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The following is an (edited) exchange that occurred on a thread following a Facebook wall post of a video of a woman whose parents were shot to death by an attacker, supposedly as a direct result of her inability to carry a handgun herself, testifying to Congress against gun regulations years ago. The original poster and most participants on the thread were congratulatory of the oration and convinced that it was a compelling argument against gun regulation. (I will give Jim -whose last name I deleted out of respect for privacy- kudos for his civility in the discussion, something I should have done in the course of that discussion.)

Steve Harvey: This is the perennial problem with your entire ideology, and not just as it relates to this issue: You don’t understand the effects of different levels of analysis (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems), or the different applications and relative weights of anecdotal versus statistical evidence. Let’s take the latter issue first.

Using anecdotal evidence similar to that presented in this video, I can argue against public service messages encouraging the use of seatbelts because I can relate an incident in which it was the wearing of a seatbelt rather than the failure to which led to a passenger’s death in a crash. It has happened, and the story can be told, hundreds of times in fact.

But the statistical fact is that it is far, far more likely that not wearing a seatbelt will lead to a death that would not have occurred had the seatbelt been worn. Just as, statistically, legally obtained, privately owned firearms are many, many times more likely to be used in EACH of the following: suicide, accidental or mistaken shooting, felony, crime of passion, escalation of an altercation resulting in the death or injury of an innocent person, provocation of an armed assailant who would not otherwise have fired on and injured or killed the victim.

In cross-national comparisons, there is a clear correlation between rates of deadly violence and laxity of gun regulations. Your ideology is based on the belief that the height of human civilization is a state of mutual universal threat of deadly violence, an approach which has defined many historical milieus, and has always resulted in higher rates of deadly violence than centralized pacification of force. Examples are international relations (endemic warfare), 19th century Appalachia (endemic feuding), and Somalia today. You argue the virtues of a primitive and violent approach to civilization that all history and all reason militate against.

And then you’re smug when you abuse anecdotal evidence, as it is so often and so easily abused, in the pretense that it is an actual argument supporting your position. Either get a clue, or learn how to defer to those who have one. Most Americans are sick and tired of being burdened with the insistence of irrational, fact-allergic fanatics that we live in an insanely violent nation, far more violent than any other developed nation. Most Americans believe that it is unnecessary, that we can do better, and that we owe it to the innocent victims and their survivors of our off-the-charts rates of deadly violence to address the problem in all of its dimensions, becoming a rational and humane people at last, like the rest of the developed world.

Those who insist that we must not include gun regulations in the mix of how to address this problem have the blood of innocent victims on their hands, including the blood of those 20 small children in Newtown. And if that is where your priorities lie, then shame on you. Shame on you.

Jim: Hello, Steve. You make a very good argument. Having said that, I ask you. Picture this, you, your wife and your children have just walked out of a very nice restaurant, headed towards your car, when you see this thug headed straight for you at a fast pace. He flashes a pistol as he approaches, in a moment you realize he means to cause harm to you and your family. Now I ask you: Would you rather have the opportunity to defend yourself and family with that .380 auto you have tucked in your waistband or would you rather defend yourself by spouting off the more “civilized” approach of explaining to him why you don’t carry a gun? I personally, lead a very peaceful life, but I am not naive enough to not realize that when I am met with force, that I must be prepared to answer it with force. Particularly when it comes to defending what’s dear to my heart. I wish you well. -Jim

Steve Harvey: Again, Jim, you want to reduce an issue of social policy to a carefully selected scenario that scrubs out most of the relevant contextual information. If we can implement policies that reduce the likelihood of my family being placed in such danger, that is preferable to a policy which increases the likelihood but arms me to deal with it, the latter resulting in a far higher rate of violent death than the former.

It’s like asking, “But Steve, if there were a nuclear missile heading toward Denver, wouldn’t you want to have your finger on the trigger of a ballistic missile that might be able to detonate it before it reaches any population center? So, therefore, don’t you think that everyone should have personal access to nuclear armed warheads?” No, I don’t.

