in directions that they see fit so that they can satisfy ends that they wish to see fulfilled. “Society” is not a collective that demands broad brush categories such as “food” or “houses” or “better railways” etc. Rather, it is me wanting, say, a ham sandwich at 1pm on Tuesday, or you wanting a small apartment in the Hampstead area of London to rent for three years, a business wanting to invest in a small car factory that will be completed in the five years, and everyone else wanting a myriad of highly specific ends in highly specific places at highly specific times that are the product of our own choosing. The economy is not something to be directed by central banks who squash the rate of interest down to its lowest possible point through so-called “monetary policy” or “quantitative easing” in order to “stimulate” some kind of beast into life. Rather, the rate of interest reflects the strength of everybody’s individual preferences for consumption ahead of investment so that the correct amount of resources can be sustainably channelled into roundabout methods of production. Each of us co-operates, through the division of labour, to accomplish things that we each want with the resources available in varying timescales that we are each prepared to bear. It is this co-operation of individuals to achieve their own ends through the nexus of production, trade and exchange that creates a society and not any management and direction from giant, all-encompassing institutions that achieve their ends through force.

The second problem with the centralising view is that the achievement of peace and prosperity in fact demands the very opposite of state and institutional centralisation and consolidation. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, harmony is achieved by division, not unity, while the growth and strength of the human race as a whole is accomplished by the weakness, relative to each other, of its component parts. Economic prosperity, for instance, is characterised by a growing complexity of the economic system – an increasing division of labour with more and more different people specialising in more and more different tasks to produce more and more different products for more and more different people. In other words, its natural tendency is to spread outwards from the centre with more diffused, decentralised knowledge and specialisation. Growth and centralisation of the institutions that support this prosperity under the banner of unity are therefore likely to stifle rather than aid its progress. Indeed the very concept of “unity” requires the same, repeated rules for everyone and the same approaches towards everything regardless of their individual, specialist needs. Hence you get the proliferation, in large, consolidated states, of “one size fits all solutions” that attempt to force everyone through a single, “unified” channel, as though all of us with all of our differences characteristics and requirements are being squeezed through a sausage maker to create a bland, blended puree. (Curiously, those who champion centralisation and state uniformity are also the ones who squeal for “diversity” and celebrating “difference” – at least when those diverse differences are demonstrated or practised by favoured minority groups). Indeed, it is usually, if not always, the case in nature that as something becomes bigger and more complex it is characterised by greater division and decentralisation, not by increased unity and consolidation. A human being is not simply a larger version of a single cell organism. Rather, he is made up of a countless number of individual cells that coalesce into different organs and tissues, each of which specialises in different life sustaining activities. We do not have one, single “unified” organ that pumps the blood, inhales and exhales air, rids the body of toxins, acts as a nervous system and also as a skeleton. In other words as nature achieved a complex human being by decentralising and delegating various functions to different organs that act independently of, but symbiotically with each other, so too will humans only achieve a complex and prosperous society by increasing the division of labour and the degree of specialisation in more and more decentralised institutions.

