Over the past two years, at least five people in the UK have been killed by American XL bully dogs, prompting no less than the prime minister himself to come forward with a plan to control the dogs. The upshot of British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s policy is that they would have to be registered, neutered, muzzled in public and insured, with an eventual ban to follow.
The decision offers some important lessons about regulation. First, sometimes an outright ban is better than charging owners or users a fee, or what economists call Pigou taxes. Under some economic theories, bans should be exceedingly rare. Instead, the government should charge a high fee for the right to own or use something. In this case, people who really want to keep their XL bully dogs would just pay more for a license.
Society does not, after all, insist on absolute safety in most other walks of life. Many children die in swimming pools, yet they are not banned.
XL bully dogs are different. They are symbols of fear and aggression, and their muscular body and fierce countenance reflects this, as does their very name. They are especially popular with criminal gangs.
There is value in getting rid of the symbol altogether. An outright ban of XL bully dogs probably makes people feel more safe than a high tax that makes the dogs rare but not illegal. That extra feeling of security might be partly irrational, but it still matters for how people process their daily stress.
A ban is also easier to enforce than a tax. If the dogs are banned, it is difficult to take one around in public without being spotted. Tax evasion, in contrast, is quite common, and tax laws can be difficult to enforce. The British government might be unwilling to throw people in jail for their unwillingness to pay their XL bully dog tax. Nor is it easy for the government to determine which are the responsible owners of XL bully dogs and which are irresponsible.
The question, then, is how to value owner demand for XL bully dogs.
To put my own cards on the table: I am frankly suspicious of anyone who wants to own a bully dog. Limiting preferences for such dogs now would help limit the spread of the XL bully dog itself, which has been in the UK only since about 2014 or 2015. Over time the dogs could become more established with more clubs of dog owners, more specialized trainers, and in general more support services. By banning the dogs now, the government might stop a wider preference for such dogs from developing. A ban would also help limit long-term frustration if, as I suspect, the decision is reached that XL bully dogs cannot be allowed to spread without limit.
It would still be allowed, of course, to own many other kinds of dogs. By one count there are 339 different breeds, many of which are able to protect their owners from assault.
Where I live, in the state of Virginia, it is illegal to own as pets the following animals: bears, wolves, coyotes, weasels, badgers, hyenas, non-domesticated cats, alligators and crocodiles. I do not consider those meaningful restrictions on my liberty, and in fact these laws can boost the liberty of your pet dog or cat or rabbit. The state cannot avoid some policing of nature, and it makes sense to side with the pets that more people are likely to own.
How about a ban on XL bully dogs for the US? That case is weaker, in part because population density is much lower, and in part because US citizens seem to have a higher risk and violence tolerance than British citizens. Still, what US citizens call pit bulls do face varying restrictions, for instance in Miami, New York, San Francisco and Prince George’s County in Maryland.
More notably, many states prohibit their cities and counties from placing restrictions on pit bulls, or sometimes on any dog breeds. A ban on pit bulls in Denver was recently repealed, for example. Politics has spoken, for better or worse.
One larger point about politics: Is it not strange to see a British prime minister issue a statement on a public matter that might in the US be handled by a mayor or — to use the standard cliche — the local dogcatcher? If nothing else, it shows the deep federalist roots of the US system of government. Yes, US politics is increasingly nationalized, but there is still a lot that separates the US from Mother England.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. He is coauthor of Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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