When Liberalism Meant Liberty for All, A Debate on Guns Was Still Possible
by Dr. Paul Gallant and Dr. Joanne Eisen
Most people - especially if you're an active participant - are accustomed to viewing the firearm debate from one of two opposing simplistic perspectives: support of private firearm possession vs. support of firearm prohibition. A somewhat different approach was laid out by criminologist Don B. Kates in "The Great American Gun Debate" 1.
According to Kates, "To understand the American gun debate requires seeing that it has three sides rather than just the two in which it is normally conceptualized." While acknowledging the two commonly held positions, in Kates' view, "the vast majority - including a majority of gun owners - espouse the markedly different view I call 'pro-control'...the 'pro-control' view recognizes the need to accommodate the legitimate interests of gun owners to the social imperative to control a dangerous instrumentality".
Those of us among the anti-gun-control segment of America who are knowledgeable about firearm politics here and abroad, have become increasingly intransigent about restrictions we are asked to accept - in the name of "compromise" - about a clearly defined Constitutionally-guaranteed right. But the reason for this no-compromise attitude is not hard to fathom: it is rooted in the constant lies told about firearms and peaceable gun owners in the criminological and medical literature, propagated by a mainstream media today devoid of all journalistic integrity, or pretense thereto.
While Kates ascribes the majority opinion in the firearm debate to middle-of-the-roaders, this group's perspective is purely the result of an all-out propaganda campaign waged by the "pro-controllers". They therefore do not understand the costs vs. benefits of an armed citizenry, and the relationship of an armed citizenry to the perpetuation of liberty.
This ignorance of the facts has been exploited to the hilt by the pro-controllers in order to camouflage the wholesale subversion of what may appear at first glance - at least to some - to be "reasonable", "sensible" gun laws beneficial to the social order. By their tactics, the pro-controllers have succeeded in completely removing from this debate any honest, rational discussion of the "restrictions" they relentlessly demand.
It is not difficult to identify the political philosophy of the most rabid of the pro-controllers: they come primarily from the liberal camp. In fact, in a paper entitled "The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms" published in the January 2000 issue of Public Affairs Quarterly 2, authors Todd C. Hughes and Lester H. Hunt make exactly such an admission at the very outset: "Bans on guns are typically considered a 'liberal' policy, if only because those who support them generally consider themselves to be politically liberal in some sense or other."
A contradiction becomes quickly apparent, however, because it is liberal philosophy which has traditionally supported greater civil liberty, even if the social structure might suffer in greater measure from the lack of government control over its citizens.
While Hughes and Hunt attempt to make the case that an individual right to keep and bear arms as guaranteed by the Second Amendment - albeit with restrictions - is consistent with modern day liberal philosophy, their argument is obscured by the lack of an adequate and accurate definition of terms.
The authors themselves shed some light on this problem in their elaboration of the distinction between two discrete varieties of liberalism: "wide" liberalism and "narrow" liberalism. "When its distinctive features are sufficiently pronounced, wide liberalism becomes what is sometimes called 'classical' liberalism. Narrow liberalism, in its more fully developed forms, becomes what is sometimes called 'left' liberalism".
Austrian economist Friedrich August von Hayek described, more than 50 years ago, the corruption of liberalism that Hughes and Hunt now lament. Wrote Hayek in The Road to Serfdom 3, "liberalism in the old sense had been driven out by socialism" [i.e. the "left liberalism" referred to by Hunt and Hughes]. "Freedom and liberty" said Hayek, even then, "are now words so worn with use and abuse that one must hesitate to employ them...".
Today's liberals have allowed their quest for the individual liberty with which they once defined man's ideal relationship to his government to be perverted into "freedom" from want and "freedom" from poverty.
However, socialism's notorious economic failings show the necessity for a society wherein individual dissent is eliminated, if economic success is to be at all possible. Therefore Hayek mused: "Is there a greater tragedy imaginable than that, in our endeavor consciously to shape our future in accordance with high ideals, we should in fact unwittingly produce the very opposite of what we have been striving for?"
