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Monday, November 03, 2008

Lemieux: The politics of body counts

Near the end of October, another person was shot in Toronto -- an innocent bystander.

The Star's editorial called for a ban on handguns, and not for the first time.

In this week's column, Pierre Lemieux takes on the would-be gun banners, like Toronto Mayor David Miller and Michael Bryant, Ontario's Attorney General.

After citing the evidence that gun bans don't reduce crime, Lemieux takes the analysis one more step: "But assume that this is not the case," he suggests. "Assume instead that free access to guns generates a net death count."

Even then, "body-count politics is questionable." We should not be so easily prepared to sacrifice liberty just to save a few more lives.

What Lemieux develops is an argument against forming policies based on calculations about their supposedly beneficial effects. These policies generally take liberty away from some people, with the aim of yielding some benefit for others. For example, smoking bans restrict the liberty of smokers and business-owners, but are justified (supposedly) because of the benefit they produce for others.

Now, assume that prohibiting smoking in certain places does save lives in the net. Does this make prohibition desirable? Only if one excludes the pleasure that smokers derive from smoking. Only if one assumes that not-to-be-a-corpse (or, in reality, not to-be-a-corpse-for-a-bit-more-time) is the ideal life for each and every individual.

The people whose lives are saved through the restriction of the liberty of others are rarely identifiable. "Not-to-be-a-corpse" could be anyone, or no one at all. But the people who lose their liberty in an attempt to produce the phantom benefit are easily identifiable. Taken to the logical extreme, a policy of restricting liberty to save the lives of hundreds or thousands of would-be corpses results in a world of actual slaves, each of them worse off than they would have been had politicians chosen not to sacrifice their liberty on the altar of imaginary corpses.

Such is Lemieux's argument. Fortunately, politicians and their sycophants are rarely prepared to take the logic of body-count politics to its extreme. This is why, as Lemieux notes, few of them call for bans on swimming pools, even though these claim more innocent lives every year than handguns.

Consider: Suppose the government banned private swimming pools. This would be a loss of liberty. But would it really be that bad? Unlike guns -- which serve the vital need for personal self-defense, among other things -- private swimming pools rarely serve any important function. We would be a little worse off if government banned these pools, but many innocent lives would be saved.

So why isn't The Star pressing for a swimming pool ban? Why don't they cover accidental drownings with all the sensationalism they reserve for accidental shootings?

My naive version of Marxian class analysis provides the answer: the intelligentsia, along with wealthy socialists like Jack Layton and David Miller, like their swimming pools. This "guides" (or better: constructs) their social calculations: the cost, they think, of losing the liberty to have a private pool is too high, compared to the number of lives such a ban would save.

People are always prepared to sacrifice the liberty of others to do some thing when they don't care or understand why anyone would do such a thing in the first place. Hence David Miller's desire to shut down shooting ranges.

"Do we as a society value safety, or do we value a hobby that creates danger?" he asked.

Excellent point, Mayor Miller. Let's ban private swimming pools immediately. We should value public safety over the desire of the bourgeoisie to swim in their own private pools (and what about all the energy those pools waste? We've got to ban these things immediately! Public safety is at risk!)

But, of course, like most would-be dictators, Miller is a hypocrite. As are those now renewing the call for a ban on handguns.

Lemieux's column can be read in its entireity here.

Posted by Terrence Watson on November 3, 2008 | Permalink


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There are few things I enjoy more than reading Marxist revisionism from a libertarian perspective, Terrence. But in the case of guns, there is something more nefarious at work than hypocrisy and bourgeois appetites.

Widespread private firearms ownership is considered by many to be a condition for lasting liberty. This is preciously why statists like Miller, Layton and Bryant hate guns.

I would also not be the least bit surprised if these goons take up the campaign against private swimming pools. No matter how absurd the analogy, the government will get around to it soon enough.

Great post and another great article from Lemieux.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2008-11-03 11:15:34 AM

Excellent post!

Matthew, the swimming pool comment is interesting. According to the book Freakonomics, more kids die each year from them than guns.

Everytime we hear the word "banned" from the mouths of politians, it should trigger and revolt from the people. I suppose it doesn't because the cost of an individual to fight any legislation is too high compared to the cost of compliance.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-03 1:37:05 PM

Banning shows how limited Toronto people are. They think a single act can resolve the situation in one move. It neatly avoids the issue of long term commitment. Ontarians are cowards.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-03 2:31:40 PM

The fact that bans of all types have failure, usually total, attached to them says it all. You have to remove the demand before a prohibition works and by that time the prohibition is no longer needed. The best examples of ban failures beyond firearms are cigarettes, liquor and drugs. As long as there is a demand and profit to be had there will be a supplier.

