The English Crime Disaster and the Nature of the State
Lee Malcolm, a professor of history at Bentley College and a senior
adviser to the MIT Security Studies Program, has recently published
an important new book, Guns
and Violence: The English Experience. (The book received
a very positive review from David Gordon in the Fall 2002 issue
of The Mises Review.) For those who want to read a succinct
summary of Malcolm's work, Reason Magazine has done us the
service of publishing her in article
of the importance of Malcolm's findings, I will quote from the Reason
article at some length:
reality, the English approach has not reduced violent crime. Instead
it has left law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals who
are confident that their victims have neither the means nor the
legal right to resist them. Imitating this model would be a public
safety disaster for the United States.
illusion that the English government had protected its citizens
by disarming them seemed credible because few realized the country
had an astonishingly low level of armed crime even before guns
were restricted. A government study for the years 1890-92, for
example, found only three handgun homicides, an average of one
a year, in a population of 30 million. In 1904 there were only
four armed robberies in London, then the largest city in the world.
A hundred years and many gun laws later, the BBC reported that
Englandís firearms restrictions "seem to have had little
impact in the criminal underworld." Guns are virtually outlawed,
and, as the old slogan predicted, only outlaws have guns. Worse,
they are increasingly ready to use them.
five centuries of growing civility ended in 1954. Violent crime
has been climbing ever since. Last December, Londonís Evening
Standard reported that armed crime, with banned handguns the
weapon of choice, was "rocketing." In the two years
following the 1997 handgun ban, the use of handguns in crime rose
by 40 percent, and the upward trend has continued. From April
to November 2001, the number of people robbed at gunpoint in London
rose 53 percent.
crime is just part of an increasingly lawless environment. From
1991 to 1995, crimes against the person in Englandís inner cities
increased 91 percent. And in the four years from 1997 to 2001,
the rate of violent crime more than doubled. Your chances of being
mugged in London are now six times greater than in New York. Englandís
rates of assault, robbery, and burglary are far higher than Americaís,
and 53 percent of English burglaries occur while occupants are
at home, compared with 13 percent in the U.S., where burglars
admit to fearing armed homeowners more than the police.
I wish to contemplate here is the rationale Malcolm ascribes to
English gun control advocates: "[p]eople donít need to protect
themselves because society will protect them." When someone
forwards such a proposition, it is often useful to analyze his use
of words. For instance, what, exactly, is meant by "society"
in the above statement?
speaking, "society" is a name for the interactions of
all of the individuals who make up society, at whatever level of
subdivision of all humanity one chooses to cordon off as a society.
Since every act that takes place in a society is the act of some
individual, any concept of society is, in a very fundamental sense,
constructed using individual human action as its building blocks.
In fact, Mises first used the term "sociology" to signify
what he would later call "praxeology": the theoretical
study of human action in all its manifestations. It was only when
"sociology" began to mean statistical studies of mechanically
operating "social forces" that Mises abandoned the earlier
when people say that "society" should protect individuals,
which specific individuals do they mean? Perhaps they mean that,
while one shouldn't protect oneself, one can expect protection from
other members of society who happen to be on hand at your time of
need? While you can't pull out your own gun to fend
off a mugger, it is fine for me to pull out my gun
to fend off the fellow who is mugging you. I seriously doubt
that scenario would please the advocates of "societal protection."
After all, if that were what they meant, they certainly wouldn't
have instituted a handgun ban in the UK. Instead, they might require
that every person be packing heat at all times. While not permitted
to protect himself with his rod, every citizen would be expected
to help his fellows when they are in distress. But the law forbids
that just as much as it does self-defense. Indeed, as Malcolm points
out, "Police advise those who witness a crime to 'walk on by'
and let the professionals handle it."
the proponents of "societal protection" instead mean that
individuals can't protect themselves, but acting as members of a
church group or corporation or social club they could act to protect
each other? Again, the laws they recommend rule out this interpretation.
