I recently said to a friend that any form of “gun control” is an initiation of physical force, and that allowing even a little initiation of physical force abrogates the entire principle of individual rights to life, liberty and property. When I thought about this some, I realized that the question might actually have been this: “Why act on principle at all? Why can’t you occasionally violate a principle without throwing it out altogether?” This is a good question, even if my friend wasn’t actually asking it, so I will endeavor to give an explanation to something he may or may not have actually been asking.
First, what is meant when we speak of a “principle”? I will start with an example and then move from there to a definition. Let’s consider the principle of respecting the property rights of others. I’ll reduce this to the following maxim: “Do not take the property of others without their consent.”
But, why shouldn’t I just occasionally steel when I can get away with it? For instance, when I go to the grocery store, I could take a few items and walk out without paying. If I stuck to stealing food, I might get away with this indefinitely. So why don’t I?
If I’m going to start stealing from the grocery store, I need to develop a methodology to maximize my chances of success. Lets take a look at my “game plan” for stealing from the grocery store:
When I go into the store, I have to check for security cameras.
I have to wait until employees aren’t watching. Once I’ve stolen the items, I’ve got to casually head outside, still checking to see if employees, store customers, or the manager have noticed me stealing from the store. These people are now all potential enemies to me –a threat to my existence- so I cannot trust any of them. I would constantly have to be “looking over my back”, checking to see if anyone noticed me stealing.
I have to develop a plan prior to going in, as this will reduce my chances of getting caught. So I will spend some time working it out. This is time I could have spent doing other things.
I probably want to go in beforehand, and scope out the store, but this could look suspicious -going in, looking around and then returning soon thereafter. So, maybe not?
What will be my “take” from stealing from the grocery store? I can only steal small items, so probably my “gain” will be less than $50.
There are also the penalties involved, if I’m caught. If I steal less than $50, then I am only looking at a fine in Texas, but the fine is up to $500, plus the store can sue me for treble damages and attorney’s fees. If I steal more than $50 of merchandise, I’m looking at anywhere from six months to a year in jail, plus big fines, plus the store suing me.
I think it’s legitimate to consider the government-imposed penalties like this in my analysis since I am not an anarchist -I actually think one of the major ways the government protects rights is by imposing sufficient “pain” or “cost” on the person committing the crime that they won’t want to do it. Criminal laws have a “deterrent effect”. (This isn’t the only reason for criminal penalties, however, they also serve as a “restraint”. For instance, locking up a murderer prevents him from committing more murders.)
Additionally, many jobs will be unavailable to me if I’ve been convicted of a crime involving “moral turpitude” like theft. Many employers won’t hire you with a criminal record for theft or fraud.
After any particular episode of theft from the grocery store, I might get $50 to $100 in merchandise, if I don’t get caught. I also stand to loose up to a year of my time in jail, plus all of the fines and civil penalties. That seems like a very “bad bet” to me. All of these “costs” associated with such a life of crime will also add up to feelings of anxiety about getting caught. Anxiety is not a pleasant emotion to feel on a chronic or long-term basis. (I also suppose I could eliminate the anxiety by refusing to think or consuming a lot of alcohol, but that means I’m really likely to get caught if I don’t think about how to get away with it.)
You should also consider the long-term risks of a policy of theft. You might get away with theft once or twice, but the more you do it, the more likely you are to get caught. It hardly seems worth all that pain for $50 of “free” stuff from the grocery store.
I’ve shown that stealing isn’t actually “free”, in terms of your effort and thought. There is actually a “cost” associated with every time you steal. There is the cost of all the mental energy and labor you expend executing your thefts successfully. There is the cost associated with the risk you’ll get caught. Furthermore, the greater the value of the things you are stealing, the greater the risk, because you will face more severe criminal and social penalties. More people will be watching, the more the valuable items, so the more effort you must expend. For instance, it’s a lot harder to steal from a jewelry store than a grocery store because everything is under glass. That means additional labor, time, and energy goes into a jewelry heist.
It seems easier to me to just work a legitimate job, and earn the money I need to buy things at the grocery store. Then, when I walk into the grocery store, I can just get the stuff I want, pay for it, and then walk out.
Additionally, as we saw, if you start stealing from the grocery store, you will wind up “juggling” in your mind, so many variables in trying to pull off a grocery store theft that it will overload your mind’s capacity to deal with all of them at once. This actually points to an important purpose that a “principle” serves. A “principle” is a sort of concept. A concept is a mental summation of relevant observed facts into a generalized “mental tag” -a word and/or a definition. (Although a “principle” is more of a “proposition” –a series of words.) It allows your limited mind to deal with many aspects of reality simultaneously, which would otherwise overwhelm it. You can deal with three or four concrete items as individuals in your mind at one time, but any more than that, and you cannot hold it all successfully. Your mind disintegrates into mental chaos without concepts, and when it comes to concepts of action, which is all I think a “principle” is, your behavior will become equally chaotic.
