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Raising the marginal cost of tyranny

There have been some interesting discussions across the blogosphere about the role of arms in resisting tyranny, many sparked off by what is going on in Zimbabwe. But whilst I am very much in favour of civilian ownership of firearms that are suitable for all manner of uses, I think many ‘on my side of the aisle’ overstate the direct benefits of not allowing the state to have a monopoly on the means of violence. Certainly I do not buy the argument that arming the Tiananmen Square protesters would have prevented the massacre that occurred.

However what arming the population does is not prevent tyranny (at least not on its own), but rather it raises the marginal cost of tyranny. The in your face reality of most tyrannies around the world is that it is not enforced on a daily basis by armies with tanks and helicopters (against which a few AK-47’s will do little) but rather by a couple swaggering officious policemen with little handguns pushing their way into people’s houses. Now those folks are the ones a few privately held weapons can truly work wonders with when it comes to the bottom line reality of force, not because privately held weapons will actually be used to kill or intimidate directly but simply because those policemen know that whilst they have the authority of the state behind them, right there and then in that house, there are very real limits to just how far they can push things, which is exactly how it should be.

Sure, they can come back with 50 soldiers in armoured personnel carriers if needed, but if that is what they have to do every time they want to intimidate someone, well, that is a much bigger investment of time and effort. Do not underestimate the value of increasing the marginal cost of tyranny. For example widespread gun ownership in Zimbabwe probably would have a major impact at mitigating the shambolic Zimbabwean governments ability to carry out much of what it does even if it does not directly lead the Mugabe’s well deserved downfall.

Guns in private hands work, but it is just one piece of a much larger question and I suspect claiming they are a panacea for the ills of bad governance is not doing the pro-liberty side any service at all.

25 comments to Raising the marginal cost of tyranny

  • Winzeler

    While I do, by in large, agree with you, I still feel sorry for underarmed police officers trying to negotiate domestic disturbances and the like.

  • Edward

    There is another indirect way that firearms ownership limits tyranny. In the long run, it may be the most important way:

    The bearing of arms teaches moral responsibility.

    This essay by Eric Raymond summarizes the argument much better than I can in this limited space.

    Nothing can protect the liberty of a cowardly and irresponsible people. But well-armed people tend to learn both courage and personal responsibility. And therein lies the roots of liberty.

  • Off-topic:

    I’m surprised no one at Samizdata has yet picked up on NO2ID’s hugely popular anti-ID card/anti-National Identity Register pledge:

    NO2ID Pledge

    NO2ID is doing a great job of building momentum against Blair’s tyrannical plans and acting to create a legal defence fund for those who will refuse to sign-up for a life-time of state monitoring under the ID and NIR scheme.

  • veryretired

    Exactly, Perry.

  • Reminds me of Pat Buchanan’s comment on private ownership of rocket launchers and artillery.

    “If you have to pull it behind your truck, maybe you should not have it?”

  • Mary Contrary

    “…not because privately held weapons will actually be used to kill or intimidate directly but simply because those policemen know that whilst they have the authority of the state behind them, right there and then in that house, there are very real limits to just how far they can push things.”

    An interesting and indeed insightful comment Perry. However, I’m not so sure it applies to Zimbabwe.

    Consider: why can those policemen not come back with 50 of their fellow thugs, time after time, to intimidate the populace? The answer is that because, in a great many cases, the policemen are acting privately, (ab)using their position for their own personal gain and amusement. Tyrannical regimes wink at this: part of the “pay-off” for actively upholding a hoodlum state is that you’re allowed to get away with a degree of hoodlumism yourself. However, while the regime may wink at an individual abusing his office, it may not wish to deploy its own forces en masse to support this, if only for selfish reasons rather than any moral objection.

    This does not seem to be the position in Zimbabweany more. By all reports the actions of the so-called “war veterans” are not merely condoned by the government in order to secure their support, but are actively organised by the government as part of its own campaign of intimidation. In such a case an armed citizenry would be better able to have a revolution and throw off the government, and it might be able to do a spot of its own violent intimidation on the model of World War II resistance movements.

    There may be a case that in answer to low-level thuggery “an armed society is a polite society”. I fear that Zimbabwe has gone past that point: a scattering of Kalashnikovs would only add to the chaos in Zimbabwe now; it needs helicopters and mortars — or better yet, a single vial of hemlock.

  • The Last Toryboy

    I have always assumed that Africa is awash with guns anyway. In Iraq and Afghanistan it seems that every other family had an AK-47 under the bed ready to be oiled up and rock ‘n roll.

    And yet Africa is under varying degrees of tyranny and kleptocracy, and Iraq laboured under a particularly odious fascist, and Afghanistan a particularly odious theocracy.

  • David Mercer

    In Iraq tribal patronage habits were subverted into a Nationalist gangster thugocracy, in which a couple of dozen guys with guns WOULD show up and do horrible things to your entire family if you didn’t toe every line of the minor thugs. Private gun ownership sans organized tribal resistance in such a scenario did indeed count for little.

    Afghanistan also had an ancient tribal warlord culture when we went in. I think that the take away from all this is that guns are a component of well ordered liberty, a neccessary but not sufficient condition. (The well ordered tryrannies of the world being another thing altogether. Does any country in the EU have the equivalent of habeus corpus?)

  • Strophyx

    Simply being “awash in guns” tends to gloss over the question of their distribution. My experience (both personal and from friends currently involved directly) is that while countries such as Vietnam during the 60’s, Iraq today may have a lot of guns around, but that even the ones not under government control tend to be highly clustered. In most instances, rather than every family in a village having an AK or other serious combat arm, there are a very small number of heavily armed families, with the large majority either unarmed or disarmed.

