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Guns, Anarchy, and Leviathan

The University of Wisconsin political scientist Andrew Kydd offers an interesting critique of the spread of concealed carry and stand your ground statutes. Departing from a Weberian definition of the state as a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, Kydd suggests that “[t]he United States is now embarked on an unprecedented experiment, in that it is a strong state, fully capable of suppressing private violence, but it is increasingly choosing not to.” Kydd attributes loosening restrictions on the possession and use of guns to a libertarian fantasy that “the absence of the state will lead to a paradise for individuals.” But he follows Hobbes in predicting grimmer consequences: the replacement of violence under law by anarchic clashes between mercenaries, clans, and vigilantes.

I share Kydd’s concern about the decriminalization of gun violence, which looks to me like a risky solution to an exaggerated problem (violent crime has been falling for years). But his thinking about the relation between violence and the state is too Hobbesian to be convincing. For Hobbes, the “state of war” and the juridical state were mutually exclusive; violence was subject either to monopoly control or anarchic diffusion. For Kydd, similarly, the choice is between, say, the modern UK, in which firearms are very tightly regulated, and Afghanistan, where the strong do what they can, and the weak do what they must.

In the history of political thought, however, this is a false alternative. Following Hobbes, Kydd ignores the (small “r”) republican model of organized violence, in which the law is executed by an armed citizen body. The classical republic is not a state in the Weberian sense because it lacks a standing army or regular police force. On the other hand, it is not simply anarchic: citizens who possess the means of coercion cooperate on a relatively informal basis to enforce laws whose authority they all recognize.

The republic, in this sense, has always been more ideal than reality. But it is an ideal that has played an important role in the development of American political culture, particularly in connection with guns. For the republican tradition, particularly as transmitted by the Country party in British politics, a well-armed, self-organized citizenry poses less of a threat to safety and liberty than a strong state. That is the reasoning behind the 2nd Amendment.

There are serious and perhaps insurmountable obstacles to the revival of this tradition today. Apart from technological changes since the 18th century, the republican theory of violence presumes a relatively small, mostly agrarian society with a strong conception of public virtue. The contemporary United States, by contrast, is more like a multinational empire: a political form that has historically required much more coercive practices of government. Even so, the republican tradition reminds us that Leviathan is not the only possible source of order. We can acknowledge its necessity without regretting its evil.

about the author

Samuel Goldman is an assistant professor of political science and director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University. He earned a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, where he has also taught writing. In addition to The American Conservative, Goldman’s work has appeared in The New Criterion, The Wall Street Journal, and Maximumrocknroll. Follow him on Twitter.

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