A recent exchange about gun statistics illustrates the failure of libertarianism to base political freedom on anything other than personal or cultural opinion.

In a recent blog post, Bryan Caplan, a libertarian anarchist and an economist at George Mason University (GMU), discusses a recent study linking gun ownership to suicide rates.

In that study, Justin Briggs and Alex Tabarrok (both of GMU) find:

Using a variety of techniques and data we estimate that a 1 percentage point increase in the household gun ownership rate leads to a .5 to .9% increase in suicides.

The researchers claim to have factored in the ability of people to substitute other methods of killing themselves. Whether they have adequately accounted for the fact that people serious about committing suicide (as opposed to making a “cry for help” or the like) tend to acquire guns for the purpose—as opposed to cutting themselves, taking pills, or doing other things less likely to result in death—I do not know.

As Caplan explains, a writer for Think Progress seized on the results to argue for more restrictive gun laws.

How, in light of this, does Caplan attempt to defend gun ownership? He pursues two lines of argument, one based on utilitarianism—the theory that the proper moral standard is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”—the other on subjectivism—the idea that moral truths are matters or personal opinion or social convention.

Caplan’s utilitarian argument runs as follows:

[T]he Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that depriving 3,100,000 people of their guns (a 1 percentage-point decrease in the gun ownership rate) would save about 200-360 lives. . . . In ratio form, the Briggs-Tabarrok effect says that to prevent a single suicide, 8,600 to 15,500 people—the vast majority of whom are not suicidal—must lose their guns.

Is that a good deal? A standard $7M value of life [!] implies a critical value of gun ownership between $452 and $814 per person per year. If the marginal person's value of gun ownership is less than that, gun deprivation passes the cost-benefit test.

Soak that in. . . .

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