It’s a well known fact that modern liberals want to “spread the wealth around” by taxing the rich. It’s less obvious why they are attempting to do so by raising income taxes on individuals who earn more than a certain amount of money (depending on the particular proposal, the amount varies from about $250,000 to $1 million per year). If modern liberals’ goal is to “tax the rich” then they should propose wealth taxes, not income taxes. The rich are wealthy (by definition), but not all high income earners are rich. If that isn’t clear, read what economist Thomas Sowell has to say about wealth and income.
A recent “tax the rich” scheme is the Buffett rule, which is a proposal to raise taxes on individuals who earn more than $1 million per year in income. Warren Buffett, the man who proposed it, devised his “rule” after observing that he paid a lower percentage of income taxes (19%) on his $48.1 million income in 2006 than his employees who earn less. That may sound like a wonderful and altruistic idea until one considers that Buffett’s wealth has been between about $37-62 billion in recent years. (To be fair to Buffett, he does contribute a significant portion of his money to charity, much like conservatives who donate more to charity than modern liberals — despite the fact that liberals have slightly higher incomes on average.) If Buffett really wanted to pay higher taxes to contribute more to the U.S. federal government (besides voluntarily sending a check to the U.S. Treasury) he’d propose a wealth tax: if he paid 19% of his wealth in tax he’d be contributing about $7 billion (using $37 billion as his wealth) in taxes. A wealth tax of just 1% on Buffett would generate $370 million in tax revenues, and a wealth tax of 0.025% would generate the same tax revenue as the 19% income tax rate on his $48.1 million income (about $9 million).
Of course, only a very few individuals have as high income or as much wealth as Warren Buffett. Some individuals have high income but little wealth (such as a small business owner who, despite earning significant income, may also have significant costs that result in a low increase — or even decrease — in wealth). Those who have high income but little wealth are considered “rich” by modern liberals and their high income tax schemes, but are not actually rich since, by definition, they do not have significant wealth. Worse, income is constantly in flux from year to year so someone who isn’t even wealthy might receive a high income one year (and be considered “rich”) but suffer a low income the next year(s). Increasing income tax rates is especially problematic for these individuals with high income but little wealth, and this is one of the concerns of conservatives who oppose income tax rate hikes on those with high incomes (there’s also the problem of unintended consequences of taxing the rich, the fact that decreasing tax rates can actually result in increased tax revenues, etc.).
On the other end of the spectrum, there are some individuals who have a lot of wealth but low income. An example of such an individual would be someone who has inherited great wealth (or earned it earlier in life) and lives off this wealth rather than productively working to acquire income. The problem with trying to “tax the rich” using income taxes is that such a person is not considered “rich” (because he does not have high income, despite having plenty of wealth) and therefore has a relatively low income tax rate. This type of individual would presumably be considered by modern liberals as a perfect example of the “greedy rich” who doesn’t contribute his “fair share” of taxes compared to “hard-working” teachers, police and firefighters, etc. Yet a high income tax scheme would utterly fail to tax this type of wealthy individual at a higher rate.
Much of the “tax the rich” rhetoric is misleading or false in other ways than just the confusion between wealth and income. Modern liberals also constantly complain that the rich are not paying their “fair share”. There are many ways — all subjective — to define “fair share” (e.g., equal percentage of income, equal percentage of wealth, a progressive tax system, etc.) so asking if the rich pay their “fair share” is a pointless exercise. Even the same data can suggest contradictory answers as to whether or not the rich are paying their “fair share” depending on one’s definition of “fair share”. For example, a sociology professor at UCSC recently published an analysis of wealth and income distribution which demonstrates that the wealthiest Americans are accumulating a larger and larger share of wealth. On the other hand, the same analysis shows that Americans with the highest income tend to pay a higher share of all taxes:
Using this data and defining “fair share” as paying the same share of taxes as share of income, one could say that only the top two quintiles pay their “fair share” and in fact the top quintile pays more than its “fair share”!
Despite the obvious fact that “fair share” is subjective and ill-defined, many people (such as Chrystia Freeland) actually consider it a serious question:
That’s why it seems so important to figure out whether the rich are paying their fair share. It is a crucial question…
Others (such as Ellis Cose) think that those who don’t have a certain definition of “fair share” are irrational (but Cose is oblivious to the fact that “the rich should pay their fair share” is an irrational argument since “fair share” is subjective):
Not that any rational person can be opposed to millionaires paying their fair share.
Using the above chart one could argue that millionaires and the rest of the top two income quintiles are the only ones paying their fair share, so Cose would need a special definition of “fair share” to have a point. Not to be outdone by Ellis Cose and Barack Obama’s “fair share” irrational argument, though, enter Larry Bartels:
No government can survive indefinitely while catering to the fantasy that taxes are evil or unnecessary.
This is a pointless strawman argument since not even the Tea Party actually claims that taxes are evil or unnecessary (just that tax rates shouldn’t be raised). This kind of rhetoric (which uses such an obvious and basic logical fallacy from no less than a university professor) is detrimental to finding solutions to our economic problems since it attacks political opponents while failing to offer any suggestions. Determining the appropriate tax rates and tax types (income, wealth, sales, etc.) is a very difficult problem which is of course exacerbated by the fact that people disagree with each other and can’t even agree on what “fair share” means. Such a difficult problem requires serious debate and analysis of available economic data, not denunciations of political opponents for engaging in “class warfare” or for being “greedy” or for protecting the “rich” from paying their “fair share” (even if one’s political opponents are behaving irresponsibly).
Capital punishment has received a lot of attention in the news these past few weeks, primarily due to the controversial execution of Troy Davis for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis’ execution is controversial because several eyewitnesses at his original trial recanted their testimony and Davis maintained his innocence until his death. This has been used by capital punishment opponents to argue that capital punishment should be ended.
