Out of Space, Out of Time

In his post on gun control, Tyler Cowen divides American political thought, at least as it relates to firearms into four categories:

1. There are the anti-gun modern Democrats, who want Americans to own many fewer firearms, and who maybe favor slight cuts in defense spending, in order to spend more on redistribution. They don’t come to terms with the reality that their vision for America’s international state requires a fairly martial supporting culture at home, including strong attachments to gun ownership.
By the way, citations of the Australian gun control experience are a good indicator of this position and its partial naivete; Australian pacifism can to some extent free ride upon American martial interest. Another “warning sign” is if someone is incredulous that the San Bernardino attack is strengthening America’s attachment to a relatively martial internal culture, rather than leading to gun control. That person is out of touch, even if he or she is right about the substance of the issue.
2. There is the radical, anti-war, anti-military-industrial complex, semi-pacifist, anti-gun Left. Their positions on these issues are quite consistent, though this branch of the Left has disappeared almost entirely.
3. There are the libertarians, who hate martial culture on the international scene, but who wish to allow it or maybe even encourage it (personally, not through the government) at home, through the medium of guns. They are inconsistent, and they should consider being more pro-gun control than is currently the case. But I don’t expect them to budge: they will see this issue only through the lens of liberty, rather than through the lens of culture as well. They end up getting a lot of the gun liberties they wish to keep, but losing the broader cultural battle and somehow are perpetually surprised by this mix of outcomes.
I except non-American libertarians from these charges, and indeed many of them, albeit under the table, in fact support gun control as a libertarian and indeed pro-peace position.
4. There are the “right-wing conservatives.” They support a martial ethic, they support America’s active foreign policy abroad, and they are anti-gun control for the most part. And they find their greatest strength in the relatively martial American South. Like the old anti-war Left, their positions are consistent, and their positions are rooted in a cultural understanding of the issue. They see the gun control movement as a war on America’s greatness, America’s martial culture and the material embodiments of said culture. They don’t understand why “the world’s greatest nation” should give up its superpower role, and its supporting internal martial culture, all for the sake of limiting the number of suicides and maybe stopping a few shootings too. To them it’s not close to being worth it.

I don’t fit into any of them, except possibly “non-American libertarians”, ironic since I think I represent a strain of political thought that is distinctly American and older than any of the four he recognizes. It makes me sad.

11 comments… add one
  • Andy Link

    I don’t fit any of them either, not that I think they are particularly accurate descriptions. There are other ways to frame the divisions too – in terms of generational splits and status for example.

  • michael reynolds Link

    It’s hard to get past this notion that the US has some sort of wondrous martial culture. The US has not fought a war on American soil in 150 years. We have never faced a realistic likelihood of invasion. We have peaceful borders and a pair of oceans between us and the rest of the world.

    Our wars have often been against weak foes for small stakes. When world wars have occurred we’ve waited on the sidelines while other countries did most of the fighting – our death toll from WW2 was smaller as a percentage of population than the French who we love to deride as wimps.

    We’ve tended to prevail by avoiding damage to our own country while burying our foes in sheer weight of weapons and technology. This takes nothing away from the extraordinary bravery and resourcefulness of our soldiers, but the ability to produce ships at an incredible pace, or to make technological breakthroughs is not evidence of a martial culture.

    (Early in WW2 the Brits thought we were hopeless. What they came eventually to admit was that we learned very fast and adapted very fast, neither of which is a martial virtue per se.)

    And in recent years we’ve managed to be fought to a draw by Koreans, Vietnamese and Afghans. Our most effective military assets right now owe more to a video game culture than a martial one.

    We are amazingly full of ourselves for people who in the last 100 years have fought exactly one major war – a war mostly won by Russians and Brits. The thing we can lay the largest claim to is the Pacific theater of WW2, and even there our enemy was tied down dealing with Chinese, Russians, Brits, Indians, Filipinos, Aussies and Kiwis. And we won that war with B-29s, which allowed us to fly serenely along at 30,000 feet burning Japanese cities to the ground.

    We produce great soldiers, but not better man-for-man than Britain, Germany, Japan, Korea or Vietnam. However, we do produce great engineers. Or did.

