I haven’t done this in a while, but I ran across a piece in The Economist from last month that I thought I ought to respond to. It drew (as of this reading) 1979 comments, so others apparently felt the same way. The piece is Gun control: Too late, and it’s a blog post by “M.S.”
Let us Fisk:
PEOPLE’S ideas often don’t make any sense when you try to hold them together in your head simultaneously, as Richard Rorty, Daniel Kahneman or Desiderius Erasmus will be happy to tell you. One of the areas in which people tend to have ideas that don’t make sense, when you hold them together in your head simultaneously, is that of rights. For example, many Americans believe that our rights derive from God or from the very nature of being human. As Paul Ryan put it in a discussion of Obamacare this month, folks of his political persuasion don’t believe that the people have the power to make up new rights; rights come from God and nature. These same Americans also generally believe that our rights are those delineated in the Declaration of Independence and the constitution, including a non-infringeable individual right to bear arms. And yet, clearly, people in most law-governed democracies other than the United States, countries like Britain, Canada, France, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan, do not have an individual right to bear arms. How, then, can the right to bear arms as enshrined in the constitution derive from God, or from the very nature of being human? Is this a special sort of right, one that can be created by the people via government if they so choose? If so, then what stops the people, through their government, from creating other sorts of new rights, like a right to education, or a right to health insurance?
Now, I find this essay interesting because I’ve spent many hours and billions of pixels discussing “What is a Right?” on this blog – several essays linked over there on the left sidebar attest to this. For me, the question is no longer “What is a Right?” but “Why don’t we teach this stuff in school?” because it’s obvious we don’t. The author of this essay asks the very question I did, but doesn’t actually bother to try answering it.
Take this essay by Cliff Stearns, the Republican congressman and (to be reductionist) gun-rights advocate. “Not only is the right to be armed a Constitutional right, it is also a fundamental natural right,” Mr Stearns writes. And then, in the very next paragraph: “Once again we can trace the right to be armed to legal and political events in 17th century English history, this time pertaining to hunting and gaming laws.” How does a fundamental natural right lie sleeping throughout the first 6,000 years of recorded history, only to wake to full flower due to conflicts over gaming laws in Regency Restoration England? And what of the benighted 95% of humanity who still do not enjoy the fruits of this natural right, including, rather confusingly, the actual English who supposedly roused it from its primeval slumber?
Yes, what of that?
It isn’t just rights we don’t teach in schools, it’s political philosophies. What “M.S.” is asking here is “Why does America recognize an individual right to arms when no other political entity does?” This is a question I believe no American ought to have to ask – it should be explained to them from childhood. But let’s continue with the piece before I start waxing philosophic:
Perhaps American supporters of gun rights would say that in fact people in every country do have a natural right to bear arms, but their enjoyment of that natural right is denied them by oppressive governments in countries like Britain, France, Canada, Israel, the Netherlands and Japan. Meanwhile, the so-called “right” to health insurance enjoyed by citizens of those countries is presumably only a fake right which they do not in fact possess. This just doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation. Is the problem that we use the word “right” in two ways, meaning in one sense an inalienable moral consideration which we believe all humans possess regardless of the context of government in which they live, and in another sense an enforceable claim within a country’s legal system which commands government and other persons to guarantee certain kinds of treatment to every citizen? Which kind of right would the right to health insurance be? Which kind is the right to bear arms?
As I have discussed at length, one of those – the right to arms – is a right. The other – the “right” to “health insurance” – is not. Calling it a right does not make it one. Yes, “we use the word ‘right” in two ways” – correctly and incorrectly. If that’s not a satisfactory explanation, I submit that the problem lies not in me, but in the person unsatisfied.
Any “right” that demands that someone else provide a service, a material good, or any other thing of value is not a RIGHT. And “health insurance” or “health care” or whatever term they’re using today IS NOT A RIGHT. You can call a tail a leg, but it remains a tail.