I oppose capital punishment in general and therefore I opposed Davis’ execution in particular (it is one of the few issues on which I agree with the generally “liberal” viewpoint, though probably for different reasons than most liberals). This does not mean I don’t believe in the effectiveness of harsh punishment in deterring crime or that I believe Troy Davis was innocent. On the contrary, I believe Troy Davis deserved a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. My objection to capital punishment is based on:
I also object on moral grounds to giving the government the power to end the life of an individual who no longer poses an immediate threat (as opposed to giving the government the power to use lethal force to defend its citizens from, for example, a gunman in the process of trying to kill people).
Using specific cases of criminals (such as Troy Davis) who are claimed to be innocent as an argument to abolish capital punishment is ineffective, especially since there is little evidence that these criminals are actually innocent. In Troy Davis’ case, it is apparent that some opponents of capital punishment read a short (and clearly biased) article on the case (like the one on Huffington Post), anointed themselves armchair judges, declared Davis innocent, concluded that it was a “miscarriage of justice” to execute an “innocent” man, and decided that this was a good (emotional) excuse to argue that capital punishment should be abolished so that this “miscarriage of justice” could never occur again. This “logic” (to use the term loosely) is severely undermined by the fact that Davis’ guilt is not as uncertain as the media (Huffington Post, the New York Times, etc.) would have one believe.
Search results for “Troy Davis” and similar terms on the Internet are typically just short and often biased articles from the media that give few details on the case, so to be fair it is difficult to find less biased and/or more authoritative sources of information about Davis’ case. Court documents like the District Court documents (H/T HalFrontandCenter) and U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision on the Davis case are the best source of information but they’re difficult to find and quite long (over 100 pages). I admit I haven’t read the documents in their entirety (I just scanned them and read the important parts because I’ve got better things to do than read hundreds of pages about a case spanning two decades), so to that end I found a website covering the Davis case (which helpfully cites pages and quotes from the court documents) and Ann Coulter’s column on the case to be useful (and much shorter) sources of information. While these two sources of information are possibly biased and are less authoritative than the court documents, they are nonetheless useful for quickly finding out information that isn’t reported by the mainstream media (and whatever your opinion on Ann Coulter, she’s a lawyer and thus has more legal expertise than a New York Times reporter). Most importantly, all the articles can be checked against the court documents.
In the New York Times article, the following misleading “facts” are stated:
During the 1991 trial, witnesses testified that Mr. Davis pulled the trigger, but there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Since the original trial, a parade of witnesses have recanted, and new testimony suggested that the prosecution’s main witness might be the killer.
Let’s consider the “parade of witnesses” who recanted (a number would have been nice) and the “new testimony” that the prosecution’s main witness (Red Coles) might be the killer. According to a table on the Davis case website, the witnesses who “recanted” are described as follows:
The New York Times would have its readers believe that most of the eyewitnesses recanted, yet the court documents show significant problems with most of these “recantations” — these include “recantations” that were not material to the case (Antoine Williams’), were not credible because the eyewitness kept changing his story (Benjamin Gordon’s), or were considered “valueless” on the grounds that the “recantation” was an unsworn, unsigned affidavit from a deceased eyewitness (Harriet Murray’s). The other eyewitnesses who recanted were not called to re-testify by Davis, which suspiciously suggests that Davis believed they “would not have held up under cross-examination”.
The eyewitnesses who didn’t recant (Monte Holmes and Stephen Sanders) both specifically identified Davis as the man who shot MacPhail. Sanders’ confidence in his ability to correctly identify Davis was due to the fact that, as he explained it, “you don’t forget someone that stands over and shoots someone” (11th Circuit Court decision, p. 31). The 11th Circuit Court summarized the “recantations” that the New York Times claimed “suggested that [Coles] might be the killer” as follows:
All told, the testimony by Murray and Sanders remains; the two other eyewitnesses do not now implicate anyone, much less Coles; Coles continues to implicate Davis; and the testimony of Larry Young and Valerie Coles still collides with Davis’s. When we view all of this evidence as a whole, we cannot honestly say that Davis can establish by clear and convincing evidence that a jury would not have found him guilty of Officer MacPhail’s murder. (p. 33)
The eyewitnesses who didn’t recant are the most reliable since they have not changed their stories (as opposed to Benjamin Gordon, for example, who has changed his story multiple times). The reliability of the eyewitnesses who recanted is questionable: if they could be easily convinced to lie under oath (at a trial where the defendant’s life is at stake!) then it shouldn’t be difficult for Davis and his defense lawyers to convince them to lie after the trial.
There is more truth to the New York Times’ “no physical evidence” claim, but this too is misleading. For one thing, as Ann Coulter points out:
It’s true that the bulk of the evidence against Davis was eyewitness testimony. That tends to happen when you shoot someone in a busy Burger King parking lot.
Unfortunately, the gun used to kill MacPhail was never found, so without that piece of physical evidence the prosecution had to rely more on eyewitness testimony. The fact that the killer managed to dispose of the gun does not mean there isn’t enough evidence to convict him, though, since there so many eyewitnesses (including several who identified the shooter and didn’t recant).
Although the murder weapon was never found, there was some physical evidence — shell casings from the shooting, which may have matched shell casings at an earlier shooting in Cloverdale that Davis was alleged to be guilty of (District Court decision, p. 164). This evidence is admittedly quite weak by itself, but it’s not true that there was “no physical evidence” and moreover this physical evidence can be considered in conjunction with the eyewitness testimony available. Davis’ trial jury and the judges who heard his case afterward weighed this weak physical evidence along with eyewitness testimony and concluded that Davis was the murderer of MacPhail.
