Archive | December, 2007

Our Strange and Vexing Second Amendment

7 Dec

When it comes to gun ownership and gun control, I run the gamut from libertarian to disinterested. In the abstract, if we banned gun ownership (switching to some form of European model) tomorrow, I wouldn’t really care that much. If you received a free M-16¹ with a purchase of $50 or more from Wal-Mart (or better yet, Target), I’m not sure that I’d care much either. In practice, if the government ever seriously tried to constrain gun ownership–absent some sort of broad political mandate–I’d take serious issue with it.  Simultaneously, I’m for sensible gun control policy. But I had never really questioned the idea that the Second Amendment was about some sort of individual right to own a gun. So I was surprised to learn this about this comment from the late conservative justice Warren Burger:

Burger answered that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud– I repeat the word ‘fraud’–on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” In a speech in 1992, Burger declared that “the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to have firearms at all. “

Cass Sunstein speculates that the sweeping interpretive change of the Second Amendment might be due to an informational cascade:

Many of those involved in law and politics do not have a lot of private knowledge about the Second Amendment. They must rely on what others think. When others seem to think that the individual rights argument is right, they defer — at least if they trust those others. On this view, the apparently supportive views of “liberal academics” — including Sanford Levinson, Akhil Amar, Lawrence Tribe — have been crucial in legitimating the individual rights position.

The Ambrosini Critique thinks that this “expert consensus” matters less on constitutional matters because of the influence (or direct action) or democratic actors. I tend to think that judges and politicians have a greater effect on constitutional  matters because their opinions form the basis of practical changes to said law, as well as legitimizing underlying (or even marginal) beliefs of interests groups or the population at large. The overall effect is a sort of positive feedback loop; politicians are drawn from constituencies favorable to a “individual rights” reading of the Second Amendment, which in turn spurs the constituency on to greater advocacy or at least the feeling that their opinions are conventional (or “common sense”).  Interest groups (like the NRA) help provide the foundation–and welcoming political environment–that makes this political reinforcement possible (i.e. they help push liberal scholars like Levinson, Amar, and Tribe to somewhat contrarian liberal readings of the Second Amendment by making it seem as if there’s a strong social grounding–and thus legal case–for an individual rights interpretation. By co-opting the likely opposition, Second Amendment advocates make support for individual rights seem like a forgone conclusion).
¹ To be honest, I’d prefer this gun, if only because it looks cool and an Austrian guy I know used one during his military service while I was writing papers on Huckleberry Finn.  Oh, and he now has a job at some major Austrian newspaper. Some guys have all the luck.

Don’t Answer That Phone

6 Dec

This Foreign Policy blog post about religion and the slow cultural acceptance of new technologies by different faiths contains an unintentional warning. This is the picture they use at the top of the post to illustrate faith/technology side-by-side:


Uh, I’d be careful about using that phone. The shrine next to it is commonly found along the sides of roads in Greece to memorialize a fatal accident–or to give thanks after a near-miss. This picture looks like the side of a road. So while you’re fumbling for your phone card, some guy zips around a curve too fast and takes you out and a part of the public telecom system. Better hope he’s driving smart car or a moped¹.

P.S. I think the sign on the shrine is for the icon inside: The Holy Unmercenaries. A true godsend if you lack health care.

¹ Actually, when I was in Greece, my traveling companions and I agreed that “death by moped” was one of the worst ways to go.

Is American Statecraft More Effective Than We Realize?

6 Dec

I’ll second Minipundit’s praise for this Robert Kagan column that says, in the wake of the new NIE,  a military strike against Iran is effectively off the table and that we should open direct talks with Tehran.  This also got me thinking: Does this mean that American statecraft (from sanctions to international agreements and talks) is more successful at changing a state’s behavior than we’ve previously thought?  We went into Iraq (at least in part) because many experts and members of the Bush administration thought that the sanctions regime was broken (and it was, at least in part) and, therefore, it was likely that Saddam had reconstituted his WMD program.  Of course, after invading we determined that Iraq had no new WMD.  And if you had asked me (or many of the same experts) about Iran’s nuclear program, I would have said that they were working on a bomb, but that they were years away from having a working weapon.  But it now seems that Iran froze its nuclear program in 2003–problem solved deterred.

So why do we underestimate American influence? My shot-in-the-dark guesses:

  1. Everyone assumes sanctions regimes are ineffectual at best, especially when there’s a compelling realist case to be made (like national security) on the part of a non-ally.
  2. We’re bad at interpreting past failures (e.g. North Korea) and thus generalize about the efficacy of statecraft.
  3. The availability heuristic causes us to overemphasize threats.
  4. The political and human costs of failure (e.g. allowing an unfriendly state to develop a nuclear weapon) are so great that officials want incontrovertible evidence that the threat has been eliminated or deterred, and thus they rely on solutions that appear to give them this level of certainty.

I’d also argue that there’s a modeling problem for judging state (or state leader) behavior, but I’m woefully undereducated when it comes to international relations theory, so a generalized sense of “modeling bad!” doesn’t really say much.

Dropping Some Hanukkah Science

4 Dec

Since the Festival of Lights begins tonight, I thought I’d share the spirit and bust out one of my favorite holiday songs: Beck’s “Little Drum Machine Boy”. Sure, it has nothing to do with Christmas and–true–I’m Catholic, but you have to admire a song that includes lines “Hanukkah pimp” and “Funk so illegal, I think I’m gonna need a lawyer.” You don’t even need to be Bar Mitzvahed to enjoy it¹. Herewith, I give you the Holiday Robot Funk.

(Note: Use iTunes or Windows Media Player to play the file.)

¹Nor, thankfully, involved with Scientology.