President Biden’s recent comments about gun shows have started another firestorm of extremely poorly reasoned gun control discussion. How wonderful.
This isn’t meant to be a data-heavy exploration of whether or not certain gun control measures reduce violence, etc. Plenty of those have already been done by individuals with more time than me. What I want to do is briefly explain some of the ethical underpinnings of this debate, and why I am skeptical of gun control broadly.
Critical to understand: “Freedom” is not about having a particular set of formal rights. It requires a particular distribution of material power.
If my rights exist at the mercy of an entity more powerful than me, of what use are those rights?
Democracy on a sufficiently large scale is nothing more than a system in which elites propagandize the people to support their elite interests and legitimize those interests through “the will of the people” as expressed through voting. What this means, of course, is that democracy beyond the local level doesn’t actually lead to anything approximating equality or freedom. It is simply a different form of oligarchy.
Democracy simply launders coercion through claims to authority/legitimacy. It does not radically shift pre-existing power dynamics, it just obfuscates them. Power does not dissipate, it re-structures itself in order to take advantage of this new decision-making/authority-granting process:When consent is a precondition for authority, authority will learn to manipulate people into consent.
Freedom does not exist when material power is concentrated and decision making is formally distributed to the people, allowing an oligarchy to launder their interests through the legitimization scheme of “voting”. Freedom exists when material power is distributed, and all decision makers in the polity are visible/de-obfuscated and able to be held accountable.
People should be armed, and anyone with a modicum of sense should be striving to reduce the material power of the State and private corporations so as to make sure individuals do not live at their mercy.
Of course, this is exceptionally difficult for the oversocialized. Those individuals who still Trust the Science and believe that our institutions are worthy of wielding authority will continue to believe that the State has our best interests at heart and needs no pressure to pursue those best interests. A brief perusal through history will prove this sentiment hopelessly naïve.
On that note, another point: Most rulers don't want to rule over a slagheap. The "hurr durr how are you going to fight drones with machine guns" argument is stupid. You need boots on the ground to enforce your rule. Hence, small arms become useful in a resistance (see: every US war since 1960).
What is crucial to grasp is that one can (and perhaps should) centralize formal power while simultaneously distributing material power. An unarmed “democracy” ruled by elites shrouded in endless layers of bureaucracy so they can pillage the country and avoid responsibility for doing so is no good thing. A great tragedy of our world is that it is not even clear who we should be mad at for our institutions crumbling and our society tearing at the seams.
This may perhaps seem contradictory: how can you centralize “formal” power while also distributing “material” power?
For those unfamiliar with how I use these terms, “formal” power refers to the power to make decisions. It is analogous to “authority” or “deference” in many frameworks. An elder in a tribe may be physically frail, but may be turned to and followed when it comes to important decisions about the tribe. “Material” power maps more clearly on to the colloquial notion of “power”. Physical strength, weaponry, defensive walls, etc. are all examples of material power.
So, what do I mean when I say that we should centralize “formal” power while distributing “material” power and how does that interface with this discussion of gun control?
“Centralizing” formal power is centralizing decision making. Giving smaller numbers of individuals the authority to make decisions and making it clear who has authority/who is responsible for governance (or lack thereof) in each area of the society. To larp as a French revolutionary for a moment, the most democratic thing you can do in a highly complex and federalized society is make it explicitly clear who should be gui**otined when things go wrong.
Of course, this centralization of decision making power can lead to the perverse incentives associated with “power corrupts.” How do we prevent this? You need there to be serious and palpable risks to intentional bad governance. In other words, you need the people to effectively threaten the elites. You can only have this occur when the people are significantly more well-armed (as a whole) than the elites. Incentive structures and power dynamics rule the world around us. If we are to eliminate bureaucracy, let us not replace it with something even more terrible.