Column on Risk & Liberty

Risks and Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The New York Times editorialized in panic, predictably, in the wake of the U. S. Supreme Court ruling striking down Chicago’s ban on handgun ownership. Lamenting the Court’s highly abstract debate about the constitutional clause that needed to be considered, The Times alleged that Monday’s ruling will “undermin[e] Chicago’s [sensible] law” and lead to “results [that] will be all too real and bloody.”

The Times’ central complaint amounted to the claim that the freedom to own handguns is entirely too risky. It threw out some completely discredited statistics that suggest a link between the striking down of such bans and the fostering gun violence. (This allegation is discredited in part by the failure to compare it with the beneficial results of handgun ownership, a result that has by now been demonstrated and published, for example in John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun-Control Laws [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998].)

But what is of greater interest is just how ignorant–or is it duplicitous–The Times’ editors appear to be about the connection between liberty and risky conduct. And this is all the more annoying because of course the very liberty so cherished by The Times, the right to the freedom of the press, is one of the most risky liberties in a free society. Need it be chronicled here how the freedom to speak out and write whatever one wants can produce enormous risks. The Times commonly defends the freedom of the press by fully acknowledging this risk, as in the case of Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentegon Papers some many moons ago, while insisting that the risks posed by this freedom simply must be accepted–it’s indeed one of the costs of a free society.

Handgun ownership is, of course, risky, but then so is the disarming of the citizenry. And let us remember that the most risky feature of a society is when government is the only institution that is legally entitled to wield guns while the citizenry is forbidden to do so. Not only is this a blatant case of the unequal application of the law–somehow government people aren’t supposed to pose risks while peaceful citizens are–but it is oblivious to all the studies that show how leaving free citizens armed tends to put criminals are guard, even discourages them from using their own guns.

But even if it were true that gun ownership is more risky, over all, than is the banning of guns, it is a gross non sequitur to claim that this then proves that the right to own guns must be legally invalidated. Just does not follow.

Free men and women are naturally risky types! Freedom is characterized by making it possible for people to make choices, even bad ones, just as in the case of the liberty of the press. Journalists, editorial writers, reporters and the lot who are free to do as they choose can and will do what is risky, and at times what is indeed outright malpractice. Freedom is a precondition of both good and bad human conduct. And so long as such conduct isn’t violent–and the carrying of handguns plainly isn’t, only their aggressive use is–it is the right of adult human beings to have and even use guns.

But The New York Times’ editorial team has no principled commitment to human liberty. It is concerned only with its own protected privileges while government forbids other citizens to be free. Perhaps The Times prints whatever is fit to be printed but has no concern with integrity, namely, keeping loyal to values it promulgates whenever it is convenient for its own agenda.

Of course, in this as in many other matters The Times is in sync with the Zeitgeist. Who in mainstream politics and law steps up vigorously in support of human liberty? Nearly everything favored by the current administration and its cohorts in Congress wreaks of worries about risk, safety, precaution and the like and hardly anyone cares about liberty. Security si, liberty no!

But as it’s been noted by such champions of freedom as Benjamin Franklin, those who would give up liberty so as to obtain security risk both and probably deserve neither.

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