Thursday, January 17, 2013

Unlimited Private Gun Ownership or Tyranny: The NRA and the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle

According to the NRA, any amount of gun control either constitutes tyranny or a long step down a very slippery slope leading inevitably to tyranny. To that organization and its more rapid supporters, guns = freedom = democracy. If you do not have a virtually unlimited constitutional right to bear arms, then you live under a tyrannical dictatorship. There is no plausible or acceptable middle ground.

So, we should all extend our deepest sympathies to the tyrannized masses living in chains under "dictatorships" in places like the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, which do not constitutionally protect the right of private individuals to bear arms. The citizens of those countries may not realize they're tyrannized - the poor dupes may have been brainwashed by their overlords and suffer from the deluded belief that they live in relative freedom - but trust the NRA, they are unfree peoples.

Now that Grover Norquist and his "freeedom = no tax increases" mantra have been taken down a peg or two in the rankings of most powerful interest groups, the biggest impediments our country now faces to making progress on important issues to save lives and the economy are (1) the NRA and it's mission to arm every American to the teeth and (2) the AARP and its disingenuous argument that entitlement programs are not part of the debt problem our country faces. If Congress can ever get past the extreme, self-interested positions of those two interest groups, then maybe, just maybe, there's a chance we can deal with the farm lobby on ethanol and other subsidies that make farmers rich, sometimes even if they grow nothing at all. But let's not hold our breaths.

James Madison was certainly right about the dangers factions pose in a democratic society; it was among the reasons he championed republicanism over other, purer forms of democratic governance (see Federalist 10). [And, of course, the same James Madison drafted the deplorably ambiguous Second Amendment to our Constitution.] It's worth wondering, under current circumstances, whether he was right in asserting that the structure of government in the US would keep factions under control by having a large and populous enough federal republic to ensure that many factions would be competing for attention and power, and to some extent cancelling one another out. Did Madison fail to foresee the rise of mega-factions, like the NRA and AARP, which are huge, single-interest groups that can virtually buy politicians? Of course, factions become mega-factions for a virtuous reason: they attract (through various mechanisms, some of which are not so virtuous) many supporters, suggesting that they represent a sizable plurality (though almost certainly not a majority) of the population. Nevertheless, that such mega-factions can actually control, at least in some cases, the legislative agenda of Congress seems to cut against Madison's assertions in Federalist 10, and supports the more pessimistic assessment of interest groups offered in the second half of the 20th century by Mancur Olson (see here) and other Public Choice theorists. 

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