by Micah Tillman
As I was preparing for my Wednesday lecture (school ain’t out for the summer for everyone), I was reminded that Plato was a libertarian. Almost an anarchist. For instance, he thought:
If we were as we should be, no one would want anything to do with government (I, 346e-347d). Taking care of the distribution of goods is why the market exists (II, 371b-371e). Government and guns are related in essence; the former only arises in response to violence, and consists primarily of what we would call “the Force(s)” (II, 373d-374a, III, 412b-414b). Church and State should be separate entities (IV, 427b)
Of course, once you were forced to bring in a government, Plato was also in favor of propaganda, censorship, and euthanasia; and he was against private property amongst the ruling “Force(s).” So he was also far from the libertarian ideal.
But it’s in his view that government is primarily a physical power that Plato finds himself allied with the fundamental position of libertarianism and classical liberalism. He only manages to avoid the obvious consequences of that position through an elaborate system of education for his governors, which would train them not to use their monopoly on force against their fellow citizens.
Classical liberals, however, find such an idea noble-but-laughable. If government is a physical force, the only thing that will hold it at bay, that will keep the peace, is another physical force.
Hence the Bill of Rights in general, and the 2nd Amendment specifically. For those who see government’s power as being primarily physical, government becomes an object of fear, something against which one must protect oneself. So limitations on government are enacted by law, and the citizens are “given” the right to defend themselves — both in court and “in combat.”
Thus, if your reaction to the Supreme Court’s striking down DC’s handgun ban was relief or jubilation, you’re a classical liberal (or maybe a criminal?). If it was despair or anger, you’re either in government or a neo-liberal (“progressive”).
For progressives/neo-liberals, government’s power is understood not on the physical model (of unilateral, coercive, negative force), but on the economic model (of two-sided, exchange-of-goods, win-winning). The group with the greatest economic clout is the de facto government of a place. And so long as you see that group as “your” government, rather than Sam Walton’s corporations, you’re going to view it as a potential partner, not a potential threat.
The reason people would need to defend themselves with guns, therefore, is that their fellow citizens are threatening them. The only way government is a part of the problem is by its not spending enough money on programs to educate citizens not to threaten each other, or on programs to keep citizens busy working rather than taking out their economic frustrations on each other.
The citizen’s proper protection, then, is government social initiatives, not handguns. Freedom from fear depends on government enablement, not on limited government. True independence is ensured by the economic investment of government in communities, not by the ability of citizens to physically defend themselves.
So our reactions to the SCOTUS 2nd Amendment case, and our feelings about the fact that on Friday we celebrate the day which kicked an armed conflict into high gear, tell us a lot about ourselves and each other. But we must be clear about what we are being told.
The issue is how we answer the question, “What is government?” and specifically, how we answer the question, “What kind of power makes a group the government?” The division is not one between bitter clingers and the noble intelligentsia. Nor is it between the evil and the good.
It is between two fundamental, and immanently rational views of the type of power which defines government. The progressives/neo-liberals are wrong, of course: government’s power is first and foremost physical, not economic. But at least we can figure out where our true disagreement lies, and where the true stupidity lies.
The stupidity is in thinking the primary issue is stupidity.
Micah Tillman (micahtillman.com) is a lecturer in the School of Philosophy at The Catholic University of America.