It’s that time again – the mainstream media and leftists all over social media are screeching at the top of their lungs for “common-sense gun legislation” in the wake of a school shooting. Libertarians and conservatives alike are writing plenty of articles to refute the media propaganda (see here, here, here, and here), mostly focusing on studies, statistics, and policy details. All of those are helpful in their own right, but far too often (as in economics debates), leftists will simply respond with their own studies and statistics, and it then becomes a battle over whose studies are better, with a definitive conclusion being difficult to reach.
In the realm of economics, the logical fallacies of positivist-empiricism have been exposed time and again by Mises, Rothbard, Hoppe, and many other great Austrian economists (see the first chapter of A Spontaneous Order for a detailed explanation of Austro-libertarian epistemology). Statistics are helpful in illustrating some of our points, of course, but as we can often see, they are typically not convincing to one who is ideologically committed to the opposite conclusion. Data does not “speak for itself,” as many mainstream economists seem to believe, but requires an interpretation based on an underlying apriori theory. If such an apriori theory is not shared between two people, they will likely not reach the same conclusion even when looking at the same data. That is why in economics, theory must be derived rationally using the logic of purposeful human action, not from statistics.
But there are many other areas of debate other than the realm of market catallitics where Austrian-style praxeology is applicable, and the gun control debate is one of them. There is ultimately no need for us to get caught up in statistical minutiae in inconclusive debates with leftists when the underlying premises behind the idea of gun control are inherently illogical due simply to the fact that it presupposes a self-defeating property ethic.
As Hoppe has explained, the purpose of property norms is to resolve and minimize conflicts over the rivalrous use of scarce physical resources. In the second chapter of A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, he writes:
To develop the concept of property, it is necessary for goods to be scarce, so that conflicts over the use of these goods can possibly arise. It is the function of property rights to avoid such possible clashes over the use of scarce resources by assigning rights of exclusive ownership. Property is thus a normative concept: a concept designed to make a conflict-free interaction possible by stipulating mutually binding rules of conduct (norms) regarding scarce resources. It does not need much comment to see that there is indeed scarcity of goods, of all sorts of goods, everywhere, and the need for property rights is thus evident. As a matter of fact, even if we were to assume that we lived in the Garden of Eden, where there was a superabundance of everything needed not only to sustain one’s life but to indulge in every possible comfort by simply stretching out one’s hand, the concept of property would necessarily have to evolve. For even under these “ideal” circumstances, every person’s physical body would still be a scarce resource and thus the need for the establishment of property rules, i.e., rules regarding people’s bodies, would exist. One is not used to thinking of one’s own body in terms of a scarce good, but in imagining the most ideal situation one could ever hope for, the Garden of Eden, it becomes possible to realize that one’s body is indeed the prototype of a scarce good for the use of which property rights, i.e., rights of exclusive ownership, somehow have to be established, in order to avoid clashes.
So we see that physical scarcity is the prime motivation for the establishment of property norms. But what are these property norms and what is their justification? Hoppe explains in his 2017 PFS speech:
Absent a perfect harmony of all interests, conflicts regarding scarce resources can only be avoided if all scarce resources are assigned as private, exclusive property to some specified individual or group of individuals. Only then can I act independently, with my own things, from you, with your own things, without you and me clashing.
But who owns what scarce resource as his private property and who does not? First: Each person owns his physical body that only he and no one else controls directly. And second, as for scarce resources that can be controlled only indirectly (that must be appropriated with our own nature-given, i.e., un-appropriated, body): Exclusive control (property) is acquired by and assigned to that person, who appropriated the resource in question first or who acquired it through voluntary (conflict-free) exchange from its previous owner. For only the first appropriator of a resource (and all later owners connected to him through a chain of voluntary exchanges) can possibly acquire and gain control over it without conflict, i.e., peacefully. Otherwise, if exclusive control is assigned instead to latecomers, conflict is not avoided but contrary to the very purpose of norms made unavoidable and permanent.
The last sentence here is particularly important here – the alternative to the libertarian property ethic wherein a latecomer is given a higher claim to property titles than the first user (or more generally, the one with the best objective link to the property in question, whether it be acquisition by first use or voluntary transfer) would generate “unavoidable and permanent” conflict, which would be “contrary to the very purpose of norms.” But why is the libertarian property ethic the only ethic that can avoid such conflict generation? Specifically, why is the latecomer/first user distinction so vital? Stephan Kinsella explains here:
So now we come to libertarianism. It turns out that libertarianism is the only theory of rights that satisfies the presuppositions of discourse, because only it advocates assigning ownership by means of objective links between the owner and the property. This link, of course, is first use, or original appropriation. Only the norm assigning ownership in a thing to its first user, or his transferee in title, could fulfill this requirement, or the other presuppositions of argumentation.
There is clearly an objective link between the person who first begins to use something, and emborders it, and all others in the world. Everyone can see this. No goods are ever subject to conflict unless they are first acquired by someone. The first user and possessor of a good is either its owner or he is not. If he is not, then who is? The person who takes it from him by force? If forcefully taking possession from a prior owner entitles the new possessor to the thing, then there is no such thing as ownership, but only mere possession. But such a rule — that a later user may acquire something by taking it from the previous owner — does not avoid conflicts, it rather authorizes them. It is nothing more than might-makes-right writ large. This is not what peaceful, cooperative, conflict-free argumentative justification is about.
