Or: Why I Am a ‘Gun Nut’
First, let me say that despite the source of the quote that names this blog, I am not an Objectivist. While I respect much of what Rand had to say, I hold that she, like all idealists, ignored the influence of reality on her model of ideal human behavior – even though it was obvious from the example of her own life that even she could not live up to her ideals. Nevertheless, Rand propounded many important concepts, such as these:
A ‘right’ is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context. There is only one fundamental right (all others are its consequences or corollaries): a man’s right to his own life.
The concept of individual rights is so new in human history that most men have not grasped it fully to this day.
It was the concept of individual rights that had given birth to a free society. It was with the destruction of individual rights that the destruction of freedom had to begin.
I concur with much of the above, but the last line I’ve got some issues with.
I’ve written before, and extensively recently, on the concept of “rights” and what they, in practice, are. My position is that a right is what a society believes it to be, where a “society” is defined as a group of people living in a the same geographic region who share a set of beliefs. Rand proclaims that the one fundamental right is “a man’s right to his own life,” yet that right has been unrecognized throughout most of human history. Those with power had all the rights, and power was defined as physical might. Rand’s ideal of “a right to his own life” is meaningless when those who wield power don’t recognize that right, and the individual himself cannot defend it against infringement. An excellent example of this is the medieval idea of droit du seigneur – the supposed right of a feudal lord to have sex with any vassal’s bride on her wedding night. But bear in mind: The guy with the sword (or the most sword arms behind him) pretty much has the “right” to have sexual relations with anyone who cannot defend themselves, or is not ably defended by others. Droit du seigneur may have been more myth than fact, but rape and pillage by rampaging barbarians, and later, invading soldiers certainly was factual, and with a far longer history.
Steven Den Beste once wrote his list of the four most important inventions in human history:
In my opinion, the four most important inventions in human history are spoken language, writing, movable type printing and digital electronic information processing (computers and networks). Each represented a massive improvement in our ability to distribute information and to preserve it for later use, and this is the foundation of all other human knowledge activities. There are many other inventions which can be cited as being important (agriculture, boats, metal, money, ceramic pottery, postmodernist literary theory) but those have less pervasive overall affects.
I think Steven is right in his emphasis on what are all communications technologies as being most important, because it is through the exchange of ideas that societies form. Like-minded people organize, others learn from an exchange of information and are able to associate with those with whom they agree. The development of communications technologies allows people from larger and larger geographic areas to associate with others of similar mind – from tribe, to village, to city, to state, to world.
The invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the mid 15th Century is responsible for the exchange of more ideas than probably any other in history until the advent of the Internet. For example, the spread of the knowledge and philosophy of the ancient Greeks can be traced to Italian printers who, needing something to sell, printed the works of the Greek philosophers – in Greek, and later in translation – for public consumption. And consume them they did.
But what does any of this have to do with weapons? (Other than their being used to subjugate others?)
I believe that there are three things crucial to the rise of individual freedom: The ability to reason, the free exchange of ideas, and the ability to defend one’s person and property. The ability to reason and the free exchange of ideas will lead to the concept of individual liberty, but it requires the individual ability to defend one’s person and property to protect that liberty. The ability to reason exists, to some extent, in all people. (The severely mentally retarded and those who have suffered significant permanent brain injury are not, and in truth can never be truly “free” as they will be significantly dependent on others for their care and protection.) The free exchange of ideas is greatly dependent on the technologies of communication. The ability to defend your person and property – the ability to defend your right to your own life – is dependent on the technologies of individual force.
Let us consider for a moment the history of the technologies of individual force. At base, there is simple muscle and fist, and one step above it, the ability to use a club or throw a rock. In this case the strongest and most physically adept get to make and enforce the rules. Generally of this group the smartest strong-man rises to the top, and with the aid of other willing strong-men they cow and control the output of weaker people by recruiting the strongest and killing those who will not yeild. The invention of early weapons such as the sword merely increased the separation of the enforcers from the enforced, as competence with weapons of this type requires extensive training. Give a strong novice a sword and face him against a physically weaker but experienced swordsman, and the novice will shortly be looking at his internal organs spilling from his abdomen. Peasants with pitchforks and scythes are no match against trained soldiers with swords, as history has illustrated repeatedly. Consequently the peasants supplied the labor to support the soldiers who spend their time practicing the skills needed to control the peasants. It’s a self-sustaining cycle, or it was for centuries.
