What’s going on in America right now isn’t just a culture war. It’s a war on the very concept of community, of a society that uses the institution we call government to offer certain basic protections to all its members. There’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.
That’s what Paul Krugman argues in a new column – but that’s in the New York Times. No one on the America right reads the New York Times, and they all hate Krugman anyway. He may have his Nobel Prize in Economics but his economics are Keynesian, not the required supply-side Milton Freidman trickle-down economics that holds that fixing up the rich, the job-creators, will fix everything. Krugman argues that creating demand – making those who aren’t rich a bit more liquid – is a better way to fix things. There’s no one in the middle, and data supports both arguments. Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were right. On their watch America got rich but the Great Depression followed. And FDR with his New Deal and then LBJ with his Great Society stuff were right too. Both got the economy humming again – for everyone, not just the rich – but all that stuff was damned expensive. Public action for the public good is expensive.
That may explain what Krugman calls a war on the very concept of community. Community is damned expensive, and the Makers do end up supporting the Takers – which has pissed off everyone from Ayn Rand to Mitt Romney to Paul Ryan. Obama had argued the other way – we’re all in this together and need to have each other’s back – like with Obamacare. America agreed, for eight years, and then America changed its mind. America elected Donald Trump. He promised to rid the country of Mexicans and Muslims and, implicitly, anyone who wasn’t really an American – Mexicans and Muslims and gays and urban hipsters and young black thugs and fancy-pants experts and so on and so forth. He offered the opposite of community. He didn’t even like government much. He’s dismantling much of the government we have.
Daniel Byman is a professor and senior associate dean at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, and a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and he sees this:
The president and his senior advisers have little use for government professionals. Agencies from the State Department to the Bureau of Prisons are understaffed. The president has crossed once-bright ethical lines, refusing to release his tax returns or to completely dissociate himself from his business while hiring family members for critical positions.
Most disturbingly, the president and his surrogates often attack government institutions, including many that are among America’s most respected. Mr. Trump declared the FBI and the Justice Department “disgraceful” and even singled out some public servants by name. Most recently, it was his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, after he accused Russia of “disinformation, subversion and espionage.” The president promptly called him out in a tweet because the general “forgot to say” that it was “Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems” who colluded with Russia.
I’ve been a Trump critic, and I find this behavior appalling. But I still urge those in government and those thinking about joining – including my own students – to carry on.
Why? America is experimenting again. Public action for the public good is expensive, and maybe the whole concept of community, embodied in an activist government, is a conspiracy to destroy individual freedom. Maybe a strong central government, doing things, isn’t really necessary.
The Brits experimented with that once. There was the Interregnum – Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649, and England did without a real king for quite a while. Oliver Cromwell ran the place in the interim, but that didn’t go well. In 1651, in exile in France, with the guy who was really supposed to be the King of England – Charles II (1630–1685) – Thomas Hobbes wrote The Leviathan – arguing that the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
It is. It’s a dog eat dog world, and Hobbes’ ideas was that the best we can hope for is a massive authoritarian state – a leviathan – to make things at least bearable for us all, by smoothing out the rough edges with some quick justice. In short, people are just awful. You need a strong king, and strong institutions that answer to him alone, to keep folks from destroying each other. You do need a monarchy, a real one. And when Oliver Cromwell was finally gone and the British experiment with no king at all ended, and Charles II returned to the throne, people should have realized that beheading this guy’s father had been a boneheaded idea in the first place. Human nature is so damned awful you really do need a strong king. Thomas Hobbes had explained it all.
Perhaps Donald Trump is what Hobbes had in mind. Of course the next king, James II, was rather useless, and wanted to hook up with the Catholic Church, so they had to dump him – but they went for another king, not for doing without one. So it was William and Mary, from the House of Orange in the Netherlands, and when that didn’t work out, it was the Hanoverian Kings, one George after another, from Germany. Thomas Hobbes had convinced the English that an inherently brutish and nasty people – that would be them – do need a king. And you make do with whatever king you can find. The next to last George of that line was, in the end, quite mad, talking to trees and whatnot. There was a cool movie about that, but Hobbes’ concept persisted nonetheless.
