On Liberty and Implements of Death

The purpose of this is to see whether, amid the general incoherence concerning gun control, the House might recognize and give the floor over to a member from a hundred years ago—a dead colleague, to be sure, but a card-carrying member in the democracy of the dead: G. K. Chesterton.

In June of 1920 Chesterton published a piece in the Illustrated London News titled “Liberty and Self-Government.” In it he noted our tendency to substitute reflex for thought whenever we witness something bad happening to someone else. If Johnny puts a tack on Suzie’s chair, the headmistress’s tendency will be to announce that henceforth no boy or girl in the school may possess thumbtacks, for

liberty is the very last idea that seems to occur to anybody, in considering any political or social proposal. It is only necessary for anybody for any reason to allege any evidence of any evil in any human practice, for people instantly to suggest that the practice should be suppressed by the police—

or (in my example) by headmistresses. A parent not impressed into enthusiastic sanguinity with the kinds of people running our schools today might call the Thumbtack Prohibition a “knee-jerk reaction.” For example I myself would call it a knee-jerk reaction. 

Now no one would deny that having good reflexes serves a body well, but who besides the schoolmarms in our three branches of government believes that it is a good idea to hand the work of the head over to that little sensitive spot below the kneecap that doctors are fond of tapping with their miniature tomahawks? Where thought and thoughtfulness are called for there should be men and women who can think. When there are no such men and women, we get the kind of changes that Chesterton called “wide” but “shallow.” “It is like the wide sweep of the walking-stick which should knock off the heads of countless poppies or thistles, while leaving their roots in the ground to grow again.” Johnny, to put it another way, is still Johnny. And poor little Bobby, who never used his thumbtacks to terrorize anyone, can no longer pin the painting of his excellent dog Max to the classroom cork board. The only real behavioral change comes from Suzie, who, if she can remember to think of it, will look before she sits.

What Chesterton said isn’t anything you can get the 1,700 journalists at our Paper of Record to understand. It seems fairly evident from what they produce that their formal training is as rent-a-cops and schoolmistresses. Liberty is the very last idea that occurs to them. For a case in point I proffer this from David Leonhardt’s The New York Times daily newsletter of July 5, 2022; it appeared right after the shootings during Highland Park’s Independence Day parade: “Why does the U.S. have so many mass shootings? Mostly because people have so many guns, as a recent edition of this newsletter explained.”

I leave aside the assumption here that it is a reporter’s job not to report but to explain. (Leonhardt’s colleague German Lopez did the explaining in the aforementioned “recent edition.” These two cultural luminaries are very accomplished Village Explainers.) The quotation implies two claims, both of them dubious: one is that guns are the root of the problem called “mass shootings”; the other is that correlation is causation.

Assuredly there is reason to expect a statistical increase in gun violence when there are more guns in more people’s hands. The same would be true of beatings if a lot of people were walking around Chinatown carrying Louisville Sluggers. More garlic minced in more kitchens will probably result in more garlic breath. But that is correlation, not causation; it answers “what?” but not “why?” And “why” is the thing we must get at.

En route to why I should probably put my own cards on the table and say plainly that I don’t have much of a dog in this fight—at least not in the sense that I spend a lot of time worrying about guns and gun laws, which I don’t. Here, in brief, is pretty much all the thinking I’ve done on the issue, accommodatingly, if not fittingly, presented in The New York Times Newsletter fashion—that is, in bullet points:

  • I own a .22. I use it on my small farm for shooting the critters that disrupt my operation. Insofar as I can manage an opinion about my owning a rifle, I think (1) it’s no one’s business but mine that I own such a gun and (2) it’s no one’s business to tell me that I can’t own it, especially if the busybody doing so is a lifelong patron of big-city coffee kiosks who’s never had to protect a hen flock from marauding raccoons.
  • Whatever pathologies I may have are not the kind that makes my owning a .22 a threat to my family or a menace to my neighbors, only to groundhogs and marauding raccoons.
  • I know people who own AR-style weapons and a great many more who own no weapons at all—not counting their mouths, cars, and cell phones, which in my view are plenty lethal.
  • As an academic I’ve spent most of my life around people who favor strict gun laws up to and including a total torching of the 2nd Amendment. These people favor such laws at least in part because of peer pressure. They are all “independent thinkers” who teach “critical thinking skills” and never deviate from their party’s script.
  • I share none of the vehemence you see on either side of the gun divide, especially those opinions that fly out a long way from the center, no matter the direction, though I know and try to get along with people whose opinions fly out a long way from the center. I try to get along with them because I genuinely think it’s possible that they are right and I am wrong, though I see little evidence that they have returned the favor.
  • That many people who own guns don’t need them is, I think, pretty likely, but I don’t know this for sure.
  • That some own guns who shouldn’t own them is clearly so, though that doesn’t answer the question of whether they may own guns. At the moment I am not venturing into the more delicate but dull and unnuanced business of lawmaking. I’m only sketching the parameters of my own homespun deliberations on the matter; I do this so that the reader can believe me when I say I don’t have much of a dog in this fight.
  • Should a homicidal maniac own an assault rifle? Let’s start in the boys’ department on this one and work our way up: Should you give your toddler a box of kitchen matches and tell him to play with the knobs on your gas stove? My view is that these are not difficult questions to answer.
  • I think place has more to do with this issue—and many others under public debate—than people tend to allow. So although my owning a .22 in this particular place may be indicated, I don’t see the need in my case to acquire a sidearm or an AR-15—not yet, anyway, though I can imagine circumstances under which that time might come. And if that time comes, I would like some assurances that the sellers have wondered under penalty of law whether I’m a homicidal maniac.
  • If circumstances indicate that I should own a sidearm or an AR-15, I hope I would use them only as deterrents. I don’t want to stand before the final tribunal knowing that a man lost his life and I took it.
  • I suppose I should add that I am not, as far as I know, defending any established political territory. I am not a progressive, because I see no net evidence of progress. I am not a libertarian, because I cannot see that libertarianism provides an adequate foundation for virtuous action. But I have never called myself a “conservative” either—not in writing, not in speech—because “conservative” is no longer a reliable word. Journalists are mostly to blame for this, and after them conservatives. As much as I like to party, I find that I am pretty much without one.

