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Tilly: A new nihilism

BY ZACH TILLY | FEBRUARY 22, 2013 5:00 AM

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I believe in nothing (save for what I see in front of me).

Two months after Newtown, I see no new federal gun laws on the books.

I see that Congress has been hemming and hawing around gun violence, talking, arguing, and voting on nothing. I expect nothing to pass; if I’m wrong, I expect that what passes to make no difference.

The life of a gun-control nihilist like me might seem gloomy, but it’s not at all. It’s liberating to set beliefs aside and see only the reality of the situation.

Free from my own biases, I see that the current gun-control debate is a dead end.

Take a look at what has been proposed. The strongest possible outcome is an inevitably porous assault-weapons ban, coupled with universal background checks and a limit on magazine capacity — an impotent policy cocktail.

See, right now there are far more guns than grownups in the United States, and those existing guns aren’t going away. The most durable of goods, well-maintained guns have a virtually indefinite shelf life. We’re going to be saturated in guns forever, make no mistake about this.

To make matters worse, almost all gun crime is committed with a handgun or a shotgun — neither type of weapon would be affected by the proposed ban. (By the way, thanks to a few 5-4 decisions by the Roberts Court, handgun bans are unconstitutional.)

We might as well chalk this one up as a failure and take on a problem that we’re better equipped to solve.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree in principle with gun bans and background checks and all of that.

There’s far too much gun violence, too many dead people. I think, as matter of fact, that we’d be better off as a society if there were no guns at all.

But given the negligible upside of the proposals on the table and the sheer volume of resources being pumped into this debate, I’m perfectly comfortable saying that I think we should move on.

In an ideal world, we’d have the resources — time, money, attention, and political capital — to solve the gun problem once and for all. But we live in a world defined by its scarce resources, which means that all decision-making is governed, ultimately, by economics.

Simply put, society is better off when we maximize the utility of our resources, worse off when we squander them.

As it stands, we allocate our resources incredibly inefficiently. We squander too much by fighting too many unwinnable fights.

The gun debate is only the most recent example of a policy black hole greedily eating up our precious resources. Consider: We’ve spent more than a trillion dollars trying unsuccessfully to reverse the tide of drugs in the United States. We’ve spent the 40 years since Roe v. Wade in a tug of war over abortion. We’ve fortified our border with more and more money and personnel, but our billions have returned only a craftier breed of border-crossers, a bigger deficit, and more dead bodies.

What we need is a new nihilism. We need to set aside our beliefs and see the world as it is; we need to dispassionately differentiate between the potential victories from the black holes.

The new nihilist recognizes that in the two months we’ve wasted on gun control, we could have been pushing for, say, stricter punishments for drunk drivers that would ultimately save far more lives than an assault-weapons ban.

Apply this same line of thinking to policymaking at the broadest level, and suddenly, we’ve got a government that’s working smarter, not harder, and solving a lot more problems.

Instead of fighting an impossibly unproductive ideological battle over federal deficit spending, we’d modify Medicare, Social Security, and the tax code. We’d also invest more in infrastructure and research while borrowing costs are low.

Instead of wasting time bickering about our beliefs about abortion, we’d be investing in better sexual health care and childcare — policies proven to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

We’ve got lots of problems and even more beliefs about how to attack them. Before we take care of the former, we’ll have to deal with the latter.


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