There are no exceptions to the various laws forbidding self-defense
and the carrying of "offensive" weapons for members of
social groups. A minister is no more permitted to carry a weapon
than is his flock, and one cannot obtain an exemption from the laws
because one has an exceptional number of business associates.
is clear that "society" is, at least in the case of British
law, a euphemism, covering up the naked truth of what the doctrine
of "societal protection" really means: All individuals
must be completely reliant on the State for their safety. If
you are attacked and the minions of the State are not on hand to
protect, you must suffer whatever your attackers wish to do to you,
or you will be punished.
it be thought that I exaggerate, I will note a couple of examples
two men assaulted Eric Butler, a 56-year-old British Petroleum
executive, in a London subway car, trying to strangle him and
smashing his head against the door. No one came to his aid.
He later testified, "My air supply was being cut off, my
eyes became blurred, and I feared for my life." In desperation
he unsheathed an ornamental sword blade in his walking stick
and slashed at one of his attackers, stabbing the man [sic]
in the stomach. The assailants were charged with wounding. Butler
was tried and convicted of carrying an offensive weapon.
an English homeowner, armed with a toy gun, managed to detain
two burglars who had broken into his house while he called the
police. When the officers arrived, they arrested the homeowner
for using an imitation gun to threaten or intimidate. In a similar
incident the following year, when an elderly woman fired a toy
cap pistol to drive off a group of youths who were threatening
her, she was arrested for putting someone in fear. Now the police
are pressing Parliament to make imitation guns illegal.
I think the gun control issue brings us to a crucial aspect of social
theory. Although rendering citizens helpless and reliant on the
State might, in fact, be the intended result of the evolution
of British law in the twentieth century, we need not regard it as
such to acknowledge that it is the effective result. As Hayek
famously put it, many social outcomes are "the result of human
action but not of human design."
are distinct advantages to recognizing the ubiquity of unintended
consequences in social policy. The alternative is to view any societal
outcome as the result of some person or persons' plan to achieve
that outcome. When social policy goes seriously astray from its
stated intentions, the latter view posits a conspiracy as the cause.
I would not for a moment deny that conspiracies exist. Clearly,
there are many occasions when groups of people secretly plot actions
that they hope will achieve a certain result. Often, their perceived
need for secrecy springs from a perception that, were it known that
they were plotting the results they intend, other people would resist
their plans and they would be condemned for their actions. But as
a universal explanation for undesirable social circumstances, conspiracy
theories have several shortcomings.
of all, they often concede extraordinary capabilities to the conspirators.
If Lenin or Stalin, openly planning to achieve a particular social
outcome and willing to use the whole of the resources of the Soviet
state to reach the desired result, could not succeed, why would
we suspect that secret conspirators, having to cover their tracks
and disguise their employment of the state's power, should be able
to achieve their ends? The law of unintended consequences applies
just as much to those planning covertly as to those doing so openly.
And we must contemplate the extraordinary efforts necessary to keep
a conspiracy secret.
placing the blame for generally undesirable outcomes on conspiracies
tends to distract from more fundamental, institutional analysis
of those results. If the reason the state seeks to disarm citizens
is merely that a cabal of evil people are currently in charge of
the state, then the obvious solution is to replace them with good
people who have better intentions.
a solution ignores the nature of the state itself. Hayek demonstrated
that as a state grows in power and intrusiveness, there is an increasingly
stronger tendency for the worst to rise to the top of the government
hierarchy. This is due to the fundamental difference between the
State and a private organization: while a private organization must
persuade others to deal with it on the terms it desires,
the State claims that it may legitimately force others to
deal with it on its terms.
insight does not prevent us from morally condemning certain forms
of persuasion. For instance, when a car manufacturer uses the lure
of sex to sell cars, we might have justification for condemning
its advertising technique. But no one is forced to fall prey
to its lure, and the proper means to defeat it is to persuade people
that the idea that owning a particular car will allow you to "score"
more often is both sleazy and ridiculous. If our persuasion is successful,
that particular form of advertising will vanish.
the other hand, whether or not people are persuaded that any specific
state program is sleazy and ridiculous, they must still comply with
the program or being willing to suffer violence at the hand of the
State. Since it is the threat or employment of violence upon which
the effectiveness of every state program rests, it should be clear
that those most skilled at threatening and employing violence will
be the most successful at operating the mechanisms of the State.
government hierarchy of bureaucratic and political positions acts
as a filtering mechanism to ensure that only those with the "proper"
way of thinking gain great power. The filter can allow through Communists,
social democrats, fascists, and even moderate classical liberals.
