by Pierre Lemieux

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Whether or not mass killings without Islamist terrorism are on an upward trend is a debated question. In their article “Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown,” criminologists James Alan Fox and Monica J. DeLateur argue that, as of 2012, the number of such mass shootings and their victims has been quite stable for 35 years in America. Recently, many terrorist mass killings have occurred in Europe, while non-political ones, like in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, have dominated the news in America. Why do individuals commit mass killings?

Perhaps we can gain some understanding with what Gary Becker called the economic approach to human behavior. In Becker’s view, which is standard economics, individuals make choices on the basis of both their preferences and the constraints they face. We take preferences as given, because a change in preferences can provide an ad hoc explanation for anything. (I will relax this assumption later.)

Most people are not tempted to commit mass killings but, obviously, some are. Casual observation suggests that mass killers are nearly always, and perhaps always, losers – in the Merriam-Webster sense of “a person who is incompetent or unable to succeed.” Of course, not all losers have the preferences of mass killers, but for some of them, mass killing is not out of the realm of utility. But when losers face the proper constraints, they don’t commit mass killings. The crimes they are likely to commit are more standard crimes, petty or serious. Two sorts of constraints have long prevented losers from committing mass killings.

The first kind of constraint is a straight budget constraint. For most of mankind’s history and in most countries, losers were or are busy trying not to starve. They do not have the physical means – cars, guns, bombs, or other costly items – to commit mass killings. But in today’s rich countries, a loser can rent a truck at Home Depot with a credit card. By enriching everybody and recognizing rights such as Second-Amendment rights, a free society empowers everybody, including losers. Some of the latter may yield to the mass-killing temptation.

The second kinds of constraints are moral constraints, often inspired by religion (but perhaps also, or consequently, by a general sense of decency). Adam Smith wrote:

Religion, even in its crudest form, gave a sanction to the rules of morality long before the age of artificial reasoning and philosophy. That the terrors of religion should thus enforce the natural sense of duty, was of too much importance to the happiness of mankind for nature to leave it dependent upon the slowness and uncertainty of philosophical researches. The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Friedrich Hayek, despite describing himself as a “professed agnostic,” also recognized the importance of religion in a free society (see chapter 9 of The Fatal Conceit).

We should not idealize the past, which was generally more violent than today. Yet, in times past, there were things that one simply must not do, and even losers knew that. Losers were humble. There is no doubt that today moral constraints have been weakened, if only through the decline of religion.

There were exceptions to losers’ restraint. In 356 BC, Herostratus burnt the temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Greece in order to immortalize his name. He succeeded, at the cost of torture and execution. The desire for immortality may still motivate losers to become mass killers. Islamist terrorists yearn for a specific form of eternal life. Today, any loser can achieve some posthumous fame if not the hope of eternal life with a gun or a rented truck (Saipov, the recent bicycle path terrorist, did not even have a gun).

Other constraints would, to some extent, include the capacity of the victims to shoot in self-defense. In Paris, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, witnesses could only capture the killers on their phone cameras.

Relaxing the earlier assumption of stable preferences compounds the consequences of the attenuation of moral constraints. Some individuals can acquire nihilist, death-loving preferences, or lose sympathy for other human beings. Even in the short run, losers’ preferences can be changed by propaganda. Islam comes to mind but, historically, other religions have also justified mass killings. Eternal life in paradise is a powerful motivator, for better and for worse.

The impact of Islamist propaganda could help explain the disproportionate number of terrorist mass killings in Europe. The hypothesis that individuals, including losers, are more empowered in America than in other countries might explain the frequency of non-political mass killings here. That Anders Breivik killed 77 people in Norway, a country slightly above the United States in terms of per capita income, underlines the empowerment factor.

Individual preferences are also influenced by culture, in the “learned” sense of an appreciation for the human adventure. This may explain why non-terrorist mass killings are rarer in culture-heavy European countries; or, at least, it would be an interesting hypothesis to test.

Trade-offs are part of the bread and butter of economists, and mass killings remind us of the trade-off between tyranny and the risk that comes with liberty. As Fox and DeLateur admit,

People cannot be denied their Second Amendment rights just because they look strange, or act in an odd manner. … Mass murder just may be a price we pay for living in a society where personal freedom is so highly valued.

Strangely, however, they also write:

Gun restrictions and other initiatives may not stop the next mass murderer, wherever he or she may strike, but we can enhance the well-being of millions of Americans in the process. Besides, doing something is better than doing nothing. At least, it will reduce the debilitating feeling of helplessness.

A public-choice approach may suggest that disempowering individuals and giving a monopoly of self-defense to the state is not a good solution. My late friend George Jonas, who fled communist Hungary when he was 21, illustrated this trade-off with all his literary talents. In his memoirs, he wrote:

Public safety was relatively high in Communist regimes. The only unlawful activities that flourished were smuggling and petty thievery. … In the Communist state, crime was nationalized, along with other human endeavours. The state reserved the privilege to rob, mug, and murder to itself.

Several years after fleeing Hungary, George travelled to his still-communist former country with a woman companion. In Eastern Europe, he explains, everything was dark, even during daytime, a darkness “completed by a literal, pitch-black darkness at night.” One night, George and his companion were walking in a dark, ghostly street of Budapest. George’s companion became apprehensive: “She reached for my hand and huddled closer to me.” “Relax,” he told her. “You’re in Hungary. Here you’ve nothing to worry about, until you see a policeman.”

Pierre Lemieux is an economist affiliated with the Department of Management Sciences of the Université du Québec en Outaouais. His forthcoming book, to be published by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, will aim at answering common objections to free trade. Email: