auschwitz-programmwJPG As the increasingly sparse readership of this blog will have noticed, I’m writeing less and less about science – science is hard, and increasingly GW science isn’t terribly interesting, whatever James may say – and becoming increasing interested in the fringes of politics and philosophy, in which any old fool can have an opinion, and usually does. But as a terrible warning to anyone feeling too clever, my image for this post is a “welcome” leaflet for Emma chapel, doubtless thought to be very deep by those who commissioned it, but felt to be less than tactful by many others.

Recently, gunz are all de rage (archive), because some nutter killed lots of people. And in the usual way of such things, killing lots of people in a newsworthy way gets you lots more attention than all the other people who kill people, including themselves, in rather less newsworthy ways.

Via The Mass Shootings Fix at FiveThirtyEight (which, irritatingly, appears undated. But from context is 2016) I get this pic, which tells me something I didn’t know, at least quantitatively, that mass killings are a tiny portion of the total, with single-death incidents approximately 90% of the total gun deaths in the USA. And so I say: if you’re pretending to take a principled stand, rather than just ghoulishly reacting to exciting horror, why be especially concerned now?

Enough of that, though. The question is “what to do about it”, which of course brings in the politics. The New Yorker, linked above, I take as representative of the “it is about time to do something about it” school of though, and it draws heavily on the idea that there is popular support for Something Must Be Done1. And at that point I leave gunz for the moment, since it was only an example, and wish to consider the more general point: if a majority of people want something in a democracy, should they get it?2 The Nw Yorker pretty well takes it as read that all Right Thinking People will agree without discussion. This is, I believe, commonly called majoritarianism. It is not without flaws. It didn’t go well in Egypt under Morsi; and in general the idea that because you’ve won the election, you can do what you like, infects many African democracies. In the UK the regular counter-example is that the public would bring back hanging if it could; or you could use Brexit if you liked. But the UK doesn’t have a constitution, parliament is supreme; so let’s turn to the USA which is after all where we started, and which provides the example of Jim Crow. Which for those like me unfamiliar with your funny ways, were racist laws passed by democratic majorities, and eventually struck down by the courts for violating the constitution.

Which brings me to Constitutionalism, which is effectively “majoritarianism, but bound by a constitution”. If you think that a democracy should have the right to pass racist “Jim Crow” type laws if only the majority wants it, then you can reject constitutionalism with a clear conscience. But if you think the laws are bound by the constitution when it says things that you like, but not when it says things that you don’t, then you don’t have a coherent position (unless you want me to believe that “the law should do whatever I want it to” counts as coherent; but I don’t).

From here we pass to the yet-more-general question of how would you design the laws for a state, if you and your descendants have to live in it? In general this isn’t done; states just grow; but there is one particularly important example of this, which is the founding of the USA. And I am no constitutional historian, obviously, but it seems clear enough to me that your3 founders did deliberately choose to put restrictions on the majority4.

And from there we return to the start: specifically, the vexed question of the “militia clause”; or more generally, the problem of interpreting your constitution. Here we see the wisdom of Hobbes’s view, that the sovereign must be judge in all cases, because if it isn’t, then whoever is judge is effectively sovereign. Which is perhaps pushing it too far; but obviously the “militia clause” can either be neglected entirely – as it is at the moment – or ruled to be vital, effectively removing the protection of the constitution on the right to “bear arms”, however “arms” might be interpreted5. Or then again, there is the ringing declaration of independence, all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness that was somehow interpreted as compatible with slavery.

Anyway, there you go. Obviously, I’m in favour of constitutionalism; majoritarianism is for demagogues.

Notes

1. Though the main statistic they quote, In a Quinnipiac University poll that was taken in June, fifty-four per cent of respondents said that they supported stricter gun laws, while forty-four per cent said that they opposed them, doesn’t sound overwhelming.

2. Recalling of course Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

3. You understand that, for dramatic effect, I speak as though to one of these colonials.

4. The recent sad case of Trump being elected despite losing the popular vote is another possible example.

5. You didn’t want me to express an opinion as to which is correct, did you? I’d go for “the commas render the entire sentence non-grammatical and therefore void”.

Comments

  1. #1 Tom P.
    2017/10/10

    Of course the Declaration of Independence isn’t the legal bit–it’s just more of a statement of purpose.

    [Meh. It was the easy bit to find. I told you I’m no scholar of these matters -W]

  2. #2 Harry Twinotter
    2017/10/11

    I agree, global warming science has settled down and is such a (relatively) slow crisis there is not much to discuss. The only real activity is from the climate change denier camp, and even that is just a rehash of talking points established years ago.

    The solution to reducing gun-related homicides and suicides is such a no-brainer I do not even bother to think about it. It’s clear the American people have decided they prefer guns, so be it.

  3. #3 JCH
    2017/10/11

    My Revolutionary War ancestor sponsored a militia during the American revolution: paid their salaries and supplied them and kept their families fed. He may actually have had a militia before the war. When his father first moved to the frontier he built a fort, named after him, which was used during the French and Indian War.

    There have been times when the Supreme Court has been captured by enemies of the American democracy. We are on the cusp of that happening again.

  4. #4 CIP
    2017/10/11

    You might want to tighten your analysis a bit. The American Constitution doesn’t actually limit the majority, it limits their elected representatives, who hold almost all the power. There is a big difference, the difference between a pure democracy and a republic.

    [For these purposes, I don’t see that as an interesting distinction. Why do you? the key element is a constitution, which forbids certain laws; thereby preserving certain rights, if you like to look at it that way -W]

  5. #5 Marco
    2017/10/11

    Uhm…”share of gun murders…1998-2014″, but the graph shows pre-1980 to 2014? 538 should check its graphs a little bit better.

    Anyway, with due acknowledgment it is based on a Mark IV eyeball estimate, it looks to me like there is a trend of increasing number of incidents with multiple deathsin the last ca. 40 years..

    [There is a trend, but it is very small. The overall conclusion – that most deaths are singletons – is robust; and even if that trend continued would stay robust for aages. So, yes, you can quibble the graph but what I take from your comment is that you don’t really “like” the implications of the graph, and could wish it were otherwise. Wouldn’t it be nice if more gun deaths were mass murders that suicides? Then we could happily ban assault rifles and know we’d made a significant contribution. Instead of the rather more tedious work of persuading people not to kill themselves -W]

  6. #6 Andrew Dodds
    2017/10/11

    Have to agree with Note #5 – It’s basically gibberish. Didn’t anyone proof-read it before signing? Or did the legal profession spot a long-running gravy train..

  7. #7 Marco
    2017/10/11

    “what I take from your comment is that you don’t really “like” the implications of the graph”

    I see there was no amazing mind-reader lost in you. I made no statements on the implications of there being a trend.

    “Wouldn’t it be nice if more gun deaths were mass murders that suicides? Then we could happily ban assault rifles and know we’d made a significant contribution. Instead of the rather more tedious work of persuading people not to kill themselves”

    What is tedious is that it has been shown in study after study after study that access to guns increases the risk of (a successful) suicide:
    https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/risk/

    [Sure. I’m not disputing that; its obvious -W]

    For a relatively recent commentary, see also:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3518361/

    The sobering and tedious conclusion is thus that restricting access to guns would very likely result in fewer (successful) suicides. Sure, it would be nice if we could catch people at risk of committing suicide a little bit earlier, but often it is the first attempt that makes it clear there is a real risk of suicide. The problem with guns is that this first attempt is more likely to be successful than any(!) other method people commonly use (see https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/means-matter/means-matter/case-fatality/ for a discussion on that).

    Finding out whether someone is at risk of committing suicide is very tough, while restricting access to guns is very low-hanging fruit to reduce suicide rate, without any clear disadvantage to others (although I am sure people will find something to claim it is an obvious disadvantage, nonetheless).

    [But restricting access to guns is *not* low-hanging fruit in the US; except in the sense that a “benevolent” dictator able to ignore people’s wishes and the constitution could do it. But that then transitions you to the main point of this post -W]

  8. #8 izen
    2017/10/11

    Another attempt to reduce consumption of carbon based energy by imposing some of the external costs of its use as a ‘carbon tax’ fails.
    Although I am not sure if it is majoritarian or constitutionalist forces that have blocked it.

    http://chicago.cbslocal.com/2017/10/10/soda-tax-repeal-vote-finance-committee/

  9. #9 crandles
    2017/10/11

    If the externality mainly falls on the purchaser (I assume this is mainly case for sweeteners), is the argument for a tax (or regulation) weakened because a sensible purchaser will have taken that externality into account and has still decided to go ahead?

    So cc carbon tax should be considered greater priority than sweetener carbon tax. But where do guns come in ranking order? Between cc carbon tax and sweetener carbon tax because there are some murders affecting people other than purchasers or should we look at number of deaths in some manner?

  10. #10 Phil Hays
    Americanistan
    2017/10/11

    Climate change is more interesting than ever.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GL074929/full

  11. #11 crandles
    2017/10/11

    >”Although I am not sure if it is majoritarian or constitutionalist forces that have blocked it.”

    ‘Not sure’ seems a bit timid given tweet with comment

    “Opponents of the sweetened beverage tax pack the Cook County Board Finance Committee meeting” has picture with someone holding sign saying ‘choose my job’.

