One of the more interesting arguments one hears these days from gun control advocates is that “there is no good reason” for anyone to own an “assault rifle” (or high volume ammunition clip). Sounds logical, no? What possible reason could one have for owning such a weapon, capable of killing so many people so quickly, other than to stock up for terrorism or mass murder?
What is interesting about this argument is not that it is correct—it is not. “Assault rifle” is a made up term rooted in scary looks more than killing capacity and “semi-automatic” can even include pistols. Nor is the bullying nature of the argument new. One often hears liberals deride those who disagree with their opponents as irrational creeps bent on hurting other people (just try telling a liberal that you believe same-sex unions are morally wrong—the “bigot” charge will be immediate and strenuous). And it is not interesting that the “no good reason” argument often succeeds in putting defenders of the Second Amendment on the defensive. It is, after all, difficult to defend a right on utilitarian grounds (like self-defense) when the government has so thoroughly assumed that role, or to defend the importance of a leisure or sport activity when the other side claims that eliminating a specific (if vaguely defined) type of weapon will “save lives.” That last argument is easily disproven by the simple fact that Great Britain, which bans so many weapons, has a violent crime rate several times our own. But it remains powerful on an emotional level for solid emotional reasons—“it will save children’s lives” always is a good slogan, and one for which one always can come up with examples and hypothetical situations, even if they do not translate into effective public policy.
What makes the “what good reason do you have for this” argument interesting is that it has gained credence in the United States—a nation that once prided itself on valuing liberty, with its federal government granted only limited powers to carry out specific tasks in the public interest. If there were no Second Amendment I still would have a problem with current gun control arguments because they assume that the federal government has a right, even a duty, to demand that we justify our choices, rather than the federal government having to justify, with solid evidence and a clear basis in the text of the Constitution, its proposed regulation.
Increasingly over the last several decades, and at a breakneck pace under the Obama Administration, the traditional American presumption of liberty has been reversed, becoming a presumption of federal power and control, to which there may (or may not) be exceptions made. Two examples: First, you do not want to buy health insurance? We think that choice would cost money to our insurance system, so we will make this choice, in essence, illegal by penalizing it through the tax code. And what basis is there in the Constitution for the federal government’s power to mandate your being part of its health care system? Why, health is a good thing, so of course we can do that! Second, you do not want to pay for abortion-inducing drugs for your employees? Again, that would get in the way of the government’s policy, here of providing “emergency contraception” at no extra cost, so we will make that illegal as well, unless you meet extremely narrow criteria, in essence establishing that you are the equivalent of a convent.
The list could go on. The point is that Washington now assumes the authority to regulate pretty much everything in the name of some good—usually “security” against some bad thing. It is up to us, the citizens, to prove in each circumstance that we have a right to be exempted from the general power of regulation. This is a long way from a free society with a federal government of enumerated powers.
The problem with pointing out this reversal in presumptions—from one of liberty in the people to one of power in the federal government—is that before long it comes up against policies most Americans consider sacred.
Why can the federal government require that we participate in a national health insurance scheme? For reasons of economic security, so that we all are “guaranteed” health care—even though the system will bankrupt the middle class and subject all of us who cannot afford to ignore it to increasingly bad and dehumanizing treatment. The logic of federal healthcare should be familiar, if discomfiting, because it is the same logic used to require that we all pay into the Social Security system (so that the government can “afford” to write checks to older folks, “guaranteeing” them financial security). Of course, as we are seeing, putting the federal government in charge of this “security” makes it a vast, ever-expanding program that has grown incessantly until it threatens to bankrupt the nation; and it already has dramatically undermined the living standards of younger people struggling to raise their own children.
What option do we have? None. Decades ago, in part through understandable panic during an economic emergency, Americans gave up on taking care of our own elderly in our families, churches, local associations, and even state governments, instead allowing it to become a “federal function.” So now we all must participate and wonder how much we will end up paying for what, if any, return as the long postponed bills come due in a society that has decided the federal government can replace family and local ties.
For decades, now, conservatives who warned that the welfare and administrative state were steadily moving us toward European-style social democracy have been dismissed as cranks spouting crazy conspiracy theories. And we will continue to be so dismissed, right up until the time when it is announced that any opposition to our long standing social democratic policies is reactionary, so out of step with the times and even tradition as to be crazy and dangerous.
Liberals are able to characterize an accurate description of the welfare and administrative state as crazy in part because so many Americans misunderstand the term “socialism” to refer only to Soviet-style communism. But, of course, what we are getting is nothing so clear and obvious. Instead it is a typical European brand of social democracy, complete with elections and lots of administrative “safeguards” to make us feel good about the services being provided to us by our federal governors. We can even pretend we have retained our liberty because we vote every once in a while, if we like, for some of the people who run and tinker with the machinery that rules an increasing part of our lives. But elections for such powerful governors and various forms of complaint “mechanisms” do not equal free government. And what has brought us to this point is the view that the federal government “must” address whatever problem is upsetting us at the moment, regardless of whether the Constitution grants it the power to do so.
A nation that demands all good things from its government eventually cedes all power to its governors. It was not so long ago (within my memory, at least) that Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of a democratic “soft despotism,” in which the government would tend to its people like children, was taken as a serious warning. That warning has for years now been treated as such a trite cliché as to be not worth mentioning. Warnings ignored become reality, become clichés.
There is another passage in Tocqueville I hope does not become an utter cliché. Tocqueville once observed that the man who demands of liberty anything but itself is born to be a slave. Perhaps we were not born to be slaves, but we have chosen to give up our liberty for security, and should not be surprised that the result will be that we stand alone and unarmed in front of a powerful state that tells us what do to—for our own good, of course.
Americans appear, for the moment, not to want to join with our European role models in calling our administrative and welfare state a social democracy—at least not yet. This is why the “single payer” government run healthcare option was passed by in favor of a system in which the federal government merely tells everyone what they can and cannot do. But the difference between “single payer” and “single authority setting standards” is far less important than many people seem to think. All things, all activities, all persons increasingly are subject to federal regulation in the name of safety, whether from criminals, the insane, or mere “insecurity.”
And if you want to keep something out of that regulatory structure, you had better be willing and able to supply a darn good reason for the government to create an exception for you—just this once.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.