Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (2): Aurora, Ice T, and the “Right to Bear Arms”

A confession: this second post of my new series about contemporary libertarian ideology is absolutely personally motivated, inspired by several good college buddies, each of whom posted, with little to no comment, a link to this clip of rapper and tv-star Ice T recently defending personal gun ownership on Second Amendment grounds. What upset me about the sharing of this clip (from several friends who I personally respect, who happen to have new-style “libertarian” tendencies) was not the basic view Ice T espouses — that the Second Amendment gives the general population a good and necessary means by which they can legally defend themselves against state oppression — but the much more wide-ranging conclusions about our present context apparently drawn from his constitutional interpretation. It’s the fact that, right now, in the cold light of another act of extraordinary gun violence, his message strikes a chord with those who are primed and ready to react against, or even preempt, any serious conversation about the need for more, and better, regulation of the US’s readily available stock of lethal weapons — that resonance is what frightens and saddens me. Because in this context, Ice T’s comment obviously isn’t just about his reading of the Constitution as providing a right for personal self-defense against state oppression. That’s the pretense of his message; but the practical implications, at this moment, say much more. It’s this “more,” and how it relates to another problematic aspect  of contemporary libertarian ideology, that I want to briefly explore here. I’ve decided to talk about this issue in two parts. In this post, I want to offer my general comments on what’s going on in the libertarian attraction to Ice T’s comments; my next post will offer some more detailed analysis and critique of the ideological problems and possibilities of this viewpoint.

First, let me brush aside, with minimal remark, the issue of the “constitutionality” of the right of every citizen to personally bear arms for self-defense. Simply put, no compelling argument about what the Second Amendment should mean for us can ever be finally settled by appeal to the Amendment itself. The real question is about how we should “read” the text — about its meaning, which always already implies a concern and what significance we think it has, or should have, for us. Hermeneutics aside, I’m willing to grant, for the sake of this series and this post, Ice T’s reading of the Amendment, which sees in it a constitutional right for personal gun ownership, for the purposes of self-defense. (Again, much more could be said, here, especially about what we rightfully defend ourselves against — is it simply in the context of revolution against tyrannical political authorities, or does it greatly expand to include robbers, and any other person or group we might fear? But again, for the sake of discussion, I’m assuming legitimacy for the generic view that the right to armed self-defense applies across the board.) Personally, I have deep-seated doubts about the actual safety personal handguns provide against perceived social threats — I don’t think facts, history or logic bears out the point that they actually “make us safer”; rather the opposite. And, if you want a glance at a recent statement of the key alternative “reading” of the Second Amendment, see Jason Alexander’s heartfelt rant here. Yet, I digress… Onto the issue at hand….

We should actually begin by noting a discrepancy between the view espoused by Ice T and the ideological reasons his blunt defense of the right to personally own guns appeals to conservative-libertarian sensibilities today. If you pay attention to his language, Ice T himself seems to link the idea that the population has a right and need to arm itself for self-defense with a deep sensitivity to the history of systemic racial violence and police brutality. Notice his language: the right exists to protect yourselves from the police. The implication here, which I find well-worth pondering, is that the real social need the right to bear arms is addressing is the need of oppressed communities to have access to legally viable means of self-defense. In my online spats over the past couple of days, the conservative/libertarian argument I’ve encountered has attempted to make a similar point in different ways: namely, that the right to personally bear arms is indeed about self-defense against political tyranny. Specifically, I’ve heard the argument that owning guns is the “only way” to give the general population a fighting chance when government turns corrupt, or when the threat of overt state-sponsored violence and martial law against “us” looms large. I even heard the idea seriously advanced that it was because the US leads the way in gun-related violence that we have less “government initiated violence” here than elsewhere. (“So, the more effectively we kill one another in the streets, the freer we, as a political society, will be?” Wow… ) Now, I’m actually sympathetic with what I see as some of the intent behind this rationale — the notion that citizens and communities should have the freedom and right to viable self-defense against political tyranny and social oppression. But one only need pause and reflect to realize just how ludicrous it is to think that the “right to bear arms”, interpreted as freedom for personal weaponry, does, or could, adequately address that need.