    Seems a likely case where it is a vocal minority that is opposed. Those most affected are companies concerned, their shareholders and employees and heavy consumers who are adversely affected. The majority is likely to be light and non consumers, who would be slightly better off with the tax in place but this may well not be sufficient to make them vocal about issue and besides arguments about government interference in how people choose to live their lives might seems more important and relevant such that people don’t want to champion a ‘I’ll be better off’ argument that may seem obnoxious.

    Small minority that are vocal winning the argument is called what? Shoutloudestism?

    [This is the commonplace explanation for various protectionist stuff: that those who benefit gain a lot, those who lose lose a little. Jones act, and so on. But in this case the tax was stupid and pols should either find something better to do with their lives and stop micro-managing, or slim down their numbers -W]

  12. #12 Phil Hays
    Americanistan
    2017/10/11

    And this:

    http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/101

    [The previous was better -W]

  13. #13 Marco
    2017/10/11

    “But restricting access to guns is *not* low-hanging fruit in the US; except in the sense that a “benevolent” dictator able to ignore people’s wishes and the constitution could do it. But that then transitions you to the main point of this post”

    Actually, it *is* low-hanging fruit, as also pointed out in the discussion here:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5154170/
    To quote:
    “This suggests that the prohibiting criteria do not apply to many people likely to die from suicide. One reason is that people who are clinically evaluated during a suicidal mental health crisis typically are released without a (gun-disqualifying) involuntary civil commitment. The study found that the majority of gun-eligible people who died from suicide had records of (one or more) previous short-term involuntary holds that were not reportable legal events. This represents an important opportunity for prevention. Prohibiting guns from people involuntarily detained in short-term holds, at least temporarily, is a feasible policy reform that does not unduly infringe on Second Amendment rights—and it could save lives.”

  14. #14 crandles
    2017/10/11

    >”[But in this case the tax was stupid and pols should either find something better to do with their lives and stop micro-managing, or slim down their numbers -W]”

    So taxpayers should be happy to pay the higher health care costs of those stupid/unlucky? enough to be obese. Is there an externality here and is the std economic answer to tax it?

    I was putting it low on my list of priorities, but you seems to be saying it shouldn’t be done at all, despite you seeming to be in favour of tax to take into account externalities for CC. Why are you against it here rather than just making it a very low priority?

    [There’s a cost in having govt interfere. So before going “here’s a thing, let’s get govt involved”, you need some level of confidence that its a good idea. As I whinged previously, DB thinks this is the case for carbon taxes. I disagree with him there, but agree here -W]

    (As for slimming down their numbers, yeah right, immediately after turkeys vote for Christmas/thanksgiving.)

  15. #15 Phil Hays
    Americanistan
    2017/10/11

    [The previous was better. -W]
    Cute. Let me try this link.

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GL074929/abstract

  16. #16 CIP
    2017/10/11

    I don’t see that as an interesting distinction. Why do you?

    The Republican form of government is chosen to prohibit rule by an uninformed and easily swayed mob. The constitutional provisions are there to prohibit usurpation of excessive power by the elected representatives.

    [But I’m not sure why that’s “Republican”. That’s just representative democracy, which is what “everyone” uses -W]

  17. #17 Nick Barnes
    2017/10/11

    1. The amendment was perfectly grammatical in the 18th century.

    [{{cn}} -W]

    2. Jim Crow was not majoritarian. The black vote was suppressed. So IMO it’s a bad example of an argument against majoritarianism.
    Of course what the Americans should do is repeal 2A, and maybe one day they will.

    [I’m dubious. Firstly, like it or not, it was passed by legislators elected by a majority of the electorate. Secondly, it isn’t clear that “free” black votes would have changed it. But, meh, it’s just an example. Unless you’re challenging the concept – that majorities should be restrained by a constitution – then it isn’t terribly important -W]

  18. #18 izen
    2017/10/12

    @-W
    ” But in this case the tax was stupid and pols should either find something better to do with their lives and stop micro-managing, or slim down their numbers”

    There are a number of historical examples of attempts to reduce consumption of a product by imposing a tax. Particularly on products that are popular because they provide and immediate benefit at low cost, but impose a cumulative harm on the individual, and have a societal cost. Alcohol, tobacco and sugar have all been targets of this type of economic governance to reduce consumption of a popular and profitable product.

    Is there an argument (other than ideological) for dismissing such attempts as stupid and micro-managing, while advocating a similar approach to carbon fuels ? Which do little harm to the consumer by comparison with ingested products.

    [Yes, I think so. I’m a bit surprised you can’t see it yourself. The clue is in the “micro” -W]

    The imposition of a sugar tax (along with the tea to go with it), was one factor in creating a majority amongst our western colonials who favoured a constitutionalist approach.
    .

  19. #19 crandles
    2017/10/12

    >”Is there an argument (other than ideological) for dismissing such attempts as stupid and micro-managing, while advocating a similar approach to carbon fuels ? Which do little harm to the consumer by comparison with ingested products.”

