Democracy

Several months ago, an acquaintance complained that the problem with conservatives is that we don’t believe in democracy. In fact he might have said “Republicans” instead of “conservatives”; either way he seemed frustrated not only with the antics of a few Congressional bigwigs, but with the fact that they continue to receive, if not whole-hearted support, at least votes. It’s hardly a defense, and more reveals the depth of the problem, to point out that the same charges can be leveled at the Democratic party’s political managers and those who continue to vote for them. Actually I thought the statement quite a perceptive one, if not quite as damning as intended.

It is quite true that conservatives, on the whole, do not “believe in” democracy. First, quite a few are, by habit if not conviction, religious and specifically Christian; and in that vocabulary one “believes in” an ultimate good or goal, which earthly governance, since there are immortal souls to care for, is not. Even in earthly affairs, Rome and Westminster have both claimed the state should support the church; and “Christendom” has not truly lost its appeal. This is not an argument for or against such a position; it is a statement of fact about habits of mind. Further, Christian imagery – to say nothing of human history – tends to the hierarchical. If some have concluded – Milton and Lewis, Congregationalists and Presbyterians – that a democratic order tends to restrain tyranny of men over men; that only democratic principles capture the equal share of the dignity of Adam we all possess; well, they may have thought so, but others have not.

Second, conservative theorists on the whole do not “believe in” the good sense of demos – the people. This is neither unreasonable nor a surprise. Progressive theorists do not believe it either – all their programs must be, at first, imposed by force in theory; and in practice, maintained by such. The history of governance – if we can call it that – by greatest numbers (or loudest voices) is not entirely encouraging, and apart from innovation, it would be difficult to point to a specific benefit gained as our governments across the world have become – at least in theory – more democratic. Of course the democratic idealist can point to all variety of mitigating factors: a legacy of monarchy; colonies abroad even while democracy took root at home; perpetuation of national jealousies; unwillingness to actually extend democratic rights to all; and so on. On the other hand, the critic can counter that no “democratic” society has fully and ideally established itself, and could suggest that the dominance of democracy today as an ideal, so that all but the most dictatorial of regimes at least pay it lip-service, could turn out to be just a historical curiosity when seen from the distance of another five hundred years.

It is next necessary to examine the idea of “democracy”. And here again we see a quite accurate assessment hidden in my friend’s complaint. “Democracy” to a conservative refers mainly to a system of government. The government is taken to be set up by the people – or at least, for it to continue, it must be acknowledged to a great enough extent to ensure stability. (These are not exactly the same idea; but are close enough for my purpose today.) But other than this axiomatic sort of democracy, it is not of particular consequence to most conservatives exactly what form the government takes. It is of course plausible that democratic forms will be most stable, but if a monarchy or oligarchy or other form yet to be devised should better secure personal freedom, a free society, and good living – the conservative would have no objection.

I want to dwell on this for a minute, because this seems to me a foundational divide in how we talk about self-government. In the conservative ideal, this means the man governs – or behaves – himself; the family governs itself; the town, the state, the nation – each likewise; and power should be exerted “downwards” only to the extent these lesser authorities are unable to govern themselves. “Democratic” government is here conceived of in the sense that the citizen, the man who belongs to a city, has a say in what his own city does; but the city, if it belongs to a state or a nation, considered as a union of cities and other communities, has a say in what the nation does. A man can know his own neighborhood, and enough else that he may wisely enough govern a city, or choose someone to do so; unless he spends his days himself in the effort, he is unlikely to really know what the city itself requires from a more far-reaching government.

This principle is hardly recognized any more, and barely articulated, even by intellectual conservatives; and practically speaking even the States, for decades now, no longer decide themselves how to choose their senators to send to Congress. Instead, another sense of “democracy” has taken hold: where the individual is a member, to the same extent and in the same way, of every level of society and government that might affect him. It is, when you realize this, unsurprising that we now end up trying to raise all the same issues in almost every election of every official. The most widely-extending government is seen as the first and best; smaller units being mainly convenient for official purposes. In fact most Americans practically take this for granted; but progressive politics tends to make it part of the program, while conservatives are still trying to fight it.