Given the strength of the case against Troy Davis and the brutality of the crime he was found guilty of, it makes little sense to use his case to argue against capital punishment. Using a case where a defendant was convicted but actually exonerated after the trial (e.g. by new DNA evidence not available at the trial) would provide a stronger argument, but this too is a relatively weak argument since imprisoning an innocent man for life is nearly as bad as executing him. Nonetheless, some people (such as Debbie Hines, who wrote the Huffington Post article) actually view the Troy Davis case as a good example to argue against capital punishment. Although I oppose capital punishment, the weakness of this argument (I will use hers as a typical example) is apparent even to me. Her main use of the Troy Davis case to argue against capital punishment, for example, is:
Since his conviction in 1991 of killing officer McPhail in 1989, 7 of the 9 witnesses have come forward to recant their testimony with allegations that one of the witnesses was the actual killer. But, this was not enough to convince the Georgia court system, the Georgia Board of Parole and Pardons, Larry Chisolm, Chatham County’s first African American district attorney or the Supreme Court of his innocence or to spare his life. Troy maintained his innocence up to the time of his execution, even requesting to give a lie detector test which was denied.
Although Hines is apparently a lawyer, she was not honest enough to explain the nature and problems of the “recantations” to her readers (or maybe she didn’t even read the court documents). In any case, she practically makes the case for Troy Davis’ guilt by listing all the courts that remained unconvinced of Davis’ innocence despite knowledge of the seven “recantations”. She balances all these courts against the fact that Davis “maintained his innocence” as if a convicted murderer’s insistence on his innocence (would a murderer possibly lie to avoid death?) is sufficient to discredit the Georgia court system.
Hines’ argument fails even more spectacularly later in her article:
The death penalty has not been a deterrent to crime, is expensive, racially biased and unfair. Taxpayers spend millions on a failed system. One Maryland commission found that pursuing a death penalty case is three times more expensive to taxpayers than pursuing a non-capital punishment case. In death sentences, almost half of those receiving the death penalty are black. The prison population is over 40 percent black men while black men make up only 6 percent of the population.
The first problem with Hines’ argument is that she cites no evidence for the unintuitive assertion that the death penalty has not been a deterrent to crime (ironic, since she was just complaining about the supposed lack of evidence against Troy Davis). The second problem is that she complains that the death penalty is expensive; this too is a weak argument since law enforcement, the justice system, and prison maintenance are all expensive, but no one would argue that we should end these systems just to save some money. The most ridiculous argument she uses is that capital punishment is “racially biased and unfair”; for one thing, she can hardly use Troy Davis as an example of someone unfairly convicted by such a “racially biased” system since he was convicted by a majority black jury and Hines admits that the district attorney is black. More generally, the fact that black men are over-represented in the prison population and among those receiving the death penalty does not in itself show that capital punishment is racially biased or unfair since there could be other causes for this over-representation (I suppose Hines would be shocked to find out that black men are even more over-represented in the NBA, and would of course demand that the NBA be dismantled for being racially biased). Even if Hines did prove that capital punishment is racially biased, her solution to abolish capital punishment would not solve the root of the problem: that the justice system itself would in that case be racially biased. Abolishing capital punishment in a racially biased justice system would simply cause blacks to be unjustly thrown into prison for the rest of their lives due to their race.
There are good reasons to oppose capital punishment, but unfortunately many of the popular arguments against it are exceptionally weak. Those who use these weak arguments hurt their own cause rather than strengthen it, especially when they use convicted murderers like Troy Davis as part of their case. And although the short, biased media articles on such cases may help “prove” these murderers’ innocence in the court of public opinion, no real court will be persuaded by such poor arguments (and rightfully so).
“Hate crime” legislation is one of the most illogical public policies in existence. The poorly thought out idea is that crimes motivated by the perpetrator’s prejudice toward the victim (because of the victim’s race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) need to be discouraged, so such crimes deserve a harsher penalty.
The obvious problem with this thinking is that all crimes need to be discouraged, not just the ones that might have been caused by prejudice against members of so-called “protected groups”. (The existence of “protected groups” implies that there exist “unprotected groups” — so why are some people unprotected? So much for equal protection of the law…) It is just as necessary to discourage crimes committed for reason(s) other than prejudice as ones that are committed at least partly because of it. It ultimately makes no difference to the victim and his or her loved ones why the crime was committed, either — the effects of the crime (injuries, death, etc.) are the same whether the perpetrator is found to have committed a “hate crime” or not. To paraphrase Marisa Tomei’s character in My Cousin Vinny:
Your brains are lying on the ground in little bloody pieces. Now I ask you, would you give a f*** whether the SOB who shot you was prejudiced against you?
The result of a hate crime conviction is that the perpetrator receives a harsher penalty, but the victim is no more or less victimized.
A common justification for hate crime legislation is that certain types of crimes have a “history” of high rates, and therefore they should be designated hate crimes with harsher penalties to drive these rates down to the “historically” lower rates of other types of crimes. Of course, supporters of hate crime legislation rarely, if ever, cite statistics along with their claim and instead simply assume the “historical” rates are as they say. The actual “historical” rates often don’t agree with their assumptions, though. As an example, consider U.S. homicide rates from recent years broken down by race (white or black) of the offender and victim:
Assuming the intraracial homicides were not “hate crimes” (what would that be, a self-hate crime?), these statistics tell us that interracial homicides (which may not have been motivated by race) actually have significantly lower rates than “non-hate” homicides in recent history (which is the most applicable historical timeframe, since it is the best reflection of today’s society and we have the most detailed statistics for it). Now maybe hate crime legislation has been fabulously successful at driving down the rates of homicides motivated by race, but if that’s the case then these statistics simply highlight how important it is to discourage all crimes regardless of motivation. If the harsher penalties of hate crimes have driven the rates of homicides motivated by race so low, how much lower would the number of intraracial homicides be if harsher penalties were used in those cases as well? On the other hand, maybe hate crime legislation hasn’t had a significant effect on the rate of homicides motivated by race — in which case hate crime legislation has not only been unsuccessful and pointless, but targeted the wrong type of crime! Using the logic that crimes with a “history” of higher rates should be designated hate crimes and carry harsher penalties, we should have designated intraracial homicides to be hate crimes (especially black on black homicides). Curiously, no one is advocating hate crime designation for black on black homicides, though.