Division rather than unity is also necessary for creating and preserving the conditions that economic prosperity requires – strong private property rights, minimal taxation and minimal regulation. The benefits of a large number of divided states as opposed to large, unified states, is that if one tiny state of a size equivalent to Luxembourg implements, say, an onerous tax then only that state is affected and the disruption to everyone else in the world will be relatively minimal. If that state introduces ridiculously high border tariffs then only the small proportion of global trade into that territory will be burdened while freer trade will remain for everybody else. Similarly if that state introduces burdensome laws and regulations that infringe upon people’s lives only those people will be affected. The hampering effects of state action upon economic prosperity will, therefore, be localised and minimalised in a world of deconsolidated, small states. In a world of much larger states and state institutions, however, the introduction of a tax will affect everyone; the introduction of a new regulation will affect everyone, everywhere at all times regardless of their own needs and preferences; and the introduction of a border tariff will affect the trade of everybody who wishes to trade across the lines of the large, unified state. Hence the hampering effects of state taxes and regulations and infringements upon private property are magnified as the state becomes larger. This is not all, however, for the incentives to tax, regulate and otherwise infringe private property rights are much greater in a large, unified state than in smaller states. Smaller states are, by their nature, economically weaker than larger states and are more reliant upon maintaining the free flow of goods and services from abroad which simply cannot be produced with the resources at home. Each state will therefore compete with all other states to attract foreign investment and the unhindered import and export of goods and services by minimising taxes, regulation and border tariffs. Because the jurisdiction of a small state covers only a small area, if its rates of taxation, regulation and border tariffs are relatively high then investment will simply flee to a more competitive jurisdiction which may be only tens of miles away and the standard of living in the small state will plummet. A large state, however, whose jurisdiction covers a larger territory and possesses access to a larger number of domestic resources has no such incentive to keep its tax and regulatory burdens to the minimum. With more domestic wealth and resources available and with the threat of capital fleeing for foreign shores thousands of miles away minimised, large states are free to increase their tax and regulatory predations to a much higher degree than smaller states. One of the supposed benefits of the EU is the so-called common market – the notion that goods and workers may move freely under a single tax and regulatory code. Yet any benefits achieved by having to deal with a single code are likely to be outweighed by its gargantuan size whereas a myriad of small and trifling tax and regulatory codes in a world of greater state division is likely to be a better condition for promoting trade and prosperity. Indeed, former UKIP/Independent MEP Godfrey Bloom has referred to the EU as a “customs union” rather than a market union – in other words, a single bureaucracy rather than a single market, a chance for the state to stamp out the irritating competition between states which forces them to keep their tax and regulatory rates low (as demonstrated recently in the EU’s disagreement over the rate of tax Apple had agreed to pay to the Irish government) and replace it instead with a giant socialistic paradise of government control. Instead of emphasising the “unionisation” of tax rules and regulations, those who wish to encourage economic prosperity should instead concentrate on reducing them – and the only way to do this is to make the state entities which impose them smaller and weaker, not bigger and stronger.

The argument for the “unity” and the consolidation of states becomes even more absurd when we consider the desire to preserve peace and prevent war. Murders are committed by murderers; rapes are committed by rapists; thefts are committed by thieves. If we want to minimise the effects of murders, rapes and thefts then it is obvious that the last thing we want is for all of the murderers, rapists and thieves to join together under the banner of “unity” so they are free to combine their powers to murder, rape and steal to a greater degree with increasing ingenuity. Similarly, wars are started by states and are fought between states. Therefore, if we wish to minimise wars and their effects then it follows that we need to make states smaller and weaker; it makes no sense whatsoever to make them bigger and stronger. The argument that unifying states is likely to prevent wars seems to rest on the assumption that government is the glue that holds society together and it is in fact all of the people whom they govern who are the cause of endless conflict. Thus a bigger and powerful government is able to “unite” all of these people and stop them from fighting each other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from the fact that, as libertarians, we know that the state’s dependence upon force and violence for its wellbeing renders it an institution that is bound to inflict rather than prevent conflict, bigger and more powerful states are the enablers of bigger and more destructive conflicts rather than our salvagers from them. Private actors and institutions are necessarily splintered, decentralised and reliant upon voluntary trade for their sustenance. Tiny states have equally tiny tax bases from which they can command a very limited number of resources. The ability of such persons and institutions to start and sustain wars is extremely limited. Large states, on the other hand, are vast concentrations of wealth and power which not only have enormous tax bases from which to draw the means to fund eminently more destructive firepower but the advent of central banking – another creature of centralisation and “unity” – has allowed large states to fund their conflicts through monetary inflation rather than through demanding their citizens to cough up directly. So does anyone sensibly argue that private actors and small states would achieve the level of carnage and destruction that the large and powerful belligerents managed to reach in the two world wars? Does anyone believe that a decentralised world of small states and private institutions would have had the ability to force us to endure a generation and a half of potential nuclear terror during the cold war as the vast territories of the US and the Soviet Union managed to do? The most spectacular terrorist atrocity (i.e. an attack by non-state actors) of the past generation – the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 – killed just fewer than 3000 people, a figure which, while undoubtedly tragic, stands in the shadow of the more than 1 million Iraqis who have died as a result of the US invasion of their country. There would, of course, be fewer states left to fight each other in a world of consolidated, centralised states. However, this completely ignores the fact that the states that remain are armed with a destructive ability far superior to any minor state or territory – and especially compared to any private criminal. Any conflicts in a decentralised world would be localised to small pinpoints on the world map, affecting, at most, a few thousand people and, with the participants lacking the resources to continue fighting and disrupting trade for too long, would probably be over in weeks if not days. Contrast this to the situation in which we languish today where the ridiculous cult of interventionism and “collective security” – another banner of “unity” – forces all such local conflicts to be escalated into drawn out, global catastrophes, as the forays into Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria have demonstrated. It is clear that if we wish to preserve peace and prevent war then we need to prevent the institutions that start and fight wars – states – from becoming too big and powerful.

