With a weekend to digest recent events, I have concluded that Newtown is really just the continuation of that timeless discussion regarding the correct balance of individual rights and responsiblities against the ability and wisdom of government to control events.
An obviously mentally unstable man steals some firearms and kills more than two dozen of the most defenseless victims. Immediately, as after all such events, there goes up a cry for more restrictions on the individual ownership of guns. However, even if that were the right course of action, as John Fund points out, in a country that contains over 200 million privately owned firearms, prohibition is not possible. To outlaw gun ownership would be as futile (not to mention damaging to the cause of limiting violence) as would be an attempt to return 11 million illegal aliens to their homelands or a second attempt at the prohibition of alcohol. Some things are just too entrenched to ever completely end.
Another group has argued for a greater ability of the government to diagnose and detain mentally ill individuals. While certainly there is great merit in having a serious adult conversation about the role of mental illness in violent crime, proposals to return to an era of committing people to the Cuckoo’s Nest, are as fraught with societal danger as are proposals to ban guns. Granting to government the power to forcibly hospitalize the mentally ill who might perform violent acts is as anathema to the American way, as giving government the power to imprison those who might commit a crime. Just how many scores of thousands of imprisoned innocently insane is the right number to save the lives of the next score of innocent children?
If phrasing the trade-off that way doesn’t make you uncomfortable, then I suggest that you don’t have an appreciation for what the American ideal of freedom means. Our system was purposefully designed to default to government inaction and individual freedom. While it is understandably frustrating to victims and their families, our rules prefer that the guilty go free rather than to wrongfully imprison an innocent man. That is no less true for the criminally insane than it is for the just plain criminal.
Shit happens. Sorry to so crassly phrase it, but that’s just the way life is. As we grow more technologically advanced, we have had great success in controlling–even eliminating–some of that shit. Smallpox is completely gone. Polio is rare. Malaria is almost non-existent outside of the third world. The same is true of hunger–the real, dying of starvation kind. We have even the ability to screen out telemarketers without ever touching the phone.
While shit still happens, less of it happens than happened before. So it is not surprising that we look around for other shit to stop. But sometimes in our zeal to stop it all, we lose sight of the trade-offs. How many millions of man-hours of economic productivity, for example, are lost every day in airport security lines in an effort to stop a hijacking that takes place less often than once-a-year?
Rare tragic events sharpen the focus more clearly than does the every day cost of preventing them. I remember a couple dozen years ago the sad story of an airplane lap child who died when he struck the bulkhead during turbulence. Immediately a cry went out to require infant seats on aircraft. In one of those uncommon examples of when Washington considers the whole issue–that which is unseen as well as that which is seen–Congress wisely chose not to act. I say wisely, not because I wish for infants on airplanes to die, but because a serious analysis of ALL of the facts indicated that the solution would lead to more deaths than it would save. That was because if parents were forced to buy an extra ticket for their infant, some significant percentage of them would opt to drive rather than to fly. And by driving, they would make their infant child far more susceptible to accidental death. Shit happens. And sometimes we just have to let it happen, because in trying to stop it, we inadvertently add to the pile of shit.
So what should we do to mitigate the risk of shit? Confiscation, as Ed Schultz suggests? Only if you want criminals to act with less caution, not to mention the real risk of igniting a civil war. Outlaw automatic weapons as Rupert Murcoch demands? It wouldn’t have helped as they were already outlawed in 1934 and Mr. Lanza’s weapons were not automatic. Reinstituting the “assault weapons” ban that limits the size of magazines as Senator Schumer wants? That wouldn’t have helped either; as Mr. Lanza reportedly overcame that limitation by having “hundreds of rounds of ammunition in multiple magazines.” Enforce tighter restriction on gun possession by the mentally ill? That might be worth analyzing, but it still wouldn’t have helped here, as apparently Mr. Lanza shot his own mother dead and then stole her guns. More cops in schools? There are 132,000 schools in the nation; even ignoring the $13 billion additional cost, is 132,000 new police really going to stop the violence? In a mall in Clackamas it apparently only limited, but did not stop, the bloodshed. Add to the list of places where guns are illegal? They are already illegal in schools; perhaps that is why schools and other gun-free zones are such a target-rich environment.