First of all, sticking with our gun-owning interpretation of the Second Amendment, we must not forget that this reading is premised on the distinction between the state’s need for a “well-regulated militia,” and the people’s right to protect themselves against said militia when its authority and force is turned against them. It is obvious, then, that for this to be an actually viable means of self-defense, there would need to be some measure of “proportionality” between the kinds of arms the “well-regulated militia” has, and the arms available to the general population. Which means either: (1) a serious regulation of the national militia’s arms by the population, such that the militia will not have access to a kind of weaponry the general population does not, or (2) that the population should have legal recourse to “keep and bear” whatever form of weaponry (it feels) it needs to level the playing field against the potentially tyrannical state. I’m not sure how bog-standard libertarianism addresses this problem, in principle, but it’s clear that (1) would require heavy regulation of the military and police force, and (2) would in principle have no reason to impede citizens from legally procuring and keeping nuclear weapons and tanks. Now, I’m open to having a serious conversation about (1), but it’s obvious that’s not what your average middle-class white person “liking” Ice T’s comments on Facebook is advocating. They probably don’t want, for example, to have to slow-down the US military’s R&D into outrageously advanced weapons technology (e.g., for purposes of “counterterrorism”); nor would they probably want to think too long about what it would have meant in the 1960’s (or before), for the African-American popluation to have exercised its constitutional right to armed self-defense against police brutality and state-sponsored violence. So, I think we can safely assume (1) is not what the libertarians I’m talking about are calling for. (They may not have caught the KRS-One reference by Ice T at the end; he’s a politically active hip-hop artist who certainly does understand systemic racial violence in the US as government-backed “terrorism,” or state-sponsored “tyranny”. For one example of the palpable gulf separating Ice T’s perspective from what’s behind white-conservative ideology about the need for “limited government”, see this guy’s awkward endorsement of his Second Amendment defense. And notice the first comment!)

But, if we’re not going to actively regulate, at the popular level, what forms of weaponry our military has, for the sake of some ideal of giving the would-be-oppressed population a “fighting chance,” that means we’re left with (2) — the right to legally procure whatever weaponry will give us equal or greater firepower when the militia turns on us. And, again, if we’re paying attention to our national and global context, to actually achieve some measure of “balance” between the firepower of the state and that of the population, would mean we have the right to become, as a pal of mine put it, the 21st century “Wild Wild West” — each person armed to the T, whatever they feel they need to protect themselves from Big Bad Brother. The point is, if we read this right in such a way that we think it should provide some means of proportional firepower — the right to have the amount and kind of weapons we’ll need to beat our own military force — we’re automatically forced into a world of ridiculous conclusions. Anyone who knows anything about the actual power of the Pentagon, in terms of weapons or the capital it takes to procure them, will tell you there’s no way to actually “level the playing field.” If the right to bear arms is about the need to defend ourselves against the state’s “milita,” it is not a realistic means of realizing that need. It’s a simple fact that those with the most money have the biggest weapons; and history bears out the truth that when it’s the state versus the population, the latter is always  left throwing rocks at tanks.

If, then, the libertarian recourse to the Second Amendment — represented by the appeal to Ice T, at this moment of our national and cultural history– isn’t really about achieving a practical, viable means of self-defense against political tyranny, what is about? It’s about the perception of safety through increased personal firepower. It’s not about having a practical means of resisting government oppression; it’s about protecting myself and my own from the “others” I fear — the lunatic lone goneman, the robber, the drug-laden poor and other dangerous mobs. That’s why Ice T, whose actual wording should lead to a much more interesting discussion about the nature of political oppression and defense against tyranny, is appealed to now. Because not only do the new libertarians want us to have all the firepower we need to personally take out any crazed criminal who might walk into our house, or movie theater; they actually believe our government has become the lone gunman, the lawless criminal; the agent of repression and tyranny; the one breaking into our collective house, with all their liberty-denying rules and regulations, and holding us at gunpoint. How often does one hear some version of the view that, when *he* gets elected; when *they* win the culture war; when we lose “our country” to the other guys, we better be armed, because our ability to kill the madman is, to quote Ice T, the “last defense against tyranny”?

