I wrote last week about More Guns, Less Crime. That was the theory, let’s talk about the rhetoric.
Public debates have the tendency to focus on a single dimension of an issue with both sides putting all their weight behind arguments on that single front. In the utilitarian debate about the right to carry concealed weapons, the focus is on More Guns, Less Crime. As I tried to argue before, I expect that this will be a lost cause for gun control advocates. There just isn’t much theoretical reason why liberalized gun carry laws should increase crime. And when this debate is settled, it will be a victory for gun advocates and it will lead to a discrete drop in momentum for gun control (that may have already happened.)
And that will be true despite the fact that the real underlying issue is not whether you can reduce crime (after all there are plenty of ways to do that,) but at what cost. And once the main front is lost, it will be too late for fresh arguments about externalities to have much force in public opinion. Indeed, for gun advocates the debate could not be more fortuitously framed if the agenda were set by a skilled debater. A skilled debater knows the rhetorical value of getting your opponent to mount a defense and thereby implicitly cede the importance of a point, and then overwhelming his argument on that point.
Why do debates on inherently multi-dimensional issues tend to align themselves so neatly on one axis? And given that they do, why does the side that’s going to lose on those grounds play along? I have a theory.
Debate is not about convincing your opponent but about mobilizing the spectators. And convincing the spectators is neither necessary nor sufficient for gaining momentum in public opinion. To convince is to bring others to your side. To mobilize is to give your supporters reason to keep putting energy into the debate.
The incentive to be active in the debate is multiplied when the action of your supporters is coordinated and when the coordination among opposition is disrupted. Coordinated action is fueled not by knowledge that you are winning the debate but by common knowledge that you are winning the debate. If gun control advocates watch the news after the latest mass killing and see that nobody is seriously representing their views, they will infer they are in the minority and give up the fight even if in fact they are in the majority.
Common knowledge is produced when a publicly observable bright line is passed. Once that single dimension takes hold in the public debate it becomes the bright line: When the dust is settled it will be common knowledge who won. A second round is highly unlikely because the winning side will be galvanized and the losing side demoralized. Sure there will be many people, maybe even most, who know that this particular issue is of secondary importance but that will not be common knowledge. So the only thing to do is to mount your best offense on that single dimension and hope for a miracle or at least to confuse the issue.
(Real research idea for the vapor mill. Conjecture: When x and y are random variables it is “easier” to generate common knowledge that x>0 than to generate common knowledge that x>y.)