Freedom isn't free, the old saying goes. But once obtained, freedom need not be exorbitantly expensive to maintain, either. Americans, nonetheless, have a long-standing habit of paying more than necessary for the liberties we value.
The latest manifestation of this pay-any-price mentality is the horrifying massacre in Newtown, Conn., with 20 kids and 6 adults dead, plus the alleged shooter, Adam Lanza. What turned Lanza's grievances, whatever they were, into a massacre were three highly efficient firearms that allowed him to rapidly squeeze off more than 100 rounds inside two elementary school classrooms. There are few places in the developed world where a determined killer can wield as much lethality as in America, a vicious peculiarity of our culture that led a misty-eyed President Obama to say, "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years. ... We're going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this."
The notion that we might somehow reduce such revolting bloodshed may provide a bit of marginal comfort, yet anybody who follows gun-control efforts knows that virtually nothing changes after rampages like the one in Newtown. At some cultural level, we deem occasional carnage a price worth paying for the right to defend ourselves. And it's not the only matter on which Americans tolerate high costs for liberties that the citizens of other democratic nations would never pay so much for.
The nation's founding, of course, stemmed from a legitimate distrust of authority and a degree of rebelliousness deemed criminal by those in charge at the time. In the 1800s, Americans repeatedly beat back the types of centralized institutions favored by Alexander Hamilton, which probably would have enhanced prosperity and made life better for most citizens. Andrew Jackson famously dissolved the second Bank of the United States in 1836, for instance, backed by populist fervor against fat-cat Eastern bankers. That promptly led to the panic of 1837, a wrenching depression that cost many landowners their property and for sheer misery rivaled the Great Depression of the 1930s.
During the Civil War, the Confederacy was so determined to have no centralized authority that its constitution forbade the government from spending money to help promote commerce, as Michael Lind points out in his book, Land of Promise. This retrograde policy made the South more vulnerable than necessary, persisted for decades after the war and even today helps explain why southern states tend to be the nation's poorest.
Efforts to build an interstate highway system first got underway around 1919, yet intense anti-federal sentiment derailed the project for years. It took a war-hero president, Dwight Eisenhower, to push for a highway system in the 1950s, and only then did we end up with the sort of infrastructure marvel that Germany had started to build 30 years earlier.
In modern times, our ongoing discomfort with federal rules and our insistence upon some modicum of localized control has left us with a patchwork healthcare system in which a given family's care could be covered by an employer, the government, out-of-pocket payments, or nobody. Our state-based system means there's no national driver's license, no common standard for state-based taxes, and no national charter for banks, all of which adds to the inconvenience and confusion of moving from one state to another. Efforts to establish some kind of national industrial policy have failed forever, putting the U.S. economy at a disadvantage against nations such as China and Japan, which set national priorities and then create incentives to help meet them. But we do have something called the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act, a bill meant to protest new government standards that make light bulbs more efficient.
The costs associated with these so-called freedoms are mostly economic. The price we pay for the freedom to obtain and possess firearms is tallied in the human lives lost when those weapons are abused. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are about 31,000 deaths per year in the United States attributed to firearms. About 11,000 of those are intentional killings. The rest are suicides or accidents. Figures published earlier this year in the Guardian show that the gun-homicide rate in the United States is 2.97 per 100,000 people. In Canada, it's 0.51; in Germany, 0.19; in Israel, 0.09; in the U.K., 0.07; and in Japan, 0.01. Some nations, of course, have higher gun-homicide rates. The list of those countries includes the likes of Honduras, Jamaica, Columbia, Mexico, and South Africa.
We know the cost of our liberal gun laws: the dead and injured in Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Blacksburg, and on and on, plus thousands of others whose murders never make the national news. It's less clear what liberties, exactly, we get in return for 31,000 American lives per year. Second-amendment supporters argue, of course, that the right to bear arms helps protect Americans against the kind of tyranny George III practiced against his colonial subjects in the 1700s. A rational question today might be whether there is some way to provide the same protection at a lower cost. If Obama truly wants meaningful action, he might start by asking whether we're paying a fair price for liberty, or whether we can get a better deal.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.