Jim: Well, you make a very good point. Except. In the real world. The world that is today’s world, I believe that my scenario is very realistic. I don’t think that it in any way promotes violence when law abiding people choose to carry a weapon for protection. The pacifistic approach that I am getting from you is sad. Stand up for your rights. Think on this, when an atheist is faced with certain death…he’ll pray to God. When some thug kicks in the door to your home, you’re going to call the police…someone who has a gun. Then of course you too will be praying that they get there in time to protect you! Now that, Steve, is what today’s world is about. -Jim

Steve Harvey: What you think isn’t as important as what the evidence indicates. In a comparison of developed nations, we have both by far more lax gun regulations than almost all others (Switzerland and Canada provide more complex possible exceptions, though it depends on how you look at the nature of the regulations), and by far higher rates of deadly violence (2 to 11 times the homicide rate of every other developed nation on Earth, with the average tending toward the higher end of that range). Your policy increases the threat to all of us and increases the rate of accidental and mistaken shootings (as well criminal uses of firearms) far more than it increases the rate at which people successfully defend themselves against such attacks. Facts are an inconvenient thing for ideologues, but our public policies should be based on facts, not arbitrary fabrications that serve a blind ideology. I have no interest in your caricature of reality; I’m interested in rational and humane self-governance.

Again, I refer you to the essay I linked to above (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). It addresses all of your points, and does so very decisively. I am standing up for my rights: My right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, of which I can be deprived not just by a government, but also by a government’s failure to exercise its Constitutionally defined police powers. Your policy increases rather than decreases the threat to my, and my daughter’s, life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Therefore I stand up against it, with great passion and conviction, not as a pacifist, but as a rational and humane person who looks at the evidence and bases his positions on it.

In making arguments, there are three dimensions to be attended to: Logos, pathos, and ethos. What is the most logical position? What position appeals to the emotions? And what position is most humane and right? When you can align all three of those, you have a good argument. When you use one to obfuscate failure on the other two (and especially when you use any to undermine logos), you have a very bad and very counterproductive argument.

Logos: Cross-national statistical evidence strongly demonstrates that more stringent gun regulation leads to reductions in deadly violence. (Intranational evidence has to take into account an unobstructed internal market, and the ease with which arms bought in one location are transported to another within a country, looking at where arms are bought as well as where they are used.)

Pathos: 20 dead first graders; major mass shootings occurring with increasing, troubling frequency; the horror of violent death and the loss of loved ones.

Ethos: We should not strive to achieve some sort of balance of violent supposedly “good guys” (like the one who shot an unarmed black teen walking home from the store) and violent “bad guys,” but rather a reduction in deadly violence, in the notion that deadly violence is the answer, and the accessibility of the means of deadly violence.

It’s time for more “real Americans” to be rational and humane people, because that’s the “real America” that most of us want to live in.

Jim: Let me ask you, do you think that more stringent gun control will take guns out of the hands of criminals? That’s a very naive thought. Secondly, it seems that you have already decided the case with Treyvon Martin. Witnesses have already stated that he was on top of George Zimmerman beating the hell out of him. Self-defense? The courts will decide. Basically, you are a pacifist. Although you do make a good argument, I can find just as many well written and articulate arguments that would negate your statements. Basically, what it comes down to is that as an individual you make a conscience decision to either exercise your right to protect yourself or depend on others to do that for you. AKA. Government. I, and many others like me don’t want to depend on our government to take care of our needs. Personally, history shows, they do a lousy job of it! Obviously, Steve, you have made your decision, and I have certainly made mine. -Jim

Steve Harvey: Jim, let’s start with Trayvon Martin. Actually, all I did was state an undisputed fact, which you find inconvenient enough to confuse with anything under contention. There is no dispute over the fact that Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed teen walking home from the store. That simple fact makes the incident sound as bad as it is, whether self-defense was involved or not, because the fact is that there would never have been any need for Zimmerman to defend himself had he not instigated the encounter in his quest to assertively find people to “defend” himself against.

The courts will decide if it was self-defense at the moment it occurred, not if the need for self-defense was created by the orientation and philosophy you are now advocating, which is clearly the case. If Zimmerman had never pursued that unarmed kid walking home from the store, creating an altercation that would not otherwise have occurred, Zimmerman would never have needed to defend himself from that kid.

it’s a bizarre and horrifying ideology that says it’s okay to go out with a gun and pursue an unarmed kid who you assume might be a threat (possibly affected by racial prejudice), and then defend yourself with deadly force when that unarmed kid defends himself against you, the armed pursuer, but that the kid had no right to be concerned about being pursued in the first place! The bottom line is, the shooting death of that unarmed teen walking home from the store never would have occurred had Zimmerman not been out assertively seeking people to defend himself against. The fact that the shooting death of an unarmed black teen walking home from the store does not trouble you is part of the horror many of us feel at the resurgence of your disgusting ideology.

