(This is Part III of a series. Please read Part I, “It’s most important that all potential victims be as dangerous as they can”, and Part II, Violence and the Social Contract before proceeding.)
Alexander Tytler is credited, perhaps apocryphally, for this quotation:
A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by dictatorship.
The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence:
From bondage to spiritual faith
From spiritual faith to great courage
From courage to liberty
From liberty to abundance
From abundance to selfishness
From selfishness to complacency
From complacency to apathy
From apathy to dependency
From dependency back again into bondage
I don’t know who actually said it, or when, but it echoes well another (probably apocryphal) quote attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville:
The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.
Benjamin Franklin, it is said, when asked what form of government the Constitutional Convention had settled on in Philadelphia in 1787 responded,
A republic, if you can keep it.
The eighteenth century saw the rise of the first truly representative government in the modern world. At the beginning of the nineteenth century the United States was one of the very few democratically-based governments in existence. Almost all others were hereditary monarchies or just plain dictatorships. Great Britain was a titular monarchy, but with legal restraints, and subject to the votes of the populace and the peerage. By the first quarter of the 20th century, the dominant model of government was some form of democracy – defined as a government that listens to and accomodates the populace which it serves through some form of popular vote. Colonialism was, for all intents and purposes, dead.
What made that possible? Democracies had risen in history before, but had fallen back into tyranny. Greece and Rome are but the two most famous examples. Democracy had never gained a solid foothold before, but suddenly (historically speaking) it sprung up worldwide. Industrialization had something to do with it. The world model of agriculture as the dominant economic engine had been replaced with industrial manufacturing and its supporting industry, mining. The natural resources needed now expanded beyond mere land. Now much more of what was beneath that land was valuable. And, as always, men fought to acquire that which was valuable.
The industrial revolution came to the aid of that, too. With the invention of useable, effective, inexpensive firearms, the professional soldier caste no longer held an advantage over the meanest serf – so long as that serf had a gun. All the training in swordsmanship and archery and the best plate mail were useless against a man with a matchlock and the meager skills required to use it. As technology progressed; the rifled musket, the Minié ball, the percussion cap, the metallic cartridge, the repeating arm, each step made it easier for the individual to be as lethal as his martial forebears. More lethal, in fact. A peasant with a scythe is an irritant to a landowner who commands a knight with a charger and a lance. When many peasants are angry and outnumber the knights, you have to pay attention to them, but one peasant with a musket is a problem of a different order entirely.
When the victims are dangerous, it changes the balance of the equation of power. The more dangerous they are, the more the balance changes.
After the American Revolution, and just a few years after the ratification of our Constitution, American jurist St. George Tucker wrote a review of American law called Blackstone’s Commentaries. It was first published in 1803, and on the topic of our Constitutionally recognized right to arms, Tucker had this to say:
This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty. . . . The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game: a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. True it is, their bill of rights seems at first view to counteract this policy: but the right of bearing arms is confined to protestants, and the words suitable to their condition and degree, have been interpreted to authorise the prohibition of keeping a gun or other engine for the destruction of game, to any farmer, or inferior tradesman, or other person not qualified to kill game. So that not one man in five hundred can keep a gun in his house without being subject to a penalty.”
It seems that even then the English ruling class understood the problems that a dangerous victim represented. Well, it was understandable, given the results of the little dust-up that started in 1776.
It is, I believe, the firearm that is responsible for the level of individual freedom enjoyed in this modern world. It is, without a doubt, the tool used to inflict huge volumes of death and misery, but huge volumes of death and misery are historically unremarkable from long before there were firearms. As someone once noted, before there were firearms the world was run by large men with swords, and it was neither fair nor democratic. The difference is, firearms made the peasants dangerous. It’s much less expensive to conscript peasants, instruct them in organized drill, teach them to load, aim, and fire a gun and send them off to battle than it is to pay for a professional mercenary army – especially when your conscripts, properly led, can beat that professional mercenary army.
But there’s a drawback to that, if you happen to be the Head Muther%*$^er in Charge – once you train those peasants, you can’t untrain them. And guns are not a particularly difficult technology. That’s what makes them so attractive in the first place. That makes tax collecting a bit more sporting as it were. So the next time you want to raise their taxes, or take their property (or their daughters), you have to consider how they feel about that.
Unless you can disarm them.
The same condition holds true if your intention is merely to steal retail, as an individual, rather than wholesale, as a government. If your victim isn’t dangerous, you needn’t take his objections into consideration.
Representative government is the result of dangerous victims. The ability to object – and make that objection hurt, is the source of the power of the individual within the State. Guns gave that power to the previously powerless, no other technology, and that power was used to build governments that listened. Governments that don’t listen still exist, and use guns to maintain their own power. Mao’s famous quote is absolutely on the money:
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.
And it explains precisely why totalitarian governments are very careful about who they allow to possess arms, and who they don’t.
The pacifist philosophy holds that non-violence is the moral choice, that violence is wrong. But violence exists, everywhere. It is violence that leads us to organize politically, for only through organization can we effectively resist the predation of others. It is through violence that society exists, for as Rev. Sensing noted, “government stays in power by violence or its threat and the threat is meaningless unless it can be and is employed”. If the government cannot threaten arrest, trial, and incarceration (or worse) for violation of the laws of society – and carry that threat out – then there is no society, there is anarchy – the anarchy we join into societies to counter. We, the citizens, agree to the laws of our society and follow them because we believe them just. We condone the use of violence to enforce those laws because, in the main, the government serves to protect our rights and our property against those who would usurp them.
In any group of people, however, there are always those who will not follow the rules of the society – the criminals. Certainly, if those criminals are armed they are more destructive that they would be unarmed, but there is no way to disarm the criminals without disarming the whole populace. Even then the level of success in disarming the criminal is only one of degree. It may be possible to deny a criminal a firearm, but that simply puts the society back at the “large men with swords” level. The pacifist philosophy that attempts to disarm the populace “for its own good” does no such thing. It merely renders that society more at risk, not less. And more, it places that society back at the mercy of a government that may or may not protect the rights and property of its citizens.
Because the victims won’t be dangerous any longer.
St. George Tucker was right: The right to self defense is the first law of nature, and the right to arms is the palladium of liberty, against both criminal and tyrant. And Tytler may be correct that the pattern of history is for a free people to give up their freedom and descend once again into bondage, but so long as the people retain their arms, they may retain their liberty, or at least make their objection hurt. It is the deterrent effect of an armed populace that causes tyrants to pause and reconsider the balance of power equation. Ninth Circuit Court Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in his dissent to the recent Silveria v. Lockyer decision,
The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed – where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.
Guns in the hands of citizens means carnage and mayhem. Guns in the exclusive control of criminals and government risks far worse.
It is a better choice by far to have dangerous victims rather than powerless ones.
Original comment thread (thanks to the herculean efforts of reader John Hardin) are available here.