    As to the general ability a willing population, either with small arms or other tools to resist a well armed tyranny, I think perhaps Alexander Solzhenitsin expressed it best:

    “And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people . . .”

    The arms help, but they’re not the central element. It’s attitude, perhaps the simple realization that “when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose”, that makes all the difference.

  • Coward Anonomie

    The phase, or general conditions, count for much. In Iraq you’re likely to get your head sliced (along with several others) right in the street, if the insurgents come to town and do not like your level of cooperation. What about the tyranny of the NGO? Many flavors of armed groups are multinational in composition. Perhaps they are just the de-facto government for the moment they are in town. Tyranny is a relative condition, then. Tyrrany can exist continually, for any given group; only the alpha-gunmen change. Would you be any different, with your guns? …suggesting you not loose the philosophical dimensions, that is all.

  • Machine Ghost

    > Certainly I do not buy the argument that arming the
    > Tiananmen Square protesters would have prevented
    > the massacre that occurred.

    The so-called “massacre” was a complete fabrication. See:


    Machine Ghost

  • I don’t want to deny some benefits in an armed society, but I see some problems in the arguments laid out:
    1. Ancient societies were “polite” because the use of violence was widespread, Governments had only a limited grasp on citizens. Today the use of arms against thugs would turn out at least as costly as not using them – people usually get jailed for “disproportionate” responses against small criminals.
    2. Historically successful upheavals were often unarmed movements. If citizens use weapons against Government, then the state can legitimate the use force against its citizens in turn: restoring law and order. Movements in Ukraine and Georgia might serve as an example of the effectiveness of moral superiority in the long run. On the other hand, whatever were the initial political objectives of say Palestinians, their use (and escalation) of force has completely discredited their movmenent.

  • Kundera

    Ah, I was wondering when the paranoid nutters from Lew Rockwell were going to show up. They are about as sane (and just as anti-semitic) as David Irving and his holocaust denial loonies.

  • The Last Toryboy

    *nod* hence my point.
    I think an armed society is just one part (apparently an at least partially optional part given Europe, but I guess we’ll see in the end) of a healthy freedom loving society.

    Never having visited any Third World nations I have no idea of the distribution of what guns they have, which is why I was honestly curious in my above post as to just how awash with guns these places are, thanks for the clarification of that. I dont really see much of a link between personal weaponry and freedom anyway, it seems most of the worlds toilets fall into the “well armed” category to me.

    I also think it’d take a pretty hard and ideologically driven man to take up arms against the government if that meant that, after a few cops with pistols had been shot, the SWAT truck would show up and he most assuredly would get killed – and after that, his entire family would be tortured and join him in the afterlife.
    To get that ideological drive you need to have a freedom loving culture in the first place, or be under the yoke of a tyranny so evil that you literally have no choice because your all going to die anyway (like the Warsaw Ghetto uprisings, say). The guns are almost incidental.

  • I still think of Bill Whittle’s analogy in Silent America (paraphrased): Imagine that the French police came round to 100 French homes, to take the children away to concentration camps. By morning, 100 French homes would be childless.

    Now imagine the same exercise taking place in 100 homes, owned by NRA members, in Texas…

    It would take more than one night, and lots more police would be needed.

    Just a thought.

  • antares

    Being in favor of an armed society, a secure Israel and a more “libertarian” Europe, I hope *I* am not supposed to be the “paranoid nutter” cited above, just wanted to say this doesn’t solve all problems.
    Regarding the French childless homes, the French response would probable be to go on strike and/or launch some sort of Revolution (which the French actually do once in a while, although it did not lead to much so far).

  • Luniversal

    The ‘paranoid nutter’ in question was Jay Mathews, Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing in 1989. His exposure of the gross exaggerations of the Tienanmen Square ‘massacre’ reportage appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 1998. Other US reporters who covered the disturbances have agreed that nobody was killed on the Square. However around 1,000 others (mainly workers, not students, and mostly not pro-democracy protestors) may have died in clashes with troops and police elsewhere in Beijing. The incidents were conflated to suit the US government’s current campaign of building up China as the Red Menace Mark II.

    Those who espouse a school of thought such as libertarianism, which prides itself on its rationality, should cast a beady eye on all atrocity propaganda.

  • The Happy Rampager

    OT but, weren’t there over 100 posts in this comments section just a few days ago? I must have missed something. What was it?

  • Euan Gray

    I must have missed something. What was it?

    Perhaps all threads discussing guns look the same, but possibly you’re thinking of another thread?


  • The Happy Rampager

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    Ta, Eaun. That clears things up quite nicely.

  • The Happy Rampager

    And as usual you are up to your old deceitful tricks again, having your own little fun, yes? I know it was this thread because Steph’s linking to her blog entry was one of the last posts in the thread before I checked out.

    A lot of your posts seem to have gone missing…wonder why that is?

  • The Happy Rampager

    Whoops. Wasted a post and made a mistake, when I should have tried looking for the thread I was thinking of. Which I have now found. Although, Euan, you were of bugger-all use to me. In future, only try what you can succeed at, OK? Helping people to find comments isn’t exactly your forte.

  • Euan Gray

    Do you have many friends, HR?


  • The Happy Rampager

    What is that supposed to be, you trying to get under my skin as much as I must have gotten under yours – which is your own silly fault? Or maybe you think what this blog really, really needs is some unmistakably juvenile content, which you are only happy to offer.

    Maybe your immature mind is jealous that I did something that you are constitutionally unable to do, admit that I was in error.