Governing Best

Illustration: Monica Burns

Government is a practical affair. At least, that is the dream. I would amend Thoreau’s aphorism, that government is best which governs least, to the superficially even more redundant, that government is best which governs best. As somebody who thinks deep thoughts, I read this as a scathing criticism of modern politicians: no politicians are interested in good governance, but in good politics, which, given the occasional unfortunate overlap with actual governance, means pursuing a moral ideal to the bitter end, regardless of opposition, irrespective of the real world.

Enter stage left this age’s politician par excellence. Flanked by a deliciously multiethnic assortment of still living little kiddies, Emperor Obama recently signed into relevance 23 executive actions aimed at thinking about ways of maybe getting people to be less violent with guns. Many criticised this contemptuous display of demagoguery, but I salute it; with the hundreds of guards armed with ‘military style weapons’ surrounding him, putting kids in the company of the President is certainly safer than any school.

As a politician, his job is not to govern well, but to politicise well. For some time, I have suspected that Obama is the most ingenious politician of all time because of his remarkable political success. However, after the recent gun debate, I am sure of it, because he has somehow managed to use his rhetoric to advance his agenda and use his power to govern effectively even though they are at odds with one another. The man is brilliant.

What I mean by this is that the actual content of the executive actions is eminently sensible. Improving background checks, encouraging States to share information for that purpose, reviewing mental health procedures, encouraging private enterprise to develop safer technologies, training teachers and public sector officials to deal with such emergencies: pretty good governance, in my opinion. Meanwhile, the public rhetoric that Obama has helped to stoke has bordered on lunacy.

Railing against ‘assault weapons’, a completely made up term, or ‘military style weapons’, which is a criticism of what a gun looks like rather than how it works, deliberate conflation of ‘automatic’ and ‘semi-automatic’ implying that you can buy machine guns at 7/11, demands for lower capacity magazines which ignore the unfortunate arithmetic that 7 + 7 is more than 10, or, my favourite, a desire to ban ‘high magazine clips’.

Such nonsense might lead one to believe that a large majority of the most fervent gun control advocates have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Their interest is not in public safety, an important goal of governance, but in proselytising that ‘guns are evil’, an even more important goal of politics. It is exactly the same scary demagogic tone that the Progressives used to usher in prohibition. It is almost as scary as big scary guns.

Speaking of which, even during prohibition, there were no cesspools of crime like the Chicago of today, more dangerous now than under Capone. You wonder about effective governance, and then you start to notice things like a Democrat Mayor and every single member of the city council, a Democrat controlled State Senate, a Democrat controlled State House, a Democrat governor, and two to one Democrat representation in Congress, all of whom presumably agree that guns are evil. Illinois has among the strictest gun control in the country, within which Chicago is even stricter.

Unfazed by one of their very own citizens having witnessed the atrocious decline of his neighbourhood, wishing to defend himself and winning the right to do so in the Supreme Court, overturning the city’s statutory nullification of the Second Amendment, their brilliant solution, devoid of course of any political influence, is to ignore this completely and stream straight ahead.

This reeks of the juvenile arrogance that equates writing a law with waving a wand. If guns were in fact evil, and gun control was always, everywhere, a good idea, then Chicago would be paradise. As it clearly is not, you have to wonder whether these people are interested in public safety or in a political agenda.

(I apologise if anybody is offended by the obvious political bias in this article. This is completely intentional and for two reasons. Firstly, current events, and secondly, the zeitgeist is such, particularly in St Andrews, that I don’t really feel the need to argue that torture is wrong, or that God doesn’t hate gays. Then again, waterboarding closeted Republicans would make for an interesting debate, but I digress.)

I do not mean to belittle gun violence in the slightest, or violence of any kind. I mean to belittle the political hijacking of violence. As it happens, I am also against violence committed using golf clubs, which is larger in the US than violence committed using rifles, and I am against banning golf clubs because that would be stupid – even if limited to those bearing a ‘military style’. There are intelligent ways to deal with any societal problem, ways that manifest good governance, such as what Obama has done. Then there are ways that manifest good politics, such as what Obama has said.

If it were meaningful to be ‘against guns’, then that would be my position. I think the world would probably be a better place if guns did not exist. But this is a fairy tale. Guns do exist, and no amount of wand waving can usher in such a fantasy. At best, it will lessen the availability of dangerous weapons. At worst, it will disarm law-abiding citizens and embolden criminals. It is a practical problem of governance and should never a question of good and evil, idealism, and absolutes; it should never be political.

As ought be obvious by now, I am not necessarily against gun control; Sweden has totalitarian gun control and is great, Switzerland has none and is also great; the UK brought in absolutist gun control after a similarly tragic school shooting, since which gun crime has doubled; these are not political mysteries, they are the result of apolitical and political governance.

What I am against is the demagogic variety of gun control advocacy that is political vogue in the US, which in turn spawns equally demagogic anti-gun control advocacy, neither of which constitute a recipe for competent governance. This is a special case of my being against government by delusional idealism. I am for government by practical success, which does not endanger its citizens for political points, and, if possible, does not engage in politics, period– possibly the silliest fantasy of all.


    • No, the ‘phrase’ is not for real – I tend to be overly rhetorical in final paragraphs – but the sentiment absolutely is: Sweden has extremely strict gun control. This is hardly a controversial statement (, and it makes an interesting comparison to the US because of the similar popularity of hunting and shooting, and yet the marked difference in firearm homicides.


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