Sunday, January 20, 2013
The Latent Springs Of Human Action
[I]n forming a political society, each individual contributes some of his rights, in order that he may, from a common stock of rights, derive greater benefits, than he could from merely his own.
- John Dickinson writing as Fabius (Letter III)
People are always gonna disagree on stuff--interpretation of history, what policy goals are important, etc. I get that.
But the argument over a strong Federal government in the Constitution and what kind of nation we'd build was fundamentally won (twice). The Articles were, along with sovereign states, rejected. Nullification and its ultimate logical end, secession, was rejected, along with any pretense of a very limited central government.
The first few Congresses and Administrations, full of Revolutionaries and Framers, established a lot of good institutions to create a unified nation that have lasted, despite the Anti-Federalists' best efforts. And not only did we finally abolish slavery in the wake of our horrific Civil War, we also bound the states more tightly together through the 14th Amendment.
One of our first national institutions was the militia. Certainly that was originally state-based, but as I've noted more than a few times on this here blog, the national government was given a significant amount of power over it. And of course our first president was very animated by the idea of our young central government bringing great energy to organizing the militia component of our national defense.
I've read articles recently on a variety of those extreme pro-gun that assert Washington thought the following: the purpose of the militia was “to oppose the introduction of tyranny.”
This is oft juxtaposed with his acceptance of the Constitution without a Bill of Rights. Because, of course, Washington came around to think the Federal government should control the militia, but he never use such power to suppress rebellion. Ahem.
It's a very typical cherry picking routine. Skip the inconvinient, objective fact that Washington (and Madison and Hamilton and Mason and...you get the idea) explicitly stated that they wanted a militia to defend America from invasion and insurrection because standing armies could not be trusted. I won't suggest that fighting tyranny at home wasn't mentioned, but it was certainly not the primary driver for reliance on the militia, or the 2nd Amendment, and I think you'll find that most people making that argument were anti-Federalists who, again, came up short against ditching the weak Articles of Confederation.
What's more, this little snippet is ruthlessly torn from its context. First, the full paragraph, which I've cited before:
The well informed members of the community, actuated by the highest motives of self-love, would form the real defence of the country. Rebellions would be prevented or suppressed with ease; invasions of such a government would only be undertaken by mad men; and the virtues and knowledge of the people would effectually oppose the introduction of tyranny.
The larger point Washington was making in his request for legislation was that we need institutions that will spread "general strength, knowledge and happiness," and "invigorate, exalt, and perpetuate, the great principles of freedom." He wrote that success of the United States would depend on finding the best practices in agriculture, commerce, laws, finance, manners, and defense. He warned of the dangers a standing army posed and suggested that an "energetic national militia" would be the best option to protect our fledgling republic.
Washington, the military veteran, advocated for martial training of American youth. But he focused his list of benefits not on their understanding the art of war but rather things like honor, liberality of character, robustness of bodies, and reverence for laws. Then, he said, these well-taught citizens would be able to prevent rebellion, invasions and tyranny.
There are a number of problems with the laser focus on the militia overthrowing a tyrant. First and foremost, it does a gross disservice to Washington's sweeping vision and the very grand ideals--we're told by these folks--that America stands for. The man was a republican in the truest sense of the word.
Gordon Wood wrote in The Creation of the American Republic:
Republicanism, with its emphasis on devotion to the transcendent public good, logically presumed a legislature in which various groups in the society would realize 'the necessary dependence and connection' each had upon the others...each man must somehow be persuaded to submerge his personal wants into the greater good of the whole. This willingness of the individual to sacrifice his private interests for the good of the community the eighteenth century termed ‘public virtue.’
To foster such virtue, citizens needed training. Washington's thoughts were very similar to Vermont's own founders'. Ira Allen:
The greatest legislators from Lycurgus down to John Lock, have laid down a moral and scientific system of education as the very foundation and cement of a State ; the Yermontese are sensible of this, and for this purpose they have planted several public schools, and have established a university, and endowed it with funds, and academic rewards, to draw forth and foster talents. The effects of these institutions are already experienced, and I trust that in a few years the rising generation will evince that these useful institutions were not laid in vain ; remember, however, that our maxim is rather to make good men than great scholars : let us hope for the union, for that makes the man, and the useful citizen.
And why do we teach virtue? Because it then mitigates the potential for tyranny, rebellion and even invasion. With a sense not only of individual liberty, but of belonging to a larger political community, you better protect your own freedom and discourage the very things that threaten it from within and without. If you do that, you don't really need a whole lot of arms.
And so today some citizens are approaching the issue of gun violence in what I see as a republican vein. How does one stop the spread of something dangerous in a community? Sometimes that might entail a little imposition on individuals to promote the greater good and greater liberty for all.
Consider Adam Smith, who observed in Wealth of Nations:
[I]t is the proper business of law not to infringe, but to support [natural liberty]. [R]egulations may, no doubt, be considered as in some respect a violation of natural liberty. But those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals, which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as or the most despotical. The obligation of building party walls, in order to prevent the communication of fire, is a violation of natural liberty, exactly of the same kind with the regulations of the banking trade which are here proposed.
It might very well be that a ban on certain classes of firearms is not be the best way to accomplish our societal goals. I think nationally, for example, reviving a (stronger) assault weapons ban could be effective as suggested by the scant data we have from the first one, our heavy regulation of machine guns and other "dangerous and unusual weapons", and foreign countries' experience, but it's still a little hazy to me. And if pushing such a ban wastes political capital and momentum that could be better served by focusing on background checks, registration or other measures, perhaps it's counterproductive.
Regardless, it is not repugnant to the Constitution, nor to natural liberty, for society and popular government to place some reasonable limits on the right to keep and bear arms since there is a compelling interest to keep our children safe. Where the balance might be is a political question and must needs be hashed out in the town square and legislative chambers.
One thing that I'd like to see come out of this gun discussion is a little more attention paid to teaching our shared history. There's no getting around some of the tribalism--I'm looking at both you who think there is no individual right to own weapons and you who think the right is absolute--but we might have a better, more constructive debate if we at least had a firmer grasp of some basic facts and how they might interrelate.
It might also be good to do more to instill civic virtue. As John Adams said, liberty can exist without it no better than your body can live and move without a soul.
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