If one were to look for a cause for its appeal, I have one to suggest: that in the conservative sense of democracy, the responsibility of each entity for its own self-government can be – has been – taken so far as to actually preclude government acting “for the people” generally. The starkest example, possibly in all history, is the American colonies declaring their independence, proclaiming the liberty of man – and keeping their slaves. But worst examples are easy to identify. What is more common is for the well-meaning to lose sight of less fortunate realities. Chesterton would hardly have considered himself a conservative, yet in the modern American sense, by virtue of being religious and a traditionalist, he could scarcely be identified as anything else; so I take the liberty of using him for an example. He relates in his autobiography how, at a certain labor meeting, a speaker produced bafflement if not resentment by seriously underestimating the degree to which his listeners might have run into trouble with the police. That which has been is that which will be; and there is nothing new under the sun.

This, I think, is what my friend was really getting at, and the point that in my observation frustrates progressives most about support for conservative politicians. Even if progressive policies may be at fault for, say, the state of various cities; well, the conservatives make mistakes too, and at least – thinks the progressive – we’re trying. Why isn’t that more popular?

It has – if I may be so bold as to suggest I can offer enlightenment – it has to do with how you are trying. The final reason conservatives “don’t believe in democracy” is that “democracy”, when the progressive makes this complaint, rarely refers to government “by the people”. He may, for the sake of argument, have gotten “for the people” down as a goal better than the conservatives do; but the actual democratic element has been lost somewhere. Not only is it national instead of local, top-down instead of popular; progressive “democracy” usually refers to the modern system of government, managed by bureaucrats appointed by “representatives” chosen from candidates selected by parties whose existence is more or less codified and secured by law. The situation is most pronounced in the United States, but hardly different elsewhere, whatever the claimed advantages of “parliamentary” government. The preferred form of this management – one can hardly call it government any more – is to enact mandate after mandate and let the bureaucrats or the judges – also rarely elected – sort it out.

But lest you doubt the repugnance of the procedure, consider: even a schooling mandate is, in a sense, anti-democratic. If we really believed in the good sense of all men, why favor the one who can read, right, and cypher? And if this is so of any such mandate in theory, national requirements are even more so. I am not disputing the benefits of schooling – though I find the years we require dubious – but trying to make a point about the nature of even a policy few would be so bold as to call detrimental. The progressive, no less than the conservative, does not simply believe in democracy. The difference, if there is one, is that the progressive’s vision proceeds from the highest level downwards, and makes exceptions – to be recorded, and registered on the newest version of the required form – only under duress.

In one sense, I am dealing in “no true Scotsman” terms here. If you reply that you find very few Republicans – or even Libertarians – actively trying to curtail and repeal the unwieldy national bureaucratic structure that barely asks for popular input, I can hardly prove otherwise. I wind up concluding that the Republican party is not particularly conservative in any meaningful sense; and then I can answer the progressive wondering why Republicans keep getting votes only by pointing out that the Democrats transgress further still upon conservative principles. Whatever their theories beforehand, progressives in power seem to regard national management by regulation and edict as a positive good, and have no regard for local custom or dissent.

The situation is, as I intimated at the beginning, somewhat dire; virtually anyone who showed actual intent to dismantle our top-heavy edifice before it topples over would receive my political interest. If you point out that there are progressives doing the hard work of engaging with and rebuilding their neighborhoods, while conservatives move further away – I will reply that, supposing this stereotype to be accurate, even Gentiles do the works of the law. It is in any case hardly an argument against conservative principles (although an indictment of conservative self-righteousness) to say the progressives are actually being more conservative. Meanwhile, I have yet to find any progressives really interested in redistributing the political power that puts us all in danger from the whims of the men at the top. Almost every Republican politician, if pressed, will admit the primacy of local self-government as an ideal; most Democratic ones, as far as I can tell, would be confused by the question.

