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United States

Oct 6, 2015

The 2nd Amendment is a terrible idea. But unfettered capitalism is worse.

Screwing people at the bottom half of income distribution doesn’t actually work to stimulate an economy. Plus, it can be fatal.

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On Friday in Crikey, my occasional houseguest Guy Rundle put John Howard to use as a gun control ambassador. To concede that Howard was good for anything noble could not have been a pleasant thing to do. But, just as Rundle swallows my awful lasagne, he swallowed his loathing for Howard. Momentary discomfort is justified if it saves an American life, or your hostess’ feelings.

In a piece that is substantially better than all of my cooking, Rundle notes that the Second Amendment is as antique as the smooth bore rifles whose ownership it defends. This is a good argument and one US advocates for a much-needed gun control routinely make. This was part of a constitution that described an infant state exposed to attack. The US, of course, grew up to become a beautiful, heavily armed invulnerable sexy hegemon, and to argue that its citizens, who have the unfortunate habit of killing each other both accidentally and with intent, have a “right” to firearms is a bit like arguing for the “right” to scurvy. It was an unpleasant affliction that citizens were once forced to endure and need suffer no longer.

There is not one thing wrong with this kind of argument. Of course, there are plenty of arguments for gun control, the most notable one being the widespread fact of grisly death. But, for mine, there’s a certain appeal, even beyond the issue of a very decent fight like that for gun control, in looking at other stupid, old ideas. The continued enshrinement of an old “right” when the evidence of its harm is clear is a habit even of gun-controlled Australians.

In recent years, one treasurer has called his taxpayers “entitled” and another has urged them to “work, save, invest”. Let’s set aside the fact that Australians, now facing historic downturn in financial and social wealth, are less “entitled” than they have been in some time but are managing to “work, save, invest” in large numbers nonetheless and think about the intellectual age of these slogans. They go back to the time to, say, about 1789 — the year the Second Amendment was ratified.

Actually, they’re a little older than that. John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government was written precisely one century before, but it took his biggest fan and plagiarist Thomas Jefferson a few years to read it. Here, we can see the beginnings of a persistent idea that the state, which Locke doesn’t much fancy, must exist principally to protect private property. “Men,” says Locke, “have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth”. Which, frankly, is an idea he pulled out of his arse. Still, it’s a foundational idea on which the modern liberal state still stands.

In his engaging study Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea, political economist Mark Blyth traces to Locke the beginning of the liberal dilemma favoured by former treasurer Hockey and other “small government” enthusiasts, “The state: can’t live with it, can’t live without it, don’t want to pay for it.” In short, the state exists only to serve the moral agreement men have, apparently, made for unequal possession. To demand a more equal possession is to disturb natural order, you entitled bastards. We will subsidise investors, mining and private health insurance industries and the rest of you naturally unequal people can get nicked.

It’s true that Scott Morrison is a more modern liberal than Hockey, but not by that much. His work, save, invest strategy comes to us from 1776. Adam Smith’s prescription of parsimony informs the current Treasurer, just as it continues to inform many European governments.

Of course, the age of an idea doesn’t necessarily impede its usefulness over time. The scientific method is still pretty useful, and it’s pretty hard to make a good argument against the usefulness of The Golden Rule. The Second Amendment, perhaps not baseless at the time of its ratification, certainly became much worse than useless. But the idea of the state as a means to maintain inequality — and both Locke and Smith explicitly describe its function thus — was probably shit from the get-go.

Irrational fear of government debt, moralising parsimony and the peculiar idea that citizens should save at the same time governments do are not ideas that have always been in fashion. Unlike the Second Amendment, this 18th-century nonsense has been discarded for long periods. But we’ve picked them up from time to time and despite hard evidence that austerity is a sure route to bust, we just can’t currently leave these principles alone.

Screwing people at the bottom half of income distribution doesn’t actually work to stimulate an economy. Let’s even leave aside the fact that such measures have begun to kill people in developed economies more painfully and slowly than firearms and say what economic textbooks have begun to reflect: making the poor poorer diminishes GDP. Wayne Swan understood that inequality is a condition of capitalism, but the sort of inequality his successors are promoting will screw it up.

There is little that is neo about neoliberalism. It’s a fossil of a dangerous idea.

My lasagne is the fossil of old Women’s Weekly cooking. Still. Rundle can eat it again knowing that it only presents mild danger. It’s not very good, but it’s not as potentially fatal as a Second Amendment or neoliberal economics.

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11 comments

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11 thoughts on “The 2nd Amendment is a terrible idea. But unfettered capitalism is worse.

  1. Hunt Ian

    John Locke deserves some blame but neo-liberalism is a fossil of a more recent idea than any Locke threw up. Locke wanted to know why people could not live at peace with one another without the threat of punishment by the state, as it seemed we could if we only kept what we could use before it rotted or broke down. By agreeing to the use of money we could start to accumulate wealth and thus make people so unequal that conflict would follow, which could be kept in check only by a state that punished people for theft and murder. Razor rightly calls this a fairy story but neo-liberalism is founded on another more recent fairy story told in the late fifties of the last century.
    This is the “proof” of Adam Smith’s invisible hand that guides self-interested people in the marketplace to create general wealth. According to this fairy story we go to market perfectly informed about what we have to sell and buy and with whatever we might want to sell or buy. The state must be kept small because it deducts from all this mutual prosperity driven by the invisible hand.

