The Lonely Man with a Gun

Russ Roberts
4 min readOct 29, 2018

Another lonely man with a gun has murdered innocents. Whether you call it mass murder or terrorism or a hate crime, it doesn’t matter. And as a Jew, I am deeply concerned about the rise of antisemitism. But there is something that cuts across these all too frequent acts of violence. It’s almost always a lonely man with a gun. Understandably, there’s a lot of focus on the gun part. But I want to think about the lonely man.

There is a debate in economics about our standard of living in the United States and a debate about the relationship between happiness and material well-being. What is missing from these conversations among economists and non-economists is the importance of meaning in our lives, our longing to belong, our desire to be important and to matter. These urges are not fulfilled by material goods. They never can be.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost all of the acts of mass murder and terrorism are committed by men, mostly lonely men, disaffected, alienated from modern life, alienated from the standard of success our culture aspires to, disconnected from those around them. No one pays much attention to them until people are forced to pay attention at the point of gun. No one pays much attention until the headlines that scream that these lonely men have finally achieved something people are going to have to notice.

One of the glorious things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone. There is more freedom than ever before. You can be who you want to be, and judgment rarely comes. You can dress the way you like, eat what you want, be the you you want to be, and much of the time, if you live in the right cities anyway, your choices will not be just tolerated but celebrated. We are free in so many dimensions to mold our identity as we see fit and there is something incredibly beautiful about this opportunity.

And yet, one of the most horrific things about American culture in our day is that people leave you alone. You can sleep on the street, be mentally disturbed, use the sidewalk as a latrine, medicate yourself into oblivion and no one will say a thing. They will simply avert their eyes and give you your privacy. Oh, you might get a dollar or two from a sympathetic passerby, but no one will tell you to clean up your act. Few will actually try to connect with you in any meaningful way. In the right cities, no one will arrest you for vagrancy, and certainly no one will force you into what we used to call an insane asylum and…

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Russ Roberts

I host the weekly podcast, EconTalk and I'm the co-creator of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. My latest book is How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.