Gun Control

Is America's Military Interventionism an Extension of Its Gun Culture?

Tyler Cowen makes a fascinating but wanting argument.

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My friend and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen—whom David Brooks considers "one of the most influential bloggers on the right"—had a fascinating post last week explaining to his fellow libertarians (like me) that their disdain for America's muscular foreign policy abroad is at odds with their support for strong gun rights at home.

Gun possession breeds a certain kind of kick-ass mentality—"martial culture"—that doesn't stop at the border's

american solider
Monica's dad Foter Commons

edge, but spills "over there." Therefore, if libertarians want to restrain America's adventurism abroad, they will have to stop looking at guns from a narrow rights-based perspective, as is their wont, and start looking at them from the standpoint of the undesirable foreign policy consequences they produce—and so accept some gun regulation.

As a naturalized American from India, I have always been both amused and bemused by the American romance with guns. I have also observed firsthand the destabilizing effect of America's post-9/11 "martial interventions" near my native country. Thus, if there were a serious chance that restrictions on gun rights would help reduce Uncle Sam's war mongering, I would consider it. But color me dubious.

Cowen's argument is intriguing and original—not to mention refreshing in that it doesn't put the religious faith that liberals do in gun control diminshing violence. It also has a certain intuitive plausibility. But does support for private gun rights actually generate a spirit of martial interventionism? Actually, as far as libertarians are concerned, the connection runs in the other direction.

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.

That's why libertarians insist that the Second Amendment was meant to protect not just the rights of states to maintain well-armed militias, as liberals insist, but also the right of private individuals to bear arms for both self-defense and as a check on government tyranny. 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.

In the libertarian view, then, armed citizens are not tools for the grand imperialistic designs of a martial republic like Sparta, but the opposite. They are supposed to prevent the republic from conscripting them for its adventurism overseas without their consent. The aims here are defensive, not offensive; prevent war, not encourage it.

It is hardly a coincidence that the country's founding statesmen, like George Washington, saw no contradiction in both vigorously supporting private arms and warning against "foreign entanglements."

Indeed, so hardwired are libertarians to distrust an unchecked monopoly on power that they worry about its effect not only on the national polity but the international one. Much as libertarians detested the communist Soviet empire, they didn't think that a unipolar world at the end of the Cold War, even with their own country as the sole superpower, was necessarily a healthy state of affairs.

Cowen makes much of the fact that Americans own 42 percent of the world's private guns and America does 42 percent of the world's defense spending. But for Cowen's hypothesis that gun ownership breeds a martial culture to be correct, this ownership would have to be widespread. Instead, as Tuft University's Dan Drezner has shown, guns have become concentrated in a few hands, with the number of American households actually owning guns declining over time from around 55 percent in 1978 to about 32 percent now. Meanwhile, America's interventionism abroad has grown unabated.

There aren't great stats showing if the converse—that periods of high gun ownership have correlated with less American interventionism abroad—is also true. But it is significant that America assumed its post-World War II role of the global policeman only after the passage of the 1934 National Firearms Act, the first major federal anti-gun legislation (whose purpose was to prevent the Prohibition-related gangsters from laying hands on Tommy guns). At the same time, defense spending in this country ratcheted up from less than $100 billion in inflation-adjusted terms in 1947 to over $550 billion now. If there is anything that breeds American militarism besides external events, it is a standing army with a moral claim to Americans' pocketbook. Suppose if all guns in America were to suddenly vanish. Is it plausible that its militaristic foreign policy would be in the least bit affected so long as it maintains its global hegemony and defense spending?

Cowen might argue, of course, that just because libertarians aim to use gun ownership to check interventionism doesn't mean they'll succeed; noble desires can backfire and produce  results opposite to those intended. Perhaps. However, the only evidence he offers for this is the observation that "parts of the country with the most guns, namely the South, are also prominent supporters of the military."

Support for the military does not automatically equal support for interventionism in the sense of going overseas to kick foreign ass. Arguably, if there is flip side to gun-toting Americans, it is a Fortress America, isolationist mentality, a kind of belligerent defensiveness. (That's what Donald Trump seems to be cashing in on, as I noted in a previous column). I highly doubt that there was much support in Texas for Barack Obama's Libyan misadventure.

