aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Arms and the Citizen

As has been noted by others, an armed society is a polite society; but (say I) it is not thereby a virtuous society. A long back-and-forth on another's LJ has brought me to consider this. Much of our debate about guns and the Second Amendment and all the rest of it tends to go round and round over questions of, well, virtue. Civic virtue.

The Enlightenment thinkers who designed our Constitution thought government a necessary evil, a badge of lost innocence, a thing to be watched carefully. They did not see government, as such, as a positive force in society. They only reluctantly designed a government powerful enough to be effective, because their first attempt at designing a government had shown them that an ineffective government was a worse curse than an effective one. They made ours effective, but ponderous, with many checks and balances.

That said, that first generation were not, by and large, believers in the nobility and virtue of the common man. They believed in heroes, and called them forth, but they did not automatically see heroes in every citizen. Citizens had to be called to civic virtue -- especially by the kneading of organized religion. But the average person was not a hero -- yet -- nor was any group of persons assembled in public likely to be a force for good. The founders were as nervous about King Mob as they were a potential Caesar trolling for votes.

It was Jefferson and the Republicans who were the first to foist upon the electorate the Romantic notion that ordinary people were, by virtue of their ordinariness, thereby also "good" and the source of goodness in government. Later, Andrew Jackson made out like a bandit playing to this sentiment. We can probably thank Rousseau and his noble savage silliness for this idea.

No, I'm with Adams and the Federalists on this one. Government is a necessary evil; that is, it is at one and the same time both necessary and evil. To say it is necessary but not evil is to court tyranny; however, to say it is unnecessary and evil is to court anarchy, the "war of all against all" of which Hobbes warned.

As for the use of arms by the citizenry, whether we are talking of guns or bows or swords is only a matter of scale. Medieval kingdoms usually forbade the lower orders to carry personal weapons, including daggers. They also displayed nervousness over some of the more lethal agricultural implements those lower orders used to raise the food the higher orders ate. Everything was regulated, and involuntary subjection of some by some was accepted as right and proper.

Carrying weapons was seen as the mark of a noble. As commoners gained in status, carrying weapons came to be seen as the sign of the essential nobility of freemen -- a sign of ownership of, and participation in, political power. Owning property directly (and not feudally) was another such mark of what can be called "a common peerage." This is why the right to vote was usually restricted to property owners until modern times.

In Enlightenment political theory, the People (who are not the same as "the masses" so beloved of the Left) have a right to constitute and change governments according to their best wisdom. They do this because they are "peers," that is, the owners and rulers of their land. The commonalty have not eliminated the nobility so much as they have acceded to equal status with the nobility, you see. Therefore, the commonalty, the civic peers, must be able to do what peers always did to exhibit their ownership of, and participation in, political power: they must be allowed to bear arms and own property.

None of this means they are to be assumed to be virtuous. None of this means that they are to be trusted. The forms of the Law and the respect shown to institutions and agents of government are part of the whole code by which these noble commoners exercise their political rights. Arms and property are rights which exhibit their free inheritance. But using arms and property to tyrannize others is prevented by the complicated dance of authority, which channels how those rights can be displayed and used in the public arena.

Shootouts at high noon in some town of the Old West may be dramatic and (these days) an occasion for nostalgia, but they were seen as a terrible curse by those who lived in those towns. Nowadays, everybody who goes to Dodge City wants to see Boot Hill; back in the day, Boot Hill was an eyesore and an embarrassment to the good town fathers of Dodge. People on the frontier positively thirsted for law and order. They didn't object to guns -- everybody had guns. They didn't object to property -- they moved West to get property. But without a central authority that everybody agreed to obey, the guys who had the most guns and property tyrannized those who had less, and nobody restrained the random violence in the street.

In the end, much of the gun debate is colored by Romanticism on the gun rights side and elitism (of one kind or another) on the gun control side. Both are flawed. Our Enlightenment legacy says nobody can be trusted with power (personal or social), but everybody will be given a chance to demonstrate that they can exhibit their freedom responsibly. Meanwhile, respecting the forms and officers of law are part of the complicated courtesy freemen exhibit.

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