In epidemiology there is a concept known as “herd immunity.” If enough of the population is vaccinated, epidemics can’t occur. Even the uninnoculated benefit because their vaccinated neighbors prevent a disease’s spread from getting out of control. Herd immunity doesn’t stop the disease, but it does stop its spread. The evidence of recent gun violence suggests that if enough law abiding citizens are armed, the death toll of mass murder events may similarly be limited by a form of herd immunity. It is worth considering that the answer to gun violence is the counter-intuitive: more guns.
But what I would even more strongly suggest is that more restrictions on individuals is a worse response than doing nothing. Whether it is to leave a hundred million citizens more susceptible to everyday violent acts because, unarmed, they are at the mercy of armed criminals, or to add to the already swollen number of Americans forcibly detained, any heavy-handed governmental reaction to events such as what occurred in Newtown is likely to be worse than the problem it is meant to cure.
Government was never meant to be the last line of defense against evil. We individuals are. We are the militia. That is the meaning of the Second Amendment. Shit happens. And when it does, hopefully enough of our herd is ready to deal with it before shit gets out of control.
I’m skeptical that proposing more grief-fueled laws is a meaningful solution. And even if one could accurately project that passing Gun Law X would save Y number of lives, where do Constitutional rights come into play, and who gets to weigh those factors? If curtailing the First Amendment could also be scientifically proven to save some quantifiable number of lives, would we tolerate additional government limits on those core, specifically-enumerated freedoms? These are extraordinarily difficult questions.
What Lanza shows us is the limits of the obvious policy responses. He had all the mental health resources he needed–and he did it anyway. The law stopped him from buying a gun–and he did it anyway. The school had an intercom system aimed at stopping unauthorized entry–and he did it anyway. Any practical, easy-to-implement solution to school shootings that you could propose, along with several that were not at all easy to implement, was already in place. Somehow, Lanza blew through them all.
. . . It would certainly be more comfortable for me to endorse doing something symbolic–bring back the “assault weapons ban”–in order to signal that I care. But I would rather do nothing than do something stupid because it makes us feel better. We shouldn’t have laws on the books unless we think there’s a good chance they’ll work: they add regulatory complexity and sap law-enforcement resources from more needed tasks. This is not because I don’t care about dead children; my heart, like yours, broke about a thousand times this weekend. But they will not breathe again because we pass a law. A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we’d “done something”, as if we’d made it less likely that more children would die. But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.
For McArdle’s crime of pointing out the obvious truth–nothing that gun control advocates have proposed would have stopped Mr. Lanza’s murderous spree–New York Magazine’sJonathan Chait awards her the “Worst Newtown Reaction Award.” I urge you to read his column, and then, if you can stomach it, read the comments. There really are two Americas. And Chait and his readers apparently have never stepped foot in the America west of the Hudson River.
Daniel Greenfield offers his thoughts on individual rights and responsibilities versus the government’s ability to control events:
The clash that will define the future of America is this collision between the individual and the state, between disorganized freedom and organized compassion, between a self-directed experiment in self-government and an experiment conducted by trained experts on a lab monkey population. And the defining idea of this conflict is accountability.
I’m not Mitt Romney, so I don’t have to focus solely on jobs, jobs, jobs. (But fear not; if you stay with me to the end, there’s a jobs angle to this story too.)
To mark this historic occasion–the 24 hour anniversary of Barack Obama’s evolution wherein he catches up to the position where Dick Cheney was two years ago–let’s talk about people who hate people who aren’t like them.
