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The Catastrophic Failure of the Second Amendment

This is the ninth entry in my Antistatism Series.


The Second Amendment is a historical relic of an attempt to "put teeth" in the right of revolution, to put a general and pervasive fear of violent uprisings into Federal officials, and, in the final analysis, make an honest woman out of "popular sovereignty." It failed — utterly, completely, catastrophically.

The practicality of the Second Amendment’s principles depends on a number of social conditions, all of which could reasonably have been thought to have been present in American society at the time of the drafting of the Constitution. None of these conditions can reasonably be thought to be present in American society now.

  1. Military-grade weapons are readily accessible to the general population.
  2. At least a basic understanding of individual rights and the proper role of government is prevalent in the general population.
  3. An intellectual leadership exists that is able and ready to incite revolution or rebellion when needed.

Another way of putting this is that, for armed revolt to work as a last-resort means of restoring a decaying society to a former state of liberty, the people must have the means and the motive to defend their liberty, and must be able to recognize the opportune time to act.

I believe it is highly improbable that the ideological conditions that make armed rebellion a credible check against unlimited government will ever again be realized. But even if a significant minority of the people understood and were willing to defend their rights as individuals, and even if the necessary intellectual leadership were in place, the balance of power, measured in materiel, has irrevocably shifted to the government. The imbalance will only become more pronounced with time.

The Second Amendment and some of the narrower ideas upon which it rests have therefore passed their expiration dates. It is pure rationalism, abstraction without connection to the facts of reality, to think that the Second Amendment is as vital an idea today as it was in the time of the founding. The reason is: division of labor has changed the balance of power between man and state.

Division of Labor

In the time of the Founding Fathers, the weaponry that the regular army held and used was not all that different than the weaponry held by the irregulars and militia. If militia and regular army had met on the field of battle, it would have been, more or less, a meeting of equals, measured in the materiel on each side. Furthermore, as I indicated in my previous post, there were far, far many more men in the militias than in the regular army. In its historical context, the idea behind the Second Amendment, that the people could overturn or turn back a rogue and formerly limited government by force, was entirely plausible.

It did not remain plausible long, however. As government holds a legal monopoly on the retaliatory use of force, government agents naturally become a society’s specialists in the use of force. Specialists are better than hobbyists at what they do. A lot better. Militia men could have plausibly stood against regular army soldiers in the 18th Century. Today, the notion is absurd. It has been proved absurd at least since the War Between the States provided its object lesson in the futility of armed rebellion against the Federal, or, rather, National government, an object lesson provided at a time, I might add, when the division of labor had not advanced nearly so far as it has now.

Soldiers’ weapons have developed even more than have the soldiers themselves. Militia flintlocks were a match for regular army flintlocks. Modern-day militia forces are a joke, but if militia men could somehow attract significant numbers, they would still be grossly outgunned. Specialization and division of labor ensure that civilian armaments will never again challenge government armaments.

This is true for a number of reasons. I will treat of three of them now, in order of increasing importance, but note that any one of these reasons on its own is fatal to the (narrower) principles of the Second Amendment.

The least important fatal objection to the principles of the Second Amendment is that the division of labor and innovation have given rise to weapons of mass destruction: chemical, biological, and nuclear. The Second Amendment’s principles (SAPs hereafter) require that the general population possess the materiel to respond in kind and in force to whatever a tyrannical government might throw at us. In principle, since the SAPs endorse open access to all weapons, the SAPs endorse access to chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, for all people. Now, fortunately, most people probably cannot afford a nuke, but a yahoo like Ted Turner might swing it. Think about that for a moment or two.

Nuclear yahoos aside, WMD are probably (I am not a military strategist) totally useless for freedom fighters trying to forcibly rein in their own government. These are weapons that are useful for poisoning, plaguing, or melting large swaths of general populations, but are only tools of regime change when the regime to be changed is foreign. WMD could be used, for example, to put an end to the Iranian regime: simply kill enough Iranians and, poof, no more regime. For a people to challenge their domestic regime by the same means is plainly suicidal.

