Only Outlaws Will Have Guns

Only Outlaws Will Have Guns

More and more I’ve come to appreciate the aphorism: “if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns” – not as a slogan for gun rights, but as an instance of a much more fundamental insight that non-self-enforcing norms tend to select for increasingly bad outcomes when you can’t guarantee perfect external enforcement.

For example:

There are also instances that, though the lines aren’t so neat that you can fit it into an “only” construction, nevertheless illustrate the same principle that imperfect enforcement can encourage the prohibited behavior and select for worse offenders.


Some of these things are genuine problems. It makes some sense to outlaw drugs if drugs are a major tear in the social fabric, or to raise personal barriers if you’re overwhelmed with people asking you to do things, or to push for disarmament if you’re worried about nuclear war. And “don’t fund unprofitable projects” is a very sensible rule for a bank!

But none of these norms are self-enforcing; they’re all social dilemmas of one sort or another. The more people abide by the rule, the better – at least from the enforcer’s perspective – but also the more you can profit by breaking it, assuming you don’t get caught. The fewer other people have guns, the more your gun is worth, both in terms of money and utility. So, ironically, the situation arises that the more effective enforcement becomes, the more valuable it is to break the rule.

In the long run, the problem is even worse. If profitable strategies are reproduced or copied, and if enforcement allows for the survival of the strategy (perhaps by levying a fine, or casting moral disapproval, rather than forcing a change in strategy), the long-run result might be that the problem grows and grows in importance, with enforcement becoming less and less effective, until the problem is worse than it was originally.

Suppose that enforcing a rule (pick your favorite from the list above) on people above a certain threshold conscientiousness is costless, but the costs of enforcing increase as you start dealing with less conscientious people. If the rule creates space for unscrupulous people to do better by violating the rule, the proportion of unscrupulous people rises, and the proportion of conscientious people shrinks. Enforcement becomes more costly over time. As it becomes more costly, it becomes less effective. The most conscientious holdouts are still complying voluntarily, but they’re getting smaller and smaller. At some point, the ratio becomes skewed enough that the problem is worse even with enforcement, let alone if you ever have to stop enforcing.

So in the end, despite your best efforts, you remain surrounded by jerks. Bright young minds get attracted to crackpot grand theories. People who don’t care about the environment outbreed those who do. Only the most dangerous countries have nukes. And so on.

There are basically three ways out:

  1. Enforce the rule with sufficient intensity and/or brutality so that the expected loss from getting caught outweighs the increasing benefits of evading the rule. This may or may not be feasible, politically or economically. You may just not be willing to berate the jerks who ask you for things enough to deter them.
  2. Learn to live with the problem and let the rents get competed away. If there are to be drugs, at least make room for conscientious dealers who don't have gang or cartel connections.
  3. Tilt enforcement, in terms of monitoring or penalties, toward the least conscientious, assuming you can identify them either directly or by proxy. This is perhaps incompatible with the rule of law – "nukes for me but not for thee" – but at least you're not encouraging the problem.

I can’t say one of these is preferable to the others for all of the examples. But if the problem is not to be made worse, any of these is preferable to a situation where compliance is concentrated among the most conscientious.


Political Economy


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  • 1


    Oct 25, 2017 at 14:59 | Reply

    That very notion is a mechanism of evolution by natural selection. If you eliminate deadly bacteria with antibotics then only antibiotic resistant bacteria will try to kill you

    • 1.1

      Cameron Harwick

      Oct 25, 2017 at 23:33

      I worry about this a lot.

    • 1.2


      Oct 25, 2017 at 23:43

      When the mechanism is used on both sides of a conflict you get an arms race.

      If low level foilage is eaten then only plants with high level foliage will survive.

      If low level foliage is eliminated only tall herbivores will survive.

      Bam! Giraffes and tall trees.

    • 1.3


      Oct 29, 2017 at 14:39

      Of course, if you eliminate a LOT of bacteria with antibiotics, the only ones that remain are isolated enough to be wiped out by your immune system or caught by a diligent public health system. Then the bacteria go extinct.

      Or is there some strain of net-resistant vaquita out there I don’t know about?

  • 2


    Oct 25, 2017 at 15:32 | Reply

    If you outlaw payday loans, only outlaws (a/k/a loan sharks) will give payday loans.

    If you outlaw low wage employment, then low wage workers must do outlaw work.

    If you outlaw market rents, then outlaws become landlords (a/k/a “slum lords”).

  • 3


    Oct 25, 2017 at 16:23 | Reply

    This is outstanding. How is it that I haven’t heard of you before?

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