Tyler Cowen is a very smart economist, so I take the ideas he proposes very seriously. On Wednesday he offered up a lulu of a hypothesis. He suggests the facts that Americans own 43 percent of all the civilian guns in the world and that the United States is responsible for roughly 35 percent of the global defense expenditures are intrinsically and logically related. Or, in his own words:

[I]f America is going to be the world’s policeman, on some scale or another, that has to be backed by a supportive culture among the citizenry. And that culture is not going to be “Hans Morgenthau’s foreign policy realism,” or “George Kennan’s Letter X,” or even Clausewitz’s treatise On War.  Believe it or not, those are too intellectual for the American public.  And so it must be backed by…a fairly martial culture amongst the American citizenry.  And that probably will mean a fairly high level of gun ownership and a fairly high degree of skepticism about gun control.
If you think America can sustain its foreign policy interventionism, or threat of such, without a fairly martial culture at home, by all means make your case.  But I am skeptical. I think it is far more likely that if you brought about gun control, and the cultural preconditions for successful gun control, America’s world role would fundamentally change and America’s would no longer play a global policeman role, for better or worse.

Could Cowen’s hypothesis be correct? No, I don’t think so, for a couple of reasons. The biggest problem with Cowen’s hypothesis is a category error. There’s a difference between Americans owning such a large share of the world’s guns and lots of Americans being enthusiastic about owning guns. What appears to be happening, in fact, is that a smaller and smaller percentage of American households own a gun:

So what’s happening is that a smaller percentage of Americans are buying a hellalot more guns — which, as my Post colleague Philip Bump noted earlier this year, is strongly correlated with the election of Barack Obama as president.

It’s not hard to discern what’s going on here: Gun enthusiasts have bought into the NRA’s argument that everything is going to hell and one should best be armed before the zombie apocalypse comes. That’s an exaggeration — but not much of one.


Beyond that hard core of enthusiasts, however, Americans have actually grown less enchanted with owning a gun. Which kinda contradicts Cowen’s entire hypothesis that the only logically sustainable worldview is being pro-unregulated guns at home and pro-intervention abroad.

But that’s only the start. There are also a few other factors to consider:

  1. U.S. attitudes toward overseas intervention have fluctuated too much for domestic attitudes toward guns to explain. American attitudes have been decidedly less interventionist in the 1970s, the 1990s, and just a year or two ago. This doesn’t correlate well with the American share of global military expenditures.  Instead, it would appear that U.S. attitudes about America’s role in the world can largely be explained by a) events, my dear boy, events; and b) relative American power. Almost like Americans are realists, actually.
  2. The healthy fraction of immigrants — who presumably are not inculcated in, say, the martial culture of the American South — who serve in America’s armed forces.
  3. The fact that there are lot of different ways that one can think about “foreign policy interventionism,” and some of them shouldn’t be correlated with preferences for unregulated private ownership of guns. Indeed, if one posits that liberal internationalism represents the mainstream American foreign policy worldview, then those folks would likely support gun control while also supporting well-trained local and state police forces.

This was just off the top of my head early this AM with only half a cup of coffee in me. I’m betting there are a few more holes in Cowen’s logic that I’m missing.

I might be willing to buy a modified version of Cowen’s hypothesis:  The fraction of Americans who are super keen on buying guns are probably more likely to be Jacksonians when it comes to American foreign policy: aggressive, willing to unilaterally intervene abroad. But as Walter Russell Mead — who coined this term — notes in his excellent book “Special Providence,” there are three other strands of foreign policy thought that have a long tradition in American history, as well.

So to sum up: Cowen is focusing on the wrong metric; even if he was focusing on the right metric there’s no relationship between gun ownership and attitudes about foreign intervention, and, hey, there are a lot of ways one can think about foreign intervention. So I’m not sold on his hypothesis.