Sunday, 21 July 2013

Freedom and Guns

There's been a lot of talk about the Martin/Zimmerman case since the verdict.  It's everywhere - of course it's everywhere, it's a big story.  Much of the discussion has, naturally, focused on race.  Trayvon Martin's was a death that resulted in part from racism, as well as from macho swagger and the presence of firearms, and it is clearly true that a young white man would not have aroused George Zimmerman's suspicions in the same way as Martin did simply through being black.  This is a terrible thing and it is right to bring it up.

But from this side of the pond, one of the most shocking parts of it all is that Floridian law is set up so as to enable people to kill one another almost with impunity, which utterly negates the power of the state and invites individuals to seek justice or resolve differences violently and on their own terms.  Floridians, to some extent, may as well be living under anarchy.  The idea of private gun-ownership is seen as lunacy over here, and justifiably so (not even our policemen carry guns!), but in the US it is seen as entirely sensible that each armed person be a republic of one, capable of enforcing their own laws at the pull of a trigger.  Florida's Stand Your Ground law is a legitimisation of the kind of violence you'd normally find in a non-state situation.  It tells people: don't rely on the far more sensible mechanisms of the state to help you!  Rely on your gun and shoot people dead with our blessing, even if you started the confrontation yourself.

It is hardly surprising that, because of such insanity, the US has a much higher murder rate than the UK - between four and five times higher, in fact.  The total number of gun murders in the UK is so low that it is within the margin of error of any census, at between 50-75 deaths by firearm per year.  The total number of murders per year in the UK is about 650-750.  There are about 62,000,000 inhabitants in the UK, so that makes for a murder rate of a teensy bit more than 1 per 100,000 citizens (Steven Pinker says, in The Better Angels of our Nature, that it seems difficult to sustain a rate lower than this - 1 in 100,000 may be the best rate you're ever likely to find).

The US has a little over 300,000,000 inhabitants - about five times the population of the UK.  We should expect, given that the US is a similar type of modern democratic state, that the total number of murders should be about five times greater - about 3,500 murders in total, with between 250 and 500 gun murders per annum.  That would make for a similar rate of about 1 murder per every 100,000 citizens per year, a rate comparable to other modern democratic nations, like the UK, France, Australia, and Japan.  It's what could easily be the case in the US in absence of the barbaric laws (and punishments - the US is almost unique in the developed world in continuing to use the state to murder criminals) that we see in place in certain states, and in absence of the useless life-destroying tools that remain on sale despite their self-evident lack of worth.

Instead there are about 17,000 murders per year in the states, with around 10,000 of those being gun murders.  You'll notice that the murder rate is much higher in general, and the non-gun murders in the US are still more, both in total and per capita, than non-gun murders in the UK.  But you'll also notice that guns account for the bulk of killings.  In this respect, Trayvon Martin's death was unremarkable.  The rate in the US is about 4-5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants per year, which gives it a murder rate comparable to Peru's.  It hardly needs mentioning that this extreme level of violence affects minority groups more than whites (although the murder rate is still higher among American whites than among any large British community).

There is a common claim on the American right that the UK has a high violent crime rate, higher than the US rate.  But you ought to be able to see that either this is impossible or British people are exceptionally bad at killing one another.  If British people manage to commit more violent crimes and yet still manage to kill four/five times fewer people, they must be absolutely inept assassins.  (In fact the right-wing meme comes from the statistics used by the British government, which include threats of violence and non-violent confrontations within violent crime stats.)

The idea behind gun ownership in the US is that it is supposed to make you freer in some way.  The classic libertarian position is that guns are needed to keep the government from becoming tyrannical, which is absolutely insane when you remember that the US government has tanks and Apache helicopters, not to mention nuclear weapons and an entire navy.  (You cannot and should not be able to own a nuke or an Apache, and, given this, you cannot expect your armaments to ensure your safety.)  It is your voice and your vote that prevent tyrannical regimes from taking over, not your pistol.

The other way in which it is supposed to grant more freedom is this: owning a gun is supposed to enable you to defend your property from interlopers.  Aside from the fact that this barbaric idea asserts the primacy of property over the lives of human beings (even the lives of criminals should be respected more than a DVD player, I think), this ignores the fact that a police force can do the same thing - much more efficiently, peacefully, and easily with no loss of peace of mind on your part.  It's probably cheaper, too, and less of a drain on your time to pay for the police through taxation than to buy a gun, ammunition, and spend time at the shooting range to actually be able to use the thing.  Reason clearly does not factor in the assessments of gun owners.

The freer you are, the more things you can do.  The fewer things you can do, the less free you are.  That is what freedom is: the maximisation of what you can do.  If you are four times more likely to die in a violent confrontation than another person, then that latter person is freer than you are (caeteris paribus, of course).  If you cannot walk down the street without carrying an expensive piece of human-killing equipment, then you simply are not free.

States work to prevent inter-personal violence by incentivising peace and punishing violence, and they thereby increase our freedom.  We each pay our taxes, vote for representatives, and ensure that our rights are not infringed by one another through the institutions of our societies, among them police, law courts, and elected officials.  These are the things that really keep us free - by which I mean that they liberate us from the fear of and limit the actuality of violence, discrimination, food poisoning, road accidents, and other evils.  This is not as romantic or popular a position as the idea that state institutions are despotic and corrupt and that they are threats to freedom by their very nature.  It isn't as sexy as the idea that a man should protect his home and family with his own hands and tools.  But it is far more sensible and far more effective.

