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Guns and liberal autonomy

Paul Craig Roberts has a useful column summarizing recent studies on the relationship between guns and violence. Not surprisingly, the studies show that widespread gun ownership reduces violent crime by enabling law-abiding citizens to respond appropriately—that is, immediately and forcibly—to violence and the threat of violence.

So why the widespread vehement opposition to private gun ownership? The basic reason is that liberals do not believe that people can or should be expected to govern themselves. Autonomy is the supreme liberal value, but liberal autonomy means freedom from moral judgment and is poles apart from self-government. In sexual matters, for example, it means the right to be licentious rather than the obligation to draw distinctions and exercise restraint.

Hence liberal opposition to the institutions through which people govern themselves in daily life. Such institutions subject freedom to a web of informal standards and restraints. To liberals, they are therefore oppressive. Marriage means wife-beating. Parental authority means child abuse. Patriotism means xenophobia. Local social cohesion is discriminatory. And ordinary moral standards are bigoted and hateful. Autonomy means you can use your freedom any way you wish, and no one has the right to criticize you for it. With that as background, isn’t it natural to assume that private gun ownership means that every argument over a parking place will turn into a shootout? If people have the right to have guns at all, how can they be expected to use them one way rather than another?



First, that’s a clear and concise explanation of an issue that often confuses people: the difference between the liberal belief in freedom and the non-liberal or conservative belief in freedom. To liberals, freedom is freedom from moral judgment and moral authority. To conservatives, freedom is self-government.

Second, opposition to gun ownership emerges in this analysis as the very epitome of liberalism. Since liberals reject the network of mutually enforced moral judgments and mutually accepted moral authority that is the basis of any free, i.e., self-governing, social order, since they deny the very possibility of self-government, they can only conceive of private gun ownership—which is at the core of a self-governing social order—as anarchic and criminal.

I assume we’re using “self-government” to refer to both the individual and the community. If so, what happens when the “web of informal standards and restraints” is ineffective? When the individual so governs himself as to violate the standards of moral authority, is he *only* subject to criticism. Or may the traditional police powers of the state be put to use?


Law can guard and reinforce informal standards and restraints. I have nothing against traditional police powers.

I think the obvious answer is that if an individual behaves so badly that the informal network of restraints is not enough to constrain him, then the formal powers of the state are needed to step in.

The interrelationship between the two is key. In a healthy free society as America once was, there is a mutual reinforcement between formally recognized authority, including that of the police, and the informal network of agreed-upon moral standards shared by all citizens. For example, once upon a time in America if a child was misbehaving or making noise in a neighborhood or some public place, an adult not related to the child could reprove him, and the adult would be backed up by other adults including the child’s parents. This certainly happened to me when I misbehaved as a boy. This was an example of the informal network of mutually enforced and voluntarily obeyed behavioral standards. Today, by contrast, a non-related adult takes a risk in chastising a child. He cannot exert normal adult authority over a child because the larger network of authority, including the formally recognized authority of the child’s parents, won’t back him up but is more likely to attack him.

Similarly, in the old days, if a teacher exerted authority over a troublesome student, the teacher could count on the school officials to back her up. Today, in any confrontation with a student the teacher is likely to find herself stabbed in the back by the school administration, thus destroying her own, less formal, authority over the students. So she stops exerting any authority, and the whole institution goes downhill.

So the lower-level or less formal authority depends on the support of the higher-level or more formal authority. But at the same time, without an informal, mutually enforced moral consensus, there cannot be any formally instituted authority either.

The informal networks of authority and the formally instituted authorities are mutually dependent on each other. Together they constitute a society.

I agree, more or less. But I think this is a matter of confusion for many who call themselves conservative. Such is the pervasiveness of liberal assumptions today that many on the right assume it is impermissably authoritarian to enforce laws based on orthodox notions of public morality. (Whether liberal federal courts would permit such enforcement is another question.)

In the absence of Mr. Auster’s “healthy free society” of the past, should traditional conservatives endeaver, in localities where they can, to deploy these police powers anyway? Or do we have to wait for that web of informal restraints to be reestablished?


It’s hard to give a general answer a question like Mr. Wleklinski’s most recent one. What can and should be enforced is always a matter of judgment.

