Matthew Yglesias and Vox On Guns, Bans, and Suicide, Part 2
The small "L" liberty edition
Welcome back! Our last post on this topic looked at the problems with Matthew Yglesias’ conclusion that reducing gun ownership in the US would significantly reduce our suicide rates. This post is a little bit different; instead of showing what I think are problems with how Matthew sees the evidence on this, I want to focus on more on his philosophy of what to do about this if his interpretation of the data is truer than I think it is.
In his article, Yglesias is for the most part trying to explain to his audience why it’s OK that many politicians on the left have been ignoring gun control in the recent past - it costs them votes in districts most people on the left would like to see them win and it’s a non-starter. But buried near the end of the article he makes a rarely heard point, and it’s great:
Even if talking about gun regulation leads to electoral defeats rather than to the adoption of gun regulation, some people won’t be satisfied. Don’t we need to say the right thing? To be true to our beliefs?
If you’re feeling moralistic about this, I’d point to the case of alcohol. There were over 70,000 alcohol-related deaths in the United States in 2017, the most recent year that data was available for. Alcohol is involved in a majority of intimate partner assaults, and over a third of murders and sexual assaults. It’s addictive, obviously, as well as being bad for your liver. But critically the impaired judgment induced by alcohol can lead to very serious problem behavior even on the part of people who are not alcoholics.
But in terms of moral urgency, alcohol kills more people than guns. If you’re comfortable saying that it’s fine for politicians to be politically pragmatic in their approach to alcohol regulation, but that guns are such a transcendent question of conscience that you can’t stomach it, I think you should examine where that’s coming from. I suspect that you drink alcohol yourself and that alcohol consumption is common in your social circle and in fact it’s woven into the rituals of communal life. And I can relate! That’s me too. Indeed a lot of people like me don’t realize that drinking is much less common among working class people.
I’m not being sarcastic when I say I love this; I think it’s an absolutely valid point and I’ve been arguing it to pro-gun control folks in my life as a devil’s advocate position for years. If you are anti-gun but pro-alcohol (as it relates to them being available) then there’s something influencing your opinions besides mere death and misery; alcohol causes more of both. I think Matthew is on the right track when he hints that there’s some understandable hypocrisy hidden in there - it’s harder to be enthusiastic on a ban on something you or people close to you like.
I love this right up to the point Yglesias and diverge, where he then takes it to a couple weird places that you might miss if you aren’t reading closely.
Things you like get taxed, not banned.
But while there are plenty of people calling for higher taxes on alcohol, nobody is mystified or indignant that few politicians back this.
Drinking alcohol is a widely enjoyed hobby in the United States and people would prefer not to pay more for it. Personally, I agree with the case for higher booze taxes. And I very seriously think that any time a state finds itself in a budget crisis where it needs to do something or other that’s unpopular, wonks should show up with our reams of studies indicating that higher alcohol taxes are an unpopular idea that’s actually good. Maybe some day there will be an urgent need for the federal government to raise more revenue and, again, higher alcohol taxes would be a very compelling way to do that.
So Yglesias wants less drinking, but he’s pretty clear he doesn’t want it banned. This is different from his stance on guns:
But the way you would accomplish these things would be by drastically reducing the number of legally owned guns around. Stricter background checks for new purchases just aren’t going to significantly change the situation.
The United Kingdom has drastically fewer gun assaults than we do and that has a lot of benefits. Not only are innocent lives saved, but it allows their police to operate largely unarmed which would greatly ameliorate a tangled nexus of American social problems around racism and police use of force. But the UK didn’t get there with really rigorous background checks, it got there by making civilian ownership of guns mostly illegal.
What’s more: Gun enthusiasts are aware of this. So when progressives talk about the tragedy of gun deaths in America, it doesn’t matter if their actual proposal is a very mild tweak to background checks. When you define “the problem” as gun deaths, you are pushing toward a drastic solution that gun hobbyists don’t want, and they are highly motivated to vote against you.
Where guns are implicated in self-inflicted harm and violence towards others, the solution proposed by this argument is to go after all the suicides and violence they cause; we have to get rid of guns, not just make them more expensive. But where alcohol causes more deaths, it gets lighter treatment - we can now see our way to merely reducing the amount of drinking that goes on.
It’s also worth quantifying the size of the tax Yglesias is referring to wanting, so we know who we are training the reduction-in-drinking crosshairs on. From the second link in Matt’s higher-taxes-on-alcohol quote:
Roodman found not just that high-quality research supports a higher alcohol tax, but that the effects seem to grow stronger the higher the tax is.
So for the US, 10 percent higher alcohol prices could save as many as 6,000 lives each year. To put that in context, it would mean paying about 50 cents more for a six-pack of Bud Light, and probably save thousands of lives in the process.
It’s telling that the author of the Vox article linked notes that 50 cents a six pack seems like virtually nothing, but still reduces drinking an amount that seems surprising to him. What he’s missing is that this is because he is relatively affluent, and so would be unaffected by this; the people who would feel the financial pinch here are poor.
Where Yglesias and his Vox-sources support a higher liquor tax, it’s knowing that the amounts in play are a low enough percentage of their income that they wouldn’t be severely affected. This might not be a conscious “any restriction that doesn’t affect us” stance, but in a practical sense all that’s been proposed here is things that let drinkers go on drinking as they always have, so long as they are middle class or better.
