Joyce Malcolm on the London Riots, the Right of Self Defense, and the Abandonment of the Right to Keep and Bear Arms

August 15th, 2011

Must read from Joyce Malcolm, one of my favorite GMU profs, in WSJ about the failure of the UK.

As wild gangs of youths burned homes, shops and cars and severely beat anyone who tried to stop them last week, English people tried to defend themselves. Their desperation triggered a 5,000% increase in purchases of baseball bats from Amazon.

This is a sad symbol of the failure of the British approach to crime—with its sympathy for offenders, intolerance of self-defense, and unwillingness to pay for adequate crime control. A people once proud of their peaceful country and unarmed policemen had to resort to clubs to protect life and limb.

Great Britain’s leniency began in the 1950s, with a policy that only under extraordinary circumstances would anyone under 17 be sent to prison. This was meant to rehabilitate young offenders. But the alternative to incarceration has been simply to warn them to behave, maybe require community service, and return them to the streets. There has been justifiable concern about causes of crime such as poverty and unemployment, but little admission that some individuals prefer theft to work and that deterrence must be taken seriously.

Victims of aggression who defend themselves or attempt to protect their property have been shown no such leniency. Burglars who injured themselves breaking into houses have successfully sued homeowners for damages. In February, police in Surrey told gardeners not to put wire mesh on the windows of their garden sheds as burglars might hurt themselves when they break in. . . .

The lesson from many years of failed criminal justice policies is that deterrence matters, police cannot always protect the public from violence and criminality, and ordinary people must be allowed to protect themselves. Reducing them to baseball bats is unconscionable.

Also in today’s WSJ is a book review by another GMU Prof, the brilliant Bryan Caplan.

In recent years, economists and psychologists have joined forces to unravel the secrets of human happiness. “The Happiness Equation” is one researcher’s attempt to share his field’s discoveries with a broad audience. Nick Powdthavee, an economist at the University of York, deftly explains the main determinants of happiness: the small effect of money, the great effect of marriage and friends, the massive effect of personality. Even extremely good news (such as winning the lottery) and extremely bad news (such as losing a spouse) rarely changes an individual’s happiness for more than a couple of years. Mr. Powdthavee also explores the effect of happiness on success: Happiness today predicts higher job performance, better relationships and more years of health in the future.

One problem with studying what makes people happy, though, is that you can’t just ask them. Mr. Powdthavee unmasks the role of “focusing illusions”: Thinking about something’s expected effect on our happiness makes us overrate it. If you specifically ask people whether more money would make their life happier, he explains, most would say yes—on the assumption that they would spend the money doing things they like, “such as driving nice cars, watching a big-screen TV, or playing golf.” But in fact, richer people don’t change their activities very much and even tend to be slightly more stressed.

In his discussions of money, Mr. Powdthavee puts special emphasis on relative income. People don’t care only about the numbers on their paychecks, he writes; their happiness also depends on whether they make more or less money than their peers. Yet Mr. Powdthavee’s explanation of the income-happiness connection is both misleading and confusing.

He suggests that large differences in relative income can have a large influence on happiness, basing this claim on Richard Easterlin’s atypical, somewhat dated finding that the richest Americans are twice as likely to be “very happy” as the poorest. Yet he buries the standard, lower estimates after a long discussion of statistical methods that only an expert could understand, and he relegates to an endnote the powerful international evidence against the importance of relative income that has been gathered by Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson. While absolute poverty can have a powerful negative affect on happiness, in First World countries there is little connection between either absolute or relative income and happiness.