Given all of this discussion, I will define a “principle” as: “A consistent standard of action you use in the face of a particular set of factual circumstances.”
For instance, “Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is a standard of action that I use whenever I face a particular set of facts. When I see a man-made thing that doesn’t occur in nature, and I didn’t produce it with my own effort, I do not physically appropriate it for my own purposes without the owner’s consent.
Can there be “exceptions” to this principle? For instance, if you break into a cabin when you are stranded in a snow blizzard in the mountains, have you taken the property of the owner without his consent? I believe this isn’t actually an “exception” to the principle, because “factual circumstances” are different from the grocery store example. You can articulate facts that make the situation different from going into the grocery store and taking groceries without the owner’s consent. The primary factual circumstance that is different is that you are willing to compensate the owner of the cabin at a later date for any loss, so it isn’t likely to be without his consent. (This also gets into the issue of what “consent” is, and whether the owner’s consent has to have a rational basis, but I leave that for another discussion.) Another “factual circumstance” that is different is that it is a “life and death emergency”, which means it is an extremely low-probability event that isn’t likely to occur very often –it is “life boat ethics”. (Remember, that part of the reason you don’t steal from the grocery store is you have to hide it, and the more times you do it, the more likely you are to get caught one of those times.)
By thinking of enough concrete scenarios like the grocery store theft example, I eventually decided that stealing just isn’t worth it. It’s better to adopt a general standard of action in my mind: “Don’t take the property of others without their consent.” I leave it to the reader to think through other examples of general standards of action such as “Don’t kill those who haven’t initiated physical force against you,” (i.e., don’t murder), “Don’t misrepresent facts to gain things from others,” (i.e., be honest), “Judge others according to a rational standard, and treat them accordingly,” (i.e., be just), etc.
How does my definition of “principle” compare to the “socially-accepted definition”? If you perform a “define: principle” search on google.com, you get some of the following definitions (as of 11-10-2016):
“…fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.”
“…a rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior…”
“…morally correct behavior and attitudes…”
“…a general scientific theorem or law that has numerous special applications across a wide field…”
“…a natural law forming the basis for the construction or working of a machine…”
These definitions are all essentially, compatible with mine, I believe. For instance, regarding the principle “Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” it is a “fundamental truth” that human beings must produce the material values necessary for their survival, because most of what we need to survive or flourish does not exist in nature. It is also a “fundamental truth” that human beings must use their reasoning minds to produce those material values, and that if you want to live with others they must respect your desire to live and you must respect theirs. (It’s also a “fundamental truth” that human beings are not omniscient, so they need an impartial system of laws and an institution with the socially-recognized exclusive right to the retaliatory use of physical force to protect rights.)
“Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is also “…morally correct behavior…” If one wants to live, and if one’s life is the standard of the good, then, in order to live peacefully with others, you must recognize the property rights of others.
“Don’t take the property of others without their consent,” is also a “natural law” in the sense that it recognizes that the human mind functions by persuasion, not coercion. It is a “natural law” in the same sense that the law of universal gravitation is a “natural law”. If you want to build a rocket, you must take the law of inertia into account, because “nature to be commanded must be obeyed”. Similarly, if you want to have a functioning society, it must respect property rights.
Tying all of this back in, why would any form of “gun control” be an abrogation of the principle of individual rights? What is meant by “gun control”? Does it merely mean: “Prohibiting the possession of a weapon with an intent to commit a crime”? The intent to use a weapon to violate others rights is the start of an initiation of physical force, and, if it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it can and should be prosecuted by the government. Taking any physical steps towards the eventual goal of force being used to destroy the values of others is an initiation of physical force, and therefore a violation of the principle of individual rights. Anyone who has ever seen a John Wayne movie recognizes that you don’t have to wait for someone to actually shoot you in the gut before you can defend yourself. When the bad guy “goes for his gun”, John Wayne shoots him, and that is self-defense, not an initiation of physical force.
An example of an rights-respecting gun law is something like the statute found in the state of Vermont:
“A person who carries a dangerous or deadly weapon, openly or concealed, with the intent or avowed purpose of injuring a fellow man,…shall be imprisoned….” (See http://ago.vermont.gov/divisions/criminal-division/gun-laws.php, emphasis added, last accessed on 11-12-2016.)
This is a perfectly acceptable and appropriate law regarding the possession of a firearm. It only prohibits carrying a weapon if the person can be shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, to have the “intent” or “avowed purpose” of injuring a fellow man. (Presumably, “injuring a fellow man” here means injuries of one’s fellow men other than for purpose of self-defense.)