Many other types of violent crimes have higher intraracial than interracial rates, too. The U.S. Department of Justice reports statistics on criminal victimization every year, and Table 42 of the most recent report breaks down victims and offenders by race for various violent crimes. For violent crimes in general, about two thirds of all violent crimes committed against whites were committed by white offenders and also about two thirds of all violent crimes committed against blacks were committed by black offenders. On the other hand, only 15.4% of violent crimes committed against whites were committed by black offenders and only 15.9% of violent crimes committed against blacks were committed by white offenders. Put another way, white offenders committed about 1,880,000 (67.4% of 2,788,600) violent crimes against whites and about 91,000 (15.9% of 570,550) violent crimes against blacks while black offenders committed about 430,000 (15.4% of 2,788,600) violent crimes against whites and 369,000 (64.7% of 570,550) violent crimes against blacks. This means that white offenders chose a black victim (between a white or black victim) only about 5% of the time while black offenders chose a white victim (between a white or black victim) about 55% of the time. Also notable is the fact that rape and sexual assaults have the highest intraracial rates: offenses committed against whites were committed by white offenders 74.9% of the time, and offenses committed against blacks were committed by black offenders 74.8% of the time. In particular, while black offenders committed 16.4% of offenses against whites, white offenders committed 0% (10 or fewer cases) of offenses against blacks! Hate crime supporters often try to justify their position by raising the specter of a white supremacist attacking blacks simply out of racism, but the statistics show that white offenders usually target a white victim and rarely target a black victim. These statistics have the same trend for many years, too (reports from other years such as 1995 can be viewed by modifying the last two digits of the link to a given year’s report, and these reports have the same statistics in Table 42). Again, hate crimes completely fail to address the types of crimes with the highest rates.
Another common justification for hate crime legislation is the idea that harsher penalties for crimes motivated by prejudice are necessary to reduce the risk of retaliatory crimes committed by people from the “protected group” that the offender was allegedly prejudiced against. Using the standard example of a white offender committing a crime against a black victim because of the latter’s race, the idea is to prevent retaliatory crimes committed by the black community out of anger that the white offender was not punished enough. Hate crime prosecutions, however, must highlight the alleged prejudice of the accused in order to convict him or her of a hate crime; this creates exactly the “us vs. them” mentality that racism, sexism, etc. thrive on. Prosecuting the same defendant without necessarily trying to prove a specific motive based on prejudice may not cause the alleged victim’s community to view the crime as one based on prejudice, and therefore the alleged victim’s community may not commit retaliatory crimes. Whether retaliatory crimes are actually reduced by hate crime legislation or not, attempting to satisfy the bloodlust of the alleged victim’s community with a harsher penalty for the offender is not justice.
Proving a motive of prejudice at trial is also unnecessary for securing a conviction. In order to prove that someone has committed a crime, one must prove the elements of the alleged crime: these are generally (depending on the specific legal system) the guilty act (actus reus) and the intent to commit the crime (mens rea). In proving intent, a prosecutor may often attempt to show that the accused has a motive (a reason why the accused intended to and did commit the crime); however, it doesn’t matter what motive(s) the accused had/has or even if a discernible motive exists.* Thus, it is unnecessary to attempt to prove the existence of a motive based on prejudice if intent can be proved without a motive or if there are other possible motives (a person of one race who robs someone of another race, for example, may have committed the robbery simply due to the offender’s poverty). If one wishes to deter crimes committed due to the offender’s prejudice with a harsher penalty then it is simpler and more logical to simply use harsher penalties for all crimes committed (whether due to the offender’s prejudice or not): this not only deters crimes committed without a motive of prejudice, but prevents a prosecutor from having to needlessly prove a specific motive of prejudice in addition to the elements of the crime in order to make it possible to apply the harsher penalty.
Hate crime legislation therefore needlessly adds an element to prove about a potential crime (in order to apply a harsher penalty), needlessly highlights tensions between social groups, and addresses the types of crimes (those committed against so-called “protected groups”) which have historically low rates anyway. Arguably, it also violates the principle of equal protection of the law (which is explicitly stated in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution) since someone who is not a member of a “protected group” does not enjoy the added protection that hate crime legislation (which is not in the U.S. Constitution) purportedly provides. If the penalty for committing a hate crime is good enough for protecting the so-called “protected groups” then it’s also good enough to protect members of unprotected groups.
* To see why the guilty act and intent are necessary and sufficient to secure a conviction (but motive is not necessary), consider the following scenario: an individual kills a completely random stranger for no discernible reason. If one can prove that the individual killed the stranger (the guilty act) and intended to kill the stranger (i.e. intended to commit a crime) then it doesn’t matter if the killing was so random that no one knows the reason (motive) why the crime was committed. On the other hand, suppose an unaware pedestrian runs out into the street and is hit and killed by a car: even if the driver had a motive (perhaps even one of prejudice against the pedestrian) and even though the driver committed the guilty act, if the driver can prove that he did not intend to hit the pedestrian (perhaps he slammed on the brakes but was unable to stop in time) and that he was not criminally negligent (e.g. driving while intoxicated, which is considered a type of intent) then he will be rightfully acquitted.
Gun control is one of many public policies that sounds great at first, but fails on closer inspection (and often in practice). The theory is simple: if the government controls private citizens’ access to firearms (and, in general, other weapons such as hunting knives) then crimes involving firearms will be reduced and a safer society will result. Obviously, it makes sense for the government to deny access to firearms for certain private citizens (e.g. violent criminals, who have already shown a propensity to commit violence and thus cannot be trusted with firearms) and deny all private citizens access to certain firearms (e.g. certain military-grade firearms, which are unnecessarily powerful for a private citizen’s self defense). However, gun control can easily become overly restrictive to the point that it creates a more dangerous society.