And then, too, there is war – when groups of these elites fight each other over territory, or resources, or religion, or whatever other reason occurrs to them. In every war, it is the common people who suffer the most, as they are taxed to support the war effort, their property and crops are stolen or destroyed, starvation and pestilence ravage the land, and they and their families are raped and murdered by the invaders or the defenders or both. Again, history has illustrated this too – repeatedly, for centuries, even up to today.
The history of civilization stuck to this model for literally thousands of years until there was one significant change in the technology of individual force – the English longbow – and the strategy of its proper use (and believe me, strategic thought is every bit as much of a technology as the yew bow.) From The Medieval English Longbow:
From the thirteenth until the sixteenth century, the national weapon of the English army was the longbow. It was this weapon which conquered Wales and Scotland, gave the English their victories in the Hundred Years War, and permitted England to replace France as the foremost military power in Medieval Europe. The longbow was the machine gun of the Middle Ages: accurate, deadly, possessed of a long-range and rapid rate of fire, the flight of its missilies was liken to a storm. Cheap and simple enough for the yeoman to own and master, it made him superior to a knight on the field of battle.
Note that last line – “Cheap and simple enough for the yeoman to own and master, it made him superior to a knight on the field of battle.”
Here’s the Webster’s definition for “yeoman” as it relates to that sentence:
(O)ne belonging to a class of English freeholders below the gentry
Below the gentry – the aristocracy, or ruling class. The guys with the swords.
For the first time a simple peasant could be superior to a man trained at arms, armored and astride a horse. To be sure the longbow required a great deal of training and strength itself, and a single archer was no match for an army of knights, but a single archer could best several knights by the virtue of his ability to strike from a distance. However, the critical factor in the technology of the longbow was the need for massed, skilled firepower. Training began as early as seven years of age, and the law of England made it mandatory for all men and boys to train with – and own – the longbow. There were periodic competitions, and only the best were taken to war. Note, however, the striking difference between the top-down rule of the nobility – the knights who were armored and armed with sword, lance, and other contact-distance weapons – and the archers who were otherwise mere peons. But skilled peons, and peons skilled at killing knights. This fact meant that there was to be a significant shift in philosophy, due to man’s ability to reason, and the free exchange of ideas.
What did it mean to the peasantry when they provided the striking power of the army? No longer relegated to the pike, where the armored knight was king of the battlefield. When they held in their hands the means with which to kill the ruling class? (The ruling class of the other side, to be sure, but a man in armor is a man in armor….) And what did it mean to the ruling class? What did they discuss in their camps at night after a battle?
It meant that there was a shift in power beginning in England. The peasants could no longer be simply viewed as a resource and otherwise ignored, and they knew it.
In 1215 King John was forced by his Norman barons to sign the Magna Carta – this was before the acceptance of the longbow as a military weapon there, but important in its own right, laying down as a legal reality that the King was subject to the law, not superior to it. More importantly, the text of the Magna Carta was printed, distributed, and read aloud throughout England so that all English subjects could hear it. The information technology of the day was used to spread information so that those who could reason would think on it. And think they did.
In 1415 at Agincourt a small, weary, disease-ridden English army consisting of 5,000 archers and 900 men-at-arms – many of whom were suffering from dysentery – faced a French army of over 20,000 – about 10% heavy cavalry. A lot of strategic and tactical factors were involved in the English victory, but the fact remains that 5,000 longbowmen – commoners – decimated the flower of French chivalry that day. This lesson was not lost on the English people.
In 1642, after King Charles I proved himself to be a total disaster, the English people supported a revolt against him, and the English Civil War resulted in the execution of Charles – a rather shocking act to the nobility around the rest of the world. More to the point, a man barely more than a commoner himself rose to power through merit rather than heredity. Things were changing.
The English longbow had a significant political impact on both the nobility and the peasantry, increasing the power of the latter at the expense of the former. I believe that the longbow and the tactics of its use are responsible for the beginnings of the Western philosophy of Rand’s one, fundamental right – the right to one’s own life. But the longbow was not to last. It was superceded by the application of gunpowder to war, a technology that I believe was responsible for the true rise of a philosophy of individual rights.
For longbows to be effective in battle a massed concentration of bowmen was necessary, and those bowmen had to train from childhood. The advent of effective mobile artillery spelled the end of the longbowman, as cannon could decimate any formation of archers from extended range, and it could do the same to armored knights. The invention of the harquebus also spelled the end of the archer, for while the archer was able to kill or wound accurately out to over 200 yards, the arquebusier didn’t require years of training – any poor peon could be conscripted and taught to fire an arquebus in a few days, and then kill nobles and skilled mercenaries with it. The matchlock firearm was introduced early in the 15th Century and didn’t supplant the archer until the mid to late part of the century, but the firearm spelled the end of the armored knight. Wearable armor capable of stopping an arrow could be made, but no functional armor could be made to stop a bullet.