Even the presidency of Donald Trump failed to awaken most progressives to the principle at stake – that the threat of immense power in the wrong hands is too great to trust to always keeping it in the right hands, but must be relieved by reducing the power available to wield. No: the progressive always has one more right or preference or policy or program that in his conception is so important it must be achieved by national – or wider – imposition. But an actual democrat would know that men must be left free to govern themselves, not merely to choose their dictators.

Commentary

In my quest to read the books I own that I haven’t read yet, I’ve made my way to Will Durant’s 1939 The Life of Greece, a tome of the history of ancient Greece. I’m unsure how some of his details – nevermind his inclination to give the Greeks’ own classical historians as much creedence as possible – hold up to more modern scholarship, but the outline looks familiar enough. Durant clearly holds to the dictum that historical events are there to learn from: the following selections come from his account of the rise of Athens’ democracy.

Hesiod

“Hesiod, with rough candor, shows us the ugly farmers upon whose toil rested all the splendor and war [and?] sport of the aristocracy and the kings. Homer sang of heroes and princes for lords and ladies; Hesiod knew no princes, but sang his lays of common men, and pitched his tune accordingly. In his verses we hear the rumblings of those peasant revolts that would produce in Attica the reforms of Solon and the dictatorship of Peisistratus.”

Quirks of Language

“In [southern Boeotia] once lived an insignificant tribe, the Graii, who joined the Euboeans in sending a colony to Cumae, near Naples; from them the Romans gave to all the Hellenes… the name Graici, Greeks; and from that circumstance all the world came to know Hellas by a term which its own inhabitants never applied to themselves.”

Tourism Old and New

“The traveler entering Attica from eastern Boeotia would come first to Oropus… a frontier town as terrifying to the tourist as any such today. ‘Oropus,’ says Dicaearchus about 300 B.C., ‘is a nest of hucksters. The greed of the customhouse officials here is unsurpassed… Most of the people are coarse and truculent in their manners, for the have knocked the decent members of the community on the head.'”

Motives

“As in Sparta and Rome, so in Athens the overthrow of the monarchy represented not a victory for the commons, or any intentional advance towards democracy, but a recapture of mastery by a feudal aristocracy…”

Draco

“…[Draco] attached to his laws penalties so drastic that after most of his legislation had been superseded by Solon’s he was remembered for his punishments rather than his laws. Draco’s code congealed the cruel customs of an unregulated feudalism: it did nothing to relieve debtors [sold into] slavery, or to mitigate the exploitation of the weak by the strong; and… it left to the Eupatrid [aristocratic] class full control of the courts, and the power to interpret… all laws…

“The poor, finding their situation worse with each year… began to talk of a violent revolt, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. The rich, unable any longer to collect the debts legally due them… prepared to defend themselves by force against a mob that seemed to threaten not only property but all established… civilization.”

Solon

“[Solon] disappointed the extreme radicals by making no move to redivide the land… But by his famous Seisachtheia, or Removal of Burdens, Solon canceled, says Aristotle, ‘all existing debts…’ …and cleared Attic lands of all mortgages. All persons enslaved or [enserfed] for debt were released…

“Solon [began] with an act of amnesty freeing or restoring all persons who had been jailed or banished for political offenses short of trying to usurp the government. … It was in itself a revolution that the laws of Solon were applied without distinction to all freemen…

“Invited to make himself a permanent dictator he refused, saying that dictatorship was ‘a very fair spot, but the was no way down from it.’ Radicals criticized him for failing to establish equality of possessions and power; conservatives denounced him for admitting the commons to the franchise and the courts… He [had] followed the mean and preserved the state…

“Legally his work marks… the beginning of government [in Greece] by written and permanent law. Asked what made an orderly and well-constituted state, he replied, ‘When the people obey the rulers, and the rulers obey the laws.'” …[T]he establishment of a peasant proprietor class [in] ownership of the soil made the little armies of Athens suffice to preserve her liberties for many generations.”

