The Rage Against the McArdle

Why does Megan McArdle’s writing draw so much vitriol?

There’s something about Megan McArdle that drives some of my fellow Blue-team pundits crazy. She’s way smarter, way saner, far more nuanced in her thinking, and a much better writer than most of her Red-team colleagues. She doesn’t fawn on the rich or despise the poor. Her ideas about how to deal with failure fit no ideological mold, and imply policy positions that won’t make her any friends at Cato. But the Rage Against the McArdle seems to run deep in Left Blogistan.

The latest instance is the reaction to her column on Sandy Hook, which reviews a bunch of ideas about preventing spree killings and decides that most of them wouldn’t be worth much. That doesn’t keep her from endorsing a ban on high-capacity clips and extending the background-check rules to cover private sales; it isn’t as if her column is carrying water for the NRA.

The piece starts with a meditation on how different spree-killing is from ordinary crime. It ends:

A law would make us feel better, because it would make us feel as if we’d “done something”, as if we’d made it less likely that more children would die. But I think that would be false security. And false security is more dangerous than none.

My guess is that we’re going to get a law anyway, and my hope is that it will consist of small measures that might have some tiny actual effect, like restrictions on magazine capacity. I’d also like us to encourage people to gang rush shooters, rather than following their instincts to hide; if we drilled it into young people that the correct thing to do is for everyone to instantly run at the guy with the gun, these sorts of mass shootings would be less deadly, because even a guy with a very powerful weapon can be brought down by 8-12 unarmed bodies piling on him at once. Would it work? Would people do it? I have no idea; all I can say is that both these things would be more effective than banning rifles with pistol grips.

But I doubt we’re going to tell people to gang rush mass shooters, because that would involve admitting that there is no mental health service or “reasonable gun control” which is going to prevent all of these attacks. Which is to say, admitting that we have no box big enough to completely contain evil.

McArdle isn’t – doesn’t pretend to be – an expert on gun policy or crime policy generally, and her piece does have one howler: the problem with gun flows across the U.S.-Mexican border is southbound, not northbound. (If we got bettec control over our gun markets, we might save some lives in Mexico; there’s some evidence that repealing the assault weapons ban increased the bloodshed in some Mexican cities).

Overall, though, her essay is one of the more sensible pieces of writing about Sandy Hook. What she says about encouraging victims to attack rather than hiding is, as far as I can tell, correct: it would save lives if you could get people to do it – by contrast with lots of the non-starter ideas now being seriously discussed, such as making it easier to lock weird people up in mental hospitals – but it would be hard-to-impossible to foster that sort of socially desirable but individually self-sacrificing behavior.

As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, the idea of fighting back is already embodied in various official documents, without – as Goldberg doesn’t note – the key coordination point McArdle makes; you don’t want one person charging a shooter, you want a crowd big enough to overwhelm him. Individuals acted heroically at Sandy Hook; what was missing was the concerted action that might have made their self-sacrifice efficacious. I’m agnostic-to-not-very-hopeful about the feasibility of encouraging such concerted action, but it’s not obviously silly.

Still, the post sent Jonathan Chait at New York into a frenzy of denunciation. He starts: “In what can only be seen as a malicious plot by Newsweek’s editors to ensure Megan McArdle’s reputation does not outlive Newsweek, the Daily Beast has published a 4,000 word essay by its new hire on how to stop massacres like last Friday’s.”

And he concludes:

Are you kidding me? You think gun control is impractical, so your plan is to turn the entire national population, including young children, into a standby suicide squad? Through private initiative, of course. It’s way more feasible than gun control!

McArdle does allow that such behavior runs contrary to instinct. Well, yes. Teaching even fairly aggressive young boys who are learning football to avoid their self-preservation instinct and crash into their opponent full speed rather than shying away from contact usually takes rigorous, lengthy training. This is when they’re wearing a helmet and full-body padding and going up against a kid their age. Trying to get them to fling their bodies into danger in a situation where they’re in shock, have no protection, and are facing an adult with a gun rather than a kid with a football is beyond impossible.

Unless I am missing a very subtle parody of libertarianism, McArdle’s plan to teach children to launch banzai charges against mass murderers is the single worst solution to any problem I have ever seen offered in a major publication. Newsweek, I award this essay no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Notice that the “standby suicide squad” and “plan to teach children to launch banzai charges” are entirely in Chait’s fevered imagination. Nor does McArdle pose the idea as a “solution” to the problem.

Brad DeLong then linked approvingly to Chait’s column, and David Wagner at Atlantic Wire listed McArdle’s piece among the “50 Worst Columns of 2012” without even attempting to refute her point.

So color me puzzled. I count McArdle as a friend, so my puzzlement isn’t entirely impersonal – and my conflict of interest in that regard slowed me down when I first thought of responding to Chait’s screed – but I think it’s objectively justified.

Update McArdle responds to Chait.

A commenter calls out a point I should have made: McArdle’s proposal is about unarmed collective self-defense, cutting against the grain of the NRA line that only guns can respond to guns.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

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