This sort of deep-seated cultural belief, the utter “distrust of government” among the right-wing. is the actual ideological underpinning of Ice T’s appeal, at this moment. He may have a bit more historical nuance lying behind his understanding of how a tyrannical “police state” oppresses a segment of population opposed to its interests, but the message — our “last defense against tyranny” — it resonates. Why? Because we not only want to protect ourselves from madmen and robbers, and we not only (mistakenly) believe that the only way to do so is with better and more firepower. (“If the moviegoers had all been armed…”) More importantly, it resonates because the new libertarians — along with others on the right — have given up on governmental structures (Law-making and Law-enforcement) as a viable means of “defense against tyranny.” One need only stop and ask: if libertarians are nodding when Ice T says the Second Amendment protects the “last form of defense against tyranny”, what “other forms” of defense exist, before or apart from the need to personally“keep and bear” arms in contexts of oppression, which have in their estimation utterly failed?

Well, surely forms of social defense against tyranny: those forms of “law and order” secured through (ideally) democratic, social processes. The new libertarians are confident that it is not the government’s job to make new, more or better social Law; its only role is to enforce the individually possessed rights already established by the US Constitution and Bill of Rights. The government just is the court-house and the police department. It has no say on how society should be organized (that’s the job of the free market!), its realm is restricted to safeguarding the property rights of individuals…even if these are “inalienable,” “God-given” rights each individual, in theory, possesses. And so, when we find ourselves in situations where existing structures of law and order break down, or are ignored by the “lawless criminals”, we cannot and should not look to our political representatives for help or guidance; we cannot and should not have any serious national discussion about ways to collectively augment, expand or transform existing legal and punitive structures. “Government” is not the means by which we should seek to better establish and secure our collective freedoms and rights. When fear of “the other” reigns, social processes can’t be trusted — so it becomes every man for himself.

en. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., center, leads a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2012, to criticize the sale of high-capacity magazines for assault rifles that are sold to the public.

Perhaps we should pause here, and raise a question about the juxtaposition between the skepticism of government and of any social means of securing law and order, and a concomitant “every man for himself” mindset, coming from a gangsta rapper (Ice T), and these same sentiments now being expressed by a host of lower-middle class white males, who are, for many legitimate reasons (as I discussed here and here) disenfranchised with our given political establishment. It makes sense to become jaded about “the government” when the one you have isn’t working for you and your community — whether you’re in the Ghetto, or a member of the “new poor” and a newly-disenfranchised member of the quickly disappearing American middle class. As I stated above, Ice T is coming from a community with intensely personal  knowledge about  profound systemic oppression and state-sponsored violence. And perhaps it is the case that many erstwhile conservatives are newly attracted to the anti-government rhetoric, because we live a moment at which many more Americans now see a bit more clearly, and feel a bit more personally, how their needs and interests too, are being swept aside by a political system that caters to an elite class of citizens. But if this observation is on target, we might want to take the next logical step, and think about how the proliferation of unregulated, deregulated, or simply illegal guns has played itself out in the community Ice T is coming out of. We might want to draw some connections between the poverty and social alienation of those in America’s ghetto, and the role guns serve in that context of acute social and political oppression as a means of enforcing extra- or il-legal systems of “self defense”, and of securing of one’s own possession there. In short: if those who resonate with Ice T’s comments in the wake of the Aurora shooting do so because they feel profoundly threatened and abandoned, and because they see the “right to bear arms” as the only means of absolving that fear and securing themselves and their loved ones against those threats, we might want to ask ourselves: do we have here anything other than the logic of gang violence — a social context in which one’s only perceived means of “security” is violent defense of oneself and one’s own, by any means necessary — disguised as “personal liberty”?

And what of those who do think that government is, or should be, a means by which we can legitimately enforce newer, better law, a means of moving toward a more decent, humane social order? What of those who might think the ubiquity of heavy assault weaponry in US streets has something to do with thousands of senseless murders every year, and who believe  “government” — for all its obvious corruption — might yet, if we can find the political and social will, still be a means by which we can and should do something to augment the ridiculous “freedom” to “keep and bear” machines that allow madmen to act upon their psychotic tendenices with more precise and effective violence?  Well, they are the enemy, too — the puppets of Big Bad Brother; the mouthpieces of political tyranny. And so, with 12 more civilians dead and many more permanently scarred, the defenders of the individual right to legally “keep and bear” whatever will assuage our fear of the Big Bad Other can hear them coming ’round the bend, murder stats and law-books in hand, to take away our freedom.

