Monday, June 20, 2011
Does the Second Amendment provide a practical check on the abuse of government power?
Steven L. Taylor wrote this article over at Outside The Beltway (please go read it before continuing here), to 'disprove the myth' of a Second Amendment remedy to tyranny. Although it was that article which has prompted me to write this, and much of this will be phrased as a response to same, please don't take this as an "attack" on Dr. Taylor.
First and foremost, I reject the nature of Dr. Taylor's premise- that the government would be "transformed into a functional authoritarian state bent on tyrannizing us". Anyone involved in libertarian politics knows that such transformation happens gradually, not immediately; and for each step of this transformation the Second Amendment offers a remedy. These remedies, taken together, form 'layers of security' against government action.
Tyranny often begins with a percieved threat to public safety, requiring the public to surrender a little bit of their individual liberty, and some tax money, in order to allow government to 'combat' the threat. The Second Amendment remedy to this? Simple: Individuals prepared to protect themselves effectively are more immune to such scare tactics than those who are unprepared. Naturally, the government response has been to use "public dangers" to enact gun control laws- depriving the public of those weapons best-suited to the task- and to erode individual self-defense rights in order to frighten the public with prosecution for righteous uses of force. People who are poorly-armed and afraid to act will, naturally, surrender to government 'protection'.
Tyranny builds when government agents openly violate civil liberties- and the remedy to this, is a guaranteed right to resist individual incidents of offensive government action. Highlighting this is the recent Indiana Supreme Court case on this subject- INSC decided that government may openly violate individual liberties, and individuals may not forcibly resist this violation (ignoring 800 years of legal precedent on this subject).
This leads us to the next "layer"- Active resistance. In this case, we're talking about a "soldiers on street corners" and "secret police" level of government oppression. The public right to bear arms is essential to covertly resist this level of tyranny. In the most extreme case, the Second Amendment provides the ability of the public to resist government by means of organized, concerted guerilla warfare, should government become so offensive that there is no other recourse.
I accept Dr. Taylor's belief that the citizenry would likely lose in a war against the government- if such a war took the format of the American Revolution, i.e. a large government army squaring off against a large force of citizen soldiers. Modern revolutions, however, are largely unconventional in nature: the purpose of warfare isn't "decisive victory", but rather, to frustrate government action, and to make said action extremely costly in terms of both money and blood; and to prolong the conflict until the public at large grows weary of it.
Besides, Americans historically reject the notion that "resistance is futile".
The surest way to avoid the necessity of revolution is to restore the natural checks and balances on government force found in our Constitution. This speaks to the absurdly incorrect "collective right/individual right" dichotomy of Second Amendment thinking. Our Founders intended the federal government to have a Navy but no Army (indeed, the Constitution only authorizes Congress to raise an army for a period of two years). By this model, the federal government maintains, or can raise, the forces needed to combat immediate threats outside our borders, but the responsibility for domestic defense of the United States rested with the states, who maintained militias which could be called to federal service only with the approval of state governments; these militias, being composed of volunteers supplying their own weapons (the Second Amendment!) who would refuse service if they found the purpose of their activation offensive- hence, the often-quoted (and occasionally disputed) statements from our Founders about "individual discretion" of arms, in both public service and in private self-defense.
In other words, the abstract purpose of the "well-regulated militia" clause is to prevent a federal monopoly on military force. At that time, it was achieved by securing the instruments of force with the people; in the modern day, the same effect can be achieved by other means (see below).
So, again we see "layers of security" with regard to government authority- domestic defense is the responsibility of the states; state militias are composed by private persons, who supply their own weapons; the federal government may not compete with the states by having its own domestic army; and if an army is needed, the federal government must source it from the 50 state armies, with the approval of the states' governments. This model effectively prevents the federal government from exercising the "Founding-era fear", as Dr. Taylor put it, of standing armies, without the overly-simplistic "let's just get rid of the Army" sentiment.
Naturally, in the modern day, we can't do without a standing army. Threats appear so fast that by the time Congress could "raise an army", the "war would be over". We can, however, replicate the effect of the "Founding model"- by disbanding the National Guard, which is nothing less than a federal domestic army masquerading as a states-controlled force. Return responsibility for domestic defense to the states, via their state defense forces (which, thanks to federal laws enacted at the turn of the century, are little more than ceremonial units today, but that can change quickly enough), and the supremacy of the US military as a domestic tool of tyranny would be abated.
So, to review: The best way to ensure that a government monopoly of force wouldn't be used against the public, is to prevent a monopoly on force from existing in the first place. This means iron-clad rights to protect life and property and individual authority to use judicious force, as a remedy to "public safety" scare tactics; an iron-clad right to resist government abuses, rather than a requirement to submit; a balance of military power between the federal government and the state governments; and central to all of this, both in principle and in practice, is an uninfringed Second Amendment and a prepared, conscientious public, willing to defiantly cry "Come And Take Them!".