Who’s afraid of Jeremy Bentham?

The events in Cumbria are utterly tragic. 12 dead and many more injured as I write this testify to the horror that one man can inflict on a community.

At the moment reactions seem variously muted. Teresa May has insisted that we take stock before we discuss the merits of further firearm laws. Alan Johnson has suggested that perhaps the counter-terrorism policing skills we’ve developed haven’t spread to rural forces, but even his jerky knees remain still.

The Libertarian Alliance take a separate tack. No taking stock for them, they have published this statement calling for looser gun control. This caught my eye:

The Libertarian Alliance notes that these shootings would have been extremely difficult in a country where the people were allowed to arm themselves.

According to the LA, Libertarianism not only maximises liberty, which is a just action, but it also maximises everyone’s well being too.

There is not a logical reason that doing the just thing should maximise happiness, or minimise murder; the LA certainly do not provide any serious empirical backing for this claim.

This suggests to me that the LA are not particularly secure in their beliefs. If you think taking a certain action is immoral, such as taxing (to pay for it) and the regulation of guns, then you should refrain from that action.

The consequence of refraining may be an increase in gun crime or it may be a decrease, but I do not see a logical or essential connection between libertarian values and an optimum outcome.

By appealing to “the greatest good for the greatest number” the Libertarian Alliance are illustrating some of Libertarianism’s weaknesses as a political project in its own right.

(Hat-tip Sunny Hundal and Sunder Katwala)

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6 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of Jeremy Bentham?

  1. The shootings (in this particular case, other situations are totally different and you can’t know what will happen in them) having nothing to do with looser gun control.

    Its assuming that every Tom, Dick and Harry (are you lucky punk?) has a gun just for such occasions and that they are able and trained to use it in highly tense situations. Not likely, most people would not be carrying a gun even the law allowed them to. Most people would not be able to shoot to kill someone even if trained to use a gun.

    Having less gun control means have less knowledge about who has the guns and what there mental state is. Libertarianism is a good goal, but it depends on not doing things that might harm others. Guns (or rather people using guns) harm others. Being freer with guns actually requires more gun control. This is because you will need more checks to make sure that everyone who carries is not mentally unstable. With more gun control, the number of checks is smaller as not everyone will have guns.

  2. Not necessarily. David Hume saw a unity between moral rights and utility. Societies that protect individual liberty have turned out to be the most successful, indicating that liberty is the more harmonious with human nature. This distinction between rights and consequentialist arguements is a comparatively recent philosophical phenomenon (Bentham’s division essentially). If you read Locke, you will see there is plenty of arguments from the consequences of certain institutions, but he is also a natural rights theorist.

    1. True, there may be a pedigree for people matching up their views of natural rights and optimum social outcomes, but there’s nothing logically coherent in it.

      Would the Libertarian Alliance still support laxer gun controls if it led to more murder? Its a possibility, but if it is immoral to restrict gun control then it may be an outcome they have to live with. There are certainly other perverse outcomes from libertarian logic.

      There are pragmatic libertarians like Scott Sumner who I have a lot of time for but it seems a lot of libertarians want their beliefs to also sync up with their desired outcomes. Its not evidence based, and I think it is a major shortcoming of many who claim to be libertarians.

  3. Did the 1988 ban of self loading rifles stop or even reduce the criminal use of guns?

    Did the 1997 pistol ban?

    Why keep these pointless restrictions on people’s interests when it’s proven there is no benefit?

    1. But you’re not looking at the right counterfactual. Things may have got more worse more quickly without those acts, unfortunately we do not have an alternative reality to run that experiment.

      It isn’t proven one way or the other whether or not these restrictions helped.

      The Libertarian Alliance didn’t provide any evidence, just one anecdote. Neither do you provide anything which backs up your claim that gun restrictions do not make the world a better place.

      There’s two (two and a half I suppose) arguments here.

      One, the gun controls don’t really work and the people we want to have guns least can still get them. This argument has some merits but it is still harder to get a gun even illegally than it would be without controls.

      Two, if people had guns they’d be able to stop spree killings etc. This is an interesting argument, but not one I’ve seen a huge amount of evidence to support.

      Two and a half, we need guns to challenge the state. I don’t see this as a problem in this country, say what you like about ZaNuLiebore they weren’t actually that bad compared to virtually any other administration that the world has seen. The bar is set very very low. The chances that the populace will rise up, even if armed, is incredibly slim. Although I do have some sympathy with this argument, although my revolution would probably be different to yours.

      The direct benefits of relaxing controls in terms of pleasure owned by owning guns is relatively small. The indirect benefits of more guns leading to less crime isn’t empirically sound. The possibility of the opposite happening (more guns more crime) seems likely.

      I don’t think the case is particularly strong for relaxing gun control.

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