COLUMNIST: Bully pulpit

Over the last two years, at least five people in the UK have been killed by American XL bully dogs, prompting no less than the prime minister to come forward with a plan to control the dogs. The upshot of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak's policy is that they will 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 will 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 bodies and fierce countenances reflect this, as do their very names. They are especially popular with criminal gangs.

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 since about 2014 or 2015.

It would still be allowed 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 bears, wolves, coyotes, weasels, badgers, hyenas, non-domesticated cats, alligators and crocodiles. I don't consider those meaningful restrictions on my liberty.

How about a ban of XL bully dog for the U.S.? That case is weaker, in part because population density is much lower, and in part because Americans seem to have a higher risk and violence tolerance than do British citizens.

Still, what Americans call pit bulls do face varying restrictions, for instance in Miami, New York, San Francisco, and Prince George's County in Maryland. (What the British are calling a bully dog is an offshoot of the pit bull; the bully dog lacks a full legal definition.)

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 A ban on pit bulls in Denver was recently repealed, for example.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.

And one larger point about politics: Isn't it strange to see a British prime minister issue a statement on a public matter that might in the U.S. be handled by a mayor or--to use the standard cliché--the local dogcatcher? If nothing else, it shows the deep federalist roots of the U.S. system of government.

Yes, American politics is increasingly nationalized, but there's still a lot that separates the U.S. from Mother England.