The Vision Thing


Note: There was no post on Thursday due to our clearly having been hexed by witches.

American social media and conservative commentators have been reacting strongly to a clip from Joe Biden’s gun control statement on Wednesday.

They have since moved on to his bizarre whispering during a Thursday Q&A about the infrastructure bill, but at the risk of falling a few beats behind the news cycle, I’d like to discuss the gun control clip, even though there’s been no mention of it I’m aware of in the Danish media.

First, here’s a Tweet with the clip in question:

The tweet cites two excerpts from the video: “Those who say the blood of patriots, you know, and all the stuff about how we’re gonna have to move against the government,” and, “If you think you need to have weapons to take on the government, you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.”

The full text of this part of Biden’s remarks:

And I might add: The Second Amendment, from the day it was passed, limited the type of people who could own a gun and what type of weapon you could own. You couldn’t buy a cannon.
Those who say the blood of lib- — “the blood of patriots,” you know, and all the stuff about how we’re going to have to move against the government. Well, the tree of liberty is not watered with the blood of patriots. What’s happened is that there have never been — if you wanted or if you think you need to have weapons to take on the government, you need F-15s and maybe some nuclear weapons.
The point is that there has always been the ability to limit — rationally limit the type of weapon that can be owned and who can own it.

I have no doubt whoever wrote the text (that Biden clearly lost the thread of) thought this was a clever point: second amendment supporters seem to think the right to bear arms was enshrined in the Bill of Rights so that the populace could defend itself against a tyrannical government, but how are privately owned guns going to defend anyone against a government with F15s and nukes?

So clever!

My own thoughts have less to do with the logic of that argument than the mindset behind it, but let’s look at some of the criticisms that have been applied to the logic itself. (Ignoring the Constitutional issues themselves, for reasons that I hope will become apparent later.)

First, Biden’s argument is basically “if you think firearms are going to defend you against tyranny, think again, because your position is hopeless against the government’s massive arsenal.” In other words: should a tyranny arise, resistance would be futile. That’s not a line of argument you want to hear from an American president.

Second, although critics are divided on whether that argument should be interpreted as a mere hypothetical or a veiled threat, either way it presupposes that the American government—presumably the armed forces—would be willing to bomb or even nuke American citizens.

To call that a problematic assumption is putting it mildly, but if our hypothesis includes as a given the presence of a government willing to drop nuclear weapons on its own people, then I think we can all agree the hyopthetical American people being bombed would have been right in their assessment of their hypothetical government’s tyranny.

U.S. armed forces haven’t dropped a nuclear bomb since August 1945, largely due to the ethical questions surrounding the use of such powerful weapons. Any government unwilling to nuke hostile foreign powers but willing to nuke itself would certainly deserve to be overthrown.

What’s more, the entire premise is flawed: the American military’s possession of F-15s and nuclear weapons didn’t help much in Afghanistan, where the enemy was frequently less well armed and equipped than the average American gun owner.

Lastly, the very man assuring us that an armed uprising against the U.S. government would be hopeless continues to insist that an unarmed mob very nearly overthrew the government on January 6.

Social media, as I noted, had a good time reducing observations like these into funny little memes, for example:


And so on. And on. And on. All great fun, and all on point.

But not my point.

Writing for, Roger Kimball gets close to my own feelings:

The internet and airwaves are on fire today with commentary about the President’s comments about F-15s and nuclear weapons. I am not sure, however, that most of the pundits grasp the essential point. It’s not only that Joe Biden implicitly threatened to use the US military against American citizens. I believe that he had that contingency somewhere in the back of his, er, mind. But the real issue was his assumption that the ultimate locus of power in the United States is in the government. It is not. The ultimate locus of power is in the people. This is a difficult reality for timeserving denizens of the Deep State to wrap their minds around.

Close, but not all the way there.

I agree that Biden’s assumption was that American power is centered in the government rather than the people. Earlier in that column, Kimball emphasizes that sovereignty in America lies with “we the people,” and that the Constitution was set up largely as a safeguard to preserve the sovereignty of the pople, not to hand it over to the government. Important points.

But I don’t agree that that’s the real issue.

The real issue is hinted at in the last line of the citation above: “This is a difficult reality for timeserving denizens of the Deep State to wrap their minds around.”

That’s true. But it’s a symptom of the defining problem of our age, and every age, which is that we are civilizationally divided almost right down the middle on our visions of the world.

That split is the theme of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, which views most most western political thought since the 18th century as a conflict between two visions, which he calls the constrained and the unconstrained visions.

Thomas Sowell is a national treasure, and the full range of his ideas on this topic are hard to compress, so I strongly recommend the book, but here’s a quick 15-minute video of him discussing the nature of the two types of vision, with Peter Robinson back in 2008.

In a nutshell, the constrained vision believes that people are flawed creatures, and that our flaws are fixed: we always have been and always will be influenced by envy, greed, apathy, lust, wrath, and so on. The constrained view is therefore skeptical of what any given individual can figure out on their own, individually, and therefore puts an emphasis on restraining how much power any given individual can have, preferring instead to focus on processes that can get people to do, as Milton Friedman put it, “the right thing for the wrong reason.” The constrained vision also puts a premium on processes that have worked in the past for whole societies, rather than whatever bright new idea some contemporary individual, or group of individuals, has come up with.