The state is perhaps the most important thing in human history in terms of reducing interpersonal violence.  Non-state societies are often thought of as being freer than state societies, with the claim - repeated by generations of anarchists on the left and libertarians on the right - that we'd all be freer in absence of the law.  They define 'freedom' in a ridiculous and arbitrary fashion, as if you are freer without government intervention, even if this results in the imposition of significant restrictions on what you can do with your life.  They seem to believe that states can only reduce and destroy freedom, when in fact they prop it up.  The existence of states allows you to do more things, and that's just what freedom is.

I've recently been reading a brief overview of the archaeology of post-Roman Europe, specifically post-Roman Iberia, in Bernard Reilly's The Medieval Spains.  Iberia was a relatively secure peninsula in the Roman era, with large, unfortified estates, towns, and cities dominating the lives of most people in the area (Cantabria was an exception, but even the Cantabrians chose not to raid Roman lands for fear of reprisals).  Fortifications were unnecessary; the people were free to live without fortifications because Roman power ensured that there were few bandits hiding in the hills.  Of course, Roman citizens were not 'free' in the sense we think of now (they had a high tax burden and laws that otherwise failed to respect their human rights), but they were certainly freer than the people of the post-Roman world.  This was true not only in Iberia but also elsewhere - the contrast can be seen wherever a state has taken hold of a formerly stateless land.  (My favourite example comes from eastern Indonesia, specifically Nusa Tenggara Timur, in the early twentieth century, but I've written about that elsewhere.)

In the wake of the collapse of the Roman empire, events conspired to ensure that, by the early seventh century, most of Iberia was united in a Visigothic kingdom.  The early kingdom had a lower population density than before and economic activity was clearly much more restricted.  Before the kingdom united the country (weakly - it was far less centralised and powerful than Rome), a situation close to anarchy prevailed.  The Spanish villas had relied on the sale of staples to make money, but that trade declined as centralised power did (southern Spain was a major supplier of wheat and oil for the empire, which is part of the reason why Justinian invaded it in the sixth century).  The trade in luxuries continued, but clearly post-Roman Iberia had less money, fewer people, and less centralised authority than had existed previously.  This led to a surplus of incentives to attack others and almost no incentives to refrain from doing so.  No strong states meant no strong armies, and no strong armies meant bandits were 'free', as it were, to infringe upon the rights of settled Iberians.

The people of early post-Roman Spain were demonstrably less free than their Roman predecessors had been.  Towns and villas appear - early medieval castra, with walls and other fortifications surrounding them to prevent attacks by bandits.  Latent violence surrounded and enveloped these centres.  They were not free to do as they pleased or live non-violent lives.  Roman power had, seemingly paradoxically, ensured that people were freer than they otherwise would have been; they could do more stuff, see more things, travel more widely, and evade violent death at the hands of bandits and vigilantes.  Its collapse led to a similar collapse in freedom.

For an example of non-state violence that I've discussed before, from pre-colonial Amazonia, see this post here.  For a general discussion, see this post, in which I tackled Stephen Corry's claims about peaceful pre-colonial societies in various parts of the world.  And see also this post, which is one of the most popular on this blog, in which I discussed the idea that freedom of movement is greater in non-state societies (pro-tip: it isn't).  This blogpost by Shane Taylor on his blog, Agonistic Liberal, is a good summary of the main point of this post, and I recommend both the post itself and the links leading to and from it.

I don't doubt that the Romans placed a high, perhaps unreasonably high, burden of taxation on their citizens, and that this burden restricted their activities in some sense, but the libertarian and anarchist response to this seems to be to throw the baby out with the bathwater: no tax and no safety.  The better response is to find a happy medium that maximises freedom - that maximises what you can do relative to what you can't, and that does so while taking into account the freedoms of everybody else.  Tax can be a burden, but it is less restrictive than the threat of death, theft, or rape, which would be ever-present in the absence of taxation.

Obviously laws can be used to infringe people's rights - that isn't in dispute - but it appears that good laws are absolutely necessary for increasing human freedom.  Their absence enables people to impose their wills on others unrestricted and without any prior agreement.  Good laws are those that would stop a macho neighbourhood watchman from shooting an unarmed man in a pointless, unjustified killing and then getting away with it.  Good laws are those that maximise people's abilities to do the things they want to do while preventing them from infringing upon the rights of others - by, for example, shooting them to death.

The American right's definition of freedom is an arbitrary and ridiculous one that assumes that violence is only a threat to your freedom if it is conducted by the state.  But Trayvon Martin's freedom was imposed upon by George Zimmerman's unwarranted assault.  As I said in a comment on another post, the alternative definition says that someone throwing acid in your face is only a threat to freedom if it is conducted by someone in the service of a state.  That is absurd.  Freedom is the ability to do things; the more things you can do, the greater your freedom.  It is not the state of living without a state, which in fact reduces your freedom considerably.

Floridian law on the matter of guns and self-defense, and other American laws on the subject, are an extremely strange and curious case whereby American citizens have decided that they don't want to protect each other using their democratic rights.  They have said that they don't want to use their state to make them freer in the rational sense of maximising what they can do.  Instead, they want to ensure that a violent and aggressive man can start a fight with someone and, when that person tries to defend themselves, shoot them dead with the gun they have carried along with them.  American voters in some states have decided to use their state-given right to enact laws in an attempt to abrogate the authority of the state and prop up the ability of violent people to kill others with impunity.  They've decided to negate the state - using the state to do it.  Only an idiotic and self-defeating definition of 'freedom' could possibly allow them to claim that this is done in the name of it.

Get rid of guns and everyone will be freer.  Prevent the private ownership of implements designed solely for ending human life and human life will be saved from unnecessary death of the kind suffered by Trayvon Martin.

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