by David Ottlinger
“This is the price of freedom.” Such were the thoughts of Bill O’Reilly upon receiving reports of nearly sixty people being fatally shot at an outdoor Las Vegas concert. (1) O’Reilly, it would seem, is able to crystallize his thoughts with enviable quickness. The quotation appeared in a short post only the morning after the shots were fired, when many of us were still in the throes of initial shock. But while we were collecting ourselves and starting to formulate the questions that would have to be asked, O’Reilly had already arrived at an answer. He was of course disgusted by the grisly and absurd loss of life. But even in the face of such overwhelming dreadfulness, he felt resigned to the force of a logic that dictates inaction. “This,” he assured us, “is the price of freedom.”
There is something about these words. They are neat, tidy and deeply unsatisfying. They presume to solve a complex social issue almost geometrically. The inference is arrestingly straightforward. Mass killings are a social ill. But freedom is a greater social good. Therefore we must buy freedom at the price of occasional mass killings. An entire argument is condensed to six words.
Sensing the potential for controversy, nearly every single news outlet in America (and a few outside) reported on O’Reilly’s words. (2) No doubt these outlets know their customers. We can safely assume that O’Reilly generates massive traffic for many sites, as curious and angry liberals click on links, fume over the contents and leave angry comments. A few places have also put out pious rebuttals. (3) But liberals should be more reflective. Before hastening to rebut O’Reilly’s logic, they should explore how it functions.
For me, O’Reilly’s comments were a revelation. They helped solidify in my mind something I take to be deeply important to understanding many contemporary conservative arguments. For O’Reilly’s argument to make any sense – for it even to be so much as possible to look at 58 human beings deprived of their lives and still be inclined to defend the freedom of the gunman – one must have a conception of freedom that is almost entirely asocial. When O’Reilly speaks of freedom he means exclusively the freedom of an individual acting alone. For many modern conservatives, this is the only freedom there is.
To see this, we may consider conservative arguments against gun control. By my observation there are three fundamental objections. All concern freedom. The first contends that even given a just and competent police force, some citizens may be subjected to criminal acts in such circumstances that the police could not reach them or could not reach them in time. In such situations citizens must have the freedom to defend themselves. The only adequate means by which a citizen may protect him or herself is with a gun. Therefore citizens must be permitted to carry guns. The second concerns the idea that while a society must maintain a police force to keep order, inevitably members of that police force will at times behave inappropriately or maliciously. In such situations citizens must have the freedom to defend themselves from the police. The only adequate means whereby a citizen may protect him or herself from the police is guns. Therefore citizens must be permitted to carry guns. The third considers the possibility that the entire police force and the entire state that supports it could become lawless and tyrannical. In such a situation the citizenry must have the freedom to resist or even overthrow the government. The only adequate means by which the citizenry may resist or even overthrow the government is with guns. Therefore the citizenry must be permitted to own and carry guns.
These three arguments are independent of each other and of variable merit. One could certainly accept the first but not the latter two. One could accept the first two but not the third. I mention this specifically because the third may seem to some moderate conservatives as the exclusive property of wildest and most paranoid conservatives, although my understanding is that in fact, this is not the case. (4) I do not include it to poison the well or to tar moderates by the association. Rather I include all three because they are frequently heard and together seem to me to make up the bulk of the anti-gun control discourse. It could be that there are other arguments, employed by jurists and philosophers, but these sorts of professionals have a limited role in mainstream political decision making.
What stands out is that all three have a strikingly common logic. Society functions as the source of potential threats and dangers. Freedom is the possession of the individual, which he or she jealously guards even to the point arming him or herself. Freedom is protected by the act of self-alienation. In all three examples, the individual points a gun at the encroaching social world and tells it to back off.
Equally remarkable is how all three arguments bypass the possibility of dealing with social problems through some legitimate central authority. The first concerns failure of execution. The latter two concern illicit motives and intentions. Really, the second and the third are the same objection considered at the individual and the social level. The second imagines a citizen confronting a corrupt agent of a central authority while the third imagines the entire citizenry confronting an entire corrupt central authority. Accordingly, the third is really only the second multiplied out to the entire society. The essential argument remains the same. More broadly, all three imagine that central authority is incompetent to address the problem such that power must revert to individual citizens.
Consider, by contrast, how liberals, or at least gun-control advocates, approach these problems. All serious people must admit that police sometimes fail and sometimes abuse their power. But liberals tend to believe that the best solutions to these problems are institutional. If the police fail, the best solution is to improve the police. If police fail to prevent crime, the best solution is to see what can be done to improve police response times. If it is impossible to prevent a crime being committed, it is better to allow the crime to take place and afterword make available to the victims police investigations and redress through the courts. If police officers act maliciously or carelessly, liberals seek to improve police discipline. This may involve changes to police training. It may involve actions by civilian government, such as the removal and replacement of police leaders, the commissioning of studies or the establishment of independent, civilian review boards. It may involve bringing lawsuits and rendering court decisions. But in all cases, even in cases when the police are corrupt from root to branch, liberals favor solutions that are mediated by some legitimate, centralized authority, be it the civilian government, the courts, citizen-activist groups or some combination thereof. To a social problem, liberals envision social solutions.
