Sunday, December 30, 2012

Public Policy vs. Illusions and Delusions

Dave Hoffman suggests that we are "forced by the Internet to nationalize problems", and as a result it is "harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order". I would be more impressed with the argument if the imposition of national solutions on moral issues were a new phenomenon, or if it weren't the "don't tread on me" types who weren't often attempting to impose their own moral conventions upon the rest of us. But certainly, the national media, the 24 hour news cycle, and the Internet have changed the manner and speed at which local issues can become national news.

In fact, we have not been "forced" to "nationalize problems". We live in a society in which some problems that were once treated more uniformly on a national basis have been transitioned back to local mores. For example, obscenity is judged by community standards, and states are free to impose restrictions on access to abortion that were once considered forbidden under Roe v Wade. The Hatch Act and its creation of "right to work" states started the downhill slide of organized labor. We weren't "forced" to nationalize the problem of alcohol consumption during the prohibition era, nor was prohibition a product of the Internet. The anti-kidnapping laws that followed the Lindbergh kidnapping were not driven by the Internet. Behind the determination of what is "best" handled at the state vs. federal level lies a great deal of political gamesmanship that sometimes gets in the way of the formation of good policy.

Josh Marshall argued that suggesting that school shootings might not occur or might be less lethal if small children were trained to mob a gunman, or if schools were not a "feminized setting … in which helpless passivity is the norm" represents the discussion "quickly veering from the merely stupid [Megan McArdle's "mob the gunman" suggestion] to a pretty ugly kind of victim-blaming [Charlotte Allen's 'feminized settings' argument]". McArdle's suggestion is at best impractical and unrealistic, but to be fair to her she was comparing her own bad idea to ideas that she deemed worse - she admitted that her idea might not work, but had a better chance at preventing school shootings than the ideas she was criticizing. Marshall's criticism of Allen's comment is fair. Let's also throw in Mike Huckabee's blaming the shooting on a lack of prayer in schools.1 That is blaming the victim, and it is ugly.

Hoffman appears to project his own discomfort with firearms onto people like Marshall,
I didn’t grow up with guns in the house, and the idea of allowing a child of mine into a school where the teachers are armed is horrifying. Worse, I think, is the concept that we ought to militarize children – to teach them that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society.
Marshall did speak of the growing militarization of our society. His comment is a bit cryptic, but he appears to be suggesting that fear of violent crime is resulting in people "seriously or [like McArdle] half in jest - pushing for a use of force race to the bottom".

Marshall's point is valid - even as violent crime has plummeted, fear of violent crime and terrorism has led to an expanded police and military presence in spaces that were far less secure during times when crime rates were significantly higher. I think part of the issue is that the more rare an event becomes, the more attention becomes focused on its increasingly rare occurrence. Marshall is making a public policy argument, that we should take a step back and try to figure out if the militarization is good for society, a good use of manpower and resources, or if it's likely to be effective before we expand it into new areas of society, such as public schools. Hoffman isn't actually addressing militarization - "teach[ing children] that they are all on their own, and the state is powerless before the forces of chaos in society" is not militarization - but more importantly he's not even arguing about how public policy should be formed.
My intervention here is to just to point out that the problem we actually have here is one of discourse – we are forced by the Internet to nationalize problems. This makes it much, much harder for local communities to experiment with localized solutions to threats to the moral order. If a community in, say, Connecticut wanted to ban assault weapon clips (because it made them feel safer – [(]let’s put to one side data on efficacy!), Glenn Reynolds would lead a charge against the liberal fascists. Indeed. Heh. Yes. If a community in Tennessee wants to arm its teachers (because it makes them feel safer – let’s put to one side data on efficacy!) Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan would call them out as conservative fascists. Or loonies. Or winners of the Moore award. And we’d all get to pat ourselves on the back, but no one would actually get the benefit that law is supposed to provide, which is the helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are, and that we’re actually doing something to push back against the tide.
The thing is, people like Marshall don't "put to one side data on efficacy" because they are interested in facts. They are interested in what works. Hoffman takes several potshots at Marshall,2 but all the while misses that the McArdle "rush the shooter" comment was neither a serious policy proposal nor reasonably characterized as a proposal "offered by gun proponents". McArdle was in fact pointing out that some of the proposals being advanced in response to the school shooting, such as banning certain types of firearm or magazines of a certain capacity, would not have prevented the shooting. McArdle tends to get ridiculed in some corners because she has a history of making arguments that are not well-thought out, but her essential approach here is the same as Marshall's. She's not interested in making people feel safe. She's pointing out that your feelings have little to do with what actually does or does not make you safer.

At a basic level Hoffman is correct about a culture clash, although it's not s binary as he suggests. He's correct that a measure that to one person or community might serve as a "helpful illusion that we’re more civilized than we actually are" might differ from, or even be the opposite of, what another person or community would deem a "helpful illusion." If Hoffman wants to argue that communities should be able to create their own "helpful illusions", let's assume within reasonable constraints, he's only going to run into issues where those illusions start to impinge upon the rights of others. There already are schools that allow any teacher with a CCW permit to bring a gun to school.

The problem is that Hoffman is trying to impose his standard for "helpful illusions" onto a policy debate - an attempt to determine what may or may not actually work to prevent (in this instance) school shootings, and the extent to which arguments for measures that offer only illusory benefits are worth implementing, particularly when other civil, social and legal issues are implicated. The policy discussion does not "reduce[] our ability to try out different versions of the good life, and thus diminish[] our capacity live together in peace". In fact, if properly conducted, the policy discussion avoids imposing "helpful illusions" on a nationwide basis, instead implementing only those policies that can be reasonably expected to work, while leaving localities to form their own "helpful illusions" within the aforementioned parameters.
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1. There is a natural human tendency to try to explain away tragedy - to find a way to believe that a horror that happened to somebody else could not happen to you. Huckabee put himself into the same column as the TV ministers who blame local and national tragedies on homosexuality, feminism and the like - and they know exactly what they are doing when they exploit tragedies in that manner.

2. I found Hoffman's essay through a link provided by Jonathan Adler, a call for tolerance that, in context, is rendered odd by his hollow man arguments about mythic "liberal bloggers" who are having a "fevered reaction" and are in "a frenzy" about Megan McArdle's "what if kids mobbed the gunman" column. Adler's a law professor, so I assume he has enough familiarity with the Socratic method to understand that scorn, derision and ridicule, as unpleasant as they can be, do not constitute a frenzied or fevered reaction.

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