No, I’m not talking about these people. I’m talking about mommy bloggers who want to punch people in the throat. That’s actually the name of the blog “People I want to Punch in the throat.” And just in case that was too nuanced for you, she adds in a subtitle: “I think the title sums it up. If you can’t figure it out, then go away before I punch you in the throat.”
The homophobic rants at this site are the work of the pseudonymous mommy blogger Jen Fisher, who advises her readers that she is a “funny, negative, bitchy type of person,” and adds that “If you can’t handle that . . . don’t waste your time flaming me for being a grouch.” While she is unlike another mommy blogger I know and like, who is funny without being negative and bitchy, I can see how that persona could be humorous . . . if your idea of funny is a female Archie Bunker with a blog.
Actually her rants aren’t homophobic. At least none that I’ve read. But they might as well be, because they heap scorn, ridicule, and virtual violence on “people not like me.”
Let me give you an example from the post that I found via a link from an old friend. Jen wants to punch “Douchey Dads” in the throat. She never quite defines ”Douchey Dad,” but apparently it is a young, well-dressed member of a country club. They are guilty of taking Tuesdays off to golf, wearing expensive shirts, and “yukking”–whatever that is. In short they are “people not like me.”
Jen met the DDs when she was setting up at a country club for a charity auction and immediately took a dislike to them, those people not like her. Why? I don’t know. Apparently being affluent, well-dressed, and comfortable is somehow wrong. (Methinks I detect jealousy.) Why do people take an instant disliking to someone, lump them all into a category and pillory them on the web for others to mock?
Here’s a little exercise I like to engage in: turn the story around 180-degrees and see if it’s still the same. If instead of making fun of idle white wealthy fathers, this was a post advocating a punch in the throat for unemployed black impoverished mothers, would we act the same? No. At the very least it would be labeled “hate speech.” And it wouldn’t be funny to anyone . . . anyone except Archie Bunker, perhaps. (When did Meathead turn into Archie? That’s a subject for another day.) So why is this funny to Jen and her hundreds of commenters?
Why is it that society feels comfortable mocking one group, when we would never tolerate the same treatment of another? Why is it that those very people who dislike people they don’t even know (church-goers, rednecks, Kansans) often think of themselves as being so tolerant? Just how little introspection does it take to have such a bipolar view of the world?
I’m probably too hard on Jen. I’m sure that she’s a nice person in real life and is mean only as a means to amuse. But then again, maybe I’m not too hard on her. “Mean only as a means to amuse” is pretty much the definition of a bully. (Or at least that’s what we’d call it if Jen was ridiculing a protected class.) Maybe it just takes having the contrast exposed for her to see the point. Plus, it’s hard to heap too much blame on a mere blogger, when we have a President who likes to divide people, label them, and engage in ridicule. So much for unity.
Finally, since I promised a jobs angle to the story . . . it isn’t clear from Jen’s post whether she was at the country club as an employee, vendor, or to help the charity hosting the auction there. It doesn’t matter, because in some small way the presence of the “douchey dads” she found so objectionable, contributed to her cause. Even if they weren’t at the charity auction themselves, they help fund the country club so that it can offer reasonable prices to charities wishing to host an event. It amazes me how often I hear scorn from employees, clients, and benificiaries directed at those who provide them cash. People might want to keep that in mind lest they again make the mistake of engaging in covetous tax policies that put a bunch of shipyard workers out of work.
I’m one-sixteenth Bastard. Those who know me well would probably claim that it’s a higher percentage. But technically, I’m only one-sixteenth.
That’s because my grandfather’s grandfather was born just a couple short months after his mother’s 1832 wedding to a man who may or may not have been his biological father and shortly before the couple and their infant child beat a hasty exit to the New World.
Why is my lineage relevant? It’s not. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Except that, apparently, if you can trace 1/32nd of your ancestry to somebody who today would enjoy protected status, you too can enjoy that same protection. At least that’s what Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat running for US Senate in Massachusetts, claims. She used her 1/32nd drop of Cherokee Indian blood to bolster her resume so that she could advance through law schools all the way to a tenured post at Harvard as a minority applicant. (Sadly for me, bastards are not a minority.)