Aside

Durant, recounting the legend of Solon’s advice to Croesus, translates the Greek hubris – in his transliteration “hybris” – with the remarkable turn of phrase “insolent prosperity”. The phenomenon – whether it properly accounts for the Greek term – is undeniable; conclusions are here left as an exercise for the reader.

Peisistratus

“…[T]he Assembly voted that Peisistratus should be allowed a force of fifty men. Peisistratus collected four hundred men instead of fifty, seized the Acropolis, and declared a dictatorship. Solon [] published to the Athenians his opinion that ‘each man of you, individually, walketh with the tread of a fox, but collectively ye are geese,’ … [and] resign[ed] his interest in politics…

“The wealthy [factions] of the Shore and the Plain… expelled the dictator. But Peisistratus… re-entered Athens under circumstances that seemed to corroborate Solon’s judgment of the collective intelligence. A tall and beautful woman…. costume[d as] Athena… led the forces of Peisistratus into the city, while heralds announced that the patron deity of Athens was herself restoring him to power.”

“…[T]he wisdom of [Peisistratus’] policies almost redeemed the [] unscrupulousness of his means. … He made few reprisals… He improved the army and built up the fleet… but he kept Athens out of war…

“Archons were elected as usual, and the Assembly and the popular courts, the Council of Four Hundred and the Senate of the Areopagus met and functioned as before, except that the suggestions of Peisistratus found a very favorable hearing. … When… the dictatorship was removed, these habits of order and the framework of Solon’s constitution remained as a heritage for democracy. …

“He gave employment to the needy by undertaking extensive public works… To finance these undertakings he laid [a new] tax… The poor were made less poor, the rich not less rich. The concentration of wealth which had nearly torn the city into civil war was brought under control…

“[N]ew buildings of stone and marble reflected the radiance of the day… By establishing the Panathenaic games… Peisistratus brought to his city not honor only, but the stimulus of foreign faces, competition, and ways… A committee appointed by him gave to the Iliad and the Odyssey the form in which we know them.”

In Context

“The ‘tyranny’ of Peisistratus was part of a general movement… to replace [] feudal rule… with the political dominance of the middle class in temporary alliance with the poor. Such dictatorships were brought on by the pathological concentration of wealth, and the inability of the wealthy to agree on a compromise. …[T]he only political freedom capable of enduring is one that is so pruned as to keep the rich from denuding the poor by ability or subtlely and the poor from robbing the rich by violence or votes.”

Cleisthenaic Coda

“The Athenians were not quite pleased to see the leadership of the state pass down without their consent to the young Peisistratids, and began to realize that the dictatorship had give them everything but the stimulus of freedom. …Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who had conspired [against Peisistratus’ son Hippias] for [] passion rather than for democracy, were transformed by popular imagination into the martyrs of liberty. …

“The [banished] Alcmaeonid [aristocrats], led by [] Cleisthenes, entered Athens in triumph… Cleisthenes.. set up a popular dictatorship… [then] proceeded to establish democracy. …

“The democracy was not complete; it applied only to freemen, and still placed a modest property limitation upon eligibility to individual office. But it gave all legislative, executive, and judicial power to an Assembly and a Court composed of the citizens, to magistrat[es] appointed by and responsible to the Assembly, and to a Council for whose members all citizens might vote, and… by the operation of the lot, [in which] at least one third of them actually [participated] for at least a year of their lives.”

Three Reviews: Bruce, Morris, Van Til

F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (1988)

This work is a historical overview of the establishment of the Christian scriptural canon.  Bruce makes brief reference to but largely avoids questions of textual criticism.  Similarly, though a congregationalist evangelical himself, he does not spend any significant time on any discussion of the mode of inspiration or the formal relation of Scriptural to church authority.  The only real surprise is that he suggests Protestants ought to value the apocryphal books more highly, in view of the early Church’s opinion of their usefulness.  For New Testament works, Bruce supports early or apostolic dating, but is not tied to direct apostolic authorship where that is disputed.