Advertisements

7 thoughts on “Reasons not to be a “Libertarian” (2): Aurora, Ice T, and the “Right to Bear Arms”

  1. We’d probably agree that speech is a bigger threat than guns to modern democratic states. However, I liked the suggestion that the firepower of the police and military should be severely curtailed.

    As far as owning nuclear weapons, libertarians like Murray Rothbard believe the only just use of force is in self-defense. Because of the collateral damage inflicted by weapons of mass murder, those weapons by their nature cannot be pinpointed to exclude damage to innocent people and their property. By that standard, no one has the right to own or use nuclear weapons, rockets, biological weapons, aerial bombing, ect.

    I have a response to the portion where I inferred that you would favor it if that government had some role in determining how society should be organized and so forth. I didn’t want it to get lost in this comment, so I will comment separately to address that point. In any event, I think it would be helpful to define our terms like “free market,” which to me is just a metaphorical expression for the consensually regulated exchange of goods and services.

  2. I can understand the sentiment that if society is going to be organized in a rational way, that it takes some sort of planning or organizing. Libertarians don’t dispute that planning needs to be done. But by whom, by the multitude of individuals in a community all of whom have competing notions of a ranked sets of values or a central authority operating under a unified plan? My concern is that central planning distorts the information necessary to make the best use of available resources. Even if a single unified plan could be devised that accurately quantified a ranked set of values for a community, there would still the question of how to use the available resources, almost all of which have a multitude of possible uses in a modern economy, to bring that plan to fruition. The advantage of a decentralized market approach is that all of this information is revealed through the price system. Planners could make broad generalizations that it would be difficult to make social progress if the literacy rate were only 30 percent, but they could not be certain what trade-off should be made to improve literacy rates except by referring to market prices. Central planners may be intelligent and well-meaning, but they do not have the sum total of knowledge (much of which is unquantifiable anyways) that is possessed by market participants.

    Not only should we be diligent about the corrupting tendency of central planning, another secondary concern is that central planning is not as adaptive to change as is a market process. The market process is more of an evolutionary process that allow people and institutions to adapt to changes of the most suitable means to be applied to the most highly sought ends at a given time. Interesting enough, this critique of central planning represents a dis-economy of scale for big business and is one of reasons that (nominally) private hierarchical organizations have difficulty surviving on their own merit.

    Thanks, and I look forward to reading your thoughts.

  3. Justiin,

    Thanks for another set of insightful comments and questions. I agree in principle with the sentiment you attributed to Murray Rothbard, that the just use of force is only applicable in situations of self-defense, and of course I”m happy with the conclusion you draw — that “no one has the right” to own or use weapons of mass murder. I’d be interested to hear how you think this relates to my argument here, however. Firstly, if their ownership/use isn’t grounded in any constitutional right, should there not be some regulation as to not just their ownership/use, but their production and distribution? Secondly, I think my concern here was to show that, in the mainstream libertarian response to this recent massacre (and I assume related events where more or better weapons “regulation” is being called for), the basic ideals ascribed to (constitutionally defined liberty, rights) are articulated in such a way that pits defense of these ideals (e.g., the “right to bear arms”) in diametrical opposition to any serious conversation about what we, as a society, are actually most “threatened” by, and in opposition to any and all “regulation”. For example,., the implication is: “like” the second amendment on a Facebook post if you know the government obsessed liberals are behind any and all concerns about regulating automatic assault weapons! What do you make of my point that the tone in which such mainstream libertarian ideology speaks today reflects a media-manipulated fear of “government” and “regulation” as such, and that this plays itself out in these scenarios in such a way that the ideology is actually enhancing perceived rather than reasonably grounded fears, and further distracting us from necessary conversations about our social context?

    (I’ll respond separately on your question about social organization and government.)

