Path Dependency and the Road Not Taken

February 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In my Superbowl post earlier this month (“The Social Construction of Brutality”), I said, “We now have an institution that is seemingly unchangeable. Any other way of doing things is unimaginable.” Reality is constructed by people, but once constructed, it develops its own momentum, its own seemingly inevitable logic.

So now we have the President of the United States endorsing the idea that the solution to the problem of school shootings is to pay teachers to carry guns. It’s part of the strategy of “target hardening” – more guns, more guards, more metal detectors, more locks, more secure doors – basically making schools resemble prisons. Conservatives from the NRA to the National Review love this idea. It’s realistic. It makes sense given the reality that we have created.

In that Superbowl post, I asked readers to imagine a world with no football. Given what we now know about brain damage, would we introduce football – from levels starting in  grade school on up to the pros – into that world? I borrowed this idea from Lisa Wade (“Imagine a world of higher ed but with no fraternities . . . .”)

Now imagine a world where guns are tightly regulated. Semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 are banned. So are most handguns. Let’s call this world the United Kingdom. Suppose someone – someone like Wayne LaPierre – goes to the UK and proposes that they do away with all these laws. Here’s the pitch:  If you just let gun manufacturers and dealers make and import these wonderful weapons and sell them to just about anybody, your country will reap the rewards of more safety and more freedom.

Of course, eventually you’ll have a few school massacres now and then, but you can hire school guards who you buy guns for, and you can instal metal detectors and buy guns for your teachers to carry at all times. Your police officers too will run a much greater risk of being shot and killed, but bullet-proof vests can help a little, and the police themselves will all carry guns so they can kill more people. Oh, and you’ll also have more civilians shooting each other or themselves. What do you say? This is your chance to make the UK great again. Have we got a deal?

The UK politely declines. (“The logic of the honourable gentleman’s proposal lacks a certain . . . .”  Which is a polite way of saying, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”)

Now imagine another world, a world where some people have guns, but the guns that most bad guys can get are cheap revolvers accurate only at very close range though useful to brandish in a robbery (they’re called “Saturday night specials”). More sophisticated handguns are relatively few; semi-automatic rifles for civilians are unknown. Let’s call this world United States 1965.  Imagine the same spokesman coming to the US and making the same proposal – more and better guns (by better, he means, more accurate and able to shoot more bullets that are more lethal; simply put, he means better at killing more people). Others protest. They want to put restrictions on what gun merchants can manufacture, import, and sell and on who can buy these weapons. Don’t listen to those people says our spokesman. Get rid of those pesky restrictive laws. The future lies before you bright with semi-automatic assault rifles and handguns. That is path to safety and freedom. What do you say, US? Have we got a deal?

That is the path we chose.

What makes Trump’s proposal rational is “path dependency”
the continued use of a product or practice based on historical preference or use. This holds true even if newer, more efficient products or practices are available. (Wikipedia). 
In many ways path dependency is a fancy phrase for addiction – trying to solve a problem with larger doses of what caused the problem in the first place. To outsiders our president’s more-guns solution to the problem of school slaughter sounds crazy.  But Americans who have come down this path, even Americans who find the idea repugnant, have a hard time denying its logic.

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