The New York Times columnist Gail Collins began her March 9th column by saying, “It’s been nearly nine weeks since that tragic shooting in Tucson, and you may be wondering whether there’s been any gun legislation proposed in the aftermath.”
I hadn’t been, actually.
But I do find it illuminating that Gail Collins had been and that she clearly thought this so normal as to assume her readers had been as well. “Of course we should expect stricter gun laws after a shooting like this. A bad thing happened, and every bad thing should be solved by government, in this case government censorship of guns.” And our collective obstinacy against passing such laws is terribly frustrating to her.
I think I understand why.
Even though I haven’t read enough columns by Gail Collins to say whether she believes in God, I have read enough to be absolutely certain she believes in Government. And her vision of Government is of an entity so powerful and wise that if only we shaped it properly, there would be no problems in the world, at least not serious ones like mass shootings.
You see, for the Governmentist, bad things only happen when the Law isn’t right yet. Consequently, when a really bad thing like the Tucson murders happens, the first response is to cry out in anguish, “Why, Government? Why did You let this happen?” Then, the instinctive response is to push for new laws so that such a thing will never happen again.
So when other (less devout) believers in Government don’t cooperate, she turns to her newspaper column in anger at their impurity of “doctrine.” In essence she scolds, “How dare you keep Government from creating heaven on Earth? Where’s your faith? You should be ashamed of yourselves!” Because Government is her functional God (promising to save her and the rest of us from whatever ails), she can’t help but instinctively react to a major crime this way.
Conservatives and libertarians, however, approach things differently.
We know that history teaches a simple lesson: bad things happen. They have always happened. And they always will happen so long as people are sinful. Even really bad things like mass murder and poverty and letting conservatives host radio shows will always be with us. And this isn’t necessarily evidence that government is too small or not functioning properly. Oh, to be sure, it can be evidence of that in some cases. But it usually isn’t.
That’s because there are far more factors involved in any serious crime than just a failure of government. Moreover, as hard as it may be for Governmentists to comprehend, there may have been no failure of government at all!
Any crime is the result of a variety of causes including but not limited to: education, genetics, parenting, social treatment, friends (or lack thereof), religion (or lack thereof), internalized sense of virtue, financial hardship (or excess), altered brain chemistry, peer pressure, dangerous ideas, a weak moral culture, psychological disorder, access to the instruments of crime, failure of others to notice warning signs and/or intervene, and (my own personal favorite) individual free will.
It’s incredibly rare that any one of these factors is solely or even mostly to blame for any particular crime, and you’ll notice that government isn’t even featured on the list. But if we do include government, it offers two main entries: inadequate police prevention and permitting too much freedom. Since police are primarily punitive rather than preventative, the remaining big governmental “defect” factoring into most crime is the existence of freedom.
And that’s the real point Governmentists miss: Just like any other problem in society, crime is primarily the result of people misusing their freedom.
I’ll say it again because it’s really important to grasp this point: Just like any other problem in society, crime is primarily the result of people misusing their freedom.
See, there are only two ways to have no crime. The first is to have morally perfect people. History and theology tell us this is not a reasonable expectation because such people exist only in theory or the afterlife. The second is to give real, morally flawed people very little or no freedom. But this means taking freedom away from everybody, since it’s notoriously difficult to know precisely which ones are dangerous until after they’ve actually done something bad.
And what makes matters worse is that the government itself is made up of people: real, morally flawed people. Since bad people with power are capable of far greater evil than bad people without it, our country is predicated on the belief that we have more to fear from sinners in government than we do from sinners with personal freedom.
Remember, the government has guns, too. And their misuse of them in history has been exponentially worse than anything private individuals have done. But because Gail Collins has unshakeable faith in the inherent goodness of Government, she doesn’t mind trusting its guns. As for me, I’d rather take my chances with the Jared Loughners of the world.
Because advocates of limited government know that some people will often misuse freedom and that all people will sometimes misuse it, we aren’t really all that surprised by the occurrence of evil in our society, even serious evil. Nor is our first impulse to respond by taking action through government to solve a problem that may not be solvable at all, let alone by government.
Our first impulse is to lament the evil that occurred. But our second impulse is to remember that the occurrence of evil is the evidence of freedom. Problems in society, while bad, are the one unequivocal proof that freedom has been given to morally flawed citizens. Therefore, even though we hate seeing people suffer, we know that problems, even major problems, are a normal part of the human condition.
That’s why only coming in third for us is the impulse to ask whether something needs to be done to prevent future, similar evils from occurring. And even when we eventually ask that question, we always keep in mind that there are a host of factors that contribute to evil, only one of which is the lack of proper legislation.
And if, at the distant end of a long process of consideration, we do finally get to the place where it seems like new laws might be the right response, we first check ourselves to be sure we aren’t fantasizing that better laws can solve all evil and we force ourselves to ask whether the solution might not create more problems than it cures.
Any doctor will tell you that medicine always carries side effects. So the trick is to prescribe a remedy which makes the body healthier enough to offset any sickness that the medicine itself will cause. Sadly, sometimes, there’s just no available drug with greater net benefits than taking no drug at all. Knowing this, a good doctor will often respond to even severe symptoms by saying, “Go home. Rest. Drink plenty of fluids, and wait a few days. It’ll probably take care of itself. Even healthy people get sick sometimes.”
Failing to understand this, the Governmentist in Gail Collins responds to any major crime by demanding the better legislation which can finally turn our society into the happily-ever-after place proper Government always creates. Their political malpractice thus comes from an inability to distinguish between the sort of disordered freedom which does lead to many serious problems and the far more common perfectly healthy freedom which also inevitably leads to at least some serious problems. And since freedom is always by definition the casualty of more government, sometimes (but not every time) the best new law is to make no new law at all.