Few issues highlight the gaping philosophical divide between libertarians and modern conservatives more starkly than the issue of guns. This might seem counterintuitive, because libertarians and modern conservatives often stand shoulder to shoulder against liberals and progressives to defend individual gun rights. The convenient alliance between modern conservatives and libertarians in the political trenches, however, conceals a fundamental and serious philosophical disagreement.
In order to fully grasp the division between libertarians and modern conservatives on this issue, it is important to understand why libertarians and conservatives think gun rights are so important. At the most general level, both libertarians and modern conservatives agree that all men have a natural right to defend themselves against aggression. More specifically, every man has a natural right to repel with violent force any unjust aggression against his life or his property. Libertarians and modern conservatives do not defend individual gun rights out of some bizarre and loony obsession with a 200-year-old piece of parchment called “The Constitution.” On the contrary, they hold that the Constitution of the United States merely articulated something about man’s nature that has always been and always will be true.
The logical implication of this, both libertarians and modern conservatives agree, is that individuals have a natural right not just to defend their lives and their property against aggression from individual murderers and thieves, but that they have a natural right to defend themselves from unjust aggression by government. Hollow indeed would be the right to self-defense if it did not include the right to defend oneself against aggression by government –including one’s own government, because governments have killed and robbed exponentially more people than have private criminals. Recognizing this fact, libertarians and modern conservatives agree that the natural right to self-defense must include a right to defend oneself against unjust government aggression, and that doing so usually requires more than simply a stick or a slingshot. A population armed with modern guns is not easily cowed, robbed, or massacred unless governments resort to wildly immoral and indiscriminate tactics or weapons of mass destruction.
So far so good. Libertarians and modern conservatives agree that the right to keep and bear arms stems from the natural right to defend oneself against aggression, including unjust aggression by governments. From here on out, however, libertarians and modern conservatives scarcely agree at all, and the conservative position on guns becomes more and more self-contradictory and absurd.
Libertarians hold that armed individuals are indeed capable of effectively resisting and defending themselves from aggression by their own government. If this were not so, then there would be no point whatsoever in defending the right to bear arms so vehemently. If individual gun ownership does not offer a real and substantial defense against our own government, and guns are merely symbolic or for hunting or self-defense against burglars, then why the big fuss over laying down our M-14’s and AR-15’s? Why not, as the Vice President suggests, keep only double-barreled shotguns for hunting and defense? Why would we care about losing the ability to own an AR-15 any more than we care about losing the ability to buy incandescent light bulbs? The government is constantly restricting our ability to buy and sell all types of things, so what makes guns so sacred if they can’t even effectively be used to defend ourselves against our own government?
The libertarians’ answer is that well-armed populations can indeed effectively defend themselves against their own governments, and this is precisely why we value the right to own powerful firearms so dearly. Gun ownership is not merely a symbol, but a real and effective means for people to protect their lives and property from private criminals and from tyrannous government. The libertarian understands that the nature of asymmetrical warfare today is such that even very small bands of determined and principled people can fight a purely defensive war against a vastly more powerful foe and come out victorious. In fact, in a guerrilla fight, the odds are in favor of the smaller group of determined and principled fighters, as the U.S. and Soviet militaries discovered in Afghanistan.
Contrast this consistent libertarian position with the absurd position of the modern conservative. The modern conservative holds two contradictory ideas about guns simultaneously. On the one hand, he is likely to agree with the libertarian that individual gun ownership is not merely symbolic, but rather a real and effective means for the American people to protect themselves against aggression by their own government. At the same time, however, he is bound to say that a strong military is needed to protect the American people against foreign threats. In other words, the modern conservative implicitly believes that our guns are insufficient to protect us against the Chinese or the Irish or whomever.
The absurdity of these two positions should be patently obvious, because if the American people are capable of effectively defending themselves against aggression by their own government – the most powerful and heavily armed government in the history of the world – then the American people obviously don’t need help from a military to defend them against aggression from relatively dinky powers abroad! The modern conservative would have us believe that We The People are capable of repelling the aggressions of the most powerful government in the history of the world, but that we somehow miraculously lose this capacity if the soldiers or politicians we are confronting have a different uniform or speak a different language.
While the modern conservative is bizarrely capable of simultaneously entertaining these two contradictory positions in his head, it should be obvious that only one of them can possibly be true. If the American people are not capable of effectively defending themselves from their own government with their guns, then gun ownership is merely symbolic and surrendering our AR-15’s to Barry Obama is completely meaningless. If, on the other hand, the American people are indeed capable of defending themselves against their own insanely powerful government, when they finally choose to do so as the libertarian asserts, then the extravagant and wasteful military that they finance is totally superfluous and unnecessary, because no foreign government can possibly pose even a fraction of the threat to the American people that the powerful American government and military do.
The modern conservative has gotten himself into this quandary because he has allowed himself to become irrationally terrified by nonexistent foreign bogeymen that are no real threat to him (as if the Chinese or the Iranians could ever be a threat to Coloradoans!), while ignoring the massive danger to life and property that his own government poses. He has ignored the history of the 20th century, a century in which people were slaughtered by the tens of millions by their own governments, and has allowed irrational fear of Koreans, Afghan shepherds, communists, Vietnamese, Chinese and Iranians to overwhelm his rational thinking. His fear has blinded him to the phenomenal hatred that his own government has engendered around the world by meddling with, terrorizing, and killing people everywhere. He has forgotten the danger of a standing army that the Founders warned us about, and he has lost confidence in his own ability to defend himself.
Thus, when the government finally comes for the modern conservative’s guns, he will no doubt puff out his chest and scream out that he’d rather die than surrender them. However, the modern conservative’s irrational fear of foreigners and his idolatrous love affair with the American military will prevent him from putting up much of a fight. After all, the military and the chickenhawk politicians that lead it around are what the modern conservative believes keep him safe and “free.” His delusional belief in the invincibility of the American military will paralyze him with fear of ever defying it. In the end, he will surrender his arms, and he will learn to call it “freedom” in due time.
At that point, the fight will be left to the true lovers of liberty, the libertarians, who understand the fragility and absurdity of the fascist American economy, the unsustainability of the American military empire, and the perfect beauty and justness of individual liberty.