“The informal networks of authority and the formally instituted authorities are mutually dependent on each other. Together they constitute a society.”

Can’t we say we have both today and that our transcendent faith is managerial liberalism?

There is the rub. When liberals fire back the question “but which tradition!?” it is not an entirely empty inquiry. It is in the nature of concrete particularity to be concrete and particular. Abstract traditionalism can only go so far before it takes one of two tacks: 1) make unprincipled exceptions, i.e. adopt some earlier and weaker liberalism and try to force-fit it into a traditional model or 2) answer the question of which specific and concrete tradition best constitutes and serves the good, the true, and the beautiful. There seems to be an intrinsic radicalism, an ontology of repentance and conversion, and a doxological character in any true traditionalism. These make it quite distinct from what we might normally think of as the cool heads of don’t-throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater conservatism. To echo Mr. Kalb’s words from earlier blogs, the future belongs to radicals.

Every actual society has more health in it than disorder. Otherwise it couldn’t last a day.

The reason liberals have bad consciences, and liberalism is perpetually reformist, is that liberal society is necessarily incomplete. It relies on things it can’t justify. Functioning families, for example, can’t be explained on liberal terms. Consequently, liberal society always has informal networks of authority that are altogether at odds with formally instituted authorities. Otherwise it couldn’t exist at all.

For that reason traditionalist radicalism can not be absolute. The effect of Christian conversion is to convert what one already is. One’s culture and human connections remain mostly the same, although they are reoriented. (Islamic conversion is different—one is no longer a member of the same people, but of the single universal nation of Islam living by a single universal comprehensive law.)

Sure. Constantine did not destroy the empire nor even embark on a complete purge of paganism. Taking pagan Rome as a parallel, I’m not sure how things like the Declaration of Independence or the American Founding can maintain their place of importance in the presence of a putative neo-Constantine.

It isn’t all the day to day connections among people that seem inconsonant with a (non-absolute) traditionalist radicalism or revival of Christendom. It is the maintenance of things like reverence for the founding and the empty public equal-choice rituals we call democracy that I personally have a difficult time making coherent with any sort of traditionalist radicalism (or any tendencies at all that are categorically anti-liberal, for that matter, traditionalist or otherwise).

If democracy were stripped of all its actual political authority, as the pagan rituals were under Constantine, it might be possible to still allow the exercise of the ritual as a sort of cultural show with no political teeth. But since the whole point to the ritual of voting itself is equally free exercise of political power (though in actual fact it is empty ritual that simply affirms the voter’s personal alliegence to the liberal principle of equal freedom, providing legitimacy to managerial liberalism as the actual repository of power) I don’t see how it could possibly work. If you don’t categorically repudiate democracy then how can you categorically repudiate liberalism? That seems like categorically repudiating Catholicism without repudiating the Mass: possible perhaps in principle but certainly not in practice. And if democracy is repudiated how much of the American founding is left to shoehorn into a traditionalist worldview?

These are all honest questions that genuinely trouble me, by the way. I prefer not to leave any “more terrible reforms” lurking beneath my own subtext. They always gum up the undercarriage.

Obviously the Declaration of Independence, Founding and elections would have to be understood in a different sense than what’s accepted today.

That doesn’t seem so far-fetched. The D of I is mostly a statement recognizing that the King has broken his political tie to the colonies by waging war against them, the Constitution mostly an arrangement to allow the existing American societies to continue to govern themselves while providing for their security and economic development. Neither is perfect from a traditionalist standpoint, but neither is perfect from a liberal standpoint either. And in a country with no settled aristocracy or monarch letting officials of a limited government be chosen by vote (not by a national electorate or universal ballot, by the way) doesn’t strike me as a categorical commitment to democracy.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with autonomy, self-rule, freedom, equality or democracy as limited aspects of something larger. The problems come when those things are made ultimate standards. And as practical political measures I don’t see why the D of I or Constitution have to be interpreted as making them ultimate standards.

I have trouble thinking of any meaning to ascribe to equality (to take it as an example) that doesn’t make it either an ultimate standard or no standard at all. If all that equality means is justice or whatever (as opposed to the deliberate exclusion of facts from decision-making) then why use the terminology? Just using the terminology at all implies that it adds something new to a concept of justice or human dignity; and that “something new” always comes in the form of anathemetizing certain known and actual truths (facts).

