Cowen on Gun Control and Militarism
Tyler Cowen writes:
Chris Blattman cites a recent estimate that Americans own 42% of the civilian guns in the world.
You’ll also see estimates that America accounts for about half of the world’s defense spending. I believe those numbers are a misuse of purchasing power parity comparisons, but with proper adjustments it is not implausible to believe that America accounts for… about 42% of the defense spending. Or thereabouts.
I see those two numbers, and their rough similarity, as the most neglected fact in current debates about gun control.
I see many people who want to lower or perhaps raise those numbers, but I don’t see enough people analyzing the two as an integrated whole.
I hate to be a downer, but I’m going to make the case for coincidence on this one. I don’t really think that gun culture is at work here. Or if it is, it’s certainly not in the driver’s seat.
American history is long, and the eras in which the above correlation did not hold seem much longer than those in which they did. Consider the entire nineteenth century, during which the United States was – if I am not mistaken – nowhere near the world’s leader in defense spending. (True, the Civil War may be an exception. It often is.)
Meanwhile per capita we surely owned way, way more guns back then. Just as surely: Per capita gun ownership must be the correct metric for considering the influence of gun ownership on American values, rather than the silly estimate of our share of world gun ownership. The latter has nothing to do, so far as I can tell, with how the American public feels about guns and/or militarism. The latter barely registers in the public mind at all, I would think.
So I see very little case for correlation in the longer term. I also see a pretty big counterexample in the present day, namely the pro–gun control center-left constituency that nonetheless is fairly militarist abroad: They may not be a majority, but the share of people who have supported every single one of Obama’s foreign interventions, and who also support strict gun control, is likely larger than the share of people whom Tyler takes to task for not considering that gun culture and militarism are supposedly linked.
Moreover, if we had had a stronger antiwar left throughout the Obama administration, it seems doubtful to me that Obama could have been as militarist as he was. The decisive constituency here, the one that has enabled American military intervention, has been made up of leftists who support gun control, but whose antiwar sentiment dissolves whenever a Democrat is in the White House. (I take it for granted that right-wing parties will be militarist in their foreign policy. I don’t consider this to be a special feature of American politics, and still less one that depends on America’s love affair with the gun.)
Acting over time, the same constituency of pro–gun control center-left militarists has been decisive in shaping our bloated defense budgets, which tempt us into doubtful military adventures in the first place.