    • should there not be some regulation as to not just their ownership/use, but their production and distribution

      Sure, a gun should perform as its manufacturer say it should. If not, that could be fraud, and fraud should be illegal. Since a gun, unlike a nuclear weapon, may be used with such precision as to avoid injury to non-aggressors, I would recon that a person (or a group of people) has a right to own and sell that property.

      … and further distracting us from necessary conversations about our social context?

      As far as what we are most threatened by, the prohibition of consensual behavior (like recreational drug use) is the root cause of most violent crime.

  4. Okay — first of all, I’d want to resist the either/or you posit between organizing society based on either a “unified central plan” or through a “multitude of individuals…all of whom have a competing ranked set of values.” I think this falsely poses the problem of democracy, which in my view is based not simply on how to “balance” the power-interests of inherently competing and opposed individuals, but is rather tied to the need to hold accountable privatized (or narrow) interests that would, if allowed, usurp common goods. In other words, my social and political philosophy presupposes that human beings — and thus every human community — are composed of individuals with certain common needs and interests, and rights to common goods (or, to economize that idea, “resources”) that are readily available to meet shared needs and facilitate the flourishing of shared interests.

    Based on this, I view the role of government — that is, simply the organized representation of a particular community’s shared needs/interests through law — as the means by which a community orders its common life (through the democratic making and enforcing law) so as to faciliate the meeting of those shared needs and to protect access to the goods required to do so.

    In my view, democracy is necessary as a means of preventing specific interests (particularly, those backed by the most capital or a concentration of resources) from organizing society in a way that elevates their own narrow interest (specifically, the desire for profit) above the shared needs and interest of ordinary human beings. In other words, whether at the local, state or federal level — I believe law should function as a conduit to protect the interests of the majority; yet, I also believe that in our capitalist context, democracy is stifled and the meeting of shared needs/interests are quite often suppressed. Finally, I believe that it is historically demonstrable that there is a direct relation between this stifling of democracy and suppression of people’s common goals, and either loosening or sheer lack of regulation at whatever communal level (federal, local, etc) in a market economy.

    I don’t have a positive definition of the “free market” to offer you, because I believe it’s a myth (or, more positively, an ahistorical “ideal”); yet I believe if you took its mainstream advocates as representative — from Milton Friedman to the libertarians I’m talking about today (such as governor of my home state, Mississippi, Phil Bryant) — it is simply defined as a market that is “freed from government control and/or public regulation”. Now, given my views on the role of law in facilitating common needs and protecting common goods (which entails restricting private usurpation of these goods and curtailing private influence over public issues), perhaps you can understand why it makes absolutely no sense to me to think that corporations for whom profit is the bottom-line would restrict their activity based on the real consequences it would have for the basic human needs of the communities their production and products will effect, if not required to do so by law. To take one example, it makes no sense why, in a “free market” system — either the typical ideological version, or your more nuanced one — corporations for which pollution of a certain enviroment (which is commonly shared by citizens) is a necessary by-product would, out of some potential moral compass, invest in serious inquiry into the communal and environmental effects of their activity, and adjust their production (which would entail loss of profit) accordingly. I see no alternative to social law — again, at whatever level — as the means of curtailing the detrimental activity guided by such narrow economic interests. I am also worried about the fascism entailed by overly “centralized” power, but in my view, that’s not how democracy functions when its system of law functions to curtail private interests, rather than in a capitalist context in which law-making and -enforcing institutions are dominated by and susceptible to private interest. The answer, to me, is not to shift law-making authority to some more “localized” level — at which, the actual consequence would be less power/authority for law-makers to impose any meaningful restriction on corporations or private power — but to have a politically engaged and organized citizenry, which is involved in the protection and nurturing of a strong democracy.

    Now, as to your worry about “central authority” and misinformation — it’s not patently clear to me what you mean, but in any case I don’t see how whatever problem that existed there would not exist at any level of law-making or social organization. That’s why, for me, the need for a free (i.e., independent of private interest) press is essential to a functioning democracy. I’m still developing my thoughts on this specific problem, but again, I don’t see how a “free market” system would do anything but encourage the collection and distribution of information to go further in precisely the direction the mainstream media has in the US — that is, essentially a propoganda machine, which quite naturally filters and conveys market (and other social) information in a way that is favorable to those who own and fund the news enterprise.