But to the larger point: the dog I do have a fight in is not the legal but the moral one, and in that fight I’ll take Chesterton’s part any day over the anti-2nd-Amendment sociologist in a tie-dyed shirt, Birkenstocks, and the green Subaru Forester with a “Coexist” sticker in the back window.

Chesterton gave the example of “a Sultan whose Grand Vizier had his throat cut by his barber; and who immediately forbade razors throughout the length and breadth of his empire.” This would be an act of legislation worthy of the size of his empire, but it would also be wide and shallow, like the Thumbtack Law. In no way would it provide any evidence that the Sultan understood why his Grand Vizier came to grief, or whether there was any discontent in his empire. This is why, after the Sultan “has carefully excluded all razors, he will be very much surprised when the next Grand Vizier is killed with a red-hot poker. He will be still more surprised to find that an increasing number of his critics have passed from razors to red-hot pokers.”

Thus we come to the problem that the Sultan, the schoolmarms, and the Village Explainers don’t quite understand. It is the “first great principle of practical politics; that the sin is in a man’s soul and not in his tools or his toys.” So under the new law forbidding razors—and in short order, red-hot pokers too—the Sultan’s barbers, like Johnny, remain incorrigibly themselves. Thumbtacks or razors or red-hot pokers: it makes no difference. Their souls are “affected by all of them.”

Now it’s hard cheese on Suzie that she sat on a thumbtack (unless she fancies Johnny and likes the attention), and harder cheese on the Grand Viziers who go toes-up for having met with empiric malcontents wielding razors and red-hot pokers. But Chesterton paused to ask what all this means for liberty. And in typical Chestertonian fashion, he offered a concrete example. Prohibition, he said, “is the prohibition of one particular private object or instrument.” But the prohibition of, say, thumbtacks or beer—prohibition as such—is no different from the prohibition of pocket knives and matches and fountain pens, which are three tools you can use for ill, such as for killing or committing arson or forgery, respectively. But if you use a pocket knife or a match or a fountain pen to commit murder or arson or forgery, you may be sure that liberty will be the very last idea that occurs to the lawmakers and all the fourth-estate propagandists they’ve retained, for in very short order all of them will be recommending not that you learn to govern your desire for blood, fire, and fraud but that you outlaw these three tools that conduce well to certain kinds of perfidy. And all the while they will assure you that the root cause of the mischief is that people have so many pocket knives, matches, and pens, not that they have an inordinate desire for blood, destruction, or fraud.

Chesterton’s patience for this wore thin pretty quickly:

If our rulers thought that these crimes were becoming so common that it was necessary to penalize the mere possession of the mere instruments, it is at least clear that we should be conscious of a new and rather annoying interference with our private life. We should probably say that such a degree of interferences was inconsistent with any degree of independence. We should say that if we are not to be trusted with knives and matches, we are not to be trusted with arms and legs; we ought to be locked up and not allowed to walk about the streets.

Barbarians old and new, Chesterton said, cannot make sense of any social arrangements in which men are as free as kings and capable of treating one another with the dignity of fellow kings. For in a real sense nations conceived in liberty consist in something like widespread kingship—every man a king—“as if there were a flag on every roof and a frontier at the end of every front garden.” The area of choice for the citizen is certainly circumscribed by the city, but within that city “he does really choose.” All that he does in a real Republic—making a home, choosing his friends, forming habits—he does with “the dignity and even sanctity that descends from Rome.”

Chesterton said this with the Great War fresh in his memory. The Prussians were “the supreme barbarians” who “supremely despised” the nation of kings.

They could imagine no power except a power without limit. They lacked the power of the citizen, because it is like the power of the artist; it consists in drawing the line somewhere. The idea of a nation of kings is that every citizen respects every other citizen, as a king respects another king; not merely as a matter of equality but also of dignity.