On a related note, there is a distinct air of utopianism in the minds of the centralisers and consolidators when it comes to the issue of preserving peace. War and conflict are doubtless terrible things and we would have a much better world if they did not exist. However, it is also true that, for as long as humans have walked the earth, individuals and institutions have run into conflicts with each other and that these conflicts have been escalated into violence. This is just human nature. Unwittingly, in trying to prevent all war everywhere and at any time by “unifying us” under the yoke of bigger and larger states, the advocates of such an approach have, instead, served to escalate the size and duration of wars and vastly magnify their destructive capabilities. The more sensible approach, we would suggest, is to acknowledge that war and conflict will always exist and to recognise that a superior social system will never eliminate these aspects of humanity entirely, just as in the same way libertarians do not expect a free market in private defence and security to ever completely eradicate murder, rape and theft. Our task instead is to find ways to reduce the frequency, duration and potency of these awful things as much as possible. When it comes to war only cutting the potential belligerents down to size and reducing their ability to wage destructive wars in the first place is likely to achieve this.

As we have seen, the liberating effects of decentralisation owe themselves to the relative weakness of deconsolidated and splintered states and state institutions. However, these liberating effects do not arise out of the smallness of the states and state institutions per se. Rather it is because the individual person becomes stronger relative to an institution the more decentralised and localised that institution is. Within his own immediate family, which may consist of only half a dozen people, an individual person’s needs and views are likely to be highly influential upon the other members of the family. They will attempt to provide for and accommodate these views and needs as an active part of their lives simply because the individual is close to them both physically and emotionally. An individual will have a little less influence in his immediate community or on a civil or parish council, where there are more people involved and few of them will be as familiar with him as his immediate family. However he would clearly have more influence in such a circle than in an entire town or city. And once, of course, we get to the level of an entire country such as Great Britain, a diverse nation of various economic, social and ethnic backgrounds, a single person’s lonely vote in, say, a general election becomes a drop in the ocean along with all of the other c. 45 million votes that are eligible to be cast. And if a country such as Britain was to be absorbed into a superstate such as the EU an individual may be drowned out by a chorus of 500 million other voices. The larger an institution becomes then the more its ability to focus on the “micro” issues that really affect people’s lives is progressively diminished and is replaced by a concentration on “macro” or global issues, the successful tackling of which is determined not by the wellbeing of individual people but, rather, by the measurement of aggregated statistics. So whereas, say, a family will care about whether Dad has a job that he enjoys and pays enough to feed and house the family or whether Grandma can get her hip operation in a hospital local enough for her to travel to, large state governments will instead care about GDP and the size of hospital waiting lists. Whereas a local council might focus on whether there is a sufficient bus service to a small community or whether a particular street is clear of litter, large governments, instead, have transport and environmental policies. Who in the bureaucracy is likely to care whether these policies might overlook the specific needs of one community or street some hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the capital? More local institutions are also likely to be populated more homogenously, with each person experiencing relatively similar priorities and holding a relatively similar worldview. Thus the ability to induce empathy between those who lead and those who are led is much more likely and, indeed, may produce more of a situation of symbiosis, or a sense of “working together” to further common goals as opposed to the “command and follow” routine of large states. In other words, even though a particular institution may still function officially through the methods of power and force, the smaller and more localised it is then the more likely such an institution will approach the individual and his needs in a voluntary and peaceful manner – or at least relatively so compared to much larger, faceless state institutions. Even the socialisation of property – considered to be the antithesis of libertarians, or at least right-leaning libertarians – is less likely to be a problem in, say, a small, voluntary commune where all of the commune’s members can air their views as to how their collective resources should be put to use and where all the members are likely to share a common motivation and purpose. Yet a similar exercise on a nationwide scale has always proven to be a disaster – not to mention, of course, that is easier for someone to leave a small commune than it was to leave, say, the Soviet Union.