The counter to that was the whole concept of the Noble Savage – the natural man, unencumbered by either civilization or divine revelation, inherently good, who doesn’t need any authoritarian state. Hobbes had it all wrong. People are naturally good, you see. They can work things out on their own. Rousseau did a variation on that – his Theory of Natural Man – the Enlightenment idea. We can work things out. We’re not inherently evil – quite the opposite – but maybe authoritarian government is. Rousseau despised Hobbes.
And then there was John Locke and that Tabula Rasa business. Man is neither good nor bad. We’re born a blank slate, so it is best that we build what institutions we need, by mutual agreement, but keep it simple and change those institutions by agreement when needed. Jefferson and the whole crew that wrote our Constitution were all big fans of Locke. The whole king thing had been a bust – and George III across the pond was indeed mad. Case closed. But they also had all read Voltaire’s 1759 satire Candide – mindless goofy optimism was also a trap. This wasn’t going to be easy.
This dispute has been going on since 1651 or so. Paul Krugman is simply adding more to it:
On Wednesday, after listening to the heart-rending stories of those who lost children and friends in the Parkland school shooting – while holding a cue card with empathetic-sounding phrases – Donald Trump proposed his answer: arming schoolteachers.
It says something about the state of our national discourse that this wasn’t even among the vilest, stupidest reactions to the atrocity. No, those honors go to the assertions by many conservative figures that bereaved students were being manipulated by sinister forces, or even that they were paid actors.
Still, Trump’s horrible idea, taken straight from the NRA playbook, was deeply revealing and the revelation goes beyond issues of gun control.
This is a culture war, a war on the very concept of community. It seems that government should not offer certain basic protections to all its members:
No other advanced nation experiences frequent massacres the way we do. Why? Because they impose background checks for prospective gun owners, limit the prevalence of guns in general and ban assault weapons that allow a killer to shoot dozens of people before he (it’s always a he) can be taken down. And yes, these regulations work.
Take the case of Australia, which used to experience occasional American-style gun massacres. After a particularly horrific example in 1996, the government banned assault weapons and bought such weapons back from those who already had them. There have been no massacres since.
Meanwhile, anyone who imagines that amateurs packing heat can be counted on to save everyone from a crazed killer with a semiautomatic weapon – as opposed to shooting one another or third parties in the confusion – has seen too many bad action movies.
And it’s more than guns:
Consider the very case often used to illustrate how bizarrely we treat guns: how we treat car ownership and operation.
It’s true that it’s much harder to get a driver’s license than it is to buy a lethal weapon, and that we impose many safety standards on our vehicles. And traffic deaths – which used to be far more common than gun deaths – have declined a lot over time.
Yet traffic deaths could and should have fallen a lot more… Traffic deaths have fallen much more in other advanced countries, which have used evidence-based policies like lower speed limits and tightened standards for drunken driving to improve their outcomes. Think the French are crazy drivers? Well, they used to be – but now they’re significantly safer in their cars than we are.
Oh, and there’s a lot of variation in car safety among states within the United States, just as there’s a lot of variation in gun violence. America has a “car death belt” in the Deep South and the Great Plains; it corresponds quite closely to the firearms death belt defined by age-adjusted gun death rates. It also corresponds pretty closely to the Trump vote – and also to the states that have refused to expand Medicaid, gratuitously denying health care to millions of their citizens.
Krugman sees a pattern here:
Our lethal inaction on guns, but also on cars, reflects the same spirit that’s causing us to neglect infrastructure and privatize prisons, the spirit that wants to dismantle public education and turn Medicare into a voucher system rather than a guarantee of essential care. For whatever reason, there’s a faction in our country that sees public action for the public good, no matter how justified, as part of a conspiracy to destroy our freedom.