And that is exactly the point. Your ideology increases the rate of violence, by being committed to violence in such a deep and pathological way. People eager to go out and defend themselves against threats end up being intentional or unintentional instigators of violence, as Zimmerman was, without a doubt, in that case. Your ideology creates or increases the violence it purports to defend against.

The mass shootings are frequently committed by mentally unstable people who otherwise are not “criminals.” They acquire their weapons legally, or from someone they know who acquired them legally, and would not have been well equipped to acquire them illegally, which is a function of having the connections and criminal knowledge necessary.

Furthermore, weapons aren’t dangerous to innocent people only in the hands of “criminals.” Accidental shootings, mistaken shootings, suicides, crimes of passion (by otherwise law abiding people), escalations of violence in an altercation or home invasion (a home owner confronting an intruder with a weapon is four times more likely to be shot and killed than other home owners in a home invasion scenario), are all far, far more common than the successful use of a firearm in defense of person or property. The price the rest of us pay for your illusion of increased safety is the reality of increased danger to ourselves and our children.

The Zimmerman-Martin incident demonstrates that innocent people have as much to fear from the so-called “good guys” as from the “bad guys.” That’s because we all have much to fear from violent people who are primitive enough to believe that violence is the best and highest possible solution to violence. Most of us know that that’s absurd, and most of us don’t want to live in that kind of a primitive, archaic world.

Furthermore, no one is arguing for a gun ban. We are only arguing for reasonable regulations on military grade arms and accessories, whose sole purpose is to maximize the carnage done to human beings in mass slaughters. And you folks are so insane that you try to prevent that discussion from happening by skipping straight to the straw man argument that you have a right to guns no one is taking away from you.

As for my supposed “naiveté”: Since every single other developed nation on Earth has managed to accomplish what you claim we can’t, and since there are in fact ways of doing it (control the manufacture and distribution of bullets, for instance, without which the weapons are just very awkward and unwieldy clubs), the answer to your question is: Of course we can reduce the ease of accessibility of arms and accessories. There’s no doubt about it.

You address my arguments by claiming that there are just as good ones supporting your view, though you can’t provide them. That’s a backdoor attempt to raise irrationality to a par with reason, by refuting reason through the claim that reason is no better than its absence, since any position, in your view, can be argued rationally. In the real world, that’s not the case; some arguments are better than others, and that’s why people who use fact and reason professionally overwhelmingly reject your ideology, which generally runs counter to fact and reason. (It’s one incarnation of a right-wing two-step I’ve often seen: Rely on the relativistic claim that all opinions are equal to insulate yours from fact and reason, and then in another context claim that yours is irrefutable truth, because to think otherwise would be to commit the error of relativism!)

In fact, your ideology has identified and dismissed precisely those professions that use disciplined methodologies to gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information as bastions of liberalism, never pausing to ask why it might be so that precisely those professions that systematically gather, verify, analyze, and contemplate information would be bastions of liberalism, and what lesson that fact might hold for you.

Again, I’ve addressed all of your points in the essay I linked to (Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture). Every single one of them. And just repeating debunked arguments doesn’t make them any stronger, or any less debunked. You make very clear which of the two narratives I describe you are committed to, and I make very clear why and how it imposes tragic costs on all of us.

Jim: Now that was a mouthful! Steve, while you command a mastery over the English language, all I can hear is, blah, blah, Liberal, blah, blah, BS. It’s not for lack of intelligence. You just simply believe you’re right-I believe I am. I think our President is hell bent on making people dependent of Government. You believe he is the anointed one. I see him hell bent on destroying America and systematically taking away our rights. You think “it’s all good”. I hope the evil lurking in the shadows never makes itself known to you…you will not be prepared to meet it. -Jim

Steve Harvey: All you hear is “blah blah blah blah” because I’m making actual arguments, citing actual statistics, and applying actual reason to them, and that, to you, is anathema. Your response is devoid of fact, devoid of any reasoned argument of any kind, filled with irrelevant noise (we weren’t discussing, and I made no comment about, our respective opinions of the current president, for instance), and regresses to a mere series of sounds signifying your blind ideological conviction. And THAT is both the difference between us, and the defining distinction in the political divide in America today: Irrationality in service to primitive, tribalistic impulses, v. reason in service to humanity. (See Un-Jamming the Signal.)