For any two actual things to be equal, their particular distinctions have to be abstracted away. The things that make them unique and actual have to be eliminated or made irrelevant. I don’t see how a moderate or subordinate sense of equality is even possible: it either destroys everything particular or is an empty (but dangerous) concept that adds nothing to an otherwise inherently discriminatory concept of the good.

This line of discussion is not new, of course. The answer I always get, and which doesn’t seem to me to solve the basic problem, entails an assumption (perhaps a nominalist assumption?) that equality as a concept is something that can be controlled, modified, altered, willed into subordination to tradition and particularity. It can be made to be what we traditionalists will it to be.

I am not convinced that this is possible. Equality seems to me to be either a completely empty concept meaning nothing (perhaps even a positive celebration of Nothing) or a categorical concept that makes all an abstraction, destroying the relevance of anything particular (just a different modality of a positive celebration of Nothing).

Now we might be able to find some concept that is entirely distinct from equality and give it the label “equality”. Two problems with that approach include the fact that it is on the one hand dishonest and on the other it encourages and validates nominalism-to-postmodernism.

If we were to comprehensively enumerate a list of anathemetized discriminands (e.g. race, religion, sexual preference, etc) and the circumstances in which they are to be anathemetized (criminal trial, apartment leasing, etc), and we further were to expressly say that all other particulars are fair game for discrimination, the abstract concept of equality again becomes empty and irrelevant. Of course this is exactly the approach of modern adherents to the celebration-of-emptiness we call equality.

And I further do not see how, for example, the D of I can be taken seriously at all without taking that “all men are created equal” footnote into account.

So if we are not nominalists then how is it that we think we can take objective things like the Declaration or equality and make them submit to our traditionalist will?

Equality as a limited aspect of something larger just means that the larger system treats persons or things equally in some ways. The concept can become relevant descriptively and even morally without eating up everything else, just as the concept of hierarchy can.

A peer of the realm can be the peer of other peers, and he can even say he likes it that way without becoming an egalitarian ideologue. Similarly, he can assert superiority in rank to an ordinary citizen without thinking he can take his hounds and go hunting for ordinary citizens when there’s a shortage of foxes. The whole idea of a good social order is that while abstractions like equality and hierarchy describe aspects of it they don’t get out of bounds.

Some kinds of equality do seem to me morally basic. For example, it seems to me that we all equally have the right not to be treated simply as disposible waste or as raw material for a cat food factory. That’s because we have that right simply because we are human beings and we are all equally human beings, just as all rocks are equally rocks. The principle might seem trivial but it was repeatedly breached on a huge scale in the last century.

Other instances of equality are matters of positive law: the law might give all the native-born adult inhabitants of some territory the right to participate in the election of some official, and give each one vote. If so, then in that political respect those people would all be equal. It might even be a very good idea to treat them all equally that way. Or it might be a matter of national tradition. It does not seem to me that such instances of equality, even if people are attached to them and regard them as fundamental to the established order, necessarily means that equality has to become the supreme principle that devours everything else. They could just be part of the established rights of Americans.

As to the D of I, it seems to me a legal document draws its meaning mostly from its purpose and function. The purpose of the D of I was to declare a dissolution of political ties and the concrete reason it gave was conduct by the King inconsistent with their continuance. It wasn’t intended as sacred scripture or as a means of legislating abstract philosophical principles forever and no-one at the time thought it did. Its status as divine writ was a later construction. Why do I have to buy into it? Why can’t I view the D of I as a good political act that in its preamble incorporated a misleading political theory?

Constantine did not destroy paganism, but neither did FDR, JFK or LBJ purge Christianity. Still, what we have now is a new paganism, maybe not the blood-and-soil kind, but paganism nonetheless.

1.) We have myths of equality that serve as a rationale for a ruling class that supports a priesthood of experts, managers and bureaucrats. Both private and public sectors are crammed with these people.
2.) We’ve mythologized our own history into a grand saga of ever-increasing liberalism and state power.
3.) We have a de facto civil religion of doctrines, personalities, and political gestures that one must abide to avoid being marginalized, sued or otherwise harassed.

