Sunday, January 6, 2013

Gun Culture: An Analysis

So, with all those quotes out of the way, what do I make of the gun lobby?  My answer is simple.  People who believe the best solution to crime is for everyone to be armed to the teeth, people who encourage and ever-expanding definition of self-defense, people who believe that government can turn tyrannical at any moment and only the imminent threat of political violence can prevent it, are not people who believe in the civil society, or in the rule of law, or, in any meaningful sense, in democracy.  When David Frum responded to the insurrectionists with his Lincoln quote, one of the commenters at his site said that people who argue for armed insurrection are the descendants (actual and spiritual) of the people Lincoln defeated.

I believe this is essentially correct.  To cite myself (citing David Hackett Fischer), the whole NRA view of freedom as something every man individually vindicates with his gun sounds very much like Fischer's description of back country "natural liberty."  Freedom is seen in purely individual terms -- "Don't tread on me."  Respect for the rights of others is not part of such a view.  Who else is trodden on is not my business.  My neighbor has a gun of his own and is just as able to use it to vindicate his liberty as I am.  Natural liberty, in effect, equates liberty with the state of nature, as it was known in the 18th Century, or, as we would call it today, the law of the jungle.

This perspective can explain a lot.  It explains why gun enthusiasts are eager to protect, not only the right to keep and the right to carry, but the right to shoot as well.  If freedom is the law of the jungle, then by all means, let us dispense with this tiresome business of calling the police or following rules and get on with it.  It explains any affinity such a viewpoint has with libertarian economics.  Libertarianism, after all, is little more than the law of the jungle in economic matters.

But it is the attitude toward government and insurrection that is most revealing. Alas, I can no longer find a most interesting conservative response to Michael Lofgren's classic broadside against the Republicans. Its most insightful comment, however, was in response to Lofgren's charge that Republicans are intentionally paralyzing and sabotaging government because "[b]y sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner." The response angrily denies that Republicans are deliberately setting out to undermine "democracy."
That remark, perhaps unwittingly, makes an important point. Because democracy is a form of government, blanket, undifferentiated hostility toward government is not and cannot be the ideology of democracy. Certainly, a healthy democracy calls for a healthy skepticism of government, an insistence that it be bound by law, a willingness to call it out when it steps out of line, and a desire to hold government accountable.  But underlying the ideology of democracy is an ultimate optimism that government is compatible with liberty, that  the people can successfully hold government accountable, and that proper institutions can keep government in line without the resort to force.  That is the ideology set forth in the Constitution, with its separation of powers and its checks and balances, all intended to maintain freedom without the resort to violent revolution.

The ideology of insurrection, by contrast, treats all government as a menace and the difference between democratic and non-democratic government as one of degree, not of kind.  It may be untroubled that popular militias foster "warlordism, tribalism, and civil war."  These things, after all, look a whole lot more like the law of the jungle then democratic government does.  If your idea of freedom is the law of the jungle, then warlordism may seem a lot more like freedom than democracy does.  And, after all, who can doubt that warlords are much freer in such a system than they would be under democratic government.  The problem, of course, is that warlords infringe on everyone else's freedom a lot more than democratic government every thought of.

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