Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Constitution and Virginia Tech

From CWN, a very astute commentary:

The clearest statement I have ever read of the American theory of government came from Ronald Reagan, speaking on Soviet television before his 1988 summit meeting with Gorbachev. I presume the formulation originated from his speechwriters or prep crew. At any rate, it came out in response to an interviewer's objection that Reagan seemed to have forgotten that the Soviet Union had a constitution too.

"You have a constitution; we have a constitution. The difference between our two constitutions is very simple. Your constitution says these are the privileges, rights, that the government provides for the people. Our constitution says: we the people will allow the government to do the following things."

...In this vein, I was struck by an argument made some years ago by a constitutional scholar named Robert Cottrell (then at Yale, I think), who gave the following justification for the Second Amendment (a very rough paraphrase):

In pre-Enlightenment Europe, the notions of nobility and the right to own weapons were interchangeable. To be noble was to be "armigerous" -- a word that means not only to have a coat-of-arms, but more generally to bear weapons. Government was aristocratic, which in theory and in practice meant the government of the commons by the nobles, i.e., the un-armed by the armigerous.

Then two kinds of revolutions shook up the old regime. One was that of the French Revolution and its statist imitations, which obliterated the nobility: all persons were to be citoyens. Rule was by a cadre of political managers, in whom resided all powers of violent coercion. This produced the modern European state.

The other kind of revolution was the American. In this revolution (if I have Cottrell right) hereditary classes were abolished by declaring all men intrinsically noble. Thus all men were rightfully armigerous. Thus the right to bear arms was not to be infringed -- any more than the right to a trial or the right to free speech was to be infringed.

The result was a distinctively American refusal to regard one's governors as one's superiors. An associate at a Washington law firm once told me that a Chinese intern at the same firm confessed her perplexity that many Americans criticized President Clinton so harshly and vocally. When told this was common she replied, "But why does the government let them?" Now that's the voice of the statist.

We see the divide very clearly in the way the decisions made by the European Union are enforced in the member countries. When the state has determined that a personal liberty is to be curtailed, the presumption is that the citizen who resists is in the wrong. Even if a reprieve is granted -- think of the two years given the Catholic Church in the U.K. to come to terms with gay adoption -- that reprieve is viewed not as a right but as a favor bestowed by the state, and at the state's pleasure. In the U.S., though it's becoming yearly less true, government initiatives to curtail freedoms are viewed as wrong until proven otherwise. We the people, to the extent that we still have a say in matter, are less inclined than statists simply to roll over and take it from the government.

Many people will scoff at the "nobility" of an armigerous Nebraskan farm hand with his gun rack hanging in his pick-up. They prefer their nobles more -- dare we say it? -- European.
Like the Europeans, they'll be shaking their heads at the Virginia Tech massacre and sniffing, "if the proper laws and proper enforcement were in place, this never would have happened." In the final analysis there's no reply to this, because it declares a difference of first principles. Sure, we can point to the backpack bombing in gun-free Madrid, and we can ask why a maniac with a match and a coffee can filled with gasoline can't out-Columbine Columbine, but it in the end it's a question of -- when civil amity breaks down to the point that coercive force is necessary -- which armiger we want on the business end of the arms. I'll take the Nebraskan in the Dodge Ram.

As with all lessons from history, let us NEVER forget the philosophy underlying the Constitution--that ALL men are created equal--put another way, that our elected (and judicial) branches are filled with other 'equal' folks.

Not people who grant US rights. Rather, people to whom WE have (temporarily) granted OUR authority to legislate and interpret.

And, in case they forget, it was Thomas Jefferson who said that "Now and then a little revolution is a GOOD thing." (or words to that effect.)

1 comment:

Random10 said...

It has crossed my mind that the victims at Virginia Tech were, like most of us, willing to accept the protection of government, and it thus it is the failure of government on display. This, of course, grossly oversimplifies things, however, by ceding second amendment rights at certain times and places, we assign the corresponding responsibility to authorities who may not be humanly possible to fulfill those duties. In this view, the calls for increasing disarmament and thus even more dependence upon government protection are absurd. It makes no sense to pursue increased safety through increased vulnerability.