Instead of healthy harvests or bread and circuses, the new idols promise us bull markets, sexual liberation and personal peace.

This religion does not directly attack American Christianity; rather it marginalizes it into mere mysticism and personal devotions. You can believe anything you want as long as you keep it to yourself. What you say in public must respect the official orthodoxies.

In reply to Mr. Kalb:

We’ve managed to branch into two quite separate issues.

The DoI clearly entails the assertion of a particular political act (its function) and a justification for that act. Whether the actual function of the DoI—political separation from England—was in itself wise or foolish or moral on some unstated basis I don’t have a strong opinion. Clearly the express justification of that act was a continuation of the Protestant/French Catholic subjugation of the church to the state rather than a repudiation of it. If someone wanted to say that it was a good act performed for all the wrong reasons I would not object, mostly for lack of a strong opinion.

On the other question, of whether the independently existent thing we call equality is or is not inherently a fundamental principle if adopted at all, we have to be careful about language. People have thought it wrong to treat others as disposable waste without ever introducing the concept of political rights or political equality; and quantitative equality certainly exists as something independent of political prescription. As much as I would like to accept Mr. Kalb’s analysis and leave it at that—and I truly would—I think that I have the same problem with it as Mr. Auster has expressed with the Pope’s apparent embrace of liberal principles. I think—I could be convinced otherwise, but it seems quite clear to me at this point—that both Mr. Kalb and the Pope are attempting to use modern language to describe ancient concepts which are utterly distinct from the modern counterparts to which the labels are generally applied.

I think that the objective reality to which the label “equal rights” or “political equality” is generally applied—and has been applied at least since the reformation—is as I have described it, and that when the Pope or Mr. Kalb use the terms they are talking or intending to talk about something utterly distinct; not a modality or limited application of the same thing, but something fundamentally different. The one deceives people into believing in the other, though, in my view. This is the “same label different reality” scenario from my previous comment, and in my opinion it does us no good to encourage the conflation. These are not just names.

Mr Carver’s analysis is right on target, although I do not know why earlier actors such as Jefferson and Hamilton were excluded from the list of exemplars. I would also recognize that Election Day is the civil religion’s concrete and personal Mass, in which respectable people participate in a sacrament expressing their personal unity with the faith.

I don’t see how “the express justification of that act was a continuation of the Protestant/French Catholic subjugation of the church to the state.” To the extent the question of state control of the church played a role—and in the D of I it’s not evident—the intent was more “a repudiation of it,” as later evidenced by the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

As to equality, I am not proposing it as a war cry. All I am proposing is that it has a legitimate meaning that is not exhausted by its modern misuse as an ultimate comprehensive principle, just as the principle of leadership has a legitimate meaning that is not exhausted by the Fuehrerprinzip. The Round Table symbolized hierarchy and achievement as well as equality. It was not a sort of proto-Soviet.

I agree with everything Mr. Carver says. All I’d add is that there’s something artificial, forced and ideological about the new religion. People feel odd about it, and it can’t be accepted consistently without destroying the social order it dominates.

I don’t think the equality aspect of our discussion is going much of anywhere. I obviously have not found a way to make myself clearly understood: I don’t remember saying that Mr. Kalb was making equality a war cry, and I clearly acknowledged that the word as a label attaches to legitimate meanings that are completely distinct from the political-liberal concept of equal rights. My assertion that those other meanings are categorically distinct seems to be important only to me: certainly no one has disputed that assertion directly or indirectly.

As far as the break with England is concerned and the subsequent establishment clause, I realize that protestant spin is that religion becomes less subjugated to state thereby. Spin is not fact, though. The reformation and the later Louis’s invented a divine right of kings to make church subject to state; to free the state from the church that was its only political conscience with teeth. The result was that church became an official department under the state, and the political checks and balances of Christendom were destroyed. The American establishment clause removes even departmentally legitimate political authority from the church, further subjugating it. So I see the establishment clause as continuous with the exhaltation of state over everything; of the nation-state’s emancipation from the formal power of the church as its conscience. On this reading the United Nations as secular papacy is particularly ironic but I think quite accurate.

