What is this blog about?

What is this blog about?

I am a political philosopher. My 'political philosophy' is a form of 'liberal egalitarianism.' So in this blog I reflect on various issues in political philosophy and politics (especially Canadian and American politics) from a liberal egalitarian perspective.

If you are curious about what I mean by 'liberal egalitarianism,' my views are strongly influenced by the conception of justice advanced by John Rawls. (So I sometimes refer to myself as a 'Rawlsian,' even though I disagree with Rawls on some matters.)

Astonishingly, I am paid to write and teach moral and political philosophy. I somehow manage to do this despite my akratic nature. Here is my faculty profile.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Guns versus freedom of speech

The nature of freedom and its social preconditions is one of my central research interests. Most of my past academic work on this topic has been on the role of ‘money’ (economic resources) and education (intellectual resources) in facilitating citizens’ effective freedom. But of course citizens’ freedom can be constrained or expanded by other things. In the case of the United States (and pretty much only the United States, at least amongst Western liberal democratic societies), widespread civilian ownership of firearms—including the right to freely carry them in public places—greatly constrains most citizens’ freedom.

This view is contrary to the mainstream American view concerning this topic. Many people on both sides of the ‘gun control debate’ within the United States agree that allowing citizens to own firearms enhances their freedom—the question (as it’s generally framed) is whether this freedom is sufficiently important or valuable to outweigh the foreseeable costs for citizens’ health, safety, and lives. Proposals to limit or regulate citizens’ access to and use of firearms are justified by American gun control advocates, for the most part, on grounds of public health and safety.

This way of framing the issue is mistaken. It unjustifiably cedes intellectual ground to firearms advocates. Permitting anyone to own and carry in public places deadly firearms decreases the overall freedom of the citizenry; it does so by increasing the overall level of private, arbitrary coercive power (via threats of force and exercises of force by individual citizens) within society. Or so I have argued in the past.

I’m pleased to see others articulating something like this way of construing the relationship between firearms and freedom. Focusing on freedom of speech, at Slate Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern have great piece entitled, “The Guns Won: Charlottesville showed that our First Amendment jurisprudence hasn’t reckoned with our Second Amendment reality.”

Here are some of the key points from their article:
“When demonstrators plan to carry guns and cause fights, does the government have a compelling interest in regulating their expressive conduct more carefully than it’d be able to otherwise? This is not any one judge’s fault. It is a failure of our First Amendment jurisprudence to reckon with our Second Amendment reality.
Charlottesville proves that this issue is hardly theoretical anymore.”

“This conflict between the right to bear arms and the right to free speech is nothing new, but the sudden surge in white nationalist activism has made it painfully obvious that, in the public square, the right to bear arms tends to trump the right to free speech.”

“The result is an alarming form of censorship: Nonviolent demonstrators lose their right to assemble and express their ideas because the police are too apprehensive to shield them from violence. The right to bear arms overrides the right to free speech. And when protesters dress like militia members and the police are confused about who is with whom, chaos is inevitable.”

“It’s perfectly reasonable for courts to consider the speech-suppressing potential of guns when evaluating a city’s efforts to keep the peace. And it will be perfectly lethal if they fail to take the Second Amendment reality into account, as they reflect upon the values we seek to protect with the First.”
The core problem posed for freedom of speech by guns is expressed succinctly by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his piece for the New York Times (“Why the Nazis Came to Charlottesville”): “There is no ‘free speech’ if anyone brandishes firearms to intimidate those they despise. You can’t argue with the armed.”

An armed society is an unfree society.

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