One can debate whether that's good or bad. But what's not debatable is that the connection between gun rights and martialism and martialism and interventionism is far from airtight. Indeed, it is possible that giving up on gun rights might further weaken yet another check on American adventurism and turn Uncle Sam into even more of a global wrecking ball.

This column originally appeared in The Week.

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  1. ‘My friend and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen?whom David Brooks considers “one of the most influential bloggers on the right”‘
    That seems a rather large claim, do you have any support from it apart from Brooks?

    ‘As a naturalized American from India, I have always been both amused and bemused by the American romance with guns. I have also observed firsthand the destabilizing effect of America’s post-9/11 “martial interventions” near my native country.’
    Or just take a look at India’s intervention in Kashmir or the last couple of wars with Pakistan. All due no doubt to Indian gun culture.

  2. FWIW, I own guns, and support hunters and “gun culture” though I do not hunt or shoot competitively or anything like that. I am 100% anti-interventionist.

    1. I am not anti-interventionist as you are but my position on the matter is completely uninfluenced by my ownership of guns, my hunting, or my sport shooting. There is simply no connection.

    2. I’m not buying any of it. I LOVE guns and I am the biggest non-interventionist going.

      If you writers at Reason are having trouble coming up with interesting ideas to write about, please contact me. I’m sure together we can add some relevance to the crap I’m seeing here.

      Here’s an idea. Why don’t one of you writers grow a pair of cojones and write a Pro-Trump article? Are you that afraid of your editors?

      1. “Why don’t one of you writers grow a pair of cojones and write a Pro-Trump article?”

        Because he’s an ignoramus not worthy of anything other than derision? I think that’s a good enough reason.

        1. Sevo — have you got any actual examples of why you don’t like Trump or is your specialty strictly in the realm of name-calling.

          Why don’t you attempt to come up with something intelligent to say, figure out how in the world you will express that supposedly intelligent thought, and then sit back, relax, and watch me destroy that thought right in front of your very eyes!

          Won’t that be fun? For me.

      2. “I’m not buying any of it.”

        Well, if you read the article, Dalmia doesn’t buy it either. She rips the idea apart.

        “Why don’t one of you writers grow a pair of cojones and write a Pro-Trump article?”

        Since Trump is basically zero percent libertarian, that would be certainly be something. I think the fact that the writers don’t write such an article says more about their abundance of brain cells than their lack of conjones.

        1. Inigo — You wrote the following:

          “”I’m not buying any of it.”

          Well, if you read the article, Dalmia doesn’t buy it either. She rips the idea apart.”

          Dalmia asked the question. I answered it. Dalmia and I are in agreement. What’s your point?

          Your dribble continues:

          “Why don’t one of you writers grow a pair of cojones and write a Pro-Trump article?”

          Since Trump is basically zero percent libertarian, that would be certainly be something. I think the fact that the writers don’t write such an article says more about their abundance of brain cells than their lack of conjoins.”

          You are correct. I misspoke. I usually say something of the following, “Grow a pair of cojones and either write a Pro-Trump article or tell me who you want to be our next president.”

          My statement stands corrected. Now let’s see if any of the writers grow a pair and tell me who they want for president. I bet they don’t!

          Please tell me your reasons for not wanting Trump to be our next president and then sit back and watch me destroy your flimsy argument.

          Are you Dalmia’s mother?

    3. I’m very pro 2A, and not so much interventionist as I much as I favor slaughtering our enemies as an example to those who would transgress against us.

      1. Suicidy — Basically I agree, we have to slaughter our enemies. Hell, they’re over here in the homeland. I even agree with Trump; you start killing the terrorist’s mothers and these terrorist incidents will plummet fast.

        But at the same time, our intervening in the Middle East the past 70 years is the reason we have this fucking mess now.

        1. The Muslims have been killing people for 1400 years. They kill people because they aren’t Muslims, or aren’t Muslim enough. Read the Quran.

    4. “as a check on government tyranny.”

      Have you recently served as a check on government tyranny? Or used a gun to protect yourself?