First, consider gun control from an abstract point of view. One can divide all private citizens into two groups: those who are willing to commit violent crimes (call this group V for violent) and those who are not (call this group N for nonviolent). Gun control targets group V since providing members of this group with firearms can make any violent crime they commit more deadly. Denying members of the second group access to firearms is unnecessary since members of this group will not commit violent crimes — whether they have access to firearms or not — by definition. Let us now divide all private citizens into two different groups: those who are willing to disobey gun control laws (call this group C for criminals) and those who are not (call this group L for lawful). Every private citizen is either a member of V or N, and every private citizen is also a member of C or L. Ideally, every private citizen is a member of N and L (call this subgroup NL). However, there will inevitably be some members of the worst combination (V and C, or subgroup VC), which gun control can only hinder by making it more difficult for them to acquire firearms. Gun control is effective on but functionally unnecessary for members of subgroup NC (these citizens may illegally acquire firearms, but are unwilling to use them to commit violent crimes and thus pose minimal danger). Virtually no one is a member of subgroup VL (who is willing to commit a far more serious violent crime but is unwilling to illegally obtain a firearm?) so gun control (or lack thereof) makes no difference in this case. One can therefore focus only on members of VC versus members of NL.
Without any gun control the distinction between groups C and L disappears, so that all citizens are simply either in V or N. In this situation, members of N are free to arm themselves for self defense against members of V. Now add gun control: members of NL are either completely disarmed (if the gun control laws deny them access to all firearms, or if the process of legally obtaining a firearm is too much of a hassle) or are only armed with legal firearms (which may be less effective against more powerful, illegally obtained firearms), whereas members of VC are only hindered in their ability to obtain firearms. If this hindrance was completely effective so that all members of VC are disarmed as well as members of NL then gun control would work.
However, this hindrance is clearly ineffective as evidenced by massacres occurring in “gun-free zones” like schools or in places with very strict gun control laws. These massacres include the Columbine High School massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, and the attacks by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway. In all cases, gun control laws (not to mention felonies like murder) were violated — the Columbine High School perpetrators were too young to buy weapons and were not permitted to bring them on campus, Virginia Tech banned people — even with concealed carry permits — from bringing guns on campus, and Norway has strict gun control laws (for example, firearms can only be obtained for certain reasons like hunting and not simply for self-defense, and Norwegians cannot carry concealed firearms). The failure of gun control laws in these cases is likely not limited to a simple failure to prevent the perpetrators (members of VC) from obtaining firearms, since the gun control laws additionally prevented the victims (members of NL) from potentially obtaining their own firearms to defend themselves. These victims number 13 dead (not including the two perpetrators) and 24 injured at Columbine, 32 dead (not including the perpetrator) and 25 injured at Virginia Tech, and 69 dead and 66 injured at Utøya, Norway (where Anders Breivik used his firearms, rather than his bomb in Oslo, to kill his victims). It’s unlikely many of the victims at Columbine would have been able to arm themselves anyway (since most of the victims were underage), but imagine if any of the victims or bystanders at Virginia Tech or Norway had been permitted to carry firearms and were armed. Several Virginia Tech victims died trying to barricade doors to prevent the shooter from entering classrooms, yet if any had been armed they could have shot back until police arrived. The police didn’t stop the Virginia Tech shooter, either — he killed himself. The police did manage to arrest the Norway shooter, but not until nearly ninety minutes after Breivik started shooting. During that ninety minute interval before the police arrived and Breivik was able to attack freely, a number of vacationers rescued dozens of people under attack and many people tried to hide from Breivik until the police arrived. But if just one of those rescuers or one of the people hiding had been armed with a gun to subdue or kill Breivik, how much more quickly could the attack have been ended and how many more lives would have been saved?
Armed citizens using their firearms in self-defense have stopped many violent crimes — everything from armed robbery to attempted massacres. Firearms allow physically weaker individuals to defend themselves against physically stronger and/or armed violent criminals, as was the case when a 69 year old woman shot and injured an 18 year old home invader. They allow law-abiding citizens to protect themselves from crime, as a pizza delivery driver did when he shot and killed two convicted felons who were attempting to rob him (after he had been robbed twice before). More directly related to the Virginia Tech massacre, two law school students stopped a shooting spree by retrieving their firearms from their cars and subduing the perpetrator (notice, however, that the CNN report on this crime makes no mention of the fact that the perpetrator was subdued with the help of firearms).
It is clear, therefore, that gun control cannot possibly protect members of NL from members of VC (since the latter cannot be completely hindered from obtaining firearms) and should not prevent members of NL from arming themselves for self-defense and to protect themselves from members of VC. The solution is to have minimal gun control laws that prevent members of VC from easily obtaining firearms while allowing members of NL to easily obtain their own firearms and carry them concealed (so that a member of VC engaging in a violent crime cannot easily identify and simply kill the armed members of NL first). One might object to the higher number of firearms that would almost certainly be carried under minimal gun control laws than under stricter laws, but one must remember that most of the additional firearms would be carried by members of NL. These individuals, by definition, will not engage in violent crime with their weapons. The only time their weapons will be used against humans will be in response to a violent crime under commission by a member of VC. In fact, it is beneficial for these members of NL (and even NC) to be able to carry their own firearms, as this acts as a deterrent against violent crime — members of VC must consider the risk that they will be shot by their potential victims when they attempt to commit a crime and may decide not to commit the violent crime after all. And if they decide to commit a violent crime after all, they are more likely to be stopped by armed members of NL.
A reasonable framework of gun control laws, therefore, would be:
Additional gun control laws dealing with more specific situations would likely be necessary, but the above set provides a baseline for reasonable gun control laws. Unreasonable and illogical gun control laws which should not be implemented include:
Again, the above is not an exhaustive list but rather provides some examples of illogical laws.
Gun control cannot possibly eliminate access to firearms for violent individuals, so the purpose of gun control should be to reduce access to firearms for violent individuals while simultaneously providing access to firearms for non-violent individuals to protect themselves. Attempts to eliminate access for violent individuals are doomed to failure, and will only doom the non-violent individuals who are stripped of their ability to defend themselves.