    Finally, you’ll have to say more, or point more towards other resources, about the “price” system conveying reliable consumer information. From what I know of the idea, I find it simply preposterous — all the most essential “information” consumers need to know, not simply about what they “want to buy” (which is, in an age of corporate advertising, already a “created” or manipulated desire in many instances), but about the real effects of products and business practices on their lives — e.g., the environment, — “price” shows itself to be a dreadfully insufficient means of conveying essential information about how the market is working and the real “gains” or “losses” entailed by specific businesses and means of production.

    • I’d want to resist the either/or you posit between organizing society based on either a “unified central plan” or through a “multitude of individuals…all of whom have a competing ranked set of values.” … I think this falsely poses the problem of democracy, which in my view is based not simply on how to “balance” the power-interests of inherently competing and opposed individuals …

      I said it a bit clumsily, but by “competing,” I just meant that each person holds values that are cardinally ranked against other values he or she hold. I didn’t mean to imply that the interests of others are necessarily opposed.

      The dichotomy I am presenting is that purposeful resource allocation can be made by either central planning or by the price mechanism. Both systems can coexist, at least temporarily, but the increase of one comes at the expense of the other. I don’t consider central planning to be stable system because planners (be they voters or administrators) cannot allocate resources to their most highly valued ends, leading planners to abandon their plans or to buckle down with further interventions until the economy is entirely controlled.

      … the means by which a community orders its common life (through the democratic making and enforcing law) so as to faciliate the meeting of those shared needs and to protect access to the goods required to do so …

      Just about everyone supports meeting our common needs, the question is how to do it. How are people to know that satisfying those shared needs are the best uses of the available stock of resources? Specifically, on what basis should voters determine what should be produced, in what quantity, of what quality, by whom, where and how? If resources can be effectively allocated by voters to satisfy their basic needs, why should the government stop there? Why not full-on democratically elected state socialism?

      Don’t get me wrong; I’m on board with the idea of forming communities so as to have fuller and more affordable access to the necessities for a full life. What seems like a non sequitur is idea that institutionalized force helps to facilitate that goal. My argument has been that the price system can more reliably coordinate and make the most of people’s opporotunities for cooperation.

      In my view, democracy is necessary as a means of preventing specific interests … from organizing society in a way that elevates their own narrow interest (specifically, the desire for profit) above the shared needs and interest of ordinary human beings.

      I agree that democracy is a necessary condition, but we know it is not sufficient. We might even agree that the pursuit of honest (emphasis on honest) profits doe not conflict with the interests of others. In a market system, a narrowly self-interested person who wants to benefit himself in an honest way has to put his energy into serving others.

      To take one example, it makes no sense why, in a “free market” system — either the typical ideological version, or your more nuanced one — corporations for which pollution of a certain enviroment (which is commonly shared by citizens) is a necessary by-product would, out of some potential moral compass, invest in serious inquiry into the communal and environmental effects of their activity, and adjust their production (which would entail loss of profit) accordingly.

      Polluting other people or their property is a criminal act, according to libertarians like Murray Rothbard. Oh, I do consider myself an ideolog, someone who thinks and acts on a consistent set of ideas. 🙂

      Finally, you’ll have to say more, or point more towards other resources, about the “price” system conveying reliable consumer information.

      I wouldn’t say “reliable.” I would say that the price system makes a fuller use of the fragmented, incomplete, and sometimes contradictory knowledge that exists among millions of individuals in a modern industrial economy.

      From what I know of the idea, I find it simply preposterous — all the most essential “information” consumers need to know, not simply about what they “want to buy” (which is, in an age of corporate advertising, already a “created” or manipulated desire in many instances), but about the real effects of products and business practices on their lives — e.g., the environment, — “price” shows itself to be a dreadfully insufficient means of conveying essential information about how the market is working and the real “gains” or “losses” entailed by specific businesses and means of production.

      A more informed and ethical consumer base would improve any system. But with any given level of consumer knowledge or morality, putting these production decision to a majority vote would improve upon the price system how?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s