The book is sensibly organized and clearly written.  I am not qualified to detect errors of fact or judgment, and I do not know what changes of opinion have been effected by the thirty years of scholarship and study since this book was written.  With that caveat, though, I would recommend this work as a good introduction to the history of the Christian Bible.

Charles R. Morris, A Rabble of Dead Money

Morris describes himself in the postscript as “an historian with a professional background in finance”.  In this history of the Great Depression, although he  begins with an overview of the social and technological conditions of the 1920s, Morris’s main task is to trace various financial decisions that contributed to and then alleviated the Depression.  I found the book immensely helpful for some of the details Morris traces: the development of electric and automobile machinery and marketing; the competing financial models and goals – to say nothing of maneuvering, some amounting to outright fraud – among the world powers (and huge corporations) in the 1920s; and the examination of the effects of Roosevelt’s programs during the Depression.

Although Morris clearly lays out a pattern of causes and effects, he is not here concerned to answer the (to my mind, serious) questions about legality, debt, or sustainability.  He would like to conclude, for example, that Roosevelt’s programs had essentially ended the Great Depression by 1936: he demonstrates that in terms of the financial markets and prices this is actually true.  But he admits that when Roosevelt cut back his “emergency” programs in 1937 on the theory that normal conditions were restored, he quickly had to reinstate them as markets destabilized again.  Morris takes this as a demonstration of the value of intervention, but never addresses the resulting government debt – or whether it is actually a good thing to have the government essentially “locked in” to supporting the economy.  In fairness, the sustainability is perhaps beyond the scope of Morris’s work; management of the debt through the 1970s suggests that such programs might be manageable under the lending-and-interest model of modern finance; but Morris doesn’t even suggest there’s a question, let alone address the legal questions.

Similarly, while his financial indicators may support his thesis, he is forced to admit that in terms of unemployment the “traditional” opinion that it took World War II to end the Depression is valid.  Even the figures counting relief work as employment show at least 9% unemployment persisting through 1940.  The only reason, though, that the failure to address these issues becomes a weakness of the whole book is that in his short postscript he undertakes to briefly analyze some of the failures that led to our recent “Great Recession”.  He attempts to draw parallels – but to draw parallels in four pages between two extended periods, once of which one has just spent three hundred pages describing, is a risky business.  Morris manages no certainty in this postscript, and only highlights some of the larger causal risks in the most general terms.

On the whole, I found this a valuable book.  If certain questions go unanswered, they are after all not the questions suggested by conventional modern finance.  The outline Morris provides of international monetary policies is the most valuable part of the book, as he lays out the differing programs with clarity even for those like myself who are financially uninformed.  He also has a great sympathy for almost everyone involved; he quote another writer to the effect that one ought not to expect anyone to have learned anything from the Great Depression before it happened.

Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (1963)

Despite my own Reformed Christian beliefs, I do not believe I have ever read anything by Van Til, apart from excerpts featured in Sunday school classes and, if I am not mistaken, in one philosophy class.  The man’s reputation is rather weighty; so I was pleased to find this slim volume, with a title apparently indicating a subject matter of brief apologetic summary of his views.

However, this book is actually itself a review of books, though in the final part Van Til does lay out his own theories of apologetics in rather polemic style.  It seems that Westminster Press asked three theologians to prepare short books justifying their views of the Christian faith in terms of modern philosophic concepts: Horden advocating a “New Reformation”, DeWolf professing a “liberal” Christianity, and Carnell espousing the “orthodox” faith.  Van Til undertakes to show that the first two are not in any essential way different from each other, – and then that the “orthodox” theologian has not in fact made a good argument for his case despite (Van Til says) holding traditional dogma himself.

