Locke and Responsible Citizenship

In reading Locke some ideas have come back to the front of mind that I want to talk about here briefly, perhaps with more to come in the discussion about Locke’s essay.

In political discourse today, we sometimes here assertions such as “all taxation is theft” or “all government is based on violence.” Locke’s essay talks about why and how people form governments: the primary reason is to solve disputes in an impartial way and to help ensure everyone’s freedom. In “An Essay Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government,” Locke writes about how people can exist in a state of nature and then form governments as a way of managing affairs among a larger number of people. The government, then grows out of the desire of people to have a society that uses reason to extend beyond the state of nature.

So, when someone says that all government is based on violence, it means that they do not have an understanding of what government is or what it is supposed to do. Similarly, to say all taxation is theft on the part of the government is to assert that the government is some kind of other entity.

In a representative democracy, however, the government is us. We are the ones that are doing the taxing and spending the taxes. Reasonable people can disagree about the best way to do that, and mistakes will be made, but to assert that all taxes are theft implies that the speaker is too lazy to be involved in the government at even the most superficial level to make sure that the money they contribute is spent correctly. Alternately, making the assertion that all taxes are theft could simply be a reflection that the speaker is a freeloader who wants all of the benefits of living in our society, but doesn’t want to pay their fair share. It is the person who goes out to dinner with the group, orders the expensive meal and then disappears before the check shows up.

As for government being based on violence, again this is an assertion of the lazy. Government is based on the agreement that everyone needs to play by the same set of rules to keep society going. It is not important that the policeman has the gun; it is important that the policeman has a set of laws that everyone has agreed to in order to keep the society running. While any individual can say that they did not write or create a particular law, that is a cop out for the self-indulgent. A person, particularly one living in the United States, has the ability to work to change the laws or, if that fails, to leave. But either do one or the other.

Don’t sit around whining about how the government is bad. We are the government, and we get what we put into it. We live in an age where outrage and extreme views are attention getting. We live in an age where everyone has a broadcast platform, thanks to the Internet. Sadly, there are not enough editors and reasonable readers to challenge the extremism. While we all seem to have a good sense of our rights, no one wants the responsibilities that come with them. Yes we have the right to free speech, for example, but we also have the responsibility to speak up when we think things are going wrong.

Government is an agreement that we all make. If there are problems with the government, then it is because we are shirking our responsibility to make sure it runs well.


Do It Yourself America: The Declaration of Independence

This entry on the Declaration of Independence means skipping ahead a little in the reading list, which can be found in the link above the picture. Sometimes, though, circumstances can change your order, even when reading the classics.

Every Fourth of July in Boston, the Declaration of Independence is read from the Old State House downtown, just as it was in 1776. In 2014, the reading was moved to Faneuil Hall because of Hurricane Arthur. I had gone down to hear the Declaration read, as I have done every year I have lived in Boston. I got to the Old State House and found that it had been moved.

After walking over to Faneuil Hall, I found that the hall was full and no one else was being admitted. There was at least one man with his kids who was very disappointed that they would not hear it this year. After thinking about it for a moment, it occurred to me that the rebels who started the country would not have been put off by a full hall.

I walked into the shop area of the Hall and bought a copy of the Declaration of Independence. There were only a few drops of rain. I walked out into the area between Faneuil Hall and the shops of the marketplace, and said that since we could not get into the Hall, we could do our own reading.

I started to read, and a small group gather, with one man encouraging me to read on.

The Declaration of Independence is an important document in the history of the United States, and it is a product of its times, enumerating the problems that the colonists had with England. At the same time, it sets out some of the ideas that make the country what it is, and reveals some things about human nature.

The writers of the Declaration make an observation that I think is fascinating: “accordingly all experience hath shewn, that man-kind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” I can’t help but read this sentence without thinking about what evils are ‘sufferable’ and how do people make that determination. Despite some of the outlandish rhetoric that finds its way into the public discourse in the United States today, we do not suffer under the same kinds of tyranny that existed then, or that exist in other parts of the world today.

It is hard to know how one can identify an insufferable evil — do we need to have a certain amount of knowledge to do so? In places like North Korea, do they realize that another way of life in possible in a totalitarian regime that offers so little to the average citizen? I have said before, one of the most important reasons to study the humanities is to recognize our own humanity and that of others. It is to give us the self-awareness to question those who would set themselves up as our leaders or try to control us. The humanities give us tools to help develop a code of honor and a wider awareness to understand how to live. While we can do it without books, they help us avoid needing to reinvent the wheel.