  • What upsets me, Michael, is that only older Americans have any memory of an America that was considerably less martial than it has been for the last half century. Even at the depths of WWII we were civilians at war, in many ways uncomfortable and out of place, not professionals.

  • ... Link

    I can’t really say I’ve ever thought of Americans as particularly martial, by which I mean militaristic. Warlike (especially when provoked), yes, martial, no.

    As for the culture of gun ownership, the people I knew that owned firearms growing up typically came from families that had always owned firearms for as long as anyone could trace, and it ultimately had to do with living on dangerous frontiers. Also, hunting was useful for putting food onto the table probably up until the end of WWII for a lot of people. And yes, there was and is the element of individualistic liberty at stake – an armed person is a citizen, not a subject to this way of thinking.

    All of that has been changing in recent decades, though. Frankly I don’t understand the pure gun nuts any more than I do the anti-gun nuts. Ultimately they’re nothing more than tools, and I can’t understand owning dozens of hammers in order to have just the right hammer for the occasion any more than I can understand wanting to ban hammers because sometimes a thumb (or a skull) gets smashed.

  • steve Link

    I think he nails it when he says that it might be possible to cut down on suicides and a few homicides with some minor changes. Since we have so many guns no big changes are going to work or be accepted.

    I don’t really understand the modern gun culture. We always had guns on the farms. Deer hunting, and rabbit hunting helped put a bit of food on the table. Usually shot a few raccoons every year and a bunch of crows. What i weird now are the guys running around in camp. Posing for pictures with their guns. They were always just a tool. We didn’t pose for pictures with our screwdrivers or our guns. I am pretty sure i don’t have a single picture of me with the guns I own. It really has become an identity/culture thing for lots of people, as Cowen notes.

    As to the anti-gun nuts, seems to me we have had pro-peace people around for quite a while, though he is correct that they have almost disappeared. Openly opposing war efforts is not popular.


  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve: “I think he nails it when he says that it might be possible to cut down on suicides and a few homicides with some minor changes.”

    He doesn’t say this though. He is describing the debating position of each corner of the chart, and claiming that “right-wing conservative” would still reject gun-control policies that would limit the number of suicides and maybe stop a few shootings. Whether or not such policies exist is irrelevant so long as their views are influential, and Tyler argues their views are influential because they are larger, more cohesive, and gain indirect support from an active military foreign policy.

    I don’t think I buy the connection btw/ personal gun ownership and foreign policy, but if you take his critique seriously then it is about cultural change, which is very hard.

  • PD Shaw Link

    The piece that Tyler links to on The Culture of Guns, the Culture of Alcohol is more interesting in IMHO. He argues that our gun problem is in significant part an alcohol problem, and that a cultural shift on alcohol is perhaps more important.

  • I think the causality works a little differently than Tyler is suggesting. There’s a relationship between the two phenomena, just not the one he suggests.

    There’s a consensus among Americans that a large, heavily armed military is necessary for our security. How do I know it’s a consensus? Because they’ve been voting year after year for representatives who vote for it. There may be nuanced differences from place to place but there’s a consensus nonetheless.

    There’s also a group of Americans who think that personally being heavily armed is necessary for their personal security. I don’t speculate as to whether that’s a consensus or not.

    One does not cause the other. They have a common cause, common assumptions.

    My own views are far outside the mainstream on both subjects.

    BTW, the substantial increase in number of guns owned per gun owner is clearly related to Obama’s election, presumably under the assumption that he’d move to restrict gun ownership.

  • ... Link

    Saying that people voting for certain representation means they support what that representation does. On immigration, for example, elected officials have been openly ignoring the people for years & years and show no signs of stopping.

    There is no political marketplace of ideas or positions – people just get to chose which letter follows their rulers names in the ledger.

  • jan Link

    “BTW, the substantial increase in number of guns owned per gun owner is clearly related to Obama’s election, presumably under the assumption that he’d move to restrict gun ownership.”

    You got that one right! Do you think less arm-twisting, fewer governmental threats (especially involving unilateral party voting or EO’s) would produce more sensible policies and a less reactive, combative populace?

  • steve Link

    ” presumably under the assumption that he’d move to restrict gun ownership.”

    Which hasn’t happened. Think of the NRA as the marketing arm of the gun industry, then you understand gun sales.


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