I will admit here that I do not have the philosophical or theological background to have fully understood either all of Van Til’s references or some of his arguments.  Van Til’s authors rely on Kierkegaard and Barth, neither of whom I have read; and Van Til accuses them all of being Kantians, while I am not sure I ever understood Kant and only vaguely remember what I did read.  Appeal is also made to other more modern authors, the majority of whom I had never heard of.  My following comments are therefore tentative, as made from a position of relative ignorance.

To my mind, the scheme of the book is essentially a failure.  Horden, whom Van Til treats first, appears from the included excerpts to be the most orthodox of the three: Horden’s scheme is, in professed reaction against Barth, to re-establish the Reformation dogmas in modern philosophic terms.  Based on Van Til’s criticism, he may in some methodological ways have anticipated today’s N. T. Wright; it is not clear from Van Til’s excerpts that he held any unusual doctrines.  In contrast, DeWolf is (at best) a self-confessed modalist; when Van Til accuses him of finding a “Christianity” which adds nothing to what man already knows, I am not sure DeWolf would have disagreed.  If Van Til wished to prove the man a heretic, his job was easy; if Van Til really thought he attempted refutation, the job is sadly incomplete.

Van Til then proceeds to contrast both of these authors with Carnell, the “orthodox” expositor.  This section is more baffling still, as Van Til does not confine himself to the work supposedly reviewed, but drags in reams of matter from Carnell’s other works.  Carnell appears under this scrutiny to have been a bit of a careless enthusiast: some of the passages Van Til cites are in fact alarming, though Van Til repeatedly assures the reader that Carnell’s actual beliefs are orthodox, and it is only his methods which are questionable.  Carnell appears to have thought that any common human mode of inquiry – philosophic, scientific, emotional – honestly pursued will lead at least to the recognition of God.  The grounds on which Van Til prefers Carnell to Horden are not at all clarified in this section.

In the final section Van Til lays out his own position, a statement of “Calvinism” which Van Til believes to be the true form of Christianity.  For Van Til, the evidence of Calvinism’s veracity is that it professes a “self-authenticating” God and leaves no room for human autonomy; he essentially rejects the entire project his three authors had embarked on, as not beginning with the fact of God’s existence and Christ’s testimony.  He criticizes Roman Catholicism not here for doctrinal errors but for supposing human philosophy might be useful or valid; he dismisses “natural theology” and by implication natural law as well, and seems only grudgingly to admit any effect or existence of common grace.

I am inclined to think Van Til misread Socrates, the apostle Paul, and possibly the authors he reviewed here as well: he makes Socrates’ question to Euthyphro on holiness evidence of a philosopher’s arrogance; he characterizes Paul as attacking Greek superstition much as Van Til here attacks modern philosophy, when a less-close minded reading of, for instance, Acts 17 would find Paul making the same kind of “natural theology” argument Van Til condemns.  Seeing this where I do know some of the material, but bot myself familiar with the modern philosophic terminology, I am not sure whether Van Til’s dismissal of all three author’s concern for the difference between known and unknown in God’s revelation is critically legitimate or simply unsympathetic.

Van Til’s book does not succeed as a refutation of the works he discusses; he refuses to participate in their dialogue.  I am sympathetic – as how could any Christian not be? – to his claim that all things are under the dominion of Christ; but I am not convinced by his axiom that any systematic inquiry which does not explicitly begin with the acknowledgment of that lordship is illegitimate and unhelpful.  He has some useful things to say about the meaninglessness of “systems” either of pure determinism or pure chance, and the contradictions implied in trying to combine them; but this philosophic critique is here swallowed up in pure rant.

The Right to Weapons

I.  On the Constitutional Freedom of Americans

Regardless of other customs, international laws, or even natural laws, rights, and duties, the Constitution of the United States of America guarantees to her citizens the right to bear arms.  This is well-known: it was established by the Second Amendment, which I quote:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is often quoted and recorded with two additional commas, after “militia” and “arms”: I believe that any difference in meaning in somewhere between insubstantial and non-existent.

