Sunday, February 28, 2010

On libertarians and the right to bear arms

I had a rather heated online discussion the other day at the blog Cafe Hayek. Entries on this particular blog vary from poignant economic insight, to sheer partisan drivel. But if you can excuse some of the quizzical rants, you can actually find some good libertarian/conservative arguments. My discussion the other day started because the author linked to an article ranting about the right to bear arms and this raised a few issues with me, most of which remain unresolved.

1) If you believe that the constitution grants you the right to bear arms, and that this right should not be impinged in any way, my argument is essentially that you logically must believe that every single citizen has the right to build a nuclear warhead in their back yard, drive an abram's tank on the D.C. beltway, walk around NYC with a pocket full of anthrax, take assault rifles into public schools, etc. Any law preventing either of these scenarios would surely violate the "right to bear arms" tenet that you so strongly believe in. I'm taking extreme examples here, but any strict constitutional or libertarian argument would have to agree with this and any reasonable thinking human being realizes that this would be sheer lunacy and our country would be in ruins in no time.

So, if we throw away the purely libertarian argument, we essentially have to draw a line in the sand that says what arms we truly have the right to bear. I don't claim to know the answer to that, but I'm pretty sure that intra-continental ballistic missiles should be banned, and bb-guns should not. In between is an enormous gulf which I don't wish to get into, but this is where serious arguments can happen.

Should we ban any item that has the potential to kill more then 10 people in 60 seconds? How about anything that can be concealed? Explosives? Projectiles? The ways that you slice up 'arms' could be infinite but I trust that some ways of slicing can strike a reasonable balance between individual liberty and societal welfare. That's a scary thought to libertarians, and if you take a stance on either end of this spectrum I'll grant that your argument is logically consistent. If you however give an inch by agreeing that c-4 explosives shouldn't be allowed on airplanes, you leave yourself open to virtually any attack on the 'right to bear arms' because you clearly don't stand behind that right with all your weight.

2) I have even less patience for the logic behind the constitutional argument than I do for the libertarian viewpoint which I attempted to deconstruct above. Quite frankly, the constitution is wrong. It has been wrong in the past (3/5ths law anyone?), and will be wrong in the future. That's why we have amendments, and I feel strongly that the current incarnation of the US constitution is far better with amendments than it was in its initial framing. As a document, it has surely held up fantastically well over the years, but the day we treat it as scripture is the day when this country is left standing still in an otherwise moving world. How I loathe religious like deference to the constitution....

3) Of course, not all arguments about the right to bear arms defer to the constitutional or libertarian reasoning highlighted above. A well armed populace really might be the best deterrent to crime. While I don't necessarily agree, we could have a lot of heated discussions looking at facts, figures, and natural experiments to see how safe loose gun laws really make us. Depending on what those studies say, I'd have a very open mind. This is a discussion worth having, but best left to another day.

4) Trying to look at the libertarian argument in this one case was kind of illuminating and made me realize that I'm not at all sure of the difference between libertarianism and anarchy (aside from the fact that one sounds so much more academic and intelligent). I fail to see how a single law would pass were it to be judged against the criteria that if it restricts an individuals freedom it is not worth having.

Libertarians avoid potentially calamitous claims about murder or theft by saying that you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn't infringe on the rights of others, but I'd love to hear cogent deconstructions of drunk driving, smoking, speeding, etc. All of these cases can potentially be areas where you harm someone else, so do we allow them? Do we allow some, but not others? Where do we draw the line?

What about wearing a seatbelt or a helmet? By not wearing a seatbelt you're sure to need more medical care when you get into an accident and the costs of this will rarely be recovered from the individual. Make no mistake about it, we all pay more whether its through taxes or insurance premiums to subsidize foolish choices such as riding a motorcycle without a helmet or eating McDonald's 5 days a week. Isn't this an infringement on my rights which in turn could lead to laws to limit this behavior?

5) I've been told that: "A true libertarian asks one question, and one question only about a political policy: does it increase individual liberty? If yes, then a libertarian is for it. No, against."

Presumably restricting the freedom of individuals to restrict their own freedom if they so choose is the one exception...

6) All this criticism and I consider myself a libertarian. Just not a crazy one.

*posted on my blog, fingerprints.and.snowflakes*

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