The unconstrained vision certainly acknowledges that people are flawed, but the core of their vision is that some people are more flawed than others, and that the logic and reason of the least flawed people can develop workable social solutions for the betterment of all.

That’s a very quick and dirty presentation of Sowell’s two visions: I’ll refer anyone interested in more depth back to the video (and, ideally, the book).

When I said that I disagreed with Kimball’s assessment that the main issue had to do with Biden’s assumption that power lies with the government, but that I thought he was closer to the key issue in noting that this is a difficult reality for the Deep State people to wrap their minds around, I was thinking of Sowell’s two visions.

Biden was arguing specifically and directly against supporters of the second amendment in a classic conflict of visions.

Biden says there are too many gun deaths so it’s only logical that the government should reduce the number of guns out there. It’s a logically tenable position. (I don’t say correct, or legal, or doable: only tenable.)

Conservatives say that the Second Amendment is part of the Supreme Law of the land, and assert that there’s simply no ambiguity: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” Not a lot of wiggle room there.

Biden sees a bad outcome and thinks it can be solved by doing something. Classic unconstrained vision.

Conservatives see black-letter law that proscribes what the president and Congress can realistically do, and consider the integrity of the law more important than any particular issue. Classic constrained vision.

This is the fundamental stressor underlying every major political fault line in the west right now: these two completely antithetical visions of the world are the tectonic plates grinding against each other in almost all of our major political disagreements.

Conservatives (like myself) think they have a pretty good argument on their side when they can cite the Constitution. But unconstrained leftists don’t see the Constitution as we do. Ask a leftist whether they support the Constitution as it is, and you’re likely to get a word salad about “living documents” and changing times and social evolution. Fair enough, but keep trying. Do they or they not support the black letter law of the U.S. Constitution as it exists right now, today?

It’s a very rare leftist that will say they do, because to the unconstrained, the Constitution (and all written law) is a means. To the constrained, it’s an end.

To the unconstrained, the needs of justice and liberty and human welfare will all too often trump the dusty old words of long-dead people. To the constrained, written law consistently enforced is the very thing that enables justice and liberty and human welfare to exist in the first place.

You can’t reconcile those views. Sowell talks about that at length in his 1987 book, noting for example that American conservatives had, to that point, offered no real intellectual resistance to the idea of social justice because the very concept is sheer nonsense from the constrained vision. Arguing against social justice was, for the constrained and in this case conservative vision, like trying to make rational arguments against the hunting of unicorns.

(It should be emphasized that there is not a one-to-one relationship between constrained:unconstrained and right:left. Sowell makes this point repeatedly, offering many examples of places where conservative thinking tends toward the unconstrained or where leftist thinking tends toward the constrained. But by and large, the alignment is pretty consistent.)

The views are, as I was saying, entirely incompatible. They’re not just mutually exclusive, they’re mutually annihilating. They’re not so much yin and yang as matter and anti-matter.

This is why every Supreme Court nomination hearing becomes a three-ring circus, a dumpster fire, a train wreck. It isn’t a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, or progressives and conservatives: it’s a steel-cage death match between the constrained and unconstrained visions.

American conservatives see the world largely through the constrained vision. They believe that a judge’s job is to ensure that the the law is applied faithfully and consistently.

The American left sees the world largely through the unconstrained vision. They believe that a judge’s job is to ensure that justice is done, and that justice is a relative term from case to case.

This conflict of visions means that conservatives trying to argue that a given gun control measure can’t be imposed because it would violate the second amendment are wasting their time. They’re not just barking up the wrong tree: they’re barking in the wrong language. In the wrong park. In the wrong country. Progressives don’t care about the second amendment, or the Constitution, or precedent. They know what’s fair, and just, and right, and see no reason to let musty old laws get in their way.

If conservatives hope to have any success arguing against progressives, they have to realize that arguing from the logic of the constrained vision will get them nowhere with the left. It’ll be failure theatre until the end of time.

One of Donald Trump’s underappreciated strengths was that he was able to communicate important tenets of the constrained vision to people who weren’t previously attuned to it. That helped empower the walkaway movement and Blexit. The strength was however offset by its evil conjoined twin, an ability to alienate people and organizations on the right who were more attached to the Republican party than to the constrained vision it had historically represented. Fortunately there weren’t very many of them: unfortunately, they were given an outsized voice by the media.

One of Joe Biden’s less remarked upon weaknesses is his inability to communicate the unconstrained vision to anyone not already attuned to it. Worse, he appears to be surrounded by people who consider that a feature rather than a bug, and to be supported by a media establishment so deeply entrenched in the unconstrained vision that they aren’t even aware there is another vision.

Would Joe Biden actually deploy F-15s and nuclear weapons against American citizens taking up arms to defend themselves from a Constitutionally prohibited attempt to confiscate those arms?

I sincerely doubt it, but I sure as hell hope we don’t have to find out.

Meanwhile, Bill Whittle recently put out a video related to the communication problems of the right—he touches on a lot of the same ground I just covered, but from a very different angle.

Give it a watch, and enjoy the weekend!