It is important to realise that decentralisation is not necessarily about breaking every institution down into its smallest possible parts just for the sake of it. There is nothing wrong with large entities or institutions if such sizes generate advantages that could not otherwise be attained. Rather, the primary purpose of decentralisation is to devolve decision making authority (or what might be called “sovereignty”) to its the lowest possible level and that the closer this is to the individual then the more liberating the decentralising effect will be. So there is nothing wrong with lots of individuals or small institutions deciding to form a large institution to achieve a common purpose. This is precisely what individuals do when they form companies and joint enterprises. Whatever criticism we might hurl at the inadequacy of corporate governance and executive dominance, it is still basically the case that the individual shareholder of such an entity can liquidate his position if he wishes to disassociate himself from the institution. Thus the ultimate fate of the institution is dependent upon the willingness of individuals to continue its existence rather than upon its own volition. When, however, such an institution, which may originally have been organised voluntarily, becomes the ultimate decision making authority – like the modern state has become – and is able to prevent its component parts from exercising any significant autonomous power that would seal its fate, then the anti-liberating effects of consolidation and centralisation will be felt. This has been the case with the United States which, having started off as an association of small, independent, sovereign states has become, at least since the American Civil War, a compulsory union with the power concentrated in Washington DC rather than in the state capitals.

Decentralisation cannot depend solely upon formal, constitutional arrangements or treaties and it is naïve to argue that such set ups are adequate. What matters is where the de facto ability to enforce decision making power lies. An individual shareholder has de facto power over a company, for instance, because a court will enforce the sale of his shares and whatever other rights he may have. Technically, the individual member states of the EU remain wholly sovereign nations and, indeed, are so at this present time – the perceived loss of sovereignty of which its citizens complain has come in part from the fact that the politicians of the individual state governments have been happy to haemorrhage more and more powers to Brussels that override the individual, local needs of each country. However, if all of the military, policing and judicial might of the combined EU member states was to be consolidated in Brussels – which is, of course, the eventual aim of the super-statists – then it would be the case that no individual member state would retain the ability to enforce its sovereignty over the larger entity. Hence, it was a good thing for the UK to vote to leave the EU before such a consolidation occurred. What matters for the process of decentralisation and its liberating effects, therefore, is that any legal or enforcement system must be able to give effect to the decision making authority of smaller and smaller institutions. Therefore, large, standing armies, and consolidated police forces and judicial systems run from vast buildings in the capitals of large states, such as the Pentagon in Washington DC, are the biggest fears for those of us who wish to achieve a world of liberty – and with it, a world of peace and prosperity.

View the video version of this post.


Economic Myths #10 – Taxes Benefit “Us”

Leave a comment

During the revelations that large corporate entities such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks were arranging their affairs so as to pay as minimal tax as possible on profits earned in the UK, the indignation from the general public seemed to centre on the belief that the “lost” government revenue was somehow a “lost” benefit to the average citizen. After all, won’t lower tax revenues result in fewer hospitals and worse schools? Indeed tax avoidance (together with the deliberate blurring of the legal and moral distinction between that concept and that of the explicitly illegal tax evasion) has become a favourite topic of heavily indebted governments as they attempt to balance their books without reducing their profligate spending. The speech of Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the UK Treasury, to the Liberal Democrat Party Conference this Autumn is typical of their hubristic attitude but now with a somewhat chilling veneer:

Liberal Democrats have led the crackdown on tax avoidance. The investment I announced at this conference in 2010, is now bringing in an extra £7bn. We are now insisting that tax dodgers pay the right tax up front – they will only get any money if their scheme is later proved in the courts to work. And we are using psychologists and behavioural economists in HMRC to get the money quickly. Tax dodgers beware – we know where you live, we know how much you owe, and now we know how you think. Your behaviour is unacceptable, and we are coming for our money.