The concept of rights (natural rights, civil rights, etc.) is an important one that is often not well understood. Many privileges are mislabeled as rights, but the distinction between rights and privileges is critical since conflating the two concepts can result in flawed arguments for various public policies. It doesn’t help that many dictionaries use “privilege” in the definition of “right” and vice versa. One dictionary has these relevant definitions for “right”:
1. something to which one has a just claim, as a: the power or privilege to which one is justly entitled b (1): the interest that one has in a piece of property —often used in plural(2)plural: the property interest possessed under law or custom and agreement in an intangible thing especially of a literary and artistic nature
2. something that one may properly claim as due
The same dictionary has this definition for “privilege”:
a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage, or favor
Perhaps a better way to understand the distinction between rights and privileges is to consult a thesaurus. Synonyms for “privilege” include “allowance” and “entitlement” (this thesaurus also includes “right” as a synonym, unfortunately). It should be clear, though, that there is a difference between a mere “allowance” and a right. One’s right to life is not an “allowance” or “privilege” or even “entitlement” — it is a (near) absolute right which is justly due to each person except when one has forfeited it of his own volition (e.g. one who is attempting to murder another person has forfeited his right to life). Privileges like drinking alcoholic beverages or driving, on the other hand, are not inherently due to each person and are typically earned in some way (e.g. by age or some achievement).
The relationship between individuals and their government is often described as a “social contract”. The idea is that individuals agree to a “contract” in which they relinquish certain privileges in order to obtain different (and more desirable) privileges from their government. For example, individuals relinquish their ability to spend their wealth only on what they desire (i.e. pay no taxes) in exchange for various services provided by the government (police protection, construction of infrastructure, etc.). Under this social contract, individuals subject to their government are afforded certain rights and privileges.
The rights held by individuals can be differentiated between “negative rights” and “positive rights”. A negative right is one which requires no action or inaction on the part of the government. The government is required not to deny these negative rights to individuals in its jurisdiction and the government does not need to perform any action or service in order for individuals to exercise these negative rights. Rights such as life, free speech, free religion, free press, etc. are negative rights since the government does not need to provide anything in order for individuals to have life, free speech, etc. — they occur naturally. A “positive right” is one which requires a certain action or service on the part of the government. A “positive right” might be a “right to national defense” or “right to health care” since a government must act or provide a service to fulfill such an obligation.
It is important to note that all of the rights listed in the United States Bill of Rights are negative rights. An American citizen’s right to free speech, right to keep and bear arms, right to due process, etc., are all negative rights since they protect individuals from actions by the United States federal government. None of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights are “positive rights” which obligate the government to perform an action or service. Instead, the government is forbidden from violating these rights. The language of the Ninth Amendment also makes clear the fact that the Bill of Rights only recognizes negative rights:
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.
The rights referred to by the Ninth Amendment exist naturally since they are “retained by the people”. But only negative rights exist naturally since “positive rights” must be provided by the government, by definition. It makes no sense to say that the people retain their “right to national defense” or “right to health care” because these “positive rights” do not exist without a government to provide them.
The problem with “positive rights” is that they can’t be treated the same way as negative rights. A government that fails to allow its citizens to exercise their rights commits an illegal act and fails to abide by the social contract. By the nature of negative rights, a government is always capable of providing for its citizens’ negative rights — it simply has to avoid violating them. On the other hand, a government may fail to provide for a “positive right” even if it uses all its (finite) resources. For example, a government may establish a military and defenses in order to attempt to provide national defense, but a surprise attack by a foreign armed force may cause the government to fail to provide national defense. Has this government committed an illegal act in its failure? Of course not! National defense is a privilege that is earned by citizens when they enter into the social contract with their government. “Positive rights” are therefore more correctly described as privileges — governments have finite resources, and they may simply not have enough necessary resources to provide these privileges. A government does not violate the social contract if it is unable to provide them.
Another difference between negative rights and “positive rights” is that all governments with jurisdiction over a particular individual must protect his negative rights, but it is not necessary for all such governments to attempt to provide for his “positive rights”. For example, if his local government protects his negative right of free speech but his national government doesn’t, then he has still effectively lost this negative right. On the other hand, it is unnecessary and likely wasteful for his local government to attempt to provide him with his “positive right” (privilege) of national defense since that is a service more suitably provided by his national government. Some “positive rights”/privileges, in fact, require no government to provide them — individuals can enjoy privileges like drinking alcoholic beverages and driving without any government providing those alcoholic beverages to drink or vehicles to drive (a government may choose to regulate such privileges, but in that case the government is enforcing restrictions on such privileges rather than providing them).
The failure to understand the distinction between negative rights and “positive rights” (privileges) can lead individuals to advocate various public policies using flawed arguments. One such flawed argument is that the government is obligated to provide for its citizens’ “right” to health care. This supposed right is clearly a “positive right” since the government would have to provide health care service. However, even a rich government may be unable to provide all its citizens with health care if, for example, there are insufficient health care experts or if the government lacks sufficient resources to provide the necessary health care to its citizens during and after a natural disaster or plague. Unlike negative rights like free speech, health care is a finite resource. Also, it is not actually necessary for any government to provide health care — individuals can trade with each other to obtain health care from health care experts even in an anarchy, and many governments do not provide health care service yet most of their citizens are able to obtain the health care they need (not everyone can receive the health care they need, unfortunately, because health care is a finite resource whether it is provided by the government or not). Health care is therefore more properly considered a privilege, but by calling it a “right” one is easily duped into believing that a government must provide health care service just as it must honor its citizens’ negative rights like free speech. One can argue that a government should implement certain public policies like provision of health care, but to say that a government is obligated to implement such public policies is disingenuous and false.
There are many public policies which are advocated by individuals confused by the distinction between privileges and rights. One should always be careful when using or hearing the word “right” — is it really a right or just a privilege?
The Star Wars universe is of course a fictional one, but like all good science fiction stories, it teaches lessons that are applicable to reality and contains parallels to real history. The six Star Wars films themselves offer numerous lessons and parallels, and the extensive Star Wars Expanded Universe (composed of books, television shows, video games, etc.) offers many more lessons and parallels. An obvious parallel to real history is the fall of the Republic and the rise of the Empire from its ashes, which parallels the fall of the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. A less obvious (and perhaps unintentional) lesson is the effects of relativism.
The Jedi Order, and Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi in particular, believe in and teach relativism. As a result, many Jedi fall to the dark side of the Force and turn against their former associates. The most famous example of a Jedi who fell to the dark side as a result of the Jedi teaching of relativism is Anakin Skywalker, who became the Sith Lord Darth Vader and nearly succeeded in extinguishing the Jedi Order during the Great Jedi Purge.
Episodes IV-VI of the Star Wars films were released before Episodes I-III so the first time a Jedi is seen teaching relativism is actually in Episode VI Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker is questioning Obi-Wan Kenobi’s apparition on Dagobah about what Obi-Wan had told him when they first met on Tatooine (during Episode IV A New Hope):
A young Jedi named Darth Vader, who was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil, helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights. He betrayed and murdered your father. Now the Jedi are all but extinct. Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
In Episode VI, Luke asks Obi-Wan’s apparition why Obi-Wan told him that Darth Vader murdered is father since Vader revealed to Luke in Episode V The Empire Strikes Back that Vader is his father. Obi-Wan’s apparition instructs Luke that
Your father was seduced by the dark side of the Force. He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened the good man that was your father was destroyed. So what I told you was true, from a certain point of view.
Luke is quite understandably shocked by this statement and correctly objects to it:
A certain point of view?!
Obi-Wan’s response would be an excellent definition of relativism:
Luke, you are going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.
Obi-Wan’s adherence to relativism is as unnecessary as it is cowardly. Rather than admit he lied to Luke on Tatooine he tries to excuse his lie by arguing that it is “true” that Vader “murdered” Anakin Skywalker “from a certain point of view” (i.e. that Vader symbolically murdered Anakin when Anakin turned to the dark side). Of course, it is absolutely false that Anakin was murdered by Vader because Anakin/Vader is later redeemed by Luke on the second Death Star:
Anakin/Vader: “Now, go, my son. Leave me.”
Luke: “No, you’re coming with me. I’ll not leave you here, I’ve got to save you.”
Anakin/Vader: “You already have, Luke. You were right… you were right about me. Tell your sister… You were right…”
Anakin could not have been “murdered” by Vader since he was later redeemed shortly before his death (an apparition of Anakin as a Jedi appears on the forest moon of Endor, proving that Anakin had returned to the light side of the Force before he died). Moreover, Obi-Wan certainly intended to deceive Luke on Tatooine so Obi-Wan’s statement that Vader murdered Anakin fits the definition of a lie. Obi-Wan’s lie on Tatooine is entirely defensible, though: Luke the Tatooine farm boy who hated the Empire was not ready to hear that the Empire’s second in command is his own father, so it is reasonable that Obi-Wan lied to Luke in order to protect him. Rather than admit this, however, Obi-Wan “clings” to relativism.
Another clear example of Jedi relativism is at the beginning of the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader on Mustafar shortly after Anakin embraced the dark side of the Force. Vader (Anakin) tells Obi-Wan
If you are not with me, then you are my enemy.
and Obi-Wan’s reply is
Only a Sith deals in absolutes.
Obi-Wan’s repudiation of “absolutes” is another clear manifestation of his relativism. Whether or not the Sith actually teach absolutism is unclear (and Obi-Wan offers no proof), but there is no question that the Jedi have embraced relativism (to their own detriment, as we’ll soon see). Obi-Wan manages to pontificate about relativism but fails to explain how it is possible to be neither with nor against Vader. This, of course, is due to the fact that Vader has stated a true dichotomy — Vader’s mission is to exterminate the Jedi so, being a Jedi, Obi-Wan must choose to either join Vader or fight him. There is no third possibility because Vader will not allow it, but nonetheless Obi-Wan “clings” to his relativism (actually, the real purpose of this exchange between Vader and Obi-Wan is to repudiate U.S. President George W. Bush’s statement that other countries were “either with us or against us in the fight against terror[ism]”).
Relativism rears its ugly head again near the end of the same lightsaber duel on Mustafar:
Obi-Wan: I have failed you, Anakin. I have failed you.
Anakin: I should have known the Jedi were plotting to take over.
Obi-Wan: Anakin, Chancellor Palpatine is evil!
Anakin: From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!
Obi-Wan: Well then you are lost!
Of course he is lost, Obi-Wan! You keep telling him that truths depend on our own point of view, so he has decided that from his point of view the Jedi are evil! Anakin undoubtedly concluded that the Jedi are evil using the following argument:
Anakin’s argument that the Jedi are evil would have been discredited immediately under absolutism. The Jedi are not evil for forbidding him from learning about the dark side of the Force and (supposedly) how to resurrect Padmé from death, and Anakin certainly could not have justified the murder of so many Jedi (including Jedi younglings like Sors Bandeam). Since Anakin was taught relativism, however, he believed that he could conclude that from his point of view the Jedi are evil and may be exterminated in order to save his wife Padmé.
Obi-Wan’s response to Anakin’s statement that “from my point of view, the Jedi are evil” is a feeble one: since Obi-Wan is a relativist he cannot tell Anakin that he is wrong, but merely “lost”. According to Obi-Wan’s relativism, Anakin’s point of view that the Jedi are evil is not wrong — Anakin’s point of view is simply clouded by the fact that he is “lost”. Anakin is lost, of course, but as a result of the Jedi teaching of relativism. Anakin is not only lost but he is also wrong (though a relativist can’t say it) — at the very least one can say that the Jedi are less evil than Anakin (who has by this point already committed many murders after assaulting the Jedi Temple and executing the Separatist leaders), and in truth the Jedi Order as a whole is not evil…just misguided by relativism and other doctrines.
The Jedi Order’s relativism allowed one of its own to turn against them and nearly exterminate the entire Order. Only a handful of Jedi survived the Great Jedi Purge and those who remained were forced into exile as the Republic was transformed into the Galactic Empire led by the absolutely evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Palpatine). Such are the fruits of relativism.
