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Gun Ownership and Feckless Libertarian Arguments

A recent exchange about gun statistics illustrates the failure of libertarianism to base political freedom on anything other than personal or cultural opinion.

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan, a libertarian anarchist and an economist at George Mason University (GMU), discusses a recent study linking gun ownership to suicide rates.

In that study, Justin Briggs and Alex Tabarrok (both of GMU) find:

Using a variety of techniques and data we estimate that a 1 percentage point increase in the household gun ownership rate leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.

The researchers claim to have factored in the ability of people to substitute other methods of killing themselves. Whether they have adequately accounted for the fact that people serious about committing suicide (as opposed to making a “cry for help” or the like) tend to acquire guns for the purpose—as opposed to cutting themselves, taking pills, or doing other things less likely to result in death—I do not know.

As Caplan explains, a writer for Think Progress seized on the results to argue for more restrictive gun laws.

How, in light of this, does Caplan attempt to defend gun ownership? He pursues two lines of argument, one based on utilitarianism—the theory that the proper moral standard is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”—the other on subjectivism—the idea that moral truths are matters or personal opinion or social convention.

Caplan’s utilitarian argument runs as follows:

[T]he Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that depriving 3,100,000 people of their guns (a 1 percentage-point decrease in the gun ownership rate) would save about 200-360 lives. . . . In ratio form, the Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that to prevent a single suicide, 8,600 to 15,500 people—the vast majority of whom are not suicidal—must lose their guns.

Is that a good deal? A standard $7M value of life [!] implies a critical value of gun ownership between $452 and $814 per person per year. If the marginal person’s value of gun ownership is less than that, gun deprivation passes the cost-benefit test.

Soak that in.

Caplan offers various data suggesting that American gun owners value their guns more than the dollar figures mentioned. But, sensing the deficiencies of the utilitarian case for gun ownership, Caplan turns to a second argument:

But is a pure cost-benefit approach to gun suicides even appropriate? Probably not. Everyone makes fun-but-risky choices—on diet, lifestyle, and sex for starters. The risks you take affect not only you, but the people who care about you. Many are far riskier than the Briggs-Tabarrok Effect. Yet almost [everyone] thinks it’s wrong to use cost-benefit analysis to veto these personal decisions. . . .

Here Caplan attempts to use moral subjectivism to bolster his utilitarian case. His idea is that to find out what is right, we must find out what people subjectively want—even if they don’t yet know it. His argument is essentially that because most people oppose paternalistic government controls in most areas, so too, by implication, they should oppose such controls in this area as well. In other words, people’s desires are to set the standard of proper policy. His argument runs no deeper than that.

Leaving aside the fact that gun ownership is not merely about making a “fun-but-risky” choice (it is fundamentally about self-defense and helping to maintain a free society), Caplan’s arguments utterly fail to make the case for gun ownership.

Why should an individual’s or a group’s desires be the standard for political policy? And on what basis does anyone value other people’s lives at $7 million or any other figure? Caplan offers no answers to such questions—and no objective answers are possible.

The approach Caplan takes here is common among libertarians, in that it fails to offer a philosophic grounding for political liberty. (For details, see Craig Biddle’s article“Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism.”)

A person’s rights—to act on his own judgment, to own a gun or other property, to speak his mind, et cetera—depend on and arise from a philosophic foundation of reason and egoism: To live, man must use reason to pursue life-promoting values—and he can do so only to the extent that he is free to do so.

Caplan seeks to make the case for liberty while avoiding such fundamentals—which is why, as interesting as some of his discussion is, his case ultimately fails. To effectively advocate liberty, activists must embrace and clearly articulate the philosophic basis of liberty. Let’s encourage each other to do so.

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