Contemporary Conservatism and Classical Liberalism
Political ideologies are fundamental in the lives of humans due to the fact that they are the guiding principles that determine the behavior of the political scholars, statesmen and the common individuals in any civilization. There are several ideologies that are used by different leaders and governments in formulation of policies. Some of the very common ideologies include classical liberalism, modern liberalism, classical conservatism and contemporary conservatism. Each and every ideology has different views of various policy issues. This essay seeks to analyze positions of contemporary conservatism and classical liberalism on the issue of gun ownership.
History of the issue
Gun control has become a major public policy issue due to the risk associated with illegal ownership of guns. It refers to any law, practice, proposal or policy that is designed to restrict possession, importation, shipment, production, sale and use of firearms (Welford, 56-63). The policies and laws on gun control vary significantly across the world. Countries such as the UK are very strict restrictions on possession of guns while the US has relatively modest restrictions. The issue of gun control has attracted different views from different political ideologies. In the United States, opponents of the gun control argue self-defense is an unalienable and fundamental human right. They strongly believe that firearms are very important in exercising this right. According to them, prohibition of firearms is unethical.
Before the end of American Civil War, the state slave codes prohibited ownership of guns by the slaves. Even after the abolishment of slavery, the United States government continued prohibiting gun ownership among black people under the laws that were renamed Black Codes. The Civil Rights Act that was passed in the year 1866 by the United States Congress overrode many parts of the Black Codes. The Civil Rights Act, the Fourteenth Amendment and the Special Report on Anti-Slavery Conference held in 1867 denounced specific statutes which denied black people equal access to the firearms (Welford, 56-63). After the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States constitution was adopted in the year 1868, many states became neutral on transaction or business taxes on handgun purchases. However, it was believed that gun ownership contributed significantly to an increase in criminal activities, especially among Negros. As a result, several Southern states either banned or imposed very high taxes on inexpensive guns so as to lock out individuals from the gun market.
The ideology of classical liberalism had its advent in the 17-19th centuries; this movement emerged in opposition to a common belief in this era which presupposed the kings to possess divine powers and rights (Arnold, 9-26). There are a number of well known classical liberalists that have been very enthusiastic in their advocacy for liberalism throughout the different centuries; the most well known include Baron de Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Ricardo, Tom Paine, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. The proponents of this liberalism were convinced that no person should wield so much power; as a consequence the liberals endeavored to restrict the state’s power while at the same time increasing that of the common citizen so as to avoid arbitrary governance. The assertion by Thomas Hobbes that in order for a political system to enforce peace, order and security it should have complete power was disputed by John Locke (1632-1704) in his piece ‘Two Treatises of Government’.
In addition to this, Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his 1759 piece The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry into the Nature and the 1776 Causes of the Wealth of Nations asserted that there ought to be free markets both between nations and in distinct nations (Arnold, 9-26). Smith perceived the existence of selfish interests by political systems as serving to bring about a state of events characterized by beneficial outcomes in the society.
The ideology of classical liberalism is guided by a number of principles basic to this school of thought. The first major principle is that of individual liberty in politics, finances and religious creed. A reign should be put on any agencies with the propensity to infringe upon these liberties, for example the army, churches and different political system (Arnold, 9-26). This is the form of freedom commonly referred to as ‘negative freedom’. The second principle of classical liberalism is that which relates to human nature; Thomas Paine indicates that despite man being born ignorant, he is not inherently evil. The political systems of the other hand are perceived as being indispensable evils. The third tenet of classical liberalism, reason, implies that it is only through logical considerations that the humans can come up with solutions for their problems; as a consequence, all the agencies that insist on submission to authority based on revelation, conviction or esteem for customs, are perceived as being impediments to societal development.
The fourth tenet, universalism, declares that all humans have certain rights and freedoms that are common to all by virtue of their being human. The progress principle of classical liberalism implies that it is through the development of information, extradition of conventional mind sets, and freedom of deliberations, enhancement of the financial systems as well as the elimination of belief in superstitions that any human civilization can advance and develop. The sixth principle of classical liberalism is equality; this tenet refers to impartiality, not of outcomes but of the prospects available to the members of a society to better themselves. The last two tenets are government and economic freedom.