The right to bear arms isn’t the only right that faces this paradox. They all do, really. In the mid-1980s, the idea that people have a right to have consensual sex with partners of any gender, in whatever position they like, was pronounced “facetious” by the Supreme Court; 25 years later it feels like an obvious, natural outgrowth of the Bill of Rights. If rights evolve this way through the dialectics of culture and history, just how “natural” can they be?
This is a valid point. The first question that must be answered is “Does this purported ‘Right’ demand something of another?” In the case of consensual sex between two or more adults, no it doesn’t. (It’s that “consensual” thing.) In my libertarian viewpoint, it’s none of the government’s goddamned business who inserts Tab-A into Slot-B. That “obvious, natural outgrowth” was something our Founders considered and the author of the Bill of Rights at least attempted to account for. It’s the Ninth Amendment that Robert Bork characterized as an “ink blot”:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
And the fact that there are many more rights than just those enumerated in the Bill of Rights was discussed by the Founders at length.
But the right to arms was one of the enumerated rights, and the United States of America is unique in putting that right into its foundational legal document.
Such are the idle thoughts that occur in the aftermath of America’s latest episode of horrifying, meaningless mass slaughter. At least, such are the idle thoughts that occur to me. A large segment of the American public these days apparently finds it offensive, not just misguided but actually offensive, to talk about gun control after these sorts of atrocities occur. As economist Justin Wolfers tweeted this morning: “Let’s not talk about gun control. It’s too early, right? It’s always too early. Except when it’s too late.”Mr Wolfers is right: the “too early” construction is ridiculous. He’s also right that it’s too late. It is too late for gun control in America. It’s never going to happen. There are too many guns out there, and an individual right to bear arms is now entrenched in constitutional law.
He says that like it’s a bad thing.
Gun control in America is as quaint a proposition, at this point, as marijuana prohibition, with two important differences: first, that the government is still for some reason pursuing the absurd project of marijuana prohibition; and second, that guns are actually a significant threat to public health.
Now this I find fascinating. “M.S.” acknowledges that marijuana prohibition is “absurd,” but does not acknowledge that “gun control” is similarly absurd – unless you take “there are too many guns out there” as such acknowledgement. I don’t think it is, because the entire gist of his essay is in favor of “gun control.” Guns are not a “significant threat to public health, the misuse of them is. But strangely no one seems interested in looking at the people who are misusing them. It’s always easier to blame the gun.
In this sense, gun control is on a long list of things that could have saved many people’s lives and made the world a better place, but for which it is now probably too late: a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, EU action to avert economic catastrophe, stopping global warming.
EXCELLENT comparisons! And a magnificent illustration of the mindset of the author. A “two-state solution” is a freaking pipe-dream. The “Palestinians” are apparently never going to love their children more than they hate Israel. The EU is constitutionally (no pun intended) incapable of behaving with fiscal rationality, and apparently neither are we because somewhere along the line a great number of people became convinced that things like “health insurance” were RIGHTS, and not commodities that had to be paid for. And “global warming” hasn’t happened for about 12 years – with no change in any government policy anywhere – but because that doesn’t fit the models, reality must be in error. That excerpt from the “long list of things that could have saved many people’s lives” is four things that won’t WORK.
“Gun control” fails everywhere it’s tried, but the philosophy cannot be wrong! Do it again only HARDER!
So this is just what one of America’s many faces is going to be: a bitterly divided, hatefully cynical country where insane people have easy access to semi-automatic weapons, and occasionally use them to commit senseless atrocities. We will continue to see more and more of this sort of thing, and there’s nothing we can realistically do about it.
I will close this post with the words of the father of Christina Taylor-Green, the nine year-old killed in the January shooting here in Tucson that claimed her and five other people, leaving another thirteen wounded:
So do I.
“M.S.” is right, we’re bitterly divided, but gun control is only one of the points on which the various sides differ, and we know what the gun control side wants.