This, by the way, is why the government could investigate someone who built a weapon of mass destruction in their backyard. Such a device would not be necessary for self-defense. If you walked around with a nuclear bomb strapped to your back for self-defense, even a “low-yield” device, you’d blow yourself up as well as the mugger -and half the city. Your possession of such a device would create the suspicion that you planned to use it for violating the rights of others. There is no likely or probable need for such a device if you are an individual. Now, you might ultimately be able to show that you had an innocent reason for possessing a WMD, but you’d have to go before a court, and the government’s “prima facie case” of an illegal intent is probably satisfied just by showing that you have no business interest in building such a device. For instance, you aren’t engaged in the business of building nuclear bombs for the US military or some sort of mining or industrial concern. After the government makes its “prima facie showing”, the burden can rightly be shifted to you at court to show some reason that doesn’t involve violating the rights of others. (Additionally, you could face civil liability if you create a “nuisance” that invades or imminently threatens the property of others, which a nuclear bomb probably qualifies as.)
But this isn’t what the left means when they speak of “gun control”. What is generally meant by “gun control”, as that expression is used by most members of the Democratic party and the political left, is the following: The government will initiate, or start, the use of physical force against someone for mere possession of a device, in this case, a devise that uses a controlled explosion to release a metal projectile through a tube by means of an explosive material, such as cordite. The government will initiate physical force against such persons even though they have no intent to use the device to violate individual rights. The initiation of physical force by government takes the form of actual or threatened use of force, and, it will continue to escalate the use of physical force until you comply with its commands, or die -whichever comes first.
Here is how government works: If you break a law, you’ll be arrested (force). If you resist arrest, more cops will come to restrain you (more force). If you use a weapon to resist, the cops will use weapons to stop you (deadly force). Ultimately, all laws follow this pattern: “Do not do X, or you will ultimately be killed.” If the government says: “Do not murder, or you will be killed,” then this is fine because murder violates the rights of others. If the government prohibits things like guns and marijuana, then it says: “Do not own a gun or you will be killed,” or “Do not smoke a joint or you will be killed.” At that point you are being threatened with a violent death despite the fact that you are not violating the rights of others. (Like I said, possessing a gun with intent to commit a crime is different, just as smoking a joint and deliberately blowing the smoke in someone’s face is different.)
So what’s wrong with a little governmental initiation of physical force? You face the same sorts of problems that you face with the example of stealing from the grocery store, but this time it’s on a society-wide level. For instance, if the government says you cannot own a gun to defend yourself from a criminal, when there is no time to call the police to protect you, then the government is implicitly saying: “We’re willing to risk your life in order to satisfy a bunch of soccer moms who have an irrational aversion to guns.” How will this be distinguished from other people’s irrational desires that would involve violating your right to life?
Since no one wants to say: “Government officials can arbitrarily murder some people whenever they feel like it,” the legislature and courts will need to come up with some sort of principled distinction between the prohibition on the ownership of a gun for emergency self-defense and any other number of actions you might take to maintain your life. This is why our legal code has become so “Byzantine” with all sorts of “loopholes”, exceptions, and exceptions to the exceptions. Our legal code is mostly unhinged from any principles distinguishing what should be prohibited and what shouldn’t be because we no longer follow the principle of individual rights.
Additionally, once the principle of individual rights is discarded, the legislature will be constantly bombarded by individuals, and groups of individuals, all trying to appropriate the property of others. It becomes a system of constant “pressure group warfare”, a “cold civil war”, if you will, with a particular political faction gaining power and stealing from some to give to others. They will hold onto power, handing out political favors to their cronies, until some other faction takes over the levers of government and imposes their will on others for a bit.
As I said, a “principle” is a sort of concept, which is a mental summation of relevant observed facts into a generalized “mental tag” -a word and/or a definition. It allows your limited mind to deal with many aspects of reality simultaneously, which would otherwise overwhelm it. You can deal with three or four concrete items as individuals in your mind at one time, but any more than that, and you cannot hold it all successfully. Your mind disintegrates into a mental chaos without concepts, and when it comes to concepts of action, which is all I think a “principle” is, your behavior will become equally chaotic. When society-wide principles like individual rights to life, liberty, and property are disregarded, that society will become chaotic. Eventually the “cold civil war”, of political factions fighting in the legislature, will disintegrate into an actual, shooting, civil war, and people will form gangs fighting one another for the scraps of what is left of civilization, or a “strong man” will take over and the country becomes a dictatorship, with his gang appropriating the property of all. Either way, life will become nasty, brutish, and short without the principle of individual rights to guide us.