Contemporary conservatism is an ideology of people who oppose modernism. The term conservatism is used differently in different places depending on what is considered to be traditional in those places. In the US contemporary conservatism is weirdly associated with the American Revolution and the need to preserve Englishman’s dominance as well as protecting his privileges and freedoms (Fischer, 14-37). The conservatives fear that change in social institutions would lead to disintegration among the people. It is a the close connections and the interdependence among people in a society are principally valued by the conservatives and believe that modernism will make the society to shift from being the living organism comprising closely connected, interdependent members to a loose collection of individuals. This according to them will lead to the extinction of society and social life therefore affecting the continuity and the stability that exists in the society. The conservatives cite the example of capitalism as a new socio-political system that has led to increased individualism and the consequent erosion of societal values.
Conservatives deny the hopeful vision that human beings can be decently improved through political and social change. For instance, the conservatives who are Christians sometimes express this point by saying that human beings are guilty of original sin (Fischer, 14-37). Because people are evil, the conservatives tend to presume that human beings are motivated by their passions and desires especially in the political field. To defend the citizens from the abuse of power by leaders as they seek to satisfy their passions and desires, the conservatives argue that the government should be the servant and not the master and that any government that acts a master should be declared null and void.
Conservatives further claim that democracy brings about instability in society as the freewill of the people is never straight (Fischer, 14-37).
They see human beings as selfish, anarchical, irrational and violent and claim that the traditional tyrannical rule is good as it curbs the negative instincts in persons. They overemphasize on self-discipline and say that self-discipline should be taught in the family, in the places of worship, in school and in the public sphere as people interact. The law should be there to punish those who act in contrary to the principles of self-discipline. Conservatives argue that it is only through self-discipline that people are able to enjoy their freedoms and rights. To them, the enjoyment of rights should be a collective activity and not an individual business.
Positions on Gun Control
The position held by contemporary conservatives on the issue of gun control is different from that held by the classical liberals. The contemporary conservatives support unregulated ownership of guns while the classical liberals are opposed to this view on grounds that it leads to increased crime rates. In the United States, for example, those who support unregulated private gun ownership are seen as conservatives since gun ownership is a traditional culture in the US while those who are opposed to the view of gun ownership are seen as radicals as they are bringing ideas that traditionally did not exist in America.
Major political elites’ positions
Thomas Jefferson totally supports gun ownership and he criticizes laws that prohibit this practices. In his “Commonplace Book”, Thomas wrote:
“laws that forbid the carrying of arms… disarm only those who are neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes…Such laws make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man.”
According to an article in the National Review Online by Charles C. W. Cooke, the Oklahoma senator, Tom Coburn is opposed to gun registration. Coburn affirmed that “any background-check bill emanating from the senate will absolutely not contain any provision for record-keeping of legitimate, law-abiding gun owners” (National Review Online, n.p). Coburn believes that inclusion of such schemes would completely kill the bill.
The newly elected senator Ted Cruz also challenged President Obama and other congressional democrats about background checks on gun sales. Cruz stated that “the jurisdictions those strictest gun-control laws, almost without exception… Have the highest crime rates and the highest murder rates” (National Review Online, n.p). He was therefore opposed to the issue of restricting gun ownership as it has no significant impact on the rate of crime.
Despite the different views held by political leaders, members of the public are for the view that gun ownership should be restricted. Although people believed that gun ownership was important for self-defense, the situation has changed in recent years due to an increase in crime rates. Most people believe that unregulated ownership of handguns will lead to an increased in crime rates since some people will use the guns for wrong purposes (Bjerregaard & Alan, 37–58). This view is similar to that held by classical liberals but it is the opposed of that held by political elites and contemporary conservatism.
Arnold, N. Scott. Imposing values: an essay on liberalism and regulation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. pp. 9-26
Bjerregaard, Beth, Alan J. Lizotte (1995). "Gun Ownership and Gang Membership". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1973-), Vol. 86, No. 1) 86 (1): 37–58.
Fischer, David Hackett. The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. New York: Harper & Row, 1965, pp. 14-37.
National Review Online. Accessed on 9th April, 2013 from http://www.nationalreview.com/search/apachesolr_search/gun%20control
Welford, C.F. Firearms and Violence: A Critical Review. Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press. 2004, pp. 56-63