During that time the power of the firearm and its (relative) ease of use was taken advantage of, as the European nations, when not fighting and killing each other, used the new technologies of transport – the compass, the sextant, good maps, the lanteen sail – to explore and exploit the rest of the world. Firearms technology slowly advanced: the wheellock, the snaphaunce, the flintlock, the rifled barrel, improvements in gunpowder and projectile production. Functional useable handguns were developed, and lighter, more accurate long guns. Each of these developments made firearms more reliable, easier to use, and subsequently of greater lethality.
Where before war had been the playground of the ruling class and trained mercenaries, more and more commoners were conscripted into militaries to feed the grinder of war, and the exploitation of the New World and the East. Over the same period – the 15th through 17th Centuries, the study of philosophy was rekindled. Ancient Greek and Roman texts were published on the new printing presses and sold and discussed throughout Europe. Schisms evolved in the Catholic Church with Luther and Calvin. Protestants and Catholics went to war. Now, instead of battling over territory and resources, vast armies battled over Christianity. Plagues spread through Europe, brought by trade and exploration and spread by populations displaced by endless war, decimating those populations, and making the labor of the survivors more valuable to the (surviving) nobility.
Note, the firearm didn’t make war worse than it had been. Soldiers died on the battlefield as they always had. Death by gunshot is hardly more horrible than by sword, mace, spear or lance wound. People still died, in droves, from disease, from famine, and from being in the wrong place when the armies moved through. The difference now, largely, was that the armies were more and more made up of the people who in the not so distant past had merely been the spectators to (and victims of) the wars – conscripted and trained to operate the new technologies that could be learned in a few weeks, rather than over a lifetime.
And those who came home retained that knowledge, and spread it. The knowledge of how to be a pikeman in a pike square isn’t very useful to a farmer. The knowledge of how to load and fire a musket can be.
They had fought in religious wars. They had seen the merciless death of war and of starvation and disease. They had heard the spreading humanist ideas of the Greeks and Romans, and seen corruption in their Church and in their supposed nobility, and many of them had, quite simply, had enough. The New World offered an escape, the chance to go somewhere where they could have a right to their own lives, and many took it. They took with them the means with which to defend that right: the firearm. And they had much occasion to use it. The European wars followed them. The native locals were none too happy about their arrival in many cases, either. But over time the pressures of colonization abated, and time became available to tinker with inventions and ideas and philosophy.
The printing press as of 1750 was 300 years old, and much knowledge was available to those with the time and the wealth and the inclination to seek it out. Texts such as: The Ordinance of William the Conqueror, establishing the first modern separation of Church and State; the Magna Carta noted above; the Declaration of Arbroath wherein Scotland in 1320 claimed independence from England; Machiavelli’s The Prince – a cold-blooded and calculating look at how to rule effectively; the various works of Martin Luther and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and many more. There was time to reason, the ability to exchange ideas, and the means with which to defend ones person and property – and all of these were necessary to the rise of the power of the individual against the oppressive State. When England in fact became a force of oppression against the American colonies, this tripod became the support under which a people stood up and said “NO!” – and made it stick.
The firearm is the tool that makes any man or woman physically dangerous to the trained soldier. (Ask any Revolutionary-era Redcoat. Ask any soldier today in Iraq.) No other weapon is as effective at force-equalization. There is more than a little truth in the sales slogan, “God made man. Sam Colt made them equal.” Combine that lethality with rigorous training and formidable armies can be created. Instill in those armies an aberrant philosophical grounding – a coercive religion, a need for “living space,” a belief in racial superiority – and aggressive and immoral war will result. A fundamental belief in individual liberty, however, will produce government that fights only when it must, and quits when it believes itself safe. And it will produce an army that will fight with both ferocity and morality – as moral as war allows, at any rate. (Read The Jacksonian Tradition by Walter Russell Mead for more on this topic.) Further, a population that believes in individual liberty, and is armed to defend it, offers a formidable challenge to either invasion or internal usurpation.
Individual, private possession of firearms isn’t the only thing that permits individual liberty, but it is one of the essential components in a society that intends to stay free. An armed, informed, reasoning people cannot be subjugated.
So what do you do if you want to fetter a free people?
1) Remove their ability to reason.
2) Constrain their ability to access and exchange information.
3) Relieve them of the means with which to defend themselves and their property.
Which of these seems easiest, and how would it be best accomplished? And best resisted?
UPDATE: Original JSKit/Echo comment thread available here, thanks to the efforts of reader John Hardin.