The context of miltia (and an era in which privateering was an accepted part of warfare, for instance) indicates that at the very least this provision guarantees to each American citizen the right to own and handle any weapons up to whatever would be regular for an infantryman.  Common-sense, I think, dictates that this does not include a right to own an Abrams, an A-10, or an Apache.  Consider, as an analogy, that the Colonial militias seem to have been short on cannon (an 18th-century analogue) and immediately went to get some when they had to fight a real war.  However, given the modern conditions of war, it does mean that the long-standing ban on private ownership of automatic weapons is, on a strict reading, probably un-Constitutional.

Further, the Fourteenth Amendment extends all Constitutional protections – including, logically, the right to arms – against State authority.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Again, on literal interpretation, various state gun-control laws are probably un-Constitutional: given the widespread activism of various groups, I am surprised that more have not been challenged on these grounds.  (The bans enacted by more local authorities – cities or counties where applicable – I think have to be considered Constitutionally valid, as more local authorities are almost universally unrestricted by the Federal Constitution.)

II.  A Short Note on the Most Recent “Gun Control” Attempt

Recently a measure S.150 – Assault Weapons Ban of 2013 was introduced and promptly defeated in the Senate.  There was significant backlash against those who defeated the bill – everything from accusations of “cowardice” to allegations that they had been “bought” by the gun lobby (given Washington culture, not improbable; but again, given Washington culture, there is a “lobby” for just about everything: the accusation is without significance in any but an absolutely moral, Day of Judgment, sense even if true).  Not involved in such name-calling was any investigation into what was actually in the bill.  Here is the short version, the bill’s subtitle:

A bill to regulate assault weapons, to ensure that the right to keep and bear arms is not unlimited, and for other purposes.

“To ensure that the right to keep and bear arms is not unlimited“?  What is this, a direct assault on the freedoms in the Second Amendment?  What part of “shall not be infringed” did we not understand?  Alright, that was fake outrage and cheap shots: I will instead be charitable and suppose that the writer was more considering himself to be making a point similar to mine about artillery above, but his choice of words was poor.

What is actually in the bill?  I have read through it, and it consists of essentially three points:

1. A lot of legalese justifying the decision and defining or re-defining terms and objects limited by previous legislation.  These parts mostly focus on “assault weapons” and defining legal magazine capacities.

2. A long list of weapons now to be banned or regulated.

3. A longer list of weapons not banned or (as heavily) regulated – I think these are older (“grandfathered”) models, but I am not familiar enough with arms to say for sure.

The whole thing is basically an un-Constitutional publicity stunt, further expanding restrictions which, as explained above, are themselves illegal.  The only worthwhile provision comes at the end, and would have established a study to report on conditions around mass shootings.  And that, really, should have been a separate bill and would have passed without comment.

And “background checks”?  Not mentioned at all, except that the relevant portion of US law – which already requires such checks, as best I can make out – would be amended to reflect the new provisions.

III. The Limits of Rights

While I am talking about background checks, let me make it clear that there are cases in which the rights which the ordinary innocent citizen enjoys are in fact not rights at all for some in unusual circumstances.  I believe it is self-evident that criminals – especially violent criminals – have committed acts which include the penalty of forfeiture of some rights, and the right to arms is one of the most obvious which is forfeited by the guilt of a violent act.  The insane, as well, by reason of medical unfitness, would rightly not be guaranteed any right to arms.

If the violent criminal or the insane man is not in possession of a right to arms, then it also follows that a dealer has not only a right but a duty not to sell to such persons, and some system should be in place so that it can be avoided.  The exact methods I have no strong opinion on.  If given carte blanche to install whatever laws I see fit, I would probably come up with some sort of national ID system, which would note relevant restrictions, but maybe I just read too much science fiction.

