Friday, January 25, 2013

Meta-EE and the Constitution Part 2: Second Amendment

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.
 Sometime in elementary school, students are taught to avoid comma splices. Amendment II to the US Constitution is perhaps not the most un-Hemmingwayesque construction ever laid to parchment, but it's probably on someone's short list. It's hard to judge the meta-EE of such an abstruse "sentence", so let's instead ponder a couple of common interpretations.

I can appreciate the interpretation of folks who see "Militia" in there and conclude that arms belong in the hands of well regulated National Guard units and not in private home armories. The amendment is so awkwardly written that it's not especially difficult to understand why people who value the care/harm dimension would be prone to this interpretation. Using my factory metaphor, an assembly line that puts weapons of death into the hands of potential (and actual) [private] killers leads to incivil barbarism, res ipsa loquitur. As I argued in an earlier post, I have reservations about the implicit game theoretic model this view seems to rely on, but if you'll forgive me assuming a can opener, it may be possible to imagine a set of institutional features and exogenous conditions where disarmed citizens are meta-euvoluntary. I can see how that if I credibly knew that all other citizens weren't packing heat, I might be more willing to be trusting.

Then again, I'm a full-grown man and I can defend myself in a one-on-one fistfight better than could a 110-lb woman. My intuitions about what constitutes a fair confrontation are probably colored by this fact.

Another interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is to smile and nod at the insubordination of the opening clause and to move on to the independent, "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Guns for all! Well, almost all. There are plenty of common law restrictions on who may or may not own firearms. Convicted felons, the non compos mentis, children inter alia are justly barred from owning [some] weapons. The meta-EE question becomes, "how does private firearm ownership interact with the conditions necessary for the propensity for dudes and chicks to truck, barter and exchange?"

Having a shotgun at home is one vigorous way to protect private property rights consistent with the rational self-interest of burglars to not end up as a messy smear splattered across someone's couch. This has to be weighed against lethal escalation in violent confrontations. I again point readers to Lott's More Guns, Less Crime, available here from at a reasonable price. The empirics seem to suggest that, given the characteristics of the US, private firearm ownership exerts a civilizing effect. I nevertheless retain the privilege to question the external validity of this conclusion.

There may be more than one clash here. Separate deontological values draw different conclusions about the moral underpinnings of armed citizens. There may also be disagreements over beliefs (people are not Bayesian reasoners... shocking, I know!) on the consequential outcomes of private firearm ownership. The question of meta-EE is ultimately a consequentialist one and on these grounds, I'd have to conclude that given the constraints US citizens face, the second Amendment is indeed meta-euvoluntary.

For now. And it probably also would have been after Executive Order 9066 was put into effect, transforming US soil into a de facto hunting ground for anyone who looked vaguely East Asian. As I've mentioned elsewhere, a lone citizen may be no more able to stem the tide of tyranny than a lone cat can stop the vet from euthanizing her, but the fiercest defense a declawed animal can mount is a few pathetic slaps. Good for the vet, bad for the cat.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?