    If it is ‘little harm to the consumer’ then surely by definition it is not an externality. Tax seems recommended economic solution to correct behaviour to take account of the externalities such as health care costs imposed on people ***other than*** the consumer. Perhaps such taxes are more needed in countries with universal health care paid by taxes while less needed in countries with insurance based health care?

    William, perhaps you ought to clarify if your opposition to micro managing means you would want to see alcohol and tobacco taxes removed and/or never imposed in first place. If your position is different with sweeteners, how is this justified?

    [AFAIK, tobacco and booze are national-level stuff; at least they are in the UK. Whereas this is “Cook County Finance Committee”. Which sounds pretty micro to me. We have too many pols. They waste too much of everyone’s time doing things, because they exist. This needs to be rolled back, a long way. Booze-n-fags is largely settled, so I don’t feel any immeadiate urge to revisit it -W]

  20. #20 izen
    2017/10/12

    @-W
    ” AFAIK, tobacco and booze are national-level stuff; at least they are in the UK. Whereas this is “Cook County Finance Committee”. Which sounds pretty micro to me.”

    You are correct that the Cook County example of a failing sugar tax is pretty micro. There have been efforts to impose a sugar tax at national-level, but industry opposition has prevented that in many cases.

    So you would approve of a sugar tax for the same reasons as a carbon tax (or booze and tobacco) if it was applied at the National or international level(?); but think it is government over-reach if applied at a lower tier.

    [So you would approve of a sugar tax – errm, not really, no. Which part of “We have too many pols. They waste too much of everyone’s time doing things, because they exist. This needs to be rolled back, a long way” didn’t you understand ;-?

    We shouldn’t pick littly bitty bits of people’s lives to poke at. A carbon tax is an economy-wide quasi-neutral intervention, and I think it is a good idea. Just possibly a “sugar tax” might be a good idea in itself, but when you add in the pols, no, it is overall a bad idea -W]

  21. #21 crandles
    2017/10/12

    Oh I see, micro clue was as applied to local levels of government not as in micro managing people’s lives. Maybe the clue wasn’t as clear as you thought.

    So if national govt decided to run a small trial to gather evidence on a small scale before deciding whether to roll it out nationally that would be OK. But if small county govt does small trial to gather the evidence, and if it looks suitable to present that evidence to national government so it could be rolled out nationally, that is not OK? (Not saying that is what Cook County were trying to do, just ascertaining your views.)

    [See my reply to #20 -W]

  22. #22 crandles
    2017/10/12

    There was me thinking that

    “you need some level of confidence that its a good idea”

    meant you believed in evidence based policy. But now it seems you don’t want the evidence when you just happen to not believe in it in the first place?

    Or perhaps putting different ways:

    Are the pols really as expensive as you now seem to be claiming?

    Aren’t pols a sunk cost so we may as well try to get some benefit out of this sunk cost?

    [You’re not reading what I write; you’re reading other thoughts into it. I didn’t complain they were expensive. I complained that they were a waste of time. And of course no, they aren’t a sunk cost; they also cost going into the future, and that cost can be reduced by reducing them -W]

  23. #23 izen
    2017/10/12

    @-W
    ” Which part of “We have too many pols. They waste too much of everyone’s time doing things, because they exist. This needs to be rolled back, a long way” didn’t you understand ;-?”

    The bit where you followed it immediately with :-
    ” Booze-n-fags is largely settled, so I don’t feel any immeadiate urge to revisit it ”
    Which indicated that the type of tax, to inhibit consumption of a cumulatively damaging product, is one you accept and regard as ethically, or economically justified if applied at the ‘correct’ level of governance.

    [I said no such thing. I said “I don’t feel any immeadiate urge to revisit it”. How is it possible for you, and CR, to so badly misread what I so clearly say? ATTP has the same problem. I cannot but help feel that you and I have different “models” in our minds; these models are so out of whack that if you don’t pay the closest attention, you drift off into your own concerns. Which you’re welcome to, for your own purposes, of course; but you’re not welcome to read your ideas into my words -W]

    Do you think the pragmatic difficulties that the sugar tax has faced (whether applied locally or nationally) indicates that similar problems might be faced by a carbon tax?

    https://life.spectator.co.uk/2017/09/ignore-the-killjoys-waging-war-on-sugar/

    [I am fully aware that there are many practical problems associated with a carbon tax -W]

  24. #24 Hank Roberts
    near the anticipated big quake, but not quite on it
    2017/10/12

    NOAA’s FAQ on climate change continues to be interesting:

    https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/climate/globalwarming.html#q10

    In possibly related news:

    http://blogs.agu.org/wildwildscience/2017/10/12/roger-rabbit-no-longer-running-accuwx-now-going-run-noaa/

    [Trump. Meh. A disaster area in so many ways -W]