  3. Given the quality of Cowen’s argument, it’s no wonder David Brooks likes him so much. As I recall, Brooks also liked the crease of Obama’s pants and used that to explain his support for him in 2008. I haven’t taken him seriously since then, seeing him as a former conservative corrupted by working with the groupthinking liberals of the Grey Lady.

    Note that militaristic Sparta wasn’t exactly an imperialistic power. Athens fits that description a lot better.

  4. Very Chompskyesce. With his High School football was invented to breed warriors who wouldn’t question orders and will be loyal to the team and women cheerleaders who would root them on in war.

    1. He’ll also have to explain our ‘interventionism’ leading up the WWII, when guns were pretty much un-regulated and hunting (gun use) was much more common.
      Smells of ‘just-so’ story-telling.

      1. + Genghis Khan

      2. + Genghis Khan

    2. Chomsky is a huge pussy who was probably a virgin until 25 and got his lunch money taken every day. He has no concept of being a real man. And his worldview reflects it.

  5. They didn’t call it the Peacemaker for nothing.

  6. “they will have to stop looking at guns from a narrow rights-based perspective”

    No thanks, fuck off.

    1. Amen to that

  7. The left LOVES to correlate private gun owners to the most extreme gun loving, collector type. You can’t own one handgun, responsibly stored in your bed room, without being a ammo hoarding, bunker in the backyard redneck. It’s fucking insane, and I’m guessing the way they have to think in order to support the more extensive anti-gun policies that are thrown out there.

    I’m glad Shika pointed out the facts on this which show why Tyler’s claim isn’t really substantiated.

    1. You say ammo-hoarding, bunker in the backyard redneck like its a bad thing?

      1. Ha, doesn’t bother me at all, but it certainty doesn’t paint the full picture of gun ownership in the US, as much as some people think/wish it is.

        1. I totally agree. I’m from a small town in Oklahoma and I’ve never met a fully-fledged prepper the steroetype suggests are everywhere in red states! Proggle derpiness would have us thinking every non-Democrat voter is a retard Rambo but the reality is, of course, vastly different than the Huffpo tells them lol

    2. I think it’s outrageously funny.

      I am the total ammo-hoarding, evil-black-rifle collecting, gun-nut they warn their children about – but after meeting me and knowing my publicly distributed background they would peg me as the ultimate educated, world-travelled cosmo.

  8. Foreign interventionism is the natural result of progressive politics. It’s become increasingly egregious since America’s post-WWII hero complex. Gun culture has little, if anything, to do with it.

    1. I agree with you but you gotta back up that statement with some facts and show the proggles what a non feelz-based argument looks like 🙂

    2. Whatever interventionism means it doesn’t seem to be anything but a buzzword. The spread of troops looks more likely to be based on the ease of global transportation than some new or modern phenomenon in thinking or culture. Theres certainly plenty of historical interventions.

    3. Just about every evil thing in America is the result of progressives.

  9. If the author’s hypothesis were remotely correct, the US would be at complete civil war at all times. If individual gun ownership begets interventionism, then that would apply first at the community level, county level, state level, regional level, and then internationally. Yet there is nothing remotely like this happening.

    So the author made a considerable leap from an individual peacefully owning an AR-15 to the US interventionism. There is absolutely no cause and effect, and as a libertarian I see no conflict between individual gun ownership rights and anti-interventionism.

    1. What about the WAR ON COPS, HUH???

    2. “If individual gun ownership begets interventionism, then that would apply first at the community level, county level, state level, regional level, and then internationally. Yet there is nothing remotely like this happening.”

      Yuh-huh! There was that one time that this one white hispanic guy totally murdered an innocent black teenager who was just eating Skittles and drinking iced tea!! And he got away with murder because of concealed carry and Stand Your Ground laws! What more evidence do you need?!

      /prog

      1. Skittles-eating is a sterotype and I have been triggered, you racist homophobe cisgendered shitlord! Prepare to receive a strongly-worded facebook post!!!

        /proggderp

      2. That is not what occured. The jury that heard ALL the FACTS decided that he was not guilty.

  10. Yeah, gun culture goes along with militarism.

    So just ban guns, and you’re banning militarism. It just makes sense!