The establishment clause, at least as interpreted to prohibit all government recognition of religious authority, has the effect of making the church a private association with the same status as a chess club. In the long run (i.e., once formal restrictions on government power turn out to be hollow) that does I think make it subordinate to the state.

Still, your claim was that “the express justification” of independence was “a continuation of the Protestant/French Catholic subjugation of the church to the state.” Ultimate actual effect is not the same as express justification, and non-establishment is not the same as Anglicanism or Gallicanism.

I agree we’re not likely to have a meeting of the minds or even join issue on equality.

“Freedom of religion” was clearly an important express justification (of the act of political separation, not the DoI itself as a document). If freedom of religion means converting religion from politically authoritative conscience to chess club then it doesn’t seem like a particularly strong claim to say that doing so was part of the express justification. I think it is clear that some of the founders, especially Jefferson, understood themselves to be doing exactly that. But I think part of what is going on is that we are being reduced to textual hair splitting on trivialities because we have not joined issue on the more important points. Perhaps some other time.

I don’t want to re-start this whole discussion at this point, but I think Matt is unjustified in equating Mr. Kalb’s moderate endorsement of equality with the Pope’s ideological endorsement. As I will try to show in the near future by putting together various statements of his, John Paul II is in key respects a modern liberal who sees equality as the organizing principle of society. The same is not true of Mr. Kalb, as Matt certainly realizes.

Well, I object to the notion that I was asserting that they were “equal” 8^] …

I’ll take a last shot here by setting aside my strong ontological claims about the various objective things we might denote with the phrase “equal rights”, and instead make a much more lightweight claim primarily about language and its proper use. Tastes great, less filling.

Assume for a moment that it is possible and valid to use the phrase “equal rights” completely truthfully and accurately to describe some actual moral truth.

I contend the following:

1) It is never necessary to do so. To the extent that words can denote moral truths, one does not ever have to use the phrase “equal rights” to do so, and indeed such use is an entirely modern phenomenon.

2) Using the phrase “equal rights” carries liberal baggage with it, even if unintended. Even by expressing something morally true using the phrase one inherently grants credence to liberal moral lies.

Now, since we have an action (the discursive use of the phrase “equal rights” in such a way that it is associated with truth) that is never necessary and always harmful, one should never do it; that is, it is categorically wrong to do so. And since it is categorically wrong to do so yourself, it is morally good to discourage others from doing so.

That is a far weaker set of claims than the ones in my prior comments, but I think it nonetheless demonstrates that it is wrong to associate the phrase “equal rights” with anything that is true. It requires one to recognize that you might be technically correct in a specific use of language without being morally correct to make such a use.

This gives rise to a bit of an antinomy itself, though, if one believes that moral truths are objective. If it is morally wrong to use the phrase to describe something morally good, how is it possible for such a use to be (morally) true? Obviously a (moral) innacuracy has been thereby introduced.

(I still believe that technical correctness is missing as well, but clearly I have been unable to make a convincing case of that to the rest of y’all).

I think there are specific, limited senses in which human beings are equal and in which the idea of equality of rights is true and could be used without harm. For example (and I hope Matt doesn’t feel I’m going over to the other side when I say this) generally speaking (and there are specific exceptions of course) human beings, by their nature as human beings, have an inherent right to life, liberty, and property.

I think that there is an ontological sense in which that approaches truth, but that merely by expressing it in that way one introduces an error. I deliberately avoided going into the ontology any deeper because, despite all evidence to the contrary, I was trying to be as clear as possible.

The point in my previous comment was to note that even if we postulate the idea of equality of rights to be true in some sense it is always morally wrong to express that truth in that way. That might not be true in a different historical context but it is certainly true in ours. Expressing it in that way gives credence to this era’s most powerful lie, and since it is not necessary to express the underlying ontological truth in that way one should not do so: one should find a different way to say it. To express it (“it” being some underlying moral truth) as “equal rights” is to engage in an unnecessary deception, and once one understands that fact it is expressly wrong to do so.

The ontological question is more interesting to me than the discursive one, though, even though it is more difficult to communicate given that we are all steeped in modern language.