Posted by: zeister | 2008-11-03 2:40:19 PM

zeister, true. This is the difference between law and legislation.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-03 4:37:17 PM

careful of your sources
Alberta and NWT Lifesaving society puts deaths per annum due to private swimming pools at 30.
LUFA puts gun deaths at 816 in 2002.
That's the trouble when you argue about Canada using US statistics.
Also folk might, just saying, might care to factor in design purpose too.
Pools: swimming and having a great time.
Guns: killing.
An accidental property of the pools is that folk die in them.
Guns killing, well doing exactly what they were designed for.
Doesn't take any conspiracy theory or references to reds under the beds to arrive at any of this now does it?

Posted by: harebell | 2008-11-03 7:09:47 PM

harebell, I could go get the book to qualify the reference but I am too lazy. I believe it compared accidental gun deaths of children vs accidental swimming pool deaths of children.

If you look at Canadian numbers they will probably be different, but it doesn't change the point.

And your comparison of the purpose of the pool to the gun is irrelevant. Guns are not always used for killing. Guns can be used for hunting and feeding yourself, swimming pools cannot, unless you trap your prey in one. Guns can be used for self defence, pools cannot, unless you hit your attacker on the head and push him in the pool to drown.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-03 10:03:49 PM

Just another freedom being loaded into the breech. It would change nothing as almost all handgun crimes are already being committed with smuggled guns and gang related. A feelgood waste of time.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-11-03 11:26:36 PM

"Guns are not always used for killing"... hmm?
Unless you are purchasing an expensive paperweight you buy a gun because killing or the threat of killing is the purpose. I know of no other reason. Hunting is killing, killing stuff to feed yourself is hunting which is killing. How many ways do I have to say this, guns are made to kill.
As for the pool not being efficient for killing, guess what? That was the point I was making.
Looking at the Canadian numbers, why wouldn't a different trend change the point unless a dogmatic approach was being taken? If that is the case then I could take figures from the UK, where violent crime and gun crime has in fact dropped since the handgun ban and apply that to Canada.
Peter is half right, yes the issue is our porous border that allows US criminals to smuggle guns into Canada. Unfortunately Peter calls this a freedom. Maybe we need to insist that the Americans do something about the terror they are exporting to Canada. No?

Posted by: Harebell | 2008-11-04 12:33:35 AM

Unfortunately, the Canadian conservatives still don't get it. Instead of defensively fighting against gun bans, they should be attacking the more outrageous presumption that self-defense in not a legitimate reason for having a gun. We must assert that killing people who are deliberately and criminally instilling in you a fear for your life or for your loved ones is proper.

Posted by: fsilber | 2008-11-04 5:17:10 AM

A gun is neither more nor less than a cordless power tool designed for throwing bits of metal at a high rate of speed. Applications for that utility include the gathering of food, self defense, and sport (shooting is still after all an olympic event).
As for the UK crime stats, weren't they just busted for drastically under reporting their crime situation? Even so, every report I've seen says crime has risen significantly since their handgun ban, much of it violent crimes against homeowners, and a good bit involving handguns which if the ban was working ought to be zero.

Posted by: Uncle Lar | 2008-11-04 6:55:29 AM

harebell, maybe I wasn't clear. Hard to do sometimes in a few sentences. I was comparing the good that guns can do to to the bad that pools can do.

Are you are suggesting that hunting for food is a bad thing? Yes it is killing, but if you had to hunt for your own food you would rather have a gun than a pool. Unless you are a vegetarian.

Harebell, I don't believe your stats. But even if true, would still not support gun control as we have it. The older I get the more cynical I become about some things. I can't rely on the government to protect me. If someone comes to harm my kids or wife, especially on my property, they risk serious harm and death. You likely are no different. If I owned a gun I would use for this purpose, so would you.

I believe it is the government we need protection from. To you this sounds very american and red neck. But I have thought about it for years. The more I read about economics and liberty, the more I am convinced of it. I couldn't come close to doing to topic justice. But id you haven't already, I challenge you to read some of the classics on the matter.

Dogmatic? No less than you.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-04 8:25:07 AM

As for purposes, the purpose of a gun can be self-defense. That's a good, worthy purpose: defending the right to life of one's self and one's family.

Defending one's self may predictably result in the deaths of aggressors -- but not necessarily. The _purpose_ of self-defense is to stop an attack, and sometimes that will result in death.

As for private swimming pools, what extremely important purpose do they serve?