This is what the war against Prussia was about and also what any spat against the neobarbarians is about. Liberty is the last idea that occurs to the neobarbarians even as it was the last idea to occur to the paleobarbarians. Power without limit, power without the ability to draw a line, is barbarism; it is barbarism because it is artlessness, for there can be no art, nor any artful living, without the limits—without the frame around the portrait or the syllabic count assigned to the sonnet—that keep a thing at scale, whether the thing we are talking about is an object well-made or a life well-lived. Your dinner plate is a limit, as is your stomach; your property—that which is proper to you—is a limit. If the provider of your mobile [de]vice promises “unlimited talk and text,” you may be sure you have been suckered into an ugly and artless enterprise—not to mention a noisy and meddlesome one.

That artless busybody who looks around and sees evil in any human practice and says that such a practice should be suppressed by the police is an artless busybody for the simple reason that he has not learned to draw a line, which is why, as Chesterton said, once the busybody has regulated drinking and smoking he will also regulate sleeping and breathing. He can see no end to his power, no limit to it. He would have no man a king but himself. But “the whole point of liberty,” Chesterton said, “and the only point of democracy, is expressed in the word self-government”—as when Suzie learns to think before she sits down. “The word implies that a man should not be governed by another than himself; but it also implies that a man should be governed by himself.” Indeed, there is a moral authority in a man without the exercise of which he becomes a slave. He especially becomes a slave if this moral authority is taken from him.

Snip the heads off the poppies and thistles to your heart’s content. But that’s not a radical solution to the proliferation of poppies and thistles; it doesn’t go to the roots.

It is a fundamental principle of the New Testament that Johnny cannot learn under law to keep his thumbtacks to himself. He can learn to keep them to himself only under grace, which is to say only under the freedom to place or not to place them on Suzie’s chair. That is the condition of liberty according to which he is a prince and she a princess. The only question is whether the schoolmistress will usher them into the fullness of royalty, which is to say into the duties and responsibilities, the dignity and the sanctity, that befit kings and queens in a nation of other kings and queens. Chesterton’s concern with liberty is therefore not a concern with liberty for its own sake. It is a moral concern, a concern for the self-government made possible by liberty without which no boy named Johnny can make the kind of moral improvement that will prevent his becoming known in the elementary school weekly circular as The Kindergarten Pea-Shooter. And even if he can’t make that kind of moral improvement, one thing will remain the same: the sin will still be in Johnny, not in his peashooter. I grant, as I think everyone must, that the safety of Suzie and the other kindergarteners is a legitimate concern. I grant, as I think everyone must, an ontological gap between thumbtacks and AR-15s. But take your walking stick and lop away with all the fury of the tie-dyed Subaru-driving sociologist; the roots of the thistle are still in the ground. We all went to school with a Johnny: the peashooter won’t be his last invention, nor Suzie his last target.

There is one more point that needs to be made here, and it needs to be made clearly. In saying that the sin is in the man and not in his instrument, Chesterton was saying something quite different from what all the competing Phi Beta Kappas on both sides of the gun dispute are saying. The bumper sticker telling us that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is no more clarifying than the other one telling us that “guns don’t kill people; people who like guns kill people.” If in the first case you substitute “strychnine” for “guns” you will see the fallacy; if in the second you substitute “people who like to kill” for “people who like guns” you will see another. (Indeed, when it comes to bumper-sticker philosophy and what Wendell Berry calls our “present curse of slogans,” you can hardly pull up to a stoplight without contemplating a fallacy, especially if the car in front of you is green Subaru Forester.) But in both cases, you can’t help seeing the knee-jerk of the Gun Philosophers. They are using not thought but substitutes for it, as when the Associate Dean of Student Success assures you she’s using “best practices,” or when the consulting firm convinces your “team leader” that being “agile” and “nimble” are the “keys to dynamic and proactive success.” It’s not mere social maladjustment in the man, Chesterton implied. It’s a metaphysical problem that isn’t susceptible to therapy or technological or legislative manipulation. Snip the heads off the poppies and thistles to your heart’s content. But that’s not a radical solution to the proliferation of poppies and thistles; it doesn’t go to the roots.

I hope no one is so cold as to be unmoved by school shootings and Independence Day snipers. I hope I am not. The sorrow of these really is beyond expression. But if we are moved by them, and I mean moved not only to sorrow but also to action, let us be clear about one thing: they aren’t going away on the Leonhardt-Lopez plan. Johnny is clever. Ask the denizens of Oklahoma City how clever. Ask the Boston marathoners or the innocents in the Twin Towers. Right conduct is a matter not of compulsion but of liberty. If you would not be a thief, you must be free to steal. If you would speak truly you must be at liberty to lie. Whether you be “sufficient to have stood,” as Milton said, you must nevertheless be “free to fall.” The schoolmistress does Suzie a little good but Johnny hardly any. And what is worse, the Sultan still has no idea why there is discontent in his empire.

But that discontent, together with the Sultan’s cluelessness, is grist for another mill. We might begin by acknowledging that the world we have brought our children into, once rich and lovely and beautiful, is now denuded and ugly and meaningless. It remains worthy of a dying God, but that we ourselves should die for it? We’d sooner kill.