    Nobody tells this fairy story out loud any more – it is a silent background to neo-liberal policy, which insists that we shall all be better off if only we keep the state small and leave everything to the market.

    The rich will be able to buy what they like and everyone else will be able to buy what they as individuals want, provided they are rich enough to buy health, an education for their kids and an income for retirement, or somehow don’t want any off these things. Economists such as Joseph Stieglitz have exposed this fairy story and shown that greater inequality costs because investment is help back by insufficient demand due to increasing inequality.

    The review of the health system should drop things off the MBS so that it becomes “sustainable”,which is to say that it remains affordable to a small government. Spending on health might lessen because private spending on health might not increase to the same extent that public spending falls to keep government small. People will spend privately only what they have to, even if the poor have to sell their houses, as they do in the US, to keep themselves alive. Still, the govt will say that this is “as good as it gets.”

    The fact is that there is no problem if the federal government spends 26% of GDP, provided this is because it is keeping alive and well a growing number of old people who would not have lived long on the pension in the past, and we invest in better education for all and in more innovation.

  2. Helen Razer

    Hey Ian. Thanks for your Verified Crikey Quality comments.
    I understand that all blame cannot be traced to Locke, Smith, Hume, Ricardo etc. and that those Austrian and Chicago schools reworked this stuff.
    I *would* say that Locke saw the protection of private property itself as the reason for the state, unlike Hobbes who just thought we would all be naturally at war. And I would disagree mildly with your kinder reading of him.
    And I would also sort of disagree that these ideas are modern.
    Like so many of us have since 2008, I have tried to understand the genealogy of neoliberalism and how private idiocy becomes a sovereign problem. It’s my understanding, and I appreciate that you have a different and considered view, can be traced directly to the Enlightenment period. We keep reviving these zombies.
    Like the Keynes quote goes (again, not proposing the New Liberalism of Keynes as the antidote, but I would say that his proposals work better to extend the life of capitalism than that Friedman muck) we are all impacted by the moral thoughts of dead economists.
    It struck me with all the (completely justified) guffawing about how old-fashioend Americans were in their attachment to the old idea of the 2nd amendment that we would do well to see how old and dangerous many of our dearly held beliefs are, too.
    Thanks again for good commenting.

  3. bushby jane

    Sovereign problems are nearly always caused by private idiocy, Abbott was a classic example. Govt’s spend most of their time trying to cover up bad govt decisions made by idiotic individuals.

  4. Chris Hartwell

    Ian, there is merit in removing services from the MBS if the (clinical) evidence does not support their use.

  5. Helen Razer

    @Chris Hartwell, yes. Evidence-based redistribution of funds is entirely reasonable. Scandinavian nations are pretty good at this. Recent Swedish policy, for example, has been to reduce funds given for behavioural therapy on the basis of evidence demonstrating far greater effectiveness of other mental health treatments.
    But, the austerity is nonsense point stands.
    @bushby jane I know, right? When do idiots get too big to bail?

  6. Jaybuoy

    I always thought the golden rule was whomevers got the gold
    makes the rules….

  7. Dogs breakfast

    ““Men,” says Locke, “have agreed to a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth”.

    HR, I love it when you go all humanist theory, (if that is what this is, not being university educated)

    I never knew that this turd said that, but it is so self-evidently untrue, except on the part of those who currently hold all the wealth.

    But I have read much philosophy, just more towards the spiritual than the economic/political, sp please forgive me for that.

    But I really appreciate that idea of looking at the ideas of the past and how they still infect us, and taking that next leap that says “what are we thinking now that we hold to be self-evidently true, that history will reveal as utter dogshit.

    That is the intellectual leap, that I personally find very few of the educated or the uneducated make. That is actually a spiritual leap (you can gag now, as can GR on your lasagne, but it’s true)

    Climate change, global corporates dominating the economy and the politics, refugee policy, things that I believe will future generations will look upon us with disgust.

    And they should.

    And I can do nothing about it, but write pithy shorthand comments on a freaking crikey blog.

    How powerless am I. Why was I even given breath?

  8. Gernot

    The Second Amendment is actually not as bad as it seems, it’s just consistently bent to fit what people want. It is written as an implication: because of A (“a well regulated Militia [is] necessary to the security of a free State”) there must be B (“the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”). Mathematicians write this as “A ⇒ B”.

    In an implication, if A is false, nothing is said about B. In the USA, 240 years ago, before the age of standing armies, A was true. These days, with the USA having the world’s strongest standing army, no-one can seriously claim that a well-regulated militia is necessary for its security. Hence, the Second Amendment these days does not say that there must be a right to bear arms. But for convenience, people, including the Supreme Court, simply ignore the first part of the amendment.

  9. Chris Hartwell

    Absolutely Helen – austerity is a failed policy, as shown by numerous efforts at it failing to deliver the claimed outcomes. Evidence does not support its use for economic purposes.

  10. David Spicer

    Many people argue that the real origins of the second amendment were because the founding fathers knew that sooner or later a republic would become what the US is now. An elitist oligarchy.

    The right to bear arms was added so that “we the people” would be able to fight back when the system became like that. Not so we could mrder Native Americans, Bears, and other hazards of the time.

  11. Jacob Kelly

    I don’t always agree with you Helen, but you absolutely nailed it with this one.

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