Natural Law and Natural RightsBy James A. Donald
The right to bear armsDuring the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries natural law was accepted in men's heads and in courts of law, as it always has been accepted in men's hearts. The advocates of absolutism were defeated, first intellectually, then politically, and then by force of arms. Kings who claimed to rule by divine right were killed or forced to flee.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 guaranteed an Englishman's right to bear arms (a right now lost), and more importantly, prohibited the state from using what we would now call a police force. The people were armed, state was unarmed. Individuals, not the state or the mob, applied lawful force when needed. This worked well, disproving the doctrine of monopoly of force, which derives from the absolutists, notably Hobbes.
In the medieval period the state had never had a large role in maintaining order. Often it was a source of disorder. The Glorious Revolution eliminated its role in enforcement for about two hundred years, while legitimizing its role in judgment.
In a society where there is pluralistic use of force, there needs to be respect for natural law, and natural rights, in order to avoid strife and civil war. Similarly a belief in natural rights tends to result in pluralistic use of force, because people obviously have the right to defend their rights, whereas disbelief in natural rights tends to lead to an absolute monopoly of force to ensure that the state will have the necessary power to crush peoples rights and to sacrifice individuals, groups, and categories of people for the greater good. Conversely a monopoly of force leads to the denial of natural rights (by making it safe and profitable to disregard natural rights) and the disregard of natural rights necessitates a monopoly of force to avoid frequent violent conflict.
For a society where there is plurality of force to work peaceably and well, there needs to be both respect for natural rights and also a substantial number of people with a strong vested interest in the rule of law.
A yeoman was the lowest rank of landowner, one who worked his own land or his families land, in modern terminology a peasant farmer. A villain was a sharecropper, a farmer with no land of his own, semi free, more free than a serf, though not directly equivalent to the modern free laborer. Naturally yeomen had a strong vested interest in the rule of law, for they had much to lose and little to gain from the breakdown in the rule of law. Villains had little to gain, but less to lose. People acted in accordance with their interests, and so the word yeoman came to mean a man who uses force in a brave and honorable manner, in accordance with his duty and the law, and villain came to mean a man who uses force lawlessly, to rob and destroy.
In practice free societies only arose where there was no monopoly of force, the most notable and important examples being seventeenth century England and eighteenth century North America. England, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, exemplified the medieval ideal of liberty under law, and Kingly rule under law. In the English speaking world, government started to display disregard for natural rights about fifty years after they introduced a police force, about the time that people took power who had grown up in a state where police enforced the law
The best present day example of a society with strong social controls and weak government controls, a society with plurality of force, is Switzerland. (Kopel, p278- 302) In peacetime the Swiss army has no generals, no central command. Everyone is his own policeman. By no coincidence Switzerland is also the best modern example of the right to bear arms. Almost every house in Switzerland contains one or more automatic weapons, the kind of guns that the American federal government calls “assault rifles with cop killer bullets”. Switzerland has strict gun controls to keep guns out of the hands of children, lunatics and criminals, but every law abiding adult can buy any kind of weapon. Almost every adult male owns at least one gun, and most have more than one, because of social pressures and the expectation that a respectable middle class male citizen should be well armed and skillful in the use of arms. It is also no coincidence that respect for property rights in Switzerland is amongst the highest in the world, possibly the highest in the world. Switzerland also has lower tax levels than any other industrialized country.
Today the state is losing cohesion and its ability and willingness to maintain order and enforce the law is visibly diminishing. We can once again expect to see armed conflict between the modern equivalent of villains and yeomen. Indeed we are already seeing it. The recent L.A. riots (April 1992, eight months ago as I write this) are often described as a race riot, and to some extent they were. Yet there was as much violence by unpropertied Mexicans attacking Mexicans possessing small businesses, as there was violence by unpropertied blacks attacking Koreans possessing small businesses. Black shop owners had their shops looted and burnt by blacks in the same way as Korean shop owners had their shops looted and burnt by blacks. This was an attack by villains on yeomen, caused by the flight of the police, and only partially a black versus Korean race riot.