Cody Wilson & The Liberator

There was an interview with Cody Wilson, inventor of the 3D-printed gun The Liberator, in The Guardian this weekend. It’s interesting partly because of what we learn about Cody Wilson, but mostly because we gain insight into the difficulty the journalist has with comprehending the philosophy of libertarianism and in forming cogent arguments of her own.

The first question she asks him is: “…what happens when somebody downloads your design, prints it off and kills someone? When a child is shot with a Liberator?”

Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr, in the standard fashion of a liberal, seems to genuinely doubt whether libertarians like Cody Wilson are capable of empathy. This gives us some insight into her conception of libertarianism. She wants him to say how he would feel if a child was shot with a Liberator. She seems to be setting a trap here. If Wilson says he wouldn’t feel bad, then she’ll claim this as proof that libertarians are compassionless monsters and therefore that libertarian theory on gun-ownership should be rejected outright. On the other hand, if Wilson says he would feel bad or guilty, then she’ll claim that his feelings of guilt or sadness are an admission of responsibility for the deaths of anyone killed by a Liberator.

Cody Wilson does his best to muster an intelligent response to her appeal to emotion disguised as an argument.

“I want to reserve a space for the humane. I hope I would react humanely. And I hope it would affect me. But does that lead me to apologise for what was done? And I appeal back to standard discussions about respect for civil liberties. What does that mean? It means people will abuse these rights. But what does it mean, as a structural feature, to have access to military weapons as a society? I’m not trying to brush it off but it means accepting people will abuse their liberties, but that’s why they deserve protection. If no one is going to abuse a gun, it wouldn’t be a right worth protecting. If no one was going to make a speech, we wouldn’t need to defend the principle of freedom of speech. The same thing with the right to be secure in your possessions.” 

Carole Cadwalladr then thinks she has Mr Wilson and libertarianism on the ropes when she writes:

“The problem with Wilson’s argument is that’s it’s an argument, one that you might formulate in the sixth-form debating society. And on the other side, there would be a dead person. Your mother, perhaps. Or your son who, if it hadn’t been for Wilson, and his desire to push the boundaries of internet freedom further, would still be alive. But I can’t get through on this point.”

Let’s analyse her ‘rebuttal’. She claims that the ‘problem’ with Mr Wilson’s argument is that “…it’s an argument”. In other words his argument is unsound because it’s an argument. However, this is not a valid or useful argument because it just says X is X and not that X is true or false, but let’s be charitable and assume that what she is really arguing is that the freedom to own guns in theory sounds fine but in reality would lead to human suffering and no good. I think that’s what she’s getting at when she says “…on the other side, there would be a dead person.”

Wilson, having been drawn into the journalistic trap of feeling instead of thinking, struggles on:

“You’re asking me how I would feel? If somebody shot a kid with a Liberator? I guess I’d feel bad. It would be bad. It’d become this whole event. I’m sure I’d have this sinking feeling, ‘Oh my God, they’re going to make a big circus out of it.”

Cadwalladr then writes: “Er, like, yes! But then isn’t the projection of consequences one of the key aspects of human intelligence, I say. You look at what the potentially bad outcome of an action is and then you don’t do it?”

She seemingly can’t resist suggesting once again that his convictions are the result of a lack of intelligence, and she also implies that he lacks the intelligence to or does not care to avoid action that may lead to harmful consequences to others.

In amongst Cadwalladr’s criticism of Wilson’s responses, which was mostly an attack on him and not his arguments, she did actually make a moral argument against Cody Wilson’s Liberator when she wrote “…on the other side, there would be a dead person. Your mother, perhaps. Or your son who, if it hadn’t been for Wilson, and his desire to push the boundaries of internet freedom further, would still be alive.

Her argument is this: People will be killed with the Liberator, which wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Wilson’s actions. Therefore Wilson’s actions are immoral and anti-social, and he is morally responsible for the deaths of anyone killed by a Liberator.  More broadly, this represents the liberal argument against gun-ownership, which is: guns kill people, killing people is wrong, therefore people should be prevented from owning guns.

Let’s take a moment to consider why Cadwalladr’s argument is false. She is arguing that it is Wilson who is morally responsible for the death of someone who is killed with a Liberator and not the person who a) desires to kill them and b) prints the gun, loads it and pulls the trigger. In order for this to be true we would have to be able to prove that the existence of the Liberator caused the murderer to want to kill their victim. Why? Because self-evidently it can only have been the murderer’s goal of killing or harming their victim that caused them to print it, point it at their victim and fire. Thus the root cause of the victim’s death is the perpetrator’s desire to kill them and their subsequent action to achieve that goal. Therefore the person who pulls the trigger is morally responsible; unless an underlying cause for their desire to kill can be established, which was beyond the control of the perpetrator (i.e. mental illness/disability/neurological disorder). In which case diminished responsibility can reasonably be argued because the perpetrator may have lacked the ability to choose or at least believed they lacked the ability to choose.

