• Wed
  • Oct 1, 2014
  • Updated: 3:33am

Liberty doesn't flow out of a gun barrel

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2012, 12:00am

Americans' love of guns is something difficult for outsiders to fathom. But repeated mass killings like the one in which a dozen people were gunned down inside a Colorado cinema cast a spotlight on the ease with which dangerous people can buy powerful weapons legally. Gun ownership is protected by the US constitution. There is a kind of American romanticism that perceives this right as a symbol of freedom and individualism.

Those Americans who are most adamant about the right to gun ownership are usually those most committed ideologically against big government. You can call it their love of freedom. The flipside is their distrust of political institutions. It's axiomatic to many Americans that the less government the better. It's easy to take for granted, and criticise, the institutions that make you free and prosperous once you have them.

As is often remarked, what all functioning states have in common is that they monopolise the legitimate use of violence. That is a major reason why most countries either ban or severely restrict gun ownership. America is a unique exception. This pro-gun, anti-government bias can have enormous consequences for other countries. The invasion of Iraq and the debacle that followed had much to do with the right-wing fantasy that once Saddam Hussein's dictatorship was felled - and people were allowed to vote and create a free market - functioning institutions would magically appear. But democracy is sustained by functioning institutions; it does not create them.

The same bias also explains why Washington and the US media have such a cavalier attitude towards countries which have functioning institutions but which are not fully democratic, so they are ever ready to destabilise, delegitimise or demonise them. Political philosophers call the state of nature a state of war; it is what will happen to societies when their most basic institutions collapse. We always need to remember how difficult it is for many developing countries to create and maintain functioning institutions, imperfect or undemocratic though some may be. The first condition of freedom is to avoid chaos.

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