He succinctly summed up the complete transformation of liberalism thusly: "Unquestionably, the promise of more freedom was responsible for luring more and more liberals along the socialist road, for blinding them to the conflict which exists between the basic principles of socialism and liberalism, and for often enabling socialists to usurp the very name of the old part of freedom. Socialism was embraced by the greater part of the intelligentsia as the apparent heir of the liberal tradition: therefore it is not surprising that to them the idea of socialism's leading to the opposite of liberty should appear inconceivable."
It is when Hughes and Hunt get into a discussion of "risk" that the schizophrenia of the theoretical constructs of liberalism begins to rear its ugly head: "No one would deny that a liberal state...may prohibit activities that kill or maim others....One reason for this, and a sufficient one for our purposes, is that such risky activities are themselves violations of the autonomy of others."
As an example, Hughes and Hunt use the contrast between how AIDS patients are treated in Cuba, and how we treat them here in the U.S. A mature socialist state, Cuba no longer needs to pay lip service to the ideals of freedom. Consequently, all those in Cuba who are known to harbor the AIDS disease are rounded up and isolated from the rest of the population in special camps "until they no longer carry the disease (presumably, because they are dead)".
Here in the U.S., however, our policy is exactly opposite, despite the fact that "...we know perfectly well that thousands of [innocent] people will die" because of the lack of isolation of AIDS patients from the rest of the population. The reason Hughes and Hunt proffer up for the philosophical difference between Cuban and American policies is because Cuban policy would "violate" the rights of AIDS patients.
Not mentioned, however, and of no minor consequence, is that allowing AIDS patients to run amok in American society confers enormous power upon the state, under the baited-and-switched guise of the code word "freedom".
American liberals selectively embrace a definition of "freedom" which allows people a wide latitude of behavior patterns. And if one accepts that freedom allows for the choice to lead a self-destructive lifestyle, then there is also the requirement that "freedom from suffering" brought on by one's own self-destructive behaviors is also necessary.
"Left" liberals are quick to provide such compassionate rescue, while failing to acknowledge that the citizen has, by now, surrendered all personal freedom to the state, thereby strengthening it, and increasing the need for its further empowerment.
Consider now the contradiction in how today's real-world liberals deal with the firearm issue, where the attitude towards peaceable gun-owners is one of complete demonization and hysteria.
To whom in society are the real "risks" posed by this segment? To their likewise peaceful neighbors? To themselves and their families? Not according to the current firearm-related accidental statistics, which peg accidental deaths at their lowest level ever - 900 fatal firearm accidents in 1998 - and at the bottom of the rung of all causes of accidental deaths.
The "risks" are posed only to those who would seek to violate the "autonomy" of peaceable gun-owners. But whose rights are "violated" by "sensible", "reasonable" firearm restrictions?
Climate of Dissent
The possession of lethal force by ordinary citizens is not merely symbolic of freedom, but represents a formidable risk to a society headed into socialism. Armed citizens have the potential to throw a monkey wrench into the "success" of the socialism that our "left liberals" have mired themselves - and the rest of us - in. The real danger to "left" liberals from peaceable gun-owners lies in the fact that it is exactly they who are the potentially effective dissenters in the power structure. And implementation of the liberals' philosophy has no hope of survival in a climate of dissent.
It is precisely this reality which horrifies them, and drives them to ensure that no honest discussion about firearm "regulation" - i.e. "gun-control" - ever takes place. Because to the "left" liberals, firearm "regulation" is nothing more than a transitional step toward the ultimate goal of firearm confiscation, and neutralization of the threat to their political aspirations.
Despite Hughes' and Hunt's repeated insistence that protection of the individual's right to keep and bear arms is theoretically implicit in the doctrine of liberalism, the attitudes and actions of today's "left" liberals - the predominant of the species, by far - belie that claim, and serve as irrefutable evidence of their relentless efforts to drag the rest of us down the road to socialist tyranny.
In such a climate of wholesale deception, Kates' desire for rational discourse in the firearm debate lies entirely beyond reach.
1. Kates DB, Kleck G, "The Great American Gun Debate: Essays on Firearms andViolence", Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy(San Francisco, 1997).
2. Hughes TC, Hunt LH, "The Liberal Basis of the Right to Bear Arms",Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol 14, #1, Jan 2000.
3. Hayek FA, The Road to Serfdom, University of (Chicago Press, Chicago, Fiftieth Anniversary Edition, 1994).