Besides, the politics of body counts involves sacrificing liberty to prevent death. If only 60 children die from drownings on private swimming pools every year, that's 60 children we could save if we banned such private pools.

60 kids? Versus your bourgeois freedom to have a private swimming pool in one's backyard?

If we took the politics of body counts seriously, private swimming pools would be one of the first thing on the chopping block.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-11-04 8:46:47 AM

If more of Toronto's gun victims were white and rich, then there'd be genuine ability to do something about it. So long as non-whites bear the brunt of Toronto's racist policies, there will be no action.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-04 9:31:34 AM

Guliani did not bring New York City crime under control with gun laws. He did it with heavy policing and strict sentences. NY went through many years trying to make guns the scapegoat for all their failures, just like Toronto.

Instead of gun bans, get a new mayor.

Posted by: Rick | 2008-11-04 11:42:49 AM

Pike, many of your comments are funny, and I appreciate that. But the whole white racist thing is getting old and tired. I'm not sure why you do that but keep the anti Toronto humor coming. I think it has a lot more impact.

Posted by: TM | 2008-11-04 12:20:43 PM

Insist how? What are you going to do to the US? Wait another 20 years or so when no one in Canada knows how to use a gun and then you can insist NOTHING to ANYONE because places like the US who are still a free country and actually trust their citizens to make the right decision will laugh at you. You guys crack me up. INSIST you say? Sure...the last I checked Canada wasn't a world power. If anyone wants to take mine they better have one too!

"Maybe we need to insist that the Americans do something about the terror they are exporting to Canada"

Posted by: BJ | 2008-11-04 12:30:08 PM

All of you socialist/communist/liberal dorks who like to pretend they can create a perfect world by eliminating guns are more than welcome to come and try and take mine.

Posted by: jw pepper | 2008-11-04 2:15:57 PM

Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Posted by: Bill Carson | 2008-11-04 6:52:18 PM

No we won't! We won't give up our rights, ever. You want our guns, come and try to take them, bullets first. Death to tyrants.

Posted by: John Bates Thayer | 2008-11-04 10:45:43 PM

I quote Harebell

If that is the case then I could take figures from the UK, where violent crime and gun crime has in fact dropped since the handgun ban

Really ? where did you get your figures from ? before the Uk gun ban crimes involving firearms stood at 100 per year , in 2007 it was 10,000 you call that a decrease ? . Other crime since the gun ban have also rocketed , for example there is a home invasion every 1.2 seconds , a car is stolen every 2 seconds you are more likely to be mugged on the streets of any uk town than in central New York . Since the UK gun ban Britian has been turned into a crime ridden cesspit where only the criminals are armed , homeowners are killed trying to defend whats theirs and the criminals roam in packs unhindered by a pc led police force come try it harebell then post your liberal trash . Please somebody give us the right to bear arms .

Posted by: English Eagle | 2008-11-05 10:50:57 AM

"Since the UK gun ban Britian has been turned into a crime ridden cesspit where only the criminals are armed , homeowners are killed trying to defend whats theirs and the criminals roam in packs unhindered by a pc led police force."

That sounds depressingly like the England of Clockwork Orange. re any British politicians courageous enough to try to get rid of the gun ban?

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-11-05 10:58:28 AM

There is far too much emphasis given to rehabilitation.We all should know the difference between right and wrong. Decent people keep circling the wagons while the human garbage sneers at the justice system. Three good meals a day and all the recreation you can handle is hardly a deterrent to crime. Throw all the do gooders into the can with them for 6 months and see if they still want to save them all. Most people deserve a second chance. If they blow that then get rid of them.Not every life is precious.

Posted by: peterj | 2008-11-05 1:00:28 PM

English Eagle:

"Please somebody give us the right to bear arms"

You already have the right to bear arms, you were born with it, you've just been denied the exercise of it.

Rights are not something the government grants to the people, powers are something the people grant to the government.

Posted by: Star King | 2008-11-05 1:20:38 PM

As one of them there USA Rednecks, I must say the first ban/confiscation of fire arms practice in this here parts, was that yellow tooth King that we sent packing back to England with his over taxed tea as a supository. Great article.

Posted by: Eat Dirt | 2008-11-05 6:10:46 PM

E-Eagle,,,,Those are incredible statistics. I am an Alaskan type Yankee, a gun can be found at most residents, and hence thugs do not enter homes at such a rate. I guess if all passengers were armed on jets, those 19 box cutters would have looked kind of silly. But there are folks among us that think more government will cure the human condition. It does not.

Posted by: Eat Dirt | 2008-11-05 6:29:53 PM

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