There does not seem to be any benefit to allowing the proliferation of WMD to extend into private hands unchecked, as the SAPs require. It might be suggested at this point that the SAPs are still sound, but need revision to account for the development of WMD. Perhaps the right of the people to keep and bear arms should now be infringed, just a little, just at the fringes? In response to this nauseatingly inane idea, for now, I will only ask: On what principle?

Even if one could somehow square the SAPs with the rise of WMD, there would remain at least two fatal flaws in these principles. Even more deadly to the SAPs than the problem of WMD is the increasing deadliness of weapons generally. Certainly machine guns are far more deadly than flintlocks, and even one rogue citizen so armed could do quite a bit of damage to his neighborhood innocents, but there are very good reasons to think this is no argument, itself, against the Second Amendment or its principles. No, it is not machine guns, or even tanks or rocket launchers that undermines the SAPs, but weapons yet to come, weapons that have not been invented yet, but will be.

As human specialization under the division of labor increases, as the capital of innovation accumulates, weaponry must approach its asymptotic limit of deadliness. The perfect weapon would be easy to maintain, affordable (for some state or entity’s treasury), deployable by a single individual, require little training, and would be capable of incapacitating every human being on the planet.

There is no evidence (that I am privy to, in any case) that such a weapon will be in production anytime soon. Nonetheless, it is an unassailable truth that this, or something enough like it for the purposes of my argument, is the ultimate target of all weapons research and development.

In their original historical context, the SAPs-in-action were reasonably expected to have at least two great benefits. First, an armed citizenry would act as a deterrent to government aggression against rights. This deterrent effect would, in turn, defer the inevitably necessary Second American Revolution, in effect buying more years of peace and prosperity. The overall effect of the SAPs-in-action was to be socially stabilizing, promoting homeostasis of the body republic. This was an especially salutary benefit in the wake of revolution.

The second great benefit was that the SAPs-in-action acted as a catastrophic insurance policy for the republic. When the inevitably necessary Second American Revolution came, the people would be primed.

In contrast, when the advance of technology is taken into account, and projected, even with conservative estimates, into the future, using the deadliest weapon possible as the asymptote, one does not find depicted a stabilizing influence on society, nor an insurance policy hedging against future catastrophe. One sees chaos and an unending chain of catastrophes. The goal of all politics should be to bring force to heel under the lead of mind. Ultimate weapons aside for the moment, rayguns and assassin droids disbursed to the fans of American Idol and the subjects of Cops does not for a prudent social policy make.

The final and perhaps least-obviously fatal objection to the SAPs is subtle and pregnant with consequences, most of which will not be examined presently. It is this: the division of labor and the accumulation of capital, while inexorably leading toward the ultimate weapon, are also leading to, to put it as simply as possible, some very expensive weapons.

Even if WMD are taken out of the equation, even if we believe that, somehow, weapons a thousand times more deadly than anything available today would still be well placed in the hands of Average Joe, there is no escaping that the day Average Joe is able to afford keeping an F-22 will fall well after the day that government pilots will have become cyborgs immune to heavy gees, able to react on a timescale that makes strictly human pilots look like they are sitting still, and will be flying craft that make the F-22 look like a rickety crop duster.

Because a government specializes in the use of force, it will always have the best weapons, and the absolute difference between the aggregate destructive capacity of the materiel in government control and that in private control will only increase over time. It has simply become too expensive for Americans to keep up in an arms race with their own government.

For the reasons shown in these three fatal objections to the principles behind the Second Amendment, and for other reasons besides, these principles no longer lend credibility to the idea of limited government. Without this loan, the idea must default.

There are, essentially, only two possible responses to the now-plain impracticability of a broad-based popular challenge to the martial power of the government: So much the worse for an armed citizenry — or: So much the worse for government.

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