A Khmer Rouge soldier sent to disarm Cambodian peasants, as recounted by a survivor of the Cambodian genocide; The New Yorker, January 24, 1994
It is because Daniel Lazare makes no effort to disguise his contempt for the US Constitution that he enjoys the luxury of candor about its provisions.
In his 1995 book The Frozen Republic, Lazare assailed the Constitution for “paralyzing democracy” -- which was one of the key objectives of the Framers, who did not share Lazare's enthusiasm for “majoritarian absolutism” (as one critic aptly described the author's philosophy).
To his credit, Lazare doesn't claim to have found some previously concealed progressive subtext in the Constitution, or offer flatulent platitudes about the “true” meaning of the “living” document. He admits that the Framers created a system in which the powers of the State were to be limited by a written text and not easily expanded through demagogic appeals to the mob.
In similar fashion, Lazare's October 1999 Harper's magazine essay “Your Constitution is Killing You: A Reconsideration of the Right to Bear Arms,” Lazare – a stout supporter of civilian disarmament – offers the following rueful admission:
“The truth about the Second Amendment is something that liberals cannot bear to admit: The right wing is right. The amendment does confer an individual right to bear arms, and its very presence makes effective gun control in this country all but impossible.”
Even here, Lazare misses the most important point, namely that neither the Second Amendment nor any other part of the Constitution could be said to “confer” rights of any kind; rather, they protect unalienable rights by specifying what government can do, and a few of the myriad things it is prohibited from doing.
(A brief digression: Even in the absence of the Second Amendment, the Constitution would protect the individual right to bear arms, since it does not confer on the federal government the authority to disarm the citizenry. The Amendment is an important supplemental protection, however, in that it denies the central government the luxury of using its delegated powers – for instance, that of regulating interstate commerce – to infringe on that right.)
Despite his subtle denial of innate individual rights, Lazare's admission against interest is useful, as are his pointed words of rebuke to fellow “liberals” (here meaning left-leaning collectivists, not lovers of individual liberty) who interpolate their political prejudices into the Constitution's text.
“We have long been in the habit of seeing in the Constitution whatever it is we want to see.,” Lazare admits. “Because liberals want a society that is neat and orderly, they tell themselves that this is what the Constitution `wants' as well.” That desire translated into, among other things, a “purely collectivist reading” of the Second Amendment, in which the purported right mentioned in the text is that of states to create and regulate “select” militias; this is in contrast to the “individualist” view, in which the right to bear arms – like those of speech, freedom of worship, and all other rights and immunities protected in the Bill of Rights – is exercised by the individual.
The “collectivist” view, Lazare writes, “is becoming harder and harder to defend” as more honest scholarship – that is, honest scholarship, more widely reported – demonstrates what should be obvious: The American Founders, who had wrested independence from Britain in a war that began with gun-toting citizens repelling an effort to disarm them, were determined to protect the individual right to armed self-defense. And nothing could be more alien to their intentions than the “collectivist” view of firearms ownership.
“`Standing armies,' the great bugaboo of the day, represented concentrated power at its most brutal; the late-medieval institution of the popular militia represented freedom at its most noble and idealistic,” writes Lazare. “Beginning with the highly influential Niccolo Machiavelli, a long line of political commentators stressed the special importance of the popular militias in the defense of liberty. Since the only ones who could defend popular liberty were the people themselves, a freedom-loving people had to maintain themselves in a high state of republican readiness. They had to be strong and independent, keep themselves well armed, and be well versed in the arts of war. The moment they allowed themselves to surrender to the wiles of luxury, the cause of liberty was lost.”
Does anybody really think it's a good idea to let Bucketheads like these have all the guns?
Lazare is warily circling a point that he apparently doesn't want to make clearly, so I'll do it for him:
The Second Amendment does explicitly protect an individual right to bear arms, but its real significance is that it denies the government a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.
The typical political science textbook published in the last five decades will either assert or assume that government claims a monopoly on force. This is Lenin's vision -- “power without limit, resting directly on force” -- not that of Jefferson, et. al. -- namely, that of governments as contingent entities “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and subject to abolition when they exceed their modest mandate.
They can't operate a parking brake on their federally funded Gestapomobiles, but they're uniquely qualified to carry and use firearms.
Lazare, like every other commentator, politician, or scholar who wants to transmute the individual right to armed self-defense into a limited, State-granted privilege, is on Lenin's side of this argument. He's simply more honest than most, even though his concessions are heavily seasoned with condescension toward the supposedly archaic views of the Framers.
“Since `we the people' are powerless to change the Second Amendment, we must somehow learn to live within its confines,” he writes as if sighing in weary frustration. “But since this means standing by helplessly while ordinary people are gunned down by a succession of heavily armed maniacs, it is becoming more and more difficult to do so.... There is simply no solution to the gun problem within the confines of the U.S. Constitution.... Other countries are free to change their constitutions when it becomes necessary. In fact, with the exception of Luxembourg, Norway, and Great Britain, there is not one advanced industrial nation that has not thoroughly revamped its constitution since 1900. If they can do it, why can't we? Why must Americans remain slaves to the past?”
Lazare's writing is shot through with the sort of smug historicism one would expect of a modestly bright undergraduate: How could a group of unenlightened white males – most of them Christians of a repellently literalist sort – who gadded about in powdered wigs and tricornered hats possibly have anything worthwhile to say about our modern society and its problems?
The obvious answer is that the Framers knew a great deal about human nature as magnified by political power, and that because of their sound insights the US Constitution, unlike a milk carton, doesn't contain an expiration date.
Nothing that has occurred since 1787 has invalidated the wisdom of the Framers in decentralizing political power and denying the State a monopoly on force. Exactly the opposite is the case: When viewed in retrospect across centuries littered with war and political mass murder carried out by states that claimed a monopoly on coercion, the honest observer whose mind is not hostage to collectivist delusions is astonished at the Founders' foresight.
“Heavily armed maniacs” of the sort Lazare alludes to can kill dozens of unarmed innocents. Heavily armed maniacs in the employ of the State, and clothed in its supposed authority – the oh-so-helpful Khmer Rouge soldier quoted above, for example -- have killed tens of millions of disarmed victims. Important though the first consideration is when we're discussing the right protected by the Second Amendment, it is the latter that best illustrates why that Amendment could be considered the Constitution in microcosm.
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