IV.  Is the “Right to Bear Arms” Actually Wise or Just?

I noted in the beginning of this post that the Constitutional rights of American citizens are not necessarily identical with natural rights.  I noted immediately above this section that even in a normal and healthy society, certain persons might justly be deprived of rights that are normal and natural.  Do either of these caveats apply here?

It seems to me inarguable that a right to personal self-defense exists; that if weapons exist, then aggressors may use them, and that principles of proportionality indicate that the same weapons may therefore be used in defense.  Carrying of personal weapons – at whatever level of technology exists – is therefore just.

The state of American society – the sheer number of violent crimes, and the frequency of mass-victim crime – suggests to many that there are problems which the existence of these rights may be exacerbating.  But this does not hold up to inspection – the problem appears to be more specific than that.  Chicago’s crime rate – and its draconian gun laws – are well-documented; in general the problem might be summed up as, “There are lots of guns, a few violent idiots, and then we set up these ‘target areas, I mean gun-free zones‘.”

It is no doubt true that the removal of guns completely from American society would result in fewer shootings.  It is also true that the complete removal of pigs from American society would result in fewer people eating bacon.  I see the two as approximately equally likely to happen, and – despite my own essentially complete disinterest in firearms of any sort – both attempts are equally problematic.  The removal of pigs would probably be the smaller problem.

V.  The Test-Case for Tyranny

We should not forget, as well, that the American system of government was set up in full consciousness that government tyranny is possible – even an historical tendency – and that government overreach sometimes can grow to an extent which demands resistance.  It is a lasting irony that the current Federal government has become practically as removed in all ways except geographically, and probably more interfering in all ways, than the British crown which the colonies disowned.

A militia was considered necessary to a free state, not merely to resist the enemy foreign but also the tyrant domestic – and the effectiveness of this protection of the People’s arms was demonstrated depressingly effectively by the length and bloodiness of the American Civil War.  Whatever your opinion of Confederate complaints – in my understanding, they were insufficient to justify the secession – the issue of the resulting war was very much in doubt for several years and – personal pet opinion! – very likely resolved in the Union’s favor as “quickly” as it was due only to superiority in naval force.

The destruction the Civil War brought is likely a reason that United States has not yet faced another secession or rebellion of significance.  There are other more important reasons: the growth of Federal power, the restrictions noted above on armaments making such revolts impractical, and (perhaps most importantly) the growth of national feeling as a result of foreign wars.  It will take significant and positive oppressions, I believe, before citizens of the United States will be willing to separate themselves en masse.  It is not a good sign that such infringements are being enacted (or extended, depending what other complaints you may have).  There are times when weapons control arguments might carry some weight, even with me: times like these when I see our government drifting into tyranny are not those times – again, even though I currently own no weapons myself.

VI.  A Final, Vaguely Related, Thought

I sometimes wonder whether a draft would actually be good for the United States.  Then I think about it again, and realize how far the possibility of the question means we have come from the founding.  A Federal draft?  Would any of the original States have stood for it?  Now, of course, we have the Selective Service program, and even though it has not actually been activated as a draft in quite a while its existence does not make anybody I know particularly happy.

Why even consider a draft, though, under modern conditions?  Three reasons:

1) It would alleviate much of the fear of weapons we see in the culture today.  Perhaps it would intensify some people’s dislike – on seeing what weapons really can do – but it would be a more rational opinion.

2) One recurring theme I see in history is that a free nation defends itself.  The closest I have come to being invested in the national defense is having relatives in the military.  Probably I would not make a particularly good soldier – but might it not be better if I and everybody knew at least what “be a soldier” really means?

3) It would increase the capacity of The People for self-defense.  Under this heading, what I suppose I would really like is to see a revival of state militias, and a state-based draft.  But, although there are still twenty-odd organizations which might be a step in this direction, I guess that adding new ones is not likely to happen at this point without Federal action – which is commentary on our situation in its own right, I suppose.