What the Declaration teaches us about the United States is that the founders never saw it as a heredity nation. I read somewhere once, and I wish I could remember where, that the fundamental notion of the United States is that its people are a political people. In other words, it is our agreement on certain principles that make us Americans, not the accident of our birth location or our genetic heritage. These fundamental principles are laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is easy to be cynical and dismiss these words because they were part of a document signed by slave owners. It is tempting to point to the history of the United States and the many times that it has failed to live up to these words and declare that they are empty and meaningless.

Instead, what we should realize is that the existence of these words gave the United States something to live up to, something to strive for. These words gave us something to consider as we strove with battles over slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. They are with us today as we deal with ongoing problems of freedom and justice for everyone.

It is worth noting too, that the language in the Declaration gives hints of what is to come, and the outlining of grievances against the British Crown provide a framework for the Constitution that was to come and the Bill of Rights. The Declaration describes how the colonists “have Petitioned for Redress int he most humble terms:” which presages the First Amendment to the Constitution, which ensures “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The ending of the  Declaration provokes some interesting thoughts as well.

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

I feel like we have lost a little of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence as time has worn on. Even in our language, we have moved away from the idea of the United States as a political entity towards one of a state where people are born to it. We have a “Department of Homeland Security.” We are afraid of immigration. We hold ideas about people that run counter to the high ideals set out in the Declaration.

Our country may be in danger of falling short of those ideas again. But we still have them to guide us, and we still have the ability to live up to them. It will take work, but I think that we can do it. We just need to remember these ideas and study them.



How I Got a Gun License – Freedom Isn’t Free

As I follow the on-going gun debate in this country, one unspoken assumption seems to be that anyone can buy a gun anywhere at any time. Although the recent mass shootings show that bad people can get guns legally, as part of finding the middle ground, I want to explain what I had to do to get my license.

We all have rights, but those rights need to be earned. “Freedom isn’t free” is a popular catch phrase, and I think that is true when it comes to responsible gun ownership. State law says that the chief of police in each town grants the license. While this certainly has the potential for abuse, I think that the rules here are a good starting point.

First, I had to have no criminal record, be over 21, and not have been treated for mental illness, drug addiction, or alcoholism. I also must not have any protection orders or outstanding arrest warrants. This is common sense stuff, and I agree with it.

Second, I needed to submit a letter detailing the reasons I wanted a gun license. That’s pretty reasonable. I was advised to use that language that I wanted a license ‘for all lawful purposes’ so as not to exclude anything, but I also detailed the reasons in my earlier post. That was reasonable both to me and the police department. I highly doubt that the shooters from Tucson and Aurora ever submitted a letter like this. It is also a way to open a line of communication to demonstrate that you know your rights, and understand your responsibilities.

Third, I had to prove my citizenship and residency. Again, these are both reasonable requirements as I am exercising the rights of a citizen in a particular place.

Four, I needed to prove that I completed an approved firearms safety course taught by a certified instructor, approved by the Colonel of the State Police. An approved safety course should be mandatory for everyone wanting to own a gun. If anyone thinks this is unreasonable, then I doubt we will ever find common ground. If you want to drive a car, then you take a driving course. It should be the same with guns. My course covered safety rules, loading and unloading guns, cleaning them, gun laws, and we even talked about teaching children what to do if they see a gun. Having it approved by the Colonel of the State Police means that standards are in place. The Nation Rifle Association’s course meets those standards.

If I wanted a ‘target shooting only’ license, then I needed to belong to a gun club. I joined a gun club anyway because I wanted a place to practice. To join the gun club, I had to attend another safety class and then demonstrate safe gun handling on a firing range.

Five, I had to submit two letters of reference from people saying I would be a safe and responsible gun owner. I think that if this requirement had been in place where the mass shooters bought their guns, then the United States might have had three or four fewer massacres. Really, if you cannot find two people to say you aren’t crazy, then you probably should not have access to guns.

Six, we had to go through background checks and interviews with detectives at the police department. Again, this was another way to check people out to ensure they are okay to own guns. The detectives that interviewed me were professional, friendly, and most importantly struck me as fair people. You need to pass a driver’s test with a qualified instructor, so an interview is not a hassle.

What I hope to show by this is that even though the process was a little long, it was not impossible or unreasonable. It makes sense to have a safety class, a background check, and letters of reference. I think these things could have helped prevent tragedies. Note that in Colorado, there was one gun club that did not grant a shooter membership. Unfortunately, he already had his guns.

At the same time, I had two safety classes, a range test, a background check, and multiple interviews. I have earned my right to own firearms. I should keep that right unless I abuse it or do something wrong. The idea that it is all or nothing is unacceptable to me and should be to any reasonable person.