What is crucial is that liberals are still able to see society as a source and guarantor of individual freedoms. They see individuals not necessarily as weak or callow, but certainly as dependent upon a larger association. For human beings, social and political animals, it is unnatural to be separated from the larger whole. An individual cannot be considered at liberty unless he or she has a great many associations, and associations of the right kind, with other individuals. Freedom apart from these associations would be a pyrrhic freedom, a fruitless victory over the burdens and restrictions of mutual associations. Outside of society there is only the freedom of Robinson Crusoe or Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone, alone in the library, surrounded by books and huddled over his shattered glasses.
But much of contemporary conservatism seems to be defined by its inability to see the larger society as a source of freedom as well as potential threat to it. This is part of what is so jarring about O’Reilly’s words. It would seem to me that the true outrage against freedom was perpetrated by the shooter in these attacks. People joining together in the streets to enjoy music is a shining example of freedom. The gun violence that punctuates this kind of free assembly and association, as well as the allocation of guns which makes such tragic interruptions a regular feature of life, are the enemy of that freedom. But for O’Reilly it almost seems as though those concert goers would have been freer if they had each stayed home and sat alone with their assault rifles, suspiciously eyeing the barred door. What could justify such a vision?
The answer is that for many conservatives, such a society of shut-ins would be freer by definition. If freedom is defined as freedom from dependency, freedom from obligation, freedom from the group, then such isolated, self-jailed prisoners are maximally free. Mark Lilla, in his most recent book, quotes Grover Norquist’s formulation of this outlook as giving the spirit of the age. “My ideal citizen is the self-employed, home-schooling, IRA-owning guy with a concealed-carry permit,” Norquist exults, encapsulating a lonely ethos, “Because that person doesn’t need the goddamn government for anything.” (5) Neither, it would seem, does he need anyone else.
Norquist’s is a dark and fascinating understanding of freedom. This “ideal citizen” is free because he (and here ‘he’ does feel implied) is not dependent on anyone. He is economically independent (he is “self-employed” and has an “IRA”). By home-schooling his children he is made independent of the schools. By carrying a concealed weapon he is perhaps even independent of the police. The point is that he is the paradigm of freedom, because of what he is not a part of. Norquist name-checks several fundamental functions of any human society — economy, education, policing — and systematically excludes his ideal citizen from them. It is this apartness that makes him free. Again, as in the gun control arguments considered above, the larger society features exclusively as something to be avoided. Again, being free is something done alone.
I hate this vision. Among other reasons, I find it un-American. It is radically incompatible, for instance, with the vision of freedom to which FDR gave voice. Freedom from fear and freedom from want cannot be and were never meant to be anything that could be achieved alone. Such freedoms arise from community and social solidarity. They can only be achieved by many people working together in complementary ways and coordinated, to some degree, by central authorities that all accept as legitimate. Such a vision holds that freedom is achieved by the shared maintenance of good order and social harmony. The “New Deal” accepted as a given that any social life had to be a deal. That is to say it was a deal between this one and that one, to live in mutual association on some terms acceptable to both. On this vision freedom is something we achieve together.
Of course conservatives reject the New Deal. But even the traditional American freedoms such as those of speech and religion require cooperation and association. This means more than noting that freedom of religion requires someone to practice the religion and someone else to tolerate it. Achieving a real culture of tolerance means communicating and ritualizing respect and acceptance. It means establishing shared practices and norms and being governed by them. Above all, it means joining together in a common purpose and a common narrative. Citizens define themselves as members of a republic of liberty and are proud to practice its virtues. Practicing its tolerance becomes a bond of community and association. The rituals that institutionalize such practices become a source of belonging. As different as Americans can be from their neighbors, they can all identify with the values of America, and in that they can become recognizable, understandable and eventually even familiar to one another. They can say to one another: We may not have the same politics, we may not practice the same religion, but we are all Americans.
In spite of the slander of the Glenn Becks of the world, the Founding Fathers understood this. They were no libertarians. Their enlightenment liberalism was tempered by a traditional republicanism. They understood that self-governance required a special culture. Democracy required constant maintenance and could only be supported amongst people of virtue, which meant people who were always public-minded and who would put the commonweal over their own interest. A still-familiar image of this can be found in the busy-body antics of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin often claimed to have been deeply impressed at a young age by Cotton Mather’s Bonafacius or Essays to Do Good, a collection of writings extolling civic participation and public spirit. (6) Franklin took these lessons much to heart. He helped establish a university, a lending library and a fire brigade. He essentially succeeded in getting Pennsylvania to raise a private army. He even toyed with the idea of a public pension for widows and other women who could not support themselves. (7) All these projects had a common theme: Individuals are dependent on the society and the problems of individuals must be dealt with socially.
The Washington Post recounted, in some detail, the experience of two concert goers, only one of whom was to live through the night. (8) It is worth looking at the details of this chance meeting. The two were of different backgrounds and from disparate locations. But they were not only able to meet but to form a connection over their common love of music. Such free association and open society is the stuff of real freedom. If defending it means limiting and controlling the use of guns, it will be a fair price.
- A more or less random sampling:
- For instance:
- At least it was not when Garry Wills penned his famous essay some years ago:
- Lilla, Mark. The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics. New York: Harper Collins, 2017. Print. p. 19
- Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print. p. 26
- Ibid. Ch. 5