Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Most Important Thing Ayn Rand Got Right

Ayn Rand on collective rights:
Since only an individual man can possess rights, the expression “individual rights” is a redundancy (which one has to use for purposes of clarification in today’s intellectual chaos). But the expression “collective rights” is a contradiction in terms.
Any group or “collective,” large or small, is only a number of individuals. A group can have no rights other than the rights of its individual members.
A group, as such, has no rights. A man can neither acquire new rights by joining a group nor lose the rights which he does possess. The principle of individual rights is the only moral base of all groups or associations.
“Collectivized ‘Rights,’”The Virtue of Selfishness, 101
Rand, a bitter opponent of Marxism, had Communism in mind when she wrote this. Since Communism recognized no individual rights (apart from the right to be a Communist), therefore Communist governments had no rights.

But it's important to clarify something. Having no rights is not the same thing as other people having the right to do whatever they want to you. Just because the Communist government of the Soviet Union was illegitimate, or the theocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia are illegitimate, doesn't give someone else the right to declare war on them capriciously. These governments may have no regard for the rights of their citizens, but their citizens do have human rights nonetheless. The government of North Korea is utterly illegitimate, but dislodging it would probably create more suffering than the regime itself does. Totalitarian states have a way of protecting themselves like that.

At the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, we have the concept of "States' Rights." One interpretation of "States' Rights" is the rights held by the government of some geographic area. That's easy to dispose of: a State in that sense is an arbitrary polygon on a map. It can no more have rights than latitude and longitude have rights, or a UTM grid square has rights. In fact, in Rand's interpretation, a state government, being a group, has no rights.

The other interpretation is that States' Rights means the rights of the citizens living within those states. That's the only definition that makes any sense. And so, for example, the citizens of 49 states have the right to pump their own gas at a service station, but not the citizens of Oregon. That's probably motivated by a desire to preserve jobs in the filling station business, or prevent accidental spills, but there doesn't seem to be any widespread resentment over it in Oregon. The militants who took over a wildlife refuge had many grievances against the Federal government, but never uttered a peep about being forced to let someone else pump their gas.

One ironic fact is that people who want the 17th Amendment repealed (which provided for popular election of Senators) appeal to States' Rights in terms that seem to regard States as abstract entities that have rights in and of themselves. As one site put it:

The popular election of our senators is bad public policy because it stripped the states of the one voice of representation they had in Washington, DC.
Note the assertion that popular election of Senators stripped the states of their rights, and therefore the states are entities that have rights independent of their citizens. One wonders what those rights might be? The cynic in me suspects those "rights" are really the rights of interest groups, that is, the right of wealthy and powerful individuals to draft their own laws.

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Modest Proposal on Gun Control

Gun owners believe that, if they haven't done anything wrong, they shouldn't have to justify their gun ownership. And they don't trust the government with registration, for the same reason that lots of people don't trust the NSA or FBI to read their e-mail.

One proposal to limit gun violence is to restrict the mentally ill from owning guns. This measure might put a serious dent in the number of gun suicides, but will scarcely affect gun homicides. Very few gun homicides are due to mental illness. Elliott Rodger, the teenager who posted a video manifesto outlining his anger at being ignored by women before killing six people, had been to a number of therapists but never diagnosed with a mental illness. To screen out people like him, we'd have to consider every socially isolated or even merely quirky individual as mentally ill, and maintain a nationwide registry. That would probably outrage civil libertarians every bit as much as gun owners.

Gun owners want the burden to fall on people who commit gun crimes, but that won't help the people who get shot in the meantime. And a significant number of gun criminals either kill themselves or force the police to do it, so capital punishment won't be a deterrent. Indeed, it's hard to see what registration would do before the crime. 

So what might help? We don't want something that deprives current lawful gun owners of any liberties, nor do we want a definition of "mental illness" so broad it snares a large part of the population, most of who are guilty of nothing worse than mild eccentricity. But we don't want to wait until people actually kill someone, because by then it's too late.

There's one common factor in a large fraction of gun crimes: a sense of entitlement that the criminal has a right to lash out at others for real or imagined slights. Elliott Rodger was angry that women wouldn't respond to his awesomeness despite his affluence. He also committed other acts that, in retrospect, pointed toward his final outburst. He followed a couple and threw coffee on them, splashed coffee on two women who refused to pay attention to him, and sprayed a group with orange juice from a Super-Soaker. In fact, a lot of shooters have prior records of minor violence before they graduate to the big time. The logical way to control gun violence is to act when someone shows some precursory violent tendencies.

So here's the plan. Anyone who ever commits an act of violence except with very strict legal authority loses their right to own a gun. This wouldn't require any gun owner to register because it applies only to future acts. The registry right now is blank. The only requirement on current gun owners is a firm personal commitment to hold their temper and act responsibly.
  • Unless you have specific legal authority (police, military, teachers and principals in school, security personnel, and so on), you have no authority whatsoever over anyone else. The teacher has the authority to discipline your child in school. You have no authority to attack or threaten the teacher.
  • The only exception is self defense or defense of others. You have no authority to accost someone walking down your street and demand to know why he's there. And there's no exception for "feeling threatened." If you don't have the judgement to know for certain if you are threatened, you don't have the judgement to own a gun.
  • Conviction for any violent act costs the offender his gun rights. Felonies, of course, but misdemeanors, too. Even disorderly conduct. Any offense under the influence of alcohol or drugs costs the offender his gun rights. If you can't hold your liquor, you can't hold a gun.
  • All domestic violence costs the offender his gun rights.
  • Any vandalism or cruelty to animals costs the offender his gun rights.
  • Threatening anyone with a weapon costs the offender his gun rights. That includes you, Y'All Qaeda. And any landowner who thinks it's okay to shoot at trespassers.
  • Any act of road rage whatsoever costs the offender his gun rights. Tailgating, aggressive driving, trying to run someone off the road. If someone cuts you off, call 911 and report it. If the police don't take it up, then there's no problem.
  • Accidentally discharging a weapon costs you your gun privileges. If you can't play responsibly with your toys, you lose them. Accidentally discharging a weapon in the military earns you an Article 15. Also negligently storing a weapon so that children can access it. The people whose son shot a neighbor child because she wouldn't show him her kitten may not have violated any laws, but they should never again be allowed access to anything more dangerous than a butter knife.
  • Threats (on line or in person) constitute valid grounds for a search warrant (a rule that could very well have prevented the Columbine shootings), and threats of violence constitute grounds for losing gun rights.
  • These apply to everyone. If you're a police officer or member of the military, and you engage in frivolous violence, your career is over. Yes, I know being a cop is stressful. Deal with it or change jobs.
There is no excuse whatsoever for anyone ever to commit any of these acts, and they very frequently show up in the backgrounds of shooters. They are far more reliable predictors of eventual lethal violence than someone merely being diagnosed with mental illness. Anything on the list gets you on the do-not-sell registry.  Plus, the court punches a hole in your ID, just the way we punch holes in expired passports. Plus, the police get a search warrant for your guns. All you have to do to keep your guns and stay off the radar is keep your temper. If you never attack or threaten anyone, you can have an arsenal fit for a battalion in your basement and nobody ever needs to know. You can have total anonymity.

So you mean, if I lose my temper and kick the dog or hit my wife, I should lose my right to a gun?


Well, why don't you just castrate us while you're at it?

Since a lot of our gun violence boils down to an overblown sense of masculinity, I'm totally down with that idea. But it would present Eighth Amendment problems.