By Pierre Lemieux
The questions we ask or the passing comments we make depend on the explicit or implicit theories we hold about the world, including normative theories and values. This is not to say that anything is as true as anything else or that any value is as defensible as any other, but that one’s theories and values should be examined. What one says can also be motivated by virtue signaling, that is, showing one’s good standing with the group one wants to endear or persuade.
Unexamined passing comments are often influenced by the intelligentsia’s intellectual fetishes. I found a few examples in a book that is otherwise serious and challenging: Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, The Narrow Corridor: Sates, Society, and the Fate of Liberty (Penguin, 2019). I will have a review of the book in the forthcoming (Fall) issue of Regulation.
One example is about guns in the hands of ordinary citizens. The book tells us, as if it were obvious:
The original wording of the Second Amendment … has left a long trail of violence and its wake.
The well-known fact that 60% of gun deaths in America are suicides has some bearing on the evaluation of this sort of statement. And why do the authors, who are fond of “social mobilization” and (some) democratic resistance to Leviathan, criticize the National Rifle Association which, whatever one thinks of it (and the grave mistakes it has made over the past several years), is a major grass-root and anti-elite force in America? One would think that they would normally celebrate the private ownership of guns. George Orwell, the author of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, wrote in an article (quoted in Michael Shelden, Orwell: The Authorized Biography [HarperCollins Publishers, 1991], p. 328):
That rifle hanging on the wall of the working-class flat or labourer’s cottage is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there.
Totemic ideas are often dangerous. Could we similarly hypothesize that the First Amendment has “left a long trail of violence in its wake” because certain instances of free speech—say, about the meaningless of life or publicizing suicides—cannot be repressed? Have the automobile industry or the swimming pool manufacturers left a long trail of deaths in America? These trails of death were absent from the former Soviet Union and its satellite countries: with few cars and swimming pools, automobile deaths and children drowning were necessarily low. Only public guns, not private ones, left a trail of violence.
Another example: Is it so obvious that, as Acemoglu and Robinson suggest, Sweden is a model country compared to the United States? Not all facts concur. Just as an example (I give others in my Regulation review), consider that the age-standardized suicide rate of women is 16% higher in Sweden (7.4 per 100,000) than in the United States (6.4). If we take the raw rates (without adjustment for differences in population age structure), the comparison is more impressive: the suicide rate of women is 46% higher in Sweden (10.5) than in the United States (7.2). (See World Health Organization, Suicide in the World: Global Health Estimates, 2019.) Does this mean that social democracy is tough on the fair sex? (Unfair to the fair sex—pardon the pun.) Okay, this fact may have no particular significance, but shouldn’t it give pause to the typical defender of the Swedish model?
Incidentally, Sweden seems to have reached the highest rate of homicide by shooting in Europe. The Economist notes (“Sweden Is Being Shot Up,” July 24, 2021):
Such violence is invariably fuelled by illegal drugs and ill-feeling between jobless, marginalised young men and the police. …
In 1980 Gothenburg’s police solved 80% of all murders. Nowadays the figure is a dismal 20%.
It’s not because the Swedes have a Second Amendment, far from that. Handguns are forbidden to peaceful private citizens. Only cops and thugs carry them. Immigration and gangs are apparently a big part of the problem, but it is worth asking to which extent important features of the Swedish model could play a role.
In short, one must be prudent with the intelligentsia’s fetishes.