What it won't pass, except in rare accidents, are people who would
question the absolute authority of the state to employ force to
gain compliance with its edicts. As long as the principle is accepted,
the bedrock of State power remains unshaken, and, over the long
run, those best able to employ violence will tend to gain the upper
hand. (One of the lessons of the twentieth century is that "best
able" does not mean "most willing." Rulers have learned
that it is best to hide the State's fist in a velvet glove. Too
raw a display of State power can make the ruler's subjects uneasy.)
populating the government's offices, especially those whose careers
revolve around government employment, are gradually educated, by
the entire milieu in which they operate, in the ideology of state
authority. If you spend enough time in such environs, it will seem
obvious and natural that guns are better kept in the hands of officers
of the government after all, such guns are always pointed away
from you! It will be crystal clear that it is a dangerous situation
when private citizens defend themselves. Their need for your protection
won't be as acute, and they might be tempted to cut your department's
continue to advance in such a setting, one must keep making the
"hard choices." One's heart may say the eighteen-year-old
kid who sold an undercover agent a hit of acid at a Grateful Dead
concert doesn't seem like a criminal who should be placed in prison
for 20 years, but "the law is the law."
a mayor will tell himself, "evicting a group of elderly residents
from their lifelong neighborhood to make way for a new Costco seems,
wellÖ not quite just. But we all know perfect justice doesn't exist,
and it's not like there wasn't a vote taken on it. Those
old folks had their 30 minutes say at the council meeting!"
A social worker gives herself a little pep talk: "Those kids
we seized from their loving parents because we didn't like the way
they were educating themÖ Well, we had experts assuring us
that the kids development was being retarded." A military officer,
distressed about the bombed out neighborhoods and grieving families
left in the wake of a victory tells himself, "War is hell,
but at least we were fighting to help free those poor people."
(The extent to which Colin Powell, who seems to be a naturally decent
man, has fallen into step with the Bush administration policy on
Iraq, despite his obvious misgivings, is a recent example of the
power of State training to overcome moral scruples.) After saying
them enough times, these justifications will roll easily off the
tongue, sounding downright convincing.
while there may be government officials who act with the explicit
goal of rendering the population helpless, I am sure there are many
others who would be genuinely shocked if you suggested such an idea
to them. "Ridiculous!" they would tell you. "We just
want citizens to feel empowered to walk the streets safely without
being armed like Rambo. It's our responsibility to create a safe
environment where people don't need to go around with guns
and ornamental swords." What's more, they would not be lying
to you any more than they are lying to themselves.
fundamental problem with human slavery was not that the slaves needed
better owners. Of course, if I were a slave, I'd rather be
owned by Thomas Jefferson than some vicious thug. But I'd still
be a slave! The fundamental problem was that slavery itself was
an unjust institution. Even the "good" slave owners had
to keep their slaves subservient and oppressed, or they soon would
have ceased to be slave owners.
while there may be people manning the State who are deliberately
conspiring against their citizens, replacing them with a different
set of rulers is only a palliative. Again, I would rather have Jefferson
as my ruler than Stalin, but I would still be ruled.
Whether gun control advocates intend to turn their citizens into
helpless children looking to the parental state for protection,
or their actions merely achieve that result accidentally, would
be relevant if we were trying them for their misdeeds. But for solving
the basic problem the question is irrelevant. To paraphrase the
1992 Clinton campaign, "It's the institution, stupid."
2002 Gene Callahan
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives