THE SPECIFIC controversial issues we fight about often reflect more general differences in our underlying assumptions. This was apparent in a letter from a reader named Herbert Simon, who wrote to the Times-Leader, a newspaper in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, protesting my position on gun control. But the implications reach far beyond gun control and may shed light on many other issues.
Mr. Simon referred to "the equanimity with which Sowell accepts the number of gun deaths in the U.S." But it is not up to me to accept or reject any number of deaths of innocent people. If it were, I would accept none.
In the real world, however, we have to make our choices among the alternatives actually available. Tragically, those alternatives do not include zero deaths of innocent people.
What are the alternatives when we are talking about guns? Having guns in millions of homes means that somebody, somewhere, is going to needlessly kill somebody, perhaps himself. But studies also show that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens reduce violence, including murders. In making our choices, we have to consider which way will fewer innocent people die.
Sadly, many people who cry out for gun control have never even considered such facts or weighed the tragic alternatives. Moreover, mindless emotional reactions are not confined to gun control controversies. All too often, one particular evil is dealt with in isolation and laws are advocated or passed to stamp out that particular evil, without the slightest consideration of what other evils will be made worse in the process.
If the problem is poverty, then such things as minimum wage laws and rent control laws are advocated to help the poor. These laws do in fact help particular poor people -- and hurt many other poor people. But those who are looking for "solutions" do not even want to think about trade-offs.
Economists who have studied the actual over-all effects of minimum wage laws and rent control laws have usually found that the poor are worse off, on net balance, as a result of such laws. Higher unemployment rates are one of the bad consequences of minimum wage laws, while housing shortages have followed rent control as surely as night follows day -- all around the world.
Most advocates of minimum wage laws and rent control laws do not even ask the question whether such laws have any down side. And you certainly cannot get an answer unless you first ask the question. The same is true of gun control and many other issues.