Turn on the news and chances are there will be mention of gun control, gun violence, or something of the like. It’s not too surprising either. Relative to our OECD peers, the U.S. has the highest firearm death rate (10.2 per 100,000 people). These staggering numbers force us to ask the question, why do we still have firearms?
Some people will blame government inefficiency, others will blame a strong gun lobby, or the outright failure of democracy. Well, in a way, all three can be blamed. But a more nuanced understanding of the gun control problem can only be explained through the behaviors of the interaction between politicians, voters, and interest groups.
Before we begin however, we need to make a few assumptions. First, all people are self-interested. For politicians, this means passing policies that will keep them in office. Voters on the other hand will vote for candidates who make them better off. There are however differences in the investment that voters have in political issues. As an example, lets say Lisa and her four friends are trying to decide who to vote for in the coming election. Lisa and her friends don’t support guns. The candidate they are looking to vote for is running on two main issues: a) eliminating all taxes and b) making all guns legal. Lisa and her friends don’t exactly like the idea of all guns being legal but not having to pay taxes sounds really nice. So, they vote for the candidate.
On the other side, Andrew and his two friends are going to vote in the same election. Andrew is strongly for gun control. He wants to vote for a different candidate who is for gun control and wants to raise taxes. Andrew and his two friends vote for this candidate but they are overpowered by Lisa and her four friends, who want lower taxes. Thus, they all have an interest in gun control, they all voted rationally, but none of them got the perfect outcome they wanted.
Now, we’ve done some research and it turns out that the candidate who won was strongly supported by a gun lobby group. This influenced his decision to back gun rights on his campaign platform. The gun lobby group had a total constituency base of one. This one individual had a very strong interest in more lenient firearm policy. This demonstrates one of the first tenants of government failure. Small groups that have a strong community interest are more effective at applying political pressure to candidates than are larger groups whose interests are weaker.
Looking at this scenario in economic terms, what we essentially have is a market for legislation. Unlike other markets, where the goal is to maximize the socially efficient outcome, the goal here is maximize the governmentally efficient outcome. In order to maximize government efficiency, both groups of voters performed cost-benefit analysis. For Lisa and her friends, the marginal benefit of lower taxes was greater than the marginal benefit of gun control, while the opposite was true for Andrew and his friends. As a result of their greater political capital, Lisa’s group was able to control the election, even though the Andrew’s willingness to pay was greater than Lisa’s willingness to pay.
Think about this less abstractly now. All gun owners are impacted by gun control legislation, however, gun control legislation benefits all but a very small minority of gun control advocates. This is the idea of diffuse costs and concentrated interests.
Though this idea may be antithetical to liberal democracy, it makes sense for politicians to support the goals of powerful interest groups because it is an easy way to stay elected.
Has democracy always been this way? Not quite. In the 1960’s, there was substantial dissatisfaction with American democracy. The Vietnam War was going downhill, counter-cultural movements saw a shift in American social values, and the Cold War saw the needless prosecution of groups that may have even slightly suggested pro-communist sentiment. Responding to this, Congress passed the Sunshine Law in 1976.
This mandated that the government release meeting records, votes, and other official records to the public. This meant that interest groups could check the voting records of politicians, making it easier to decide which candidates to support and not support. Thus, politicians had to appeal to the interests of those who could provide the most concentrated support in order to get them reelected.
The America of the 60’s wanted a more open and democratic government. They did indeed get a more democratic government but it turned against them. So whats the economic solution? Assuming that politicians are welfare maximizing agents, the solution is to protect them from interest groups, reconciling democracy with liberty.
Buchanan, James M., and Gordon Tullock. The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy. University of Michigan Press, 2011.
Butler, Eamonn. “Public Choice – A Primer.” Institute of Economic Affairs, 2012.