Now if this all seems preposterous to you, you’re right. If Elizabeth Warren, by virtue of her great-great-great-grandmother is entitled to protected status, are my children also minorities as a result of their Powhatan Indian ancestry that dates to the 17th century? As my eldest is applying for colleges next year, that would be awesome news! And if her 1/512th Indian ancestry doesn’t qualify, where is the breakpoint? Is it 1/64th? Or 1/128th? Or 1/256th? Exactly how many drops of minority blood makes one a minority?
Mark Twain exposed the folly of this system of racial discrimination in Pudd’nhead Wilson way back in 1893. The story is set in the antebellum South and involves a baby, born (coincidentally) 1/32nd black, but who was white enough that his mother switched the infant with a white baby so that her son could be raised free from the stain of her race. Twain originally started the story as a comedic interpretation of the mixed up social mores of his day, but as his writing continued the story evolved into a tragedy.
That’s how I view the Elizabeth Warren story too: farce that obscures tragedy. The real issue is not Elizabeth Warren’s gaming of the system to her advantage; it is that this system of racial discrimination even exists. Here we are in the 21st century arguing about how many drops of blood makes a white man black. That’s a tragedy.
Mark Twain is mocking us from the grave.
UPDATE: Thanks to Glenn for the link. While you’re here, please take a look around.
The Washington Post’sChris Cillizza writes today that the currently unfolding scandals at the General Services Administration and the U.S. Secret Service may threaten the Obama presidency. Cillizza contends that the scandals visibly demonstrate President Obama’s competency problem. He’s right, of course. However, depending on how Mitt Romney frames the issue, he may himself face the same problem when he is the incumbent running for re-election in four years.
It’s often been said that conservatives don’t believe in the power of big government to compently solve big problems. True. And in 2005 Republicans went about proving incompetence by not solving the problems presented by Hurricane Katrina. The American people, of course, weren’t happy about that. So they elected a guy who made competency one of his “central pillars.”
After almost four years the results of the President’s competency are in:
Cash for clunkers used taxpayer dollars to subsidize wealthy car buyers who brought forward their purchases from the future, precipitating a huge decline in auto sales after the program’s end . . . just as the program’s critics said that it would.
Three years after the $800 billion stimulus plan, the unemployment rate has now ”fallen” to a level that is higher than the Presdident said it would ever get if we passed the stimulus package . . . just as the plan’s critics said it would.
Obamacare really doesn’t expand coverage while reducing costs (Duh) but actually increases costs and incentivized companies to cancel their employees’ health plans . . . just as the plan’s critics said it would.
Appeasing Iran, “resetting” the tone with Russia, intervening in Libya, promoting an overthrow in Egypt, encouraging indebtedness in Germany, and giving the finger to our two closest allies (Canada and the UK) have *surprisingly* resulted in a less stable world . . . just as the President’s critics said it would.
I could go on, but it would be redundant. For a man who promised competency, President Obama sure seems to have the anti-Midas effect: everything he touches turns to into a lead balloon that crashes into the ground.
The difficulty for Mitt Romney is that if he tries to reinflate hope, as Cillizza suggest when he says that the Republican should frame himself as “the ultimate turnaround artist,” he will himself fail. The central problem is not that Barack Obama is incompetent–he is, spectacularly so–however, the crux is that government, by its very nature, is incompetent.
One principle of organizational design is that the larger the organization is, the fewer the levers available to control it. And there is no organization in the history of Planet Earth so large as the United States government. President Obama has no responsibility for million dollar Vegas boondoggles or Colombian brothel visits, because no one man could possibly exercise the span of control required to prevent those kinds of occurrences in an organization so vast as the United States government. Just those two agencies alone are monstrously large enough: the Secret Service’s more than 4,000 agents are positioned around the entire globe, while the GSA has nearly 20-times the number of employees and 20-times the budget of Cillizza’s Washington Post. And yet, within the grand Washington scheme of things, the GSA and the Secret Service are minor players. Combined, they are well under one percent of the federal budget. So insignificant are they that I would be surprised if, before the scandals erupted, the President even knew the names of the agencies’ directors.