    1. I know you’re being sarcastic, but the gun-grabbing left is certainly not for banning militarism. They have no problem with foreign intervention, droning, regime change, etc. — as long as “their guy” is the one in charge. It’s just another example of their belief in “principals, not principles.”

  11. You know who else liked military intervention?

      1. Lol too soon

    1. Hitlery? Uh, I mean Hillary?

      1. You mean, the Hildabeast, I think.

  12. Dammit Reason, banish Shikha to salon where this kind of crap belongs!!

  13. I like this argument and I would say that the right to own a gun actually reduces a society’s militarism. Because they have their guns so they don’t need an ‘excuse’. To put it differently, if there are restrictions on gun rights then people will become even more militaristic. (Similar dynamics to drugs and speech and even food – the ‘forbidden fruit’.) So how to explain our current militarism? Well that’s just normal for any society and actually many countries are spoiling for war including Russia and all the Arabs. And I would add, people get almost as excited about boxcars shipping back illegal aliens as they do for kicking ISIS ass. So it’s not just a ‘foreign interventionism’ thing.

  14. If there is any kind of martial culture growing now, it is that of the Social Justice Warrior movement getting physically and verbally violent (that means yelling in people’s faces) and more lynch-mob-like as time goes on, and that is coming from the left.

  15. Dumb argument is dumb.

  16. Wow. That is one hell of a non sequitur Cowen.

    I see a lot of arguments like this from people who have no clue what the ‘gun culture’ is. They are attempting to draw conclusions from premises that do not reflect reality.

    Also, if David Brooks thinks you are great don’t go around telling people that. Just sayin’.

    Again, when all is said and done I am keeping my guns.

  17. “Thus, if there were a serious chance that restrictions on gun rights would help reduce Uncle Sam’s war mongering, I would consider it. But color me dubious.”

    Such principle, so freedom!

  18. Mr. Cowen should start blogging about cats.

  19. I carried a 9mm pistol on my hip all day, went shopping and saw the new Star Wars flick. Not once did I consider our current foreign war policy with anything but contempt. Maybe I’m odd, but there are probably many more libertarians just like me. Well, most likely carry forty-fives.

    1. You probably rooted for the Empire didn’t you, you fascist!

      *narrows gaze, scribbles screen name into diary for use in the next 20 Mintes of Hate facebook screed

      1. What has the rebellion done for you? Rebel scum.

        *takes a hit of Darth Vapor.

  20. My friend and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen?whom David Brooks considers “one of the most influential bloggers on the right”?had a fascinating post last week explaining to his fellow libertarians (like me) that their disdain for America’s muscular foreign policy abroad is at odds with their support for strong gun rights at home.

    My response.

  21. Articles like this makes me wonder if Reason really is a libertarian magazine.

    1. Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t read past the first paragraph and see how the Cowen’s dumb thesis gets ridiculed and shredded by logic.

      1. Well there is the point that the answer to the question posed is Hell No and the article is considerably longer than it need be. i.e. don’t entertain stupid dubious arguments just swat that crap away.

  22. What a bunch of bullshit. How about the central bank culture, where they print endless amounts of fiat money that “pay” for these wars through currency debauchery, which in effect robs everyone? How in the hell can individuals refuse to fund the violent state, when it, and the central banks control their property, and force individuals to accept a media of exchange against their will through legal tender laws???

    You can also lay the blame on gov’t culture, where individuals believe that folks in fancy suits and pantsuits, who couldn’t run a lemonade stand (everywhere they are involved in and regulate winds up in crisis and chaos…banking, roads, military, healthcare, education, etc) can somehow “manage” foreign policy, along with an economy.

    Meanwhile you folks write this nonsense trying to tie free individuals and their right to defend themselves and their families as the reason for all of this military interventionism?

  23. My friend and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen?whom David Brooks considers “one of the most influential bloggers on the right”

    Telling people that David Brooks endorses him is an awfully shitty thing to do to your friend.

  24. So just where and how does this not-even-tenuous connection between gun ownership and foreign intervention happen? WTF? How about a relationship between wearing camouflage/khaki clothing and foreign intervention? What other aspects of a “soldier’s enforced lifestyle” could be connected to a desire or support for war?

    I wonder if this Tyler Cowen has many contacts who are veterans. My bet would be very few.