There is evidence of that:
Does anyone remember George Will declaring that liberals like trains, not because they make sense for urban transport, but because they serve the “goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism”? And it goes along with basically infantile fantasies about individual action – the “good guy with a gun” – taking the place of such fundamentally public functions as policing.
This political faction is doing all it can to push us toward becoming a society in which individuals can’t count on the community to provide them with even the most basic guarantees of security – security from crazed gunmen, security from drunken drivers, security from exorbitant medical bills (which every other advanced country treats as a right, and does in fact manage to provide).
And that makes it 1651 again:
You might want to think of our madness over guns as just one aspect of the drive to turn us into what Thomas Hobbes described long ago: a society “wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them.” And Hobbes famously told us what life in such a society is like: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Yep, that sounds like Trump’s America.
In fact, in Trump’s America, the whole concept of community, embodied in an activist government, is a conspiracy to destroy individual freedom, what Hobbes called the freedom of no other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them – as those on the right see it. That’s not implicit in what they say. As CNN’s Lauren Fox reports, that’s quite explicit now:
The head of the biggest gun lobby in the US has accused Democrats of pushing a “socialist” agenda to deprive gun owners of their weapons, in an uncompromising speech just a week after 17 people died in the Florida school shooting.
Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association, made no attempt to moderate his message a day after survivors of the Parkland shooting faced down lawmakers in a CNN debate and the President at the White House. Instead, he told conservative activists that voters should be “frightened” of any future Democrat election victories, and accused Democrats of exploiting the deaths in an effort to destroy the Second Amendment.
“Socialism is a movement that loves a smear,” he said.
This was about freedom rather than community:
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservatives outside Washington, LaPierre warned Democrats would use the tragedy to push an agenda that went beyond gun control. “What they want is more restrictions on the law-abiding,” LaPierre said. “They want to sweep right under the carpet the failure of school security.”
Staring out into the audience, LaPierre told them “you should be anxious and you should be frightened” about the potential of another Democratic takeover of the House, Senate and White House.
“If they seize power our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever,” he said.
He was serious:
LaPierre spent a significant portion of his remarks warning against the expansion of socialist political ideas, despite the fact that Republicans control both chambers in Congress and the White House, and the suggestion by President Donald Trump Thursday morning that he’s open to gun reforms opposed by the NRA.
He called out rising-star Democratic lawmakers – many of them potential candidates for the 2020 presidential election – by name. He criticized independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Democratic Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren and other high-profile Democrats, whom he accused of backing European style socialism…
Just minutes before LaPierre was scheduled to speak, Trump defended the NRA.
“What many people don’t understand, or don’t want to understand, is that Wayne, Chris and the folks who work so hard at the @NRA are Great People and Great American Patriots. They love our Country and will do the right thing. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump tweeted.
Trump is all-in on this, and Josh Marshall explains the Hobbesian origins of all this:
More than a decade to a largely discredited and significantly disgraced “gun rights” economist named John Lott wrote some foundation studies that didn’t withstand serious scrutiny. He also got in trouble for creating fake online identities to praise his work. But that was beside the point, as the debate developed. This idea became gospel in the world of “gun rights” politics.
What Lott did was apply a kind of crude game theory to the gun question – call it Mutually Assured Massacre. The logic goes something like this. If most people are unarmed, the guy who’s “carrying” has tremendous power and can kill more or less with impunity, at least in the immediate aftermath of a shooting. No one can shoot back. But if everyone is armed or any given person might be armed, you’re going to be a lot more cautious about going for your firearm and shooting someone. Because they might be armed too. They might shoot back. Or the person next to them might be armed. If everyone is armed, everyone will be on their best behavior. Because they’re all equal in terms of lethal violence. Shootings will go down, not up.
