Entries in america (3)


Gun violence: the economics of abolition

There's lots of talk about America needing to step up on gun control. I suspect that for a lot of people, this is a disguised way of talk about abolition -- that is, the elimination of the private ownership of guns of any sort. 

If so, that's fine. It is certainly worth putting that option on the table and airing it. I doubt it would go anywhere, not in Canada, and not in the USA. But imagine for the sake of argument a government passed a bill outlawing private ownership of guns: it would still be faced with the problem that there are a lot of guns in the country. Stats I've seen vary, with estimates between 250 million and 310 million private weapons on the USA. 

If you wanted to take these off the street through a buyback, what would it cost? Again, buyback programs vary. $200 for a handgun is common, with some programs offering as low as $20 for a rifle. Some programs I've seen have offered $100 gift cards to places like Target. But these are voluntary buybacks, taken advantage of by people who either want to go clean, or have guns they no longer want. A forced buyback program would be far more expensive. 

Assume you wanted to take 280 million guns off the street, at an average buyback price of $200.  Total cost would be $56 billion dollars. (That's probably low, but it's a ballpark).

Would it be worth it? 

[Note: I fixed the math in the next graph thanks to Andrew Coyne's heads up]

Last year in the US, there were 11500 homicides caused by guns. The actuarial value of a human life is $7.4 million. Multiply that, and you have a savings of $85.1 billion, in one year. 85.1-56 is a net savings, minus the buyback costs, is 29.1 billion, call it $30 billion in savings in the first year. But that's not a one-off -- that's $85.1 billion a year after that, every year, compounded. (I think. I forget how to calculate these sorts of things). 

There would be other benefits: lots of people are wounded by guns, so their health care costs and associated other costs would be eliminated as well. But there would be costs as well: it would be foolish to suppose that private gun ownership is a 100% deadweight loss to the economy. 

At any rate, the upshot is that the American government could, if it wanted, easily afford to pay for gun abolition, and it would more than pay for itself in about 8 months. 



The American President

“What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” contains at least a partial truth. “What’s good for the Presidency is good for the country”, however, contains more truth. Ask any reasonably informed group of Americans to the identify the five best presidents and the five worst presidents. Then ask them to identify the five strongest presidents and the five weakest presidents. If the identification of strength with goodness and weakness with badness is not 100 per cent, it will almost certainly not be less than 80 per cent.

Those presidents – Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Wilson – who expanded the powers of their office are hailed as the beneficent promoters of the public welfare and national interest. Those presidents, such as Buchanan, Grant, Harding, who failed the defend the power of their institution against other groups are also thought to have done less good for the country. Institutional interest coincides with public interest. The power of the presidency is identified with the good of the polity.


-- Samuel Huntington, "Political Development and Decay"


About that debt-limit crisis...

Political liberty—that is, the ability of societies to rule themselves—does not depend only on the degree to which a society can mobilize opposition to centralized power and impse constitutional constraints on the state. It must also have a state that is strong enough to act when action is required. Accountability does not just run in one direction, from the state to society. If the government cannot act cohesively, if there is no broader sense of public purpose, then one will not have laid the balance for true political liberty.

A political system that is all checks and balances is potentially no more successful than one with no checks, because governments periodically need strong and decisive action. The stability of an accountable political system thus rests on a broad balance of power between the state and its underlying society.

From Francis Fukuyama's The Origins of Public Order, p.431