  25. Tyler Cohen makes and interesting point, but one that is far from reality. The disastrous US foreign policy is not about our gun culture, but more simply and deliberately about money. It is about the money that flows from the US taxpayer to the Pentagon budget and from there to a myriad of defense contactors. Along the way, a significant sum is embezzled by our elected government. It is this illicit money that helps insure our 90+% incumbency rate. There are other sources of illicit political money, but the Pentagon budget is by far the largest and the easiest. If you want to read some interesting disclosures by a former government insider, check out Lawrence Wilkerson. He wrote much of Colin Powell’s speech to the UN confirming WMD in Iraq and has since decided to come clean about a whole host of government propaganda. Among other things, he confirms the accuracy of Eisenhower’s dire warnings of a “military industrial complex” in his farewell speech in 1961.

  26. Government is based on fear, and fear is used to justify foreign wars.

    When public affairs, usually assisted by Government propaganda, cause the people to fear, they buy guns, and the Country gets into some war. (There was a plan for the Iraq War prior to 9/11, they just needed the right crisis.)

    http://usatoday30.usatoday.com…..iraq_x.htm

    Rounding up the guns won’t stop the Welfare/Warfare State.

    Besides which, there is nothing wrong with fighting wars, the problem is fighting stupid wars contrary to the national interest of the United States based on some utopian democratization scheme.

  27. What a crock. By this logic, the USSR and Cuba must have had a huge gun culture. As should modern Russia. And let’s not forget about India’s many foreign interventions. I get a kick out of know it all clowns who want to blame tools for the actions of people.

  28. You make a mistake I think in conflating the percentage with actual numbers. In 1978 how many households were there? How many in 2015?
    Numbers used in discussing this topic usually say there are approximately 330 million firearms in the hands of about 52 million people or about 16% of the population. By any account that is a very large number of people but if you look at the population of the rabid anti-gun states you can probably account lesser numbers of families. I remember growing up in NYC in the 50s- 60s guns were not common but not unknown. Today it is probably more unknown.
    The ability to actually own a firearm in those states has been restricted

  29. Two points:

    1. When my 1st wife divorced me, that reduced the fraction of households owning guns, without any reduction in the fraction of people who owned guns. Deceptive stat, to say the least. Intentionally so, on the part of those who generated it, I expect.

    2. If a pollster asks me if I own a gun, I’ll lie.

    I wouldn’t count on gun ownership having become less common, if I were you.

  30. She is right in that the answer to the question is NO. But as Dan Drezner has not demonstrated because Americans have learned to lie to pollsters asking about firearms and if he had ever been in a gun store for two hours on a Saturday he would know that most buyers are newbies buying their first self-protection tool. Wow, a naturalized citizen understands the “gun culture” better than a native-born pollster. It is all about Liberty. A concept that starts in the individual and grows into the society.

  31. So I guess Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans, Obama’s drone bombings, Hilary’s disaster in Libya and all the rest can be chalked up to their charter membership in the “gun culture”.

  32. Soooo, in the mid 20th century when guns were even more pervasive in US culture (even public schools had target and skeet shooting clubs…. oh, the horror), the US jumped right into WWII because they were gun crazy? FDR didn’t have to scheme to get support to Britain in defiance of the country’s isolationism? Is history taught anymore? Can’t people look up shit on the internet?

  33. I suppose the conquests of the Greeks, Persians, Romans, Huns, Visigoths, Vikings, Etruscans, Hittites, Saxons, Gauls, etc., etc. were the results of sword culture then. Not anything as simple as that fact that all empires and would-be empires use the marital force that is “state-of-the-art” at the time? Nah, such a simple answer supported by the entire history of humanity couldn’t be right. A convoluted anti-gun argument with little historical data to support it and a lot of data to counter it must be the right answer.

  34. A very provincial idea that ignores centuries old European interventions around the world. You do not need a gun culture for a nation to intervene. All you need is a professional army that is answerable only to the government and an interventionist minded government. The French has remained very interventionist to this day in their former African colonies as they have the perfect interventionist force, the French Foreign Legion. Composed of foreigners, there are no political consequences if the Legion takes huge casualties.

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