Part of the vitriol of the general public is explained by the fact that people want some kind of tax equality and don’t want to be shouldering the burden of public expenditure themselves when others appear to be shirking their alleged responsibility. Indeed many of the cries for reform all appear to be in the direction of making people their “fair share” of taxes – an amount that is, conveniently, never quantified but always means more. Yet the core focus appears to be that life will somehow be worse off without Amazon and Google paying tax in the UK.

All of this is nonsense. Profits that are retained by private shareholders do not magically “vanish” from the economy. Rather, they are reinvested in productive enterprises that create capital in order to churn out more products that people want to buy at lower prices. Fewer profits retained by investors means fewer capital goods and fewer products on the shelves. If that money disappears into the hands of the government, it is not invested prudently in productive business. Most of it vanishes into the pockets of favoured government contractors to spend on wasteful projects – with very little resulting in marked improvements for the average citizen. This government demanding more money is the same government that, in 2012-13, wasted £1.2bn on subsidising foreign farmers through the Common Agricultural Policy, £20.6bn on public sector fraud, £3.0bn on benefits to people who don’t need them, £145m on “ghost patients” on the books of GP surgeries, £300m on unused medicine, and £113m in subsidies to trade unions1. Every pound that is taken by government to be spent on these wasteful ends is one pound less that can be invested in genuine, private enterprise that must produce products that people wish to buy. Which category of spending – public or private – are we really worse off without?

Some of the more extreme rhetoric – that the likes of Amazon and Google have “blood on their hands” because of all of those patients in hospitals who cannot be treated because of the lost tax revenue – is akin to a sick joke. What about the lives saved because government was not able to use Amazon’s tax revenue to throw bombs at civilians in the Middle East? Yet even if we ignore this the prevailing attitude is that these companies should be punished for setting up businesses, creating jobs and producing stuff that people want to buy – and right at the time when we are at the depths of a deep, government-induced economic malaise when we should be celebrating what little success there is. In any case, every company has to pay tax somewhere even if it is at a lower rate in an alternative jurisdiction. If Google pays tax in Ireland then what is wrong with that? To the rejoinder that this means a foreign government and foreign public services are benefitting from profits earned in the UK, well doesn’t the £11bn foreign aid budget do the same thing?

Increased taxes on the people that take risks to provide us with jobs and produce goods and services that improve our lives do not make things better for “us”. It only benefits the government and those recipients of its bloated, wasteful spending. Fewer taxes and vastly reduced spending would be far better for all of “us”.

View the video version of this post.

1The Taxpayers’ Alliance, Bumper Book of Government Waste 2014. From the same report: £32K was paid by a council to compensate a man who slipped on a berry in a churchyard; £1K was spend on a council officer to investigate a picture taken of the mayor looking at her phone during an Armed Forces Day ceremony; £4K was spent by a council on a whisky tasting event for international golfers; and £70 was spent by the Forestry Commission on a bunny outfit.

The “Bedroom Tax”

Leave a comment

The furore over the UK Government’s latest changes to Housing Benefit appear to be bearing witness to what we might say is a “revolution within the form” – the neutralisation of a word or concept by changing its definition rather than challenging it directly. In this case, whereas once upon a time you were taxed if the Government took the money you had earned, it now appears that you are taxed if the Government finds a reason to give you less of everybody else’s money.

The announcement of the changes were followed by marches and demonstrations all over the UK, showing just how many people seem to be dependent upon the welfare state and how sensitive any reduction to its size may be.

Let us briefly reiterate and emphasise a few truths from the perspective of ethics and economics:

  • The welfare state is funded by taxation. Taxation is theft, the violent confiscation of other people’s property. If you are in receipt of welfare payments you are the recipient of stolen property. If people believe that taxation is not theft then it is incumbent upon these people to define it in such a way as to distinguish it from theft. Such a definition has never been forthcoming and any attempts have involved a twisted, distorted meaning of words that practically end up saying that theft is really voluntary. In particular it would be fitting to see the churches try to make this attempt before it starts wading into the debate;
  • That to pay people the fruits of productivity without having to produce lowers the value of productivity and increases the value of non-productivity. There will therefore be less societal wealth.