People often say they are “proud” to be a certain type of individual, to identify with a certain group, or to have accomplished a certain deed. Homosexual activists, for example, have co-opted the words “pride” and “proud” (and the word “gay”, too) and often use the words when talking about such things as “gay pride” marches. Similarly, other people refer to themselves as a “proud atheist”, “proud Christian”, “proud liberal”, “proud conservative”, “proud Mexican”, “proud Asian”, etc. Still others use the word to express admiration of accomplishments (either their own or others’). The only justified use of the words “pride” and “proud”, however, is when referring to personal accomplishments (e.g. “I am proud of myself for completing college” or “I am proud of helping you earn your promotion”). Use of these words when referring to innate characteristics (e.g. race or ethnicity) or decisions (e.g. choosing a political viewpoint), on the other hand, is unjustified and especially dangerous.
For clarity, it is necessary to define the word pride:
1. a high or inordinate opinion of one’s own dignity, importance, merit, or superiority, whether as cherished in the mind or as displayed in bearing, conduct, etc.
2. the state or feeling of being proud.
3. a becoming or dignified sense of what is due to oneself or one’s position or character; self-respect; self-esteem.
A proud person therefore believes that he deserves above average dignity or importance, or has above average merit or superiority. Accomplishments demonstrate merit or superiority, so it is just for a person to have pride in his or her accomplishments by definition. Accomplishments may also afford greater dignity or importance. A person who has earned a promotion, for example, may justly feel pride for obtaining the greater dignity, merit, importance, and superiority of the new position.
Pride as a result of an innate characteristic, on the other hand, is unjustified and inordinate since such characteristics are by their nature unearned. If all men and women are created equal, then innate characteristics cannot give some individuals superiority over others. One should not hold a higher opinion of oneself based on an innate characteristic like one’s race, for example. That is racism. Pride as a result of other innate characteristics like sex or age is simply sexism and ageism, respectively. Thus, such pride is unjustified and inordinate. Curiously, it is only discouraged when actually labeled as racism, sexism, etc., rather than simply expressed in a statement like “proud to be [white/black/male/female/young/old/etc.]”. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize such unjustified pride and discourage it just like racism, sexism, etc.
It is also curious that homosexual activists have co-opted the words “pride” and “proud” in light of the fact that many also claim that they were “born this way” (i.e. that homosexuality is an innate characteristic). Such individuals who claim to have “gay pride” and also claim that homosexuality is an innate characteristic are therefore guilty of homosexism. Whether or not homosexuality is actually an innate characteristic is outside the scope of this topic and is irrelevant — the fact that such individuals believe or claim that homosexuality is innate is sufficient to render them guilty of homosexism if they claim to be proud of their homosexuality. A white supremacist’s race does not make him innately superior to individuals of other races, but the fact that he believes or claims that his race makes him innately superior renders him a racist.
A person may also feel pride as a result of a decision, such as the decision to support a political party or religion. In this case, the person is proud that he is, in his mind, wise enough to make the correct decision and avoid the folly of those people who make the wrong decision. This is unjustifiable pride as well, since there is no merit in simply making a decision. There is merit in making a wise decision, but it is often impossible to determine the objectively wise decision — the proud decision maker has simply made the choice he perceives to be wise. Moreover, wisdom is not necessary in order to make a wise decision — forced to make a choice, even a fool may make a wise decision.
One can only be justifiably proud of a decision once that decision has resulted in a more favorable outcome than all other possible choices. For example, one may be justifiably proud of a decision to invest a sum of money in a stock market (rather than spend it on something else) if the investment results in a significant financial gain. However, it can be difficult or impossible to know that the decision resulted in the most favorable outcome — in the investment example, how can one know whether a different and better investment (a “wiser” decision) could have been made instead? Furthermore, it is not necessarily the decision itself for which one should be proud of but rather the outcome(s) of the decision. A (probably wise) decision to obtain a college degree (rather than find a job with fewer skill requirements and lower pay) is, by itself, nothing to be proud of — the accomplishment of completing the necessary courses to obtain the degree is the source of one’s pride.
The only source of justifiable pride, therefore, is a personal accomplishment. Note that one may be justifiably proud of another person who has accomplished something with one’s help. For example, a parent may be justifiably proud of a daughter who has been an elected to an important position if the parent helped raise the daughter and provided support (financial, emotional, etc.) as the daughter pursued the position. On the other hand, one does not obtain justifiable pride simply for being related (e.g. ethnically) to someone with great accomplishments since the state of being related to the accomplished person is an innate characteristic rather than a personal accomplishment.
Although personal accomplishments may be a source of justifiable pride, one must still be careful. Pride is one of the seven deadly sins and is often considered the most serious of them (in Dante’s Purgatorio the proud must purge their souls of sin on the first terrace, which is the farthest from heaven). Even if one does not believe in the concept of sin, it is instructive to contemplate the danger of pride. Pride is often considered the most serious of the deadly sins because it often leads to the other deadly sins. With pride, one may reason that he deserves what someone else has (envy), has the right to attack others (wrath), has the right to to be lazy (sloth), has the right to accumulate excessive wealth (greed) or indulge in excessive consumption (gluttony), or has the right to use another for personal pleasure (lust). While the other deadly sins are certainly very serious, they do not tend to lead to other deadly sins as easily (a gluttonous person, for example, probably will not feel envy or pride as a consequence of his gluttony). The problem with pride is that we as humans naturally desire to promote our own interests, and pride often fuels this desire to make us believe that we deserve more than we actually do. Pride’s opposing virtue, humility, counteracts this desire and helps prevent us from becoming too selfish.
Pride is therefore a dangerous feeling. The next time you want to express that you are “proud” of belonging to a certain group, remember that it is unjustified pride. And even when your pride is justified (you have accomplished something) consider the danger of expressing this pride, and remember that others tend to respect a humble person more than a proud one.