That was the theory. Life may be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” but if everyone is armed, it might not be all that short. A perpetual armed standoff extends life, in theory:
In the abstract, where no humans actually exist, there’s actually a compelling logic to this. If I know you’re armed, I’ll be on my best behavior. You will too because you know I’m armed. Of course, in practice, almost everything is wrong with this logic. It relies on an extremely crude version of economic rational action and an even cruder form of game theory. This is particularly the case when you realize that the fraught, angry situations where people impulsively kill other people are by definition not rational. This doesn’t even get into situations like school shootings where the assailant usually intends to die in the massacre. It also doesn’t get into accidents, misunderstandings. It’s completely nuts.
It’s also “the word” now:
This basic concept: more guns, paradoxically, means more safety, informs almost every aspect of current pro-gun politics. The concealed carry movement is a good example. Lott’s argument was more concealed carry permits would make people and society at large safer. A big driver of concealed carry is people who just want to walk around armed, either to make themselves feel more safe, more cool, more macho, whatever. But the policy arguments from gun rights advocates mostly come back to John Lott: more guns in private hands mean more safety. It’s the same with open carry and a bunch of other parts of the “gun rights” agenda. It’s pervasive. It’s gospel.
Lott’s first article was published in 1997 and his first book More Guns, Less Crime in 1998, just a year before the Columbine Massacre in 1999. Though his first work just preceded Columbine, it filled a critical, necessary role for “gun rights” advocates in the post-Columbine world.
And one thing does lead to another:
The NRA wasn’t always against all gun restrictions. In the 1980s and 1990s, it didn’t oppose some very limited restrictions. That changed over the course of the 1990s, for a variety of reasons. Paradoxically, I believe one reason was the historic crime drop of the latter half of the 1990s. As long as crime seems out of control a lot of ordinary people want a gun to protect themselves, regardless of the larger societal impact, regardless of studies that might suggest you’re more likely to be killed by your own gun than saved by it.
But I think the main reason for this change is that as long as you recognize the basic reality that guns are dangerous, fighting even the most minimal kinds of restrictions is inherently difficult. You need to change the game. You need a theory that is coherent and in line with your goal. Lott’s theory created the logic for that. The problem with massacres isn’t too many guns. It’s too few guns. Guns aren’t the problem. They’re the answer… It’s the origin of virtually every argument the NRA makes today, from arming teachers to the “good guy with a gun” to the need for permissive concealed carry nationwide.
Indeed, if you look at the progression of gun regulation over the last twenty years, it is entirely in this direction. We not only have a dramatically higher number of guns in circulation today. We not only lack the limited protections from the 1990s, we have a whole movement making on-demand concealed carry the norm across much of the country. We also have more open-carry laws. All public policy has moved toward more guns, not fewer, and more freedom to bring them anywhere you want. This was the movement Lott, with his error-riddled study, was trying to advance: maximizing the number of people carrying a concealed weapon in daily life. Indeed, something called the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017 is on the verge of passage in Congress today. That would force states with tighter gun laws to honor the licenses of the most permissive ones, in other words, effectively nationalizing the right of anyone without a felony conviction or a recent mental health hospitalization to carry a loaded weapon whenever and wherever they want. Don’t want concealed carry in Massachusetts or New York? Too bad. You have to honor the licenses from Oklahoma and Idaho.
And that’s where things stand:
All available evidence suggests the obvious: more guns, more gun deaths. Lott’s whole thesis is almost comically flawed for anyone who understands the interaction of human nature and game theory. The empirical studies all seem flawed. Even apart from this a big chunk of the population, probably the majority, simply don’t want to live in a high-fear, maximally-armed society. But these are all the consequences of the NRA’s “positive good” theory of guns.
That’s where Trump got this inane idea to arm teachers. It’s not strange at all. We should expect it.
We should also expect the argument that Thomas Hobbes started long ago to continue. The idea of community, where people take public action for the public good, is a joke. Life’s not like that. We need a massive authoritarian state – a leviathan – with a single authoritarian head who will slap people around to keep them in line, who cannot be questioned. And of course the whole concept of community is a conspiracy to destroy our freedom, which we really don’t have under a single authoritarian head who cannot be questioned anyway. But everyone has a gun, so that’s fine. A perpetual armed standoff is freedom too.
This was never going to be easy.