(Note: I posted this as a comment on http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/ and am copying it here, as a I always do.)
Guns are for more than hunting and self defense. They’re also a political symbol, and a political institution. Arms have uses. But the purpose of arms is to maintain the ability to overthrow an oppressive government, and to insure that members of a government take no actions that would sufficiently anger even a small percentage of the people, such that they might raise their arms and use them.
Yes guns are cool. Yes they are a status symbol. Yes guns provide one with a sense of security. And yes, they are the material tools by which a people remain free. Even if remaining free is the sentiment of the minority of the population. One is not free if he must rely for his security upon the willingness of others. He is free because he chooses to preserve the existing social order, despite the fact that he has the physical power at his disposal to alter it if necessary.
Violence is a virtue: The more of it you have, the more free you are. The more free you make others by possessing it, but using it only to preserve that freedom. Restraint is the most powerful use of violence. If you no longer possess it, you cannot restrain it. It is most powerful if it is a potential.
Actions which are not taken are often not measurable. Economists know this. It is the problem of the broken window fallacy, and the principle behind Opportunity Costs. As such, economists should be wary of applying infinite discounts to a property of human behavior, simply because of the difficulty of measuring the cost of that behavior. Property is an institution that is created by the threat of violence. The use of violence to create property, whether it be the several property of the individual or the shareholder property of the collective, is the most massive and constant application of violence that civilizations apply, from the very broadest group, down to each individual. Property is the highest cost institution. It is the hardest to develop.
The Iron Law of Oligarchy and it’s manifestation in bureaucracies guarantees that all governments, of all forms, will be corrupt, and self serving. The only counter to the bureaucracy of the state is the promise of violence by it’s citizens. Under republican democracy and social democracy, the bureaucracy is demonstrably more self-serving than under other forms of government, and far less subject to democratic change. Tyrants can be killed. Bureaucracies cannot be.
The vast efforts of the West for the past few centuries have been to create the institutions of property elsewhere. And our primary advances in human productivity and cooperation have been the result of the tools to account for, the legal systems to administer, the education to teach children how to use, and the new types of money and credit instruments, finance, banking, capital and markets to facilitate, the ordered use of property. And we have spread those instituions of property, almost always by the force of arms. This has occurred despite movement after movement by one class or another, from the base proletariat to the elitist public intellectual, to deprive us of that violence, so that they may use the violence of the state to remove from us our freedom, and to alter our definitions of property, and therefore appropriate the institutions, the property, or the results of our labors for the benefit of one group or another.
Adherence to property definitions, and use of the tools and institutions to manipulate property, are the foundation of learning in every culture. The Justice that is used to resolve conflicts, and the government that is used to create and regulate markets, both sit upon the technology of violence. And governments, if they are over free men, are created and maintained by the fraternity of individuals who are wiling to forgo the institution of violence in order to preserve their definitions of property, their systems of justice, and their institutions of government.
Guns, more than any type of arms in history, equalize our capacity for violence. They make us equal in age, health, strength and choice. Each of us possesses violence. It is a natural human potential. The more skilled we are, the more armed we are, the more we possess of it. The greater the store of it, the wealthier are our people. The more secure are our trade routes. The more respectful are our governors. The more free are our citizens. The more prosperous our people. The more choices for happiness are open to each of us. History does not favor the weak — whether as a nation, or as individuals.
In the west, our social order, our history, derives from our unique development of cities, which was accomplished through the cooperation of a fraternity of warriors. We should understand that cities are synonymous with markets. Warriors built markets with the threat of violence, and it was done at high cost. Our trade system today is one of high cost. And common americans benefit from that high cost. Even if we are exporting debt and currency to pay for our military system, rather than simply taxing everyone else for our world trade routes.
Our fraternity is what makes us unique among other civilizations. Its origin is in our weakness against the stronger, wealthier and more populous east. With smaller numbers, and better technology, our shareholders defended their markets against superior forces. And while in our lifetimes we have been majority for a brief flicker in time. We are a minority again. A minority who protects our markets, our trade, and our institutions and our freedom with a wealth of violence. By our actions-not-taken. Against the constant drum of talkers and scribblers who would take from us our violence and deprive us of our freedom.
Today we use the word ‘shareholder’ instead of ‘citizen’ for our voluntary orders. We do so to obfuscate the cost of being a shareholder or a citizen. So that many people may become shareholders without first paying the cost of obtaining one’s share. By respecting the institutions of property, we gain admission to the market. To respect property is to refrain from violence and fraud.
There are only three tools by which humans can coerce other human beings: violence, words and payment. Each social class has developed elites that master one of the three tools. And any attempt to deprive us of words, arms or property, is simply an attempt by the elites of one class to deprive members of another class of their political power, and to obtain additional power for their own at a discount.
I hope that the meaning of that statement is not too subtle to be clear.