Merely arguing that benefits recipients are lazy and idle on the one hand and answering this charge with the claim that benefits cuts encourages selfishness on the other hand is of no relevance to these points we have made. What people should and should not do with their own money voluntarily is entirely up for debate. But there is no justification at all for one set of persons to violently wrestle money from another of persons. And yes, that includes everyone who has benefited from such methods – the bankers who received bailouts and welfare recipients. Ethics and economics are universal and apply to everyone and their laws should be applied to judge all situations whether they involve either the rich or the poor.

View the video version of this post.

Gun Control following Newtown

Leave a comment

The recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, has sparked a renewal of the debate on gun ownership by private individuals. A central issue within the debate is whether such ownership leads to more or less violent crime and/or, more specifically, gun crime. For example the Brady Campaign reports that in a single year the number of murders caused by private gun ownership was 39 in England and Wales (where gun control is apparently strict) and a whopping 9 484 in the Untied States. Even adjusting the figures for population size doesn’t make an overwhelming difference. The problem, though, is that the murder rate in England and Wales (or of the UK as a whole) has reportedly been lower than it is in the United States for at least two centuries; for much of that time laws on gun ownership in the United Kingdom were negligibly different from those in the United States. Witness also the controversy surrounding John Lott’s research on the subject.

It is not the purpose of this short essay to examine which claims on which side of the debate are true and which are not. But it does raise the question of whether murder rates, or more specifically, gun violence and violent crime in particular, are lower because of gun control laws or in spite of them. This demonstrates that evidence is only conclusive when it is carried out in a controlled environment, something which is simply not possible in human society. Before zealots on either side of the debate drown themselves in an orgy of evidence we should realise that such findings are, at best, illustrative of a theory rather than proof of it.

A purely theoretical treatment of the issue, however, poses great problems for any gun control advocacy, whether it be for certain types of firearm or guns outright. If there are to be Government-enforced restrictions on the private ownership of firearms then this must be premised on the notion that individual human beings cannot be trusted to own guns responsibly, or, more accurately, that voluntary action between buyers and sellers of firearms (say, for example, patronising only those outlets that behave according to an established code of sales conduct) is insufficient to prevent firearms from falling into the wrong hands. If voluntary action is insufficient it therefore requires force. And where is this force going to come from if not from the barrel of a gun? Here enters the tacit assumption that is present in all gun control advocacy – that it is OK for the Government and its agencies (such as the police) to own and carry firearms. But if we don’t trust the rest of the population with gun ownership then why should we trust these people? They are human beings just like anyone else so why should they be more responsible? What is to stop these people from committing criminally culpable behaviour with firearms? May be the answer is that the Government consists of wise overlords who are elected by the people to ensure that all firearm owners behave responsibly. But this argument is simply contradictory. The general public is not permitted to own firearms because its members cannot be trusted with them nor are they to be trusted through their voluntary buying and selling on the marketplace to restrict who can get hold of a gun; but somehow they are able to choose the people who will behave responsibly with guns and who will also behave responsibly in using these guns in choosing and enforcing who should and who should not also get them amongst the general public. Rather than breeding responsibility isn’t such a situation more likely to induce voters to choose representatives who wield guns to their (the voters’) own advantage? The whole argument, in short, is “we, the masses, are not to be trusted with guns but will permit our representatives to use guns to enforce who we think should have guns and under which circumstances”. So would they not also use them to enforce anything else that the “untrustworthy” voters want?

Indeed, that is precisely what happens in a democracy. People vote for the politicians who promise them the most bounty (“tax”) from other people’s productivity. This tax is collected at the point of a gun – don’t pay it or try to defend yourself from having to do so and the Government arrogates to itself the right to take what it wants by force – and how much easier it is to collect it when the taxed are not armed (perhaps this explains the origin of and the meaning behind the second amendment to the United States Constitution?).

May be a more fruitful empirical study would be one that compares the size of states with the extent of their gun laws.