by Stanley Schwartz

[Justice] is a question of adjusting what is to what it is considered ought to be. Thus, for everyone to know what the just is, two conditions only must be fulfilled: that the same scheme of what should be is present in the minds of all, and that what is should be seen by all in the same colors.[…] Unfortunately, opinions differ[…].[1]

Terry Tait’s recent piece at The New Herald about the tendency towards–and danger of–extremes in the gun debate provides an excellent description of the situation as it stands today, and points to deeper questions about our institutional arrangements and social proclivities. The quote above, from French political philosopher Bertrand de Jouvenel, indicates that just social arrangements cannot be achieved simply through an active or executive authority, but require a trusted, stabilising authority to balance and guide the contrasting opinions which emerge in the public sphere. Tait is right to frame the debate in terms of safety, as this is likely a concern uniting both sides of the debate. However, as de Jouvenel notes, even if an ideal is shared by all, the achievement of justice by adjusting current conditions to ideal ones requires a shared understanding of current conditions.

Shared understanding of these elements certainly does not characterize the gun debate now. Gun owners are prone to see gun rights as under attack, and in need of advocacy or support. Their opponents are likely to see the current condition of gun rights as leading to tragedy and therefore harmfully extended, requiring curtailment. Without a clear popular consensus, another source of influence and ideas is necessary to advance and help decide the debate. In a conflict of deep-seated emotions and passionately held beliefs, reason alone cannot conclude the quarrel, but seeks an authority for wisdom and direction. Many in America look to governing officials for inspiration, persuasion, and, ultimately, resolution–whether through Congressional legislation to limit gun rights or Supreme Court decisions to maintain them.

Despite the repeated surges of hope that the government will finally act, disappointment invariably results. De Jouvenel might be helpful in understanding why. He argued that there are two primary species of authority which emerge in history: dux, the initiator, and rex, the stabilizer.[2] The former is suited “to lead a collective action with a precise end in view,” and the latter required to restore peace “by his appeasing influence.”[3] Regarding the gun debate, it appears that a dux-like authority is absent: we seem to lack a vigorous, visionary leader with the ability to suggest solutions and command a strong majority of support among the people. The appearance of the dux is prevented by the emotional polarization and vigorous partisan action which defines much of American society. An unwillingness to compromise is clear in public forums and the halls of government. In this environment, any attempt to decisively unify the various perspectives via unilateral government action is likely to be accompanied by bitter disagreement and possibly violence, further damaging the social fabric.

What is needed is a rex-like authority: a source of influence which “enjoys an habitual respect,” and consistently uses it to calm fears and enhance the “general feeling of security,” without which “social life becomes in any case impossible.”[4] [5] With a strong and consistent rex, American society would never have gravitated towards the extreme polarization it embodies today. In the past, presidents such as George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and even Dwight Eisenhower filled this role. However, the presidency has increasingly become a platform for pushing legislation and generating policy. Lyndon Johnson’s work rallying the disparate and conflicted Democratic Party to push through what he saw as transformative and just civil rights legislation is a clear example of the president executing the function of the dux.  Hopefully a rex-like authority will emerge from among the trusted figures of American institutions (such as Congress, the Court, or the Church) to provide a national trust and breathing space for an effective leader to make needed changes. If political expectations continue to go unmet, polarization will remain unhealed and peaceful stability–on which all would like to depend–will become increasingly distant. As de Jouvenel writes, “Disappointed expectations are the death of life in society.”[6]

Stanley Schwartz is a Fulbright postgraduate scholar studying Australian politics, history, and political ideology at Australian National University.

Notes:

[1] Bertrand de Jouvenel, Sovereignty: An Inquiry into the Political Good, trans. J. F. Huntington (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 144. 

[2] Ibid., 34.

[3] Ibid. 

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 41-42.

[6] Ibid., 51.