We’ve shown how Cadwalladr’s argument from morality against Wilson’s actions and the libertarian theory on gun-ownership is false. Just because Wilson created a gun that anyone with a 3D-printer can print, point and shoot doesn’t mean (and cannot mean) he is morally responsible for the actions they perform with it. But, no doubt lurking beneath the surface of her argument is the very commonly held belief that the greater number of people who own guns the more gun crime and murders there are or will be. However, this theory doesn’t best-fit the facts, which is a topic I have previously and somewhat thoroughly covered in this post. In it I discussed the fact that for every one occasion that a gun is used to commit a crime, there are three or four cases where one is used in self-defense; in defence of person or property – or someone else’s person or property. I also discuss the fact that it is impossible to prevent the production of guns, to prevent criminals from acquiring them and to destroy the existing stock of guns, and so the belief that government can stop gun crime happening is delusional. All it can do is stop people from being as well-armed as criminals.

That hand-guns are mostly used as a highly effective means of self-defense and are particularly effective at deterring burglary are the socially positive aspects of gun-ownership that people like Carole Cadwalladr are either ignorant of or simply refuse to acknowledge. Their emotional rage at these inanimate objects and their fixation on dead children blinds them to the whole truth.

I agree with Carole Cadwalladr in that we should use our intelligence to foresee potential harmful consequences before we decide to take an action, but in relation to gun-ownership she is not practicing what she preaches. She is unable to foresee the harmful consequences of banning people from owning or 3D-printing guns because her argument against gun-ownership is entirely based on what the best evidence tells us is the least common use of hand-guns. If she applied her logic universally she should be campaigning for cars, knives, bleach or rope to be banned because all of these things, if put to uncommon use, can be used to kill children. The tragic irony of government action to prevent people from owning guns, which often stems from the desire of its advocates to protect children, is that not only does it fail to protect children, but it endangers them more. It’s a sobering thought to consider how many children’s lives may have been saved in the various school and college shootings over recent years if just one member of staff had had access to and was trained to use a gun.

It seems beyond Cadwalladr’s comprehension that Cody Wilson’s Liberator could well be the single most effective and cheap means of self-defense in history; a technology that could lead to significant reductions in crime and to more peaceful societies. Sure, some people will almost certainly be murdered with Liberators just like some have been and will be murdered with cars, rope or bleach. But the best available evidence tells us that we should expect three times as many people to use them to protect themselves and their property against a violent minority.

Just because the Liberator exists it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is going to have one or even feel the need to have one. Those of us who are fortunate enough to live in areas sufficiently affluent that very few people resort to crime probably won’t feel a need to own a Liberator. But there are certainly people here in the UK and many more across the world who live in areas where crime is high and who could be brought some peace of mind and security by being able to easily acquire an effective and relatively cheap tool of self-defense such as the Liberator. This could soon be a reality as the price of 3D-printers continues to fall. However, The UK government has already updated its legislation to prevent people from doing this. So UK citizens at least are being told in no uncertain terms by their government that only the police (a group of around 134,000 people) can act to protect a population of approximately 60 million. Thus we are left to, as Cadwalladr correctly points out, “…hope our robbers carry nothing more than a big stick…” and further hope that the police can either catch the burglar and/or recover our stolen property. Very rarely do either of these things happen.

Chasing and catching the criminal after the event is good, but preventing or deterring the act in the first place is the ideal, especially for violent acts like rape. The Liberator has the potential to do more to prevent this abhorrent act than any government police force has ever done. A Liberator in the hand of a woman is the great leveler. It gives her a fighting chance of avoiding being raped in the first place, which is obviously what every woman who found herself in such a situation would want. In today’s society, however, women are prohibited by the government from carrying tools of self-defense. They can only hope they aren’t killed or that someone comes to their rescue, and that their attacker is subsequently captured and imprisoned.

So far we’ve been arguing from consequence in the same manner as Cadwalladr in order to show that, contrary to popular belief, the freedom for individuals to own guns has mostly positive effects on society as well as some negative effects; and also to show that using government to prevent people from owning guns has harmful consequences that continue to be almost universally un-acknowledged. But there’s an argument from principle, the principle of property rights, that underpins this entire issue because using government to prevent people from owning objects like guns violates the property rights of those individuals.

Property rights is a general term for the rules that govern people’s access to and control of things like land, natural resources, the means of production, manufactured goods etc. One species of property arrangement, which logically is and has proven to be the essential foundation of organised society and wealth creation, is private property. If a group of people in society (i.e. government) have the power to use force to prevent citizens from owning certain objects, then those citizens do not have complete property rights according to a rational definition of such. Instead they have the lesser ‘right’ or freedom to own everything that those in government allow them to own. This is the structure of the society we live in today and yet most people mistakenly identify this lesser ‘right’ or restricted freedom as genuine property rights or freedom. And so when the government prevents people from owning certain objects those people usually see no reason to resist or object because they believe we get our freedom from the government, and not by virtue of our being free by nature. It’s this belief that enables governments to continuously encroach into society and diminish the freedom of its citizens as surely as rain drops erode a mountain. In the same way that we often don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone, only those who understand the true nature of freedom will be aware that they’re losing it.

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