You want to reduce public discourse to a competition of arbitrary opinions, treating evidence and reason as irrelevant. (In this case, in fact, both reason and the majority of Americans are up against an inhumane and irrational position backed by a powerful, predatory industry and its organizational lobbyist: The gun industry and the NRA). I want us to govern ourselves as rational and humane people doing the best we can in a complex and subtle world.

I’m not unaware of the world’s dangers: I was an enlisted soldier in the Army infantry, have traveled all over the world and lived in some hot spots, did urban outreach work with heroin addicts, have taught in tough inner-city high schools, have done nonprofit work inside detention centers, and taught, among other things, college criminology classes. I know about the world, but that knowledge simply doesn’t lead to your conclusion that the ubiquitous mutual threat and availability of deadly violence is good for society. In fact, it strongly militates against that conclusion, which is why law enforcement officials overwhelmingly disagree with you.

The most dangerous and ubiquitous of evils in America is not lurking in the shadows, and it has once again just made itself known to me. I will continue to meet it, prepared, as I am, with knowledge, comprehension, and a commitment to humanity.

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Given my frequent reference to collective action problems (and time horizon problems), along with the endemic levels-of-analysis error committed by right-wing ideologues who insist that individual volition (as opposed to social contracts) should be relied on to produce all public goods, I thought it would be a good idea to have one post to refer to which explains them and their relevance simply and clearly.

Collective action problems are those situations in which a group of people have some public good which they can produce together, or which they must maintain together. Each individual contribution to its production or maintenance costs only the individual making it, but benefits every member of the relevant public.  It is often the case that by a strictly self-interested individual calculation, the costs to the individual of contributing to the public good outweigh the benefits to that individual, though the benefits to the group (and thus to all individuals in it) outweigh the costs to the group (and thus to all individuals in it). (Put another way, the total benefits of each contribution outweigh the total costs, but since the individual bears the entire cost and receives only a fraction of the benefit, the costs to the contributor of contributing outweigh the benefits to the contributor).

The classic mathematical formulation of the problem is “the prisoners dilemma” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner’s_dilemma). In short, the scenario involves two partners in crime arrested and held in separate interrogation rooms. Each is offered a deal if he turns in the other. Since neither knows what the other will do, they each have to ask themselves what is the best choice for each possibility. If A doesn’t turn B in, then it is in B’s best interest to turn A in, and if A does turn B in, it is still in B’s best interest to turn A in. According to rational self-interest, B’s most logical choice is to turn A in. A faces exactly the same logic. They both turn each other in. But, if they had been able to coordinate their choice, and commit one another to it, they would have both been better off not turning one another in.

There are other classic formulations as well, such as Garrett Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragedy_of_the_commons), and “the free rider problem” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_rider_problem).

When I was a high school social studies teacher, I taught my students about collective action problems using the following exercise: Using “classroom currency points” (ccps), I made the following offer to my thirty-or-so students: For each that chooses to pay me 10 ccps, I will give each and every person in the group 1 ccp, regardless of whether they chose to pay the 10 ccps or not. To avoid discussing any complexities at this point, let’s say that the decision is made in secret, no member of the group ever knows what any other individual member chose to do, and all members agree that their only goal in this exercise is to maximize their own individual wealth (the latter being, in practice, what students did). If each individual acts in his or her own rational self-interest, since there is a net cost of 9 ccps to accepting the offer (pay ten and get one back in return, along with everyone else), no one would choose to do so. However, if everyone does accept it, each person is made 20 ccps richer (pay 10, and get one back for each of the 30 students who paid). No matter how many people accept or reject the offer, those who chose not to take it will always be better off than those who chose to take it. In other words, rationally doing what best maximizes one’s own individual wealth (in this scenario) leads to an outcome in which everyone does worse than they would have done had they been able to enforce a cooperative agreement.

Even adding in some of the complexities I left out, communication without any mutually enforceable commitment mechanism doesn’t solve the problem, since each can assure the others that he or she will cooperate but then not actually do so, benefiting from others’ cooperation while not contributing him-or-herself as a result. Some enforcement mechanisms are informal, such as the loss of respect and reciprocal goodwill if non-cooperation is found out; and some are internalized, in the form of values and beliefs in which one feels shame at neglecting to do “the right thing,” and pride at doing the right thing. These are all aspects of the human and social institutional landscape, and all relevant factors in a complete analysis.