What about the person who verbally declares that he owns the good that another has appropriated? Again, this rule is not justifiable because it does not avoid conflicts — because everyone in the world can simultaneously decree that they own any thing. With multiple claimants for a piece of property, each having an “equally good” verbal decree, there is no way to avoid conflict by allocating ownership to a particular person. No way, other than an objective link, that is, which again shows why there must be an objective link between the claimant and the resource.
In short, for ownership rights to be prioritized to latecomers rather than first users, or to claimants without any objective links to the property in question, would introduce a “might makes right” norm which “does not avoid conflicts,” but “rather authorizes them.” Such a norm could not be feasibly universalized, and it would be impossible to argue for the universalization of such a norm without falling into performative contradiction, as Hoppe explains in the seventh chapter of A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism:
Hence, one is forced to conclude that the socialist ethic is a complete failure. In all of its practical versions, it is no better than a rule such as ‘I can hit you, but you cannot hit me,’ which even fails to pass the universalization test. And if it did adopt universalizable rules, which would basically amount to saying ‘everybody can hit everybody else,’ such rulings could not conceivably be said to be universally acceptable on account of their very material specification. Simply to say and argue so must presuppose a person’s property right over his own body. Thus, only the first-come-first-own ethic of capitalism can be defended effectively as it is implied in argumentation. And no other ethic could be so justified, as justifying something in the course of argumentation implies presupposing the validity of precisely this ethic of the natural theory of property.
For a more detailed explanation of argumentation ethics, I would recommend reading the entire chapter from the book which can be read for free here, or for a shorter explanation, the second chapter of A Spontaneous Order by Chase Rachels. But a basic understding of argumentation ethics is sufficient for our purposes here. In summary, the prioritization of ownership titles to latecomers over those with superior objective links to the property in question results in a property norm that contradicts the very norm presupposed by the act of argumentation. For argumentation itself presupposes everyone’s right to exclusive control over their own bodies (i.e. self-ownership), to which no one can claim a superior objective link than the person whose body it is. If such a right were not presupposed, conflicts would be resolved instead by physical force rather than argumentation. So clearly, an ethic that states “I can hit you, but you cannot hit me” or “everybody can hit everybody else” (i.e. the logical conclusion of latecomer prioritization) would be antithetical to the purpose of argumentation, which is the peaceful resolution of disagreements (i.e. without the initiation of physical conflict). Thus, those who argue for such aggressive ethics fall into a performative contradiction since they simultaneously engage in an activity that demonstrates their preference for non-aggressive conflict resolution while advocating for norms that promote aggressive conflict resolution.
Applying Argumentation Ethics To Gun Control
So what does all this have to do with gun control? To start, it is vital to recognize that, like most other political debates, the gun debate is ultimately a conflict over the rivalrous use of scarce resources. That is, it is a debate involving property ethics. One side believes that individuals should have the absolute right to legitimately acquire firearms and exercise exclusive control over them (so long, of course, as they do not commit aggression using those firearms), while the other side believes that the State should be able to restrict the acquisition and possession of firearms based on what the State believes is best for the “public good.” Ultimately, the latter view requires that the state be given a higher claim to firearms over the firearm owners themselves (or those who sell firearms). But who, the State or the firearm owner, has the best objective link to the firearm in question? Clearly, the firearm owner does, for it was he who acquired that firearm through a voluntary transaction with a firearm seller. The State, on the other hand, must be considered a latecomer since it cannot claim to be the first user of the individual’s firearm and cannot claim to be acquiring it through a consensual transaction if it engages in firearm confiscation or restriction of sale. Therefore, to advocate gun control (i.e. giving the State a higher claim to firearms than individual firearm owners or sellers) is to advocate latecomer prioritization in property ethics, which, as explained above, is self-defeating and ultimately amounts to a performative contradiction in argumentation.
The absurdity of the gun control ethic is demonstrated even more when leftists demand a justification for why gun owners “need” certain types of guns like the AR-15. The implication, of course, is that absent a positive rationale that would satisfy these leftists, gun ownership is by default assumed to be unjust, and gun confiscation by the State is by default assumed to be justified. In other words, it’s “guilty until proven innocent” for gun owners, and it should be obvious why such a norm is absurd. Shifting the burden of proof in property disputes onto present users (i.e. gun owners) rather than the latecomers provoking such disputes (i.e. the State) is an untenable property norm that, if universalized, would generate limitless conflict over rivalrous scarce resources. (If you doubt this, take a look at some countries where the State is most active in provoking conflicts against property owners and ask yourself if that’s the future you want for your own country.) As such, it is antithetical to the very purpose for which property norms are established in the first place. Furthermore, being an ethic advocating aggressive conflict “resolution” that implicitly denies property rights that are universalizable (i.e. acquisition by first use or consensual transfer), gun control, especially when proposed as a “default” stance absent a “satisfactory” positive justification for gun ownership, also contradicts the norms underlying the act of argumentation.
Whether it’s regarding the economics of gun control (or really any political debate) there is no need to entertain leftists by engaging in their game of “who can rattle off the most context-free statistics.” Call them out on their performative contradictions, equivocations, goalpost-moving, and nonsensical ethical proposals. Do not give them a break. Make apriorism great again.