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.

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The Radical Meaning of the Second Amendment

This is the eighth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The Second Amendment to the United States’ Constitution was meant to strengthen a check on the power of any Federal army: the state militias. The Founding Fathers were prudently wary of standing armies, especially large ones kept in time of peace. Such armies were the concrete means by which tyrannical Federal plans could be actualized in force. The state militias offered the possibility of resistance, but only if they were maintained at readiness.

The Second Amendment is merely the most prominent of several interrelated constitutional checks on the Federal government’s power to raise and maintain a fighting force, and is not the only one concerned with the militia.

  • Article I, Section 8 grants Congress these powers:
    • To declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water;
    • To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years;
    • To provide and maintain a navy;
    • To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces;
    • To provide for calling forth the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions;
    • To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the militia, and for governing such part of them as may be employed in the service of the United States, reserving to the states respectively, the appointment of the officers, and the authority of training the militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;
  • Article II, Section 2
    • Grants that the President of the United States is to be commander in chief of the militia of the several states, but only while the militia is on duty in the actual service of the United States.
  • The Second Amendment states: “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
  • The Third Amendment states: “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”

To be fully understood, the Second Amendment must be seen in the context of all of the above Constitutional provisions, as well as in its larger historical context. I will not here provide the full historical context of the Second Amendment. What I will do instead is break the text down into sections, explicating each from the perspective of that context.

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"Kids These Days," And Other Snipes

Billy Beck, the best blogger out there, brought Fred Hiat’s June 9 meditation on the "’Bush Lied’ story line" to my attention. Hiat argues or implies that

  1. The Rockefeller report, which has been taken by the "Bush Lied" partisans as clear-cut vindication of their claims, in fact shows that Bush did not lie, but rather based his pre-war claims on bad intelligence.
  2. "Bush Lied" partisans continue to make their claims apart from all evidence.
  3. There will inevitably be times when the president is called upon to make a judgement call based on imperfect intelligence.
  4. Once the president and his military advisors have judged that military action is necessary, it will be necessary to spin such imperfect intelligence until it appears to unambiguously demand a military response, in order to get the gun-shy American people behind the effort.
  5. The Bush administration may very well have spun the imperfect intelligence too hard in the lead-up to the Iraq war, but the "’Bush Lied’ story line" threatens to undermine the president’s future ability to spin intelligence to the American public.

Beck seems to have found point 2 above to be the most worthy of comment. He links to a commentary on the Hiat piece by a hand-wringing Catholic matron (Elizabeth Scalia) who sees bad omens in the pervasive Gen-Y perspectivism that is intimately familiar and obscenely comfortable with the partisans’ habit of making claims apart from all evidence.

Scalia’s take? Too much egoism in our young, combined with an infotainment diet saturated with satire and irony is leading to the Nazification of the U.S. (She doesn’t make her point quite this explicit.)

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The True Nature of Government

Government is force.

What Really Limits Government?

Force limits government. First, government is limited by the force it has at its disposal. A government whose agents are armed only with truncheons is far more limited than a government whose agents are armed with machine guns, tear gas, and the hydrogen bomb. Second, government is limited by the force its subjects have at their disposal. Finally, a government is limited by the force other governments have at their disposal.

A constitution can limit a government no more than blueprints for a dam can limit a flood. A dam must be built of something concrete, and likewise a government must be held back with force of arms.

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The Practicability Gap: A Recap

This is the sixth entry in my Antistatism Series.

The last two posts in this series, “Practicability,” and “Heaven, Hell, or Hades?,” showed that Ayn Rand’s politics is incomplete because it provides no sufficiently realized account of limited government’s practicability. Objectivism states that a government of delegated and enumerated powers, limited to the purpose of enforcing the principle of individual rights, is requisite in order for man to reap the benefits of social organization. Objectivism does not, however, make any explicit argument that such a government can actually be established and maintained.

Objectivists, of course, universally believe in the practicability and sustainability of limited government. If they believed otherwise, their politics would be futile and impractical, and therefore immoral by their own standards. Since their philosophy lacks any explicit argument for the practicability and sustainability of its core institution, how do they justify their belief?

As we have already seen, Objectivists justify their belief in limited government by gesture to the first century of American republicanism, roughly 1789–1889. (The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 makes a convenient bookend.) This brief golden age of free minds and free enterprise is for Objectivists a “proof of concept” demonstrating the practicability of limited government. The fact that limited government failed, or is in the midst of over a century of slow, ugly failure, does not, for Objectivists, indict limited government itself. Rather, the Objectivist view is that American Constitutional government was doomed to failure from the start because it lacked a proper philosophical foundation. Now that Ayn Rand has provided that foundation, they believe, it has become possible to restore limited government and to maintain it.

Any Objectivist, therefore, can stand on one foot and explain in two words why things have a chance to be different next time: Objectivist philosophy. The question is: does this explanation count for anything, or is it just empty posturing?

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For a long time I had a banner on the Agonblog’s header with three graphics running across. The third graphic was a snippet of a title page for an art song: Franz Schubert’s “Seligkeit.” (In English: “Bliss” or “Blessedness.”)

How dearly, dearly I love this song. Its first two verses wistfully contemplate the joys of heavenly life: joys beyond accounting, endless dancing and singing and recitation of Psalms. The lilting waltz is so easy and sweet one has no trouble at all imagining translucent 19th-Century Viennese twirling to its rhythm in some celestial ballroom.

In the last verse, however, the airy but pious waltz transforms into lighthearted, prankish laughter. The young man singing about heaven has second thoughts. If a certain girl would favor him with a meaningful glance, he’d just as soon forget about heaven, and stay earthbound forever.

More than a hundred years later, Ira Gershwin cut a rug nearby to Schubert’s when he wrote these lyrics:

Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
Methus’lah lived nine hundred years
But who calls dat livin’ when no gal’ll give in
To no man what’s nine hundred years

Who indeed?

Nietzsche once asked, “Who among you can at the same time laugh and be exalted?” Apparently Franz Schubert, the Gershwin brothers, and Frank Loesser, for three.

Seligkeit’s lyrics, in the original German and in English translation are available here. Various recordings of the song can be found for download here. There is a lovely rendition in this young soprano’s online repertoire. And, if you find yourself in the market for Seligkeit, I recommend starting with Elly Ameling.