Gun Control

Does the Libertarian Support for Gun Rights Lead to U.S. Foreign Policy Adventurism?

A response to Tyler Cowen


Tyler Cowen made the interesting point last week that libertarians' support for gun rights was at odds with their disdain for America's foreign policy adventurism. He wrote:

[I]f America is going to be the world's policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry.  And that culture is not going to be "Hans Morgenthau's foreign policy realism," or "George Kennan's Letter X," or even Clausewitz's treatise On War.  Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public.  And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry.  And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.

If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly

Tyler Cowen
Mercatus Center

martial culture at home, by all means make your case.  But I am skeptical.  I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America's world role would fundamentally change and America's would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.

This is a pretty novel argument, I admit, whose best feature is that it eschews the religious faith that liberals put in the ability of government regulations to reduce gun ownership (let alone violence). Just because there is a ban on something doesn't mean people won't find a way of getting it. (A little meth anyone?)

Still, to use Cowen's own words, I am skeptical.

For starters, if Cowen doesn't believe that gun restrictions would actually deter people from acquiring guns, how precisely will they change the culture? Perhaps he thinks, as many conservatives do, that rules and regulations, even when ineffective in achieving their intended purpose, can be useful signaling mechanisms of other things. For example, anti-cussing laws (which still exist), may not stop people from cussing, but they communicate social disapproval of cussing. But such laws usually mirror — not mold — cultural attitudes and so expecting anti-gun laws to change gun attitudes seems to put the cart before the horse. In other words, even if Cowen is right that support for gun rights leads to foreign policy adventurism, gun regulations won't actually change that. To stop foreign policy adventurism one just has to make the case to stop foreign policy adventurism, not engineer a cultural shift.

More fundamentally, I note in my column at The Week, as far as libertarians are concerned, to the extent that there is a connection between gun rights and foreign policy, it runs in the direction opposite to what Cowen suggests:

The central political problem for conservatives is maintaining virtue; for liberals equality; and for libertarians liberty — or avoiding government tyranny. This requires not just maintaining a balance of power — or checks and balances — among the three branches of government, but also between the government and the citizenry. Libertarians fear that a government that disarms its citizens while arming itself to the hilt shifts the balance of power and precludes the possibility of any serious resistance.

This vastly increases the danger that the government will conscript them without their consent for its overseas adventurism.

Go here to read the whole thing.