Returning to the basic model, it is not hypocritical, for instance, for someone to both support a higher carbon tax and yet not unilaterally pay to the government the amount they think it should be (though calling it “hypocritical” can act as an informal enforcement mechanism in some situations). The carbon tax is based on the calculation that we are all better off in the long run by paying it (and by having our carbon emissions affected by having to pay it), but the choice not to do so unilaterally is based on the calculation that the costs are borne by that individual only, in exchange for a very slight marginal decrease in carbon emissions. Even simply “driving less” faces the same logic: it inconveniences the individual, but does not fundamentally address the problem that is a function of widespread rather than isolated individual behaviors.

The lack of recognition of the difference between advocating for a social policy which incentivizes people to act in a certain way, and choosing to unilaterally act in that way, is an example of a “levels of analysis error,” analyzing social issues as if they can best be understood on the individual level of analysis. This error permeates Libertarian/Tea Party ideology, which doesn’t recognize the existence of public goods, and therefore of collective action problems.

Time horizon problems are similar to, and interactive with, collective action problems. A time horizon problem involves the fact that we quite reasonably value that which will be enjoyed or suffered closer to the present than that which will be enjoyed or suffered farther in the future. One psychological reason is that we cannot be certain that we will survive into that future, so delaying gratification risks never enjoying it, in proportion to how far into the future it is postponed, while delaying something unpleasant means possibly never having to suffer it, in proportion to how far into the future it is postponed. More generally, the present is visceral and certain, while the future is abstract and uncertain. This is why children have to learn to delay gratification, and most adults never get as good at it as would behoove them to be (though some overshoot the mark).

Collective action problems and time horizon problems combine in many instances to create a mutually reinforcing obstacle to widespread cooperation for mutual benefit. The classic example is global warming. Global warming is a global phenomenon, with every emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) affecting the whole world equally (in regards to global warming), but the costs borne by each individual, corporation, and nation that engages in GHG emissions reduction. Compounding this massive, multilevel collective action problem is the time horizon problem: The costs of abatement are in the present, while the benefits lie in the future. Uncertainty plays into these obstacles: Convenient distrust of the overwhelming scholarship demonstrating the reality of the problem is easily mobilized in service to not confronting this combined collective action/time horizon problem.

In the real world, collective action and time horizon problems are nested and overlapping, across levels and among various swathes of shared interests, group identities, or social institutional entities. And the ways in which human minds work, embracing frames and narratives rather than, for the most part, the most rational arguments utilizing the most reliable data, combined with our capacities for empathy and selflessness, complicate the systemic dynamics involved further, creating, along with the multilevel and multisector nature of collective action and time horizon problem, both more complexity in the challenges being confronted, and more opportunity for resolution.

Both biological and cultural evolution are driven, to a large extent, by the combination of collective action and time horizon problems (more the former than the latter). As Economist Robert Frank argues in his book Passions Within Reason, emotions evolved in a certain branch of the animal kingdom in order to facilitate cooperation: The costs of angering others, and benefits of earning their heartfelt gratitude incentivize acting cooperatively. However, genetic and memetic selection occur at the individual level, so incentives to cheat also exist. (Cognitive Scientist George Lakoff, in his book The Political Mind, describes how the mind is “hard-wired,” so to speak, with a capacity for empathy, illustrating the neurological correlary to Frank’s thesis).

Social institutions arise and evolve primarily to augment and improve upon this haphazard function of emotions, with contracts and laws and taking the place of trust, and enforcement by the state taking the place of private retaliation. Four distinct modalities combine in various ways in particular social institution to better align individual to collective (and immediate to long-term) interests: Hierarchies, markets, norms, and ideologies. Hierarchies are systems of legitimate authority relying on formally codified and enforced rules. Markets are decentralized systems of multilateral exchange, usually facilitated by some form of currency. Norms are informal rules mutually enforced through decentralized social approval and disapproval. And ideologies are internalized beliefs and values enforced through self-policing and auto-sanctioned by cognitive dissonance (in the form of self-inflicted feelings of guilt or shame). Individual social institutions generally are comprised of some or all of these modalities, usually in combination, developing interdependently both within and across individual social institutions.

A great deal of theory and research, within a great many different disciplines and paradigms, has explicitly and implicitly been devoted to these dynamics. The complexity involved is, of course, far more extensive than I have indicated in this brief overview. But understanding the basics described in this post should be a requisite part of every human education, for it informs the nature of the challenges we face, and of the solutions available, in essential ways.

(See also The Mathematics of Conflict and Cooperation, for more elaboration of this model.)

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