Government at all levels is always inefficient and is often ineffective. Just go to a local school board meeting if you don’t believe me. There you are likely to find well-meaning, but mediocre leadership that is burdened by innumerable and conflicting constraints imposed by the necessity of being all things to all people. Multiply that local confusion by several orders of magnitude and you have Washington, DC.
President Mitt Romney is incapable of leading the federal government competently becasue government by its very nature is incapable of achieving a level of competence that rises to a level that would be acceptable in the private sector. The best that we can hope for is that new leadership in Washington can reduce the level of incompetence. And the only way to do that is to reduce the size and scope of Washington.
UPDATE:The Hill is essentially running the same story that the GSA and SS Scandals hurt the Obama competence meme.
Daniel Halper chides Chairman of the Associated Press Board for introducing President Obama with what “sounded like a campaign speech from [the] AP chief himself.”
Forgive me for not being outraged; I find it rather refreshing myself. I would rather we return to the days when naked partisanship ruled the press and everyone knew it, than to pretend that there is no bias in the nation’s newsrooms.
I once heard it that President Lyndon Johnson said that the measure of a bill’s worth was not the good that could result, but the bad that could be done were the same power to fall into the hands of your political opponents. I don’t know whether or not LBJ really said such a thing, but the idea is certainly true.
It is within this context that President Obama’s signing statement regarding the National Defense Authorization Act should send signals of alarm to Americans of all political stripes:
“I have the power to detain Americans . . . but I won’t.”
That isn’t exactly what the President said, but it is what he implied when he assured us that “My Administration will not authorize the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens.”
It has long been said of America that we are a nation of laws, not men. The strength of the American system comes not from the notion that we give our leaders the power to do the right thing, but that we deny to our leaders the ability to do the wrong thing. If you number yourselves among those who console themselves that Barack Obama will not use such an awesome power against Americans, I imagine that you might find some among the Republican field who don’t give you the same fuzzy feeling. And that is why this is a bad law. For no terrorist can do as much lasting harm to America as can an American President with the unrestricted power to detain citizens forever.
A Defense Department analyst who authored a report critical of a controversial multi-billion dollar weapon system, alleged that his analysis was ”buried” by senior DoD officials on the eve of a crucial Congressional vote to authorize funding for the new program.
Alan Carlin, an economist for nearly two decades with the Office of the Secretary of the Army, wrote a 95-page internal study this past spring that found that the planned weapon offered little–if any–improvement over existing platforms, was based on shaky science and immature technologies, and did so at a cost more than twenty times that of the weapon it is intended to replace. Knowledge of Carlin’s report might have swayed the close Congressional vote last week when the House of Representatives approved funding of the new program by a mere eight votes amidst a storm of protest.
According to internal emails, after Carlin produced his study he was “forcibly reassigned” to a different department and ordered not to discuss his findings. The emails only came to light pursuant to a Freedom of Information Act request by a defense watchdog organization.
In a written statement, Senator Coburn (R-OK) lambasted Army officials, in addition to many of his own colleagues, whom he says are “actively seeking to withhold new data in order to justify an unaffordable and unworkable pork barrel project.”
You would think that a story like this should deserve to break through the relentless onslaught of Michael Jackson coverage. That it does not just goes to show how much power the military-industrial complex has over Congress and the mainstream media.
Unless the nation’s newspapers find some way of glomming off of Sesame Street or the Magic School Bus, I don’t think that equating them to PBS is going to win the public’s approval for a reprieve from the reaper.
BTW, if newspapers are allowed to continue in an NPR-like comatose existence, doesn’t that re-beg the question, why is NPR still allowed to exist in its subsidized semi-vegetative state?