I seem like I’m being hard on them, but I don’t actually think this is that bad, or at least that uncommon. I think that everyone except the very most thoughtful is like this - they are willing to be dry, harsh utilitarians right up to and not including the part where it might actually affect them in a way they might feel.
Utility Vs. Liberty
I want to give some credit to Yglesias at here, because he was doing two things I like: He was trying to be fair, and he was taking his own in-group to task. Both of those are deliberate actions - Yglesias had to have some point stopped and decided to try and be better than his reflexes told him to. This is an admirable thing. I just wish he hadn’t stopped where he did.
Putting Yglesias’ reflexive protection of liquor aside, I think he’s doing a pretty simple math: If things cause substantial harm and don’t cause substantial utility that can’t be replaced by some non-harmful alternative, we ban or restrict them. That’s hard to argue against in a simple form - if out of all the brands of TV’s that existed there was a single brand that sometimes exploded and burned your house down, we’d ban just that one and use any of the other numerous brands that exist. If coal-fueled power plants are ruining the environment, you replace them with nuclear. It’s a pretty simple thing.
This all falls apart when you consider swimming.
About 3400 people drown in the US a year. It’s the leading cause of death in children ages 1-4. That doesn’t sound like much compared to the >40000 deaths a year from firearms, but considering that there are 10.7 million swimming pools in the US as compared to 144.4 million gun-owning households that means each swimming pool is a wee bit more dangerous than each household with a gun (.031% to .027%, respectively). (big immediate edit: I just realized on rereading this section that this section doesn’t make any sense as written. It should read something like “about 144.4 million people living in gun owning households”. Please alter your opinion of the strength of my argument with this in mind)
Given that, you’d think there’d be a strong contingent of people pushing for pool bans, or mandatory swimming and lifeguarding certifications before you’d be allowed to own one. But that’s not the case. Organizations like this that care about drowning as an issue are definitively not anti-swimming, instead pushing for swimming lessons and general awareness of danger. A few articles like this exist, but for the most part people just live their lives, enjoying swimming and not giving a shit about the human death toll in any practical, ban-pushing sense.
If we were all really genuinely doing the utility math Yglesias thinks he’s doing, we’d ban all swimming pools, recommend exercise bikes to replace the physical fitness benefits smugly tell watersports enthusiasts that their dry-skin overcompensation doesn’t trump human lives. Why doesn’t this happen? Because people are basically aware that drowning is as indicated above a pretty rare thing, and because people like to swim or at least remember a point in their lives where they did.
I want to be really clear here - this isn’t unreasonable! We do this kind of math - or don’t do this kind of math - all the time. We could have breathalizer interlock devices on every car and govern them all to 85 MPH; we don’t. We could ban fast food and ice cream and institute specific dietary standards meant to encourage health; we don’t (with exceptions like the NY soda ban, again aimed at punishing poor people in ways that don’t affect the rich’s pocketbooks and personal tastes much). And the basic reason we don’t is because enough of us recognize personal convenience and enjoyment as utility, so long as it applies to ourselves.
This is where small-L liberty comes into play. The Capital L liberties are liberties related to things some of us think would be disastrous if we didn’t have them. Everyone thinks their private definition of freedom of speech is important, for instance; about half of us think abortion is necessary to modern human welfare. Small L liberties, by contrast, are things we don’t need - they are just things we like.
It’s usually pretty easy to defend a Capital L Liberty, because by definition it’s easier to put together an explanation why we need them; free speech keeps governments in check. A free press is supposed to do the same. Gun rights defenders claim they are needed for self defense, or perhaps to keep our government from becoming tyrannical. Abortion rights defenders claim it as a necessary thing for various equality and not-being-a-reproductive-slave reasons.
It’s much harder in comparison to explain the rights to violent video games or fur-lined jackets should be preserved - we don’t need them, after all. But that doesn’t mean that enjoyment has no value. In fact, recognition of this enjoyment-and-freedom value is universal, just as Matt’s proposed remedies to alcohol related harms recognizes that no significant burdens should be placed on his right to have a drink, deaths be damned. If there’s anything that keeps bans in general from being near impossible in all but the most dire circumstances, it’s a lack of empathy, not an inability to tolerate harms to get what one wants.
Defensible position VS. Defensible Position
I’m not pretending that anything I’ve written here actually does a great job of defining what should and shouldn’t be banned. The position that Matthew Yglesias thinks he’s defending - one that anything dangerous and without clear, non-enjoyment utility should be banned or restricted - is a legitimate stance to take.
On the flip side, my position - that liberty and enjoyment have value that should be considered relative to the harms we are seeking to prevent - is more subjective. Matthew’s argument responds to mine by saying something like “Well, what’s more important? Beverages or human life?”, and it’s not wrong to do so. That’s a valid point.
But just as my position has to be able to acknowledge that it will tolerate a certain amount of human suffering and death to get what it wants and sound monstrous in the telling (See: all the clothes you wear and most of the food you eat involves someone getting hurt), Matt’s position should ideally have to either be consistent (I.E. push for bans on swimming pools and drinking of the same severity as gun bans, and push for them just as hard), or else acknowledge that they are pro-meaningful-ban only where it doesn’t affect them.