Edmond: We are kings or pawns, a man once said.
Luigi: Who told you this?
Edmond: Napolean Bonaparte.
Luigi: Bonaparte? [laughs] Oh, Zatarra, the stories you tell.
An exchange from one of my favorite movies. In the time of Napolean it was probably true as well, but I don’t think so any more. We now live in a democratic age, where men are much more equal in power than kings and pawns on a chess board. Not fully equal – there will always be some with more influence than others, through their charisma, money, or political acumen – but more equal. At the margin, political equality has improved dramatically. And that’s largely thanks to the mass manufacturing of the gun.
The Colt Manufacturing company once used the slogan “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal”, and as slogans go, it’s an accurate one. The days when a knight in armor and his men at arms could inflict violence at will on unarmed peasants, or when Spartan youths could hunt helots for sport, are long gone. Americans have known this for centuries, which is why gun control laws originally targeted blacks only. A black man with a gun could be employed, but not enslaved.
Some people think that the age of the gun’s equality has come to an end, and that the professionalism, heavy armor, and overwhelming firepower of modern armies make the mere rifle an afterthought. This thinking is wrong. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that defeating a military and defeating an armed people are two very different things. A military can be defeated by smashing its armor and disrupting its supply chain, but a populace armed with weapons as “weak” as rifles and improvised explosives can only be bargained with, killed off in act of genocide, or retreated from. The Sunni tribes in Iraq taught the Americans this, and in turn the Kurds of Kobane taught it to the Sunnis. Truly, political power flows from the barrel of the lowly gun.
For this reason, we should be cautious when comparing our age to previous times and places. What worked in the past, when the common men could be safely ignored, will not work now. From the American and French Revolutions onward, all successful movements have been mass movements. Technology itself has become democratic, and it’s only getting more so.
Samuel Wilson at Euvoluntary Exchange writes about the problems Defense Distributed is having finding a shipping agent for its Ghost Gunner CNC mill (which really is no different from many other CNC mills on the market, but is marketed for its gun-making skills). It’s really a rather silly problem, which Defense Distributed has created for itself by speaking when they should be quiet. And ultimately, it’s a futile gesture by FedEx (afraid of the ATF and FBI, no doubt) to try to prevent the further democratization of gun ownership. The Ghost Gunner is hardly the only CNC mill that can make guns – they all can. The knowledge for making the gun is in the software that anyone can download to their local CNC machine, not in a particular piece of hardware.
Nonetheless I expect to see this pattern play out in many shapes and forms, as government tries to retain even its weak monopoly on force. As software eats the world, it will also eat into the production of arms and weapons. The drones which Noah Smith thinks means the end of democratic violence are in fact even more democratic than the rifle. A 10-year old girl with a laptop and an X-box controller is more the equal of an adult male in the drone pilot game than the infantryman one. Even kids in wheelchairs can do it. At the margin, equality of violence is still increasing. The Gini of death-dealing is going down. And again the American government knows it, which is why drone control laws are already on the books and targeting the hobbyist market (there’s no firmware-enforced no-fly zone in an Air Force Predator drone, I assure you). But this is just as futile as the Ghost Gunner blockade. Firmware without no-fly restrictions is just a download away.