In gun control speech, Obama rejects radical individualism

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House...
U.S. President Barack Obama (L) unveils a series of proposals to counter gun violence as Vice President Joe Biden looks on during an event at the White House...
Jason Reed/Reuters

Near the end of his Wednesday speech announcing a slate of new gun regulations, President Barack Obama waxed philosophical about the need for gun control.

“Along with our freedom to live our lives as we will comes an obligation to allow others to do the same,” he said. “We don’t live in isolation. We live in a society, a government for and by the people. We are responsible for each other.”

“That most fundamental set of rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, fundamental rights that were denied to college students at Virginia Tech and high school students at Columbine and elementary school students in Newtown,” he went on. “And kids on street corners in Chicago on too frequent a basis to tolerate; and all the families who never imagined they’d lose a loved one to a bullet, those rights are at stake. We’re responsible.”

The president was defending his decision to further restrict what, in political philosophy lingo, is called a negative liberty. Negative liberties are freedom from interference: They define your liberty by what other people are not allowed to do to you. So for example, if you believe that the right to bear arms is a basic negative right, you believe that nobody is allowed to prevent you from possessing firearms.

The libertarian right believes that the only liberties are negative liberties. They would argue that positive liberties—for example, the right to housing or to health care—do not exist, and the state as a whole is under no obligation to do anything but protect its citizens’ negative liberties. If you are sick, poor, hungry, or otherwise at risk, the state is not responsible for improving your situation. In fact, by trying to do so, the state might inadvertently infringe on the negative liberties of others, such as by raising their taxes and violating their negative right to their own hard-earned money.

When the president said “we are responsible for each other,” he was explicitly rejecting this view. Freedom, he was arguing, is not solely negative, and does not concern only individuals. Society means mutual obligation, which means that we must act to alleviate the suffering of others—even when doing so impinges on so-called negative liberties.

Katrina Trinko, a writer for the conservative National Review, replied to Obama’s speech on Twitter:

In Obama’s understanding of rights, cancer, heart attacks, etc. violate our rights

— Katrina Trinko (@KatrinaTrinko) January 16, 2013

Trinko obviously disagrees with this view, but she’s not wrong that it follows from Obama’s stated philosophy. If we are responsible for alleviating one another’s suffering, then that means preventing or mitigating disease and natural disaster in addition to person-on-person violence. And while it may sound odd to say that a heart attack is a violation of one’s rights, that position has a philosophical pedigree, specifically in the tradition of (small-r) republicanism.

Republicanism as a political philosophy has roots that go as far back as the Roman republic, but in its modern form it has been best articulated by the Irish political philosopher Philip Pettit. According to Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Governmentrepublicans view liberty as the absence of domination, not interference. To be dominated means to have some authority interfere in your affairs on an arbitrary basis, without any thought given to your welfare, and without giving you an opportunity to contest the interference.

On a republican account (which, again, is very far from the view of the Republican Party), gun control is perfectly allowed just if it is enacted by elected representatives, out of concern for the well-being of their citizens. Though it is a form of state interference, it is a justified form of state interference. In fact, it is arguably a form of interference that the state is obliged to enact, since it prevents one group of citizens (those with lethal weapons) from dominating others.

But Pettit’s republicanism doesn’t just mandate preventing domination. He writes that the state “should also seek to increase the range and ease with which people enjoy undominated choice. It should seek to reduce the influence of factors like handicap and poverty and ignorance that condition people’s freedom as non-domination, even if they don’t actually compromise it.” Physical ailments like cancer and heart attacks could be included among those factors which condition republican freedom.

While conservatives often lay claim to the founding fathers when outlining their negative conception of liberty, Pettit also argues that America’s founders were working very much within the republican tradition. In fact, he quotes extensively from the Federalist Papers, which he says are concerned with “the shaping and reshaping of institutions; in particular, they are questions about how best to make institutions serve the cause of people’s freedom as non-domination.”

Obama may not explicitly identify as a small-r republican—and, in fact, some of his policies might very well cause small-r republicans to recoil. But his speech on Wednesday reflected a way of thinking about freedom which is very much bound up in traditional republican considerations of community and active state intervention on behalf of liberty.

In gun control speech, Obama rejects radical individualism