Often people use the word “equal” simply to refer to the act of abstraction, independent of any quantification. Mr. Kalb might say that all chairs are equally chairs, and thus and so follows from that observation, for example. Some observations about the abstract and concrete cases of that usage:

The word “equally” is completely empty of meaning in the abstract case unless it expresses a quantity. Saying that all chairs are equally chairs does not add any new knowledge to the statement that all abstract chairs are chairs, so why not just state the tautology “all chairs are chairs”? Introducing the word “equal” tells us nothing new, even though introducing it implies that we are being told something new. So the introduction of it as a qualifier in the abstract case lies to us.

In the concrete case, where we are talking about (for example) two actual physical chairs, the statement is either manifestly false or has a meaning only accessible to God. A chair made of jello is manifestly not equal to a chair made of oak; certainly the burden is on the person making the claim to say in what specific sense they are equally chairs and how that sense should be considered meaningful, that is, what consequences the assertion implies.

Let me move to the moral claim to apply it to current discussion. Mr. Kalb made the claim that all human beings have an equal right not to be treated as raw material for cat food, for example. That (the assertion of equality) also seems to me to be manifestly false. There is a sense in which only God can judge the inner worth of a human being and in that sense the worth of any human being is inherently inaccessible (which is not the same thing as equal), but given the choice between treating Mother Theresa as raw material for cat food or the guy who raped and killed that six year old girl in California, the latter is the obvious choice. It is certainly true that both have a right not to be treated as raw material for cat food (though I think the formula “it is categorically wrong to treat them as raw material for cat food” is more accurate for reasons already stated), but those rights are not “equal” in any sense accessible to humans.

Christian tradition requires us not to judge the intrinsic moral worth of human beings. To categorically state that such worth is “equal” is just such a judgement.

In reply to Matt, I certainly did not say that people have equal moral worth. I said that they have the equal right to life, liberty, and property—the bare minimum of what is required to have a human life. That’s why they are rights, because they are inherent in the fact of human nature. His point about the rapist/killer in California is besides the point. Obviously a murderer has abrogated his right to life.

However, maybe there is something to Matt’s idea that nothing useful is gained (and much harm potentially opened) by saying that the right to life, liberty, and property is “equal.” After all, even the Declaration of Independence does not speak of equal rights per se. It says “All men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Men are equal in that, as men, they are created with certain rights. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the rights themselves are “equal.” It could be enough to say that human beings have the right to life, liberty and property, without saying that they have the EQUAL right to life, liberty and property.

However, maybe this is only a rhetorical difference which fails to meet Matt’s objections.

I understand what Matt is saying at best fitfully, but a couple of comments might be relevant:

1. If you take what the guy in California did into account in deciding how to deal with him then you’re not treating him simply as raw material for cat food. To compare his moral worth with that of Mother T is to suppose that the two participate in a common human nature. But if they share a common nature then whatever follows simply from sharing in that nature—for example, subjection to ordinary moral standards—applies to both equally. Again, this is an utterly trivial point theoretically but history shows that it is not trivial practically.

2. The issue is not whether traditionalists should take equality as a standard that is generally useful but whether they can approve a political system that incorporates a great deal of equality. I think they can.

If all I can get is the discursive point then I will accept it gratefully. Using the word “equal” creates the deceptive impression that one has said something more than one already said without using it.

My last comment was in reply to Mr. Auster’s latest.

On Mr. Kalb’s latest comments:

On #1, it seems to me that part of our common human nature is the fact that we are all actual, particular, differentiated humans. To ignore our particular actuality and what our particular actuality entails is to deny our humanity; to make us into empty abstractions. That is precisely what the liberal idea-of-equality does.

To #2 I don’t have any objections assuming Mr. Kalb is simply saying that a society that acknowledges abstractions is still OK, and in fact acknowledging abstractions is a necessary thing that human beings do. I think it is morally wrong in our historical context to use the word “equal” merely to describe the use of abstractions, though, because it creates the impression that the liberal idea of equality (the abstraction of actual human beings to an empty nothing) can be easily mistaken for it.

OK, even I couldn’t parse that last sentence. It should read:

I think it is morally wrong in our historical context to use the word “equal” merely to describe the use of abstractions, though, because it creates the impression that the liberal idea of equality (the complete abstraction of actual human beings to an empty nothing) should not be categorically rejected.