Six years ago the possession of a thirty round magazine in Canada was no more illegal than the possession of a bicycle. No permits were needed to buy such an item, no special storage requirements applied. Moreover, this condition had existed for well over one hundred years. High capacity magazines have been around, in one form or another, since the American Civil War.
Presently, possession of a thirty round magazine could result in a penalty of up to ten years in jail, longer than many people have received for acts of cold blooded murder. How can something which was regarded as perfectly innocuous for one hundred and thirty years, now be treated as a crime more serious than rape, robbery or assault? Superficially, we can answer this question by saying the government passed legislation making it so. But there is a deeper issue involved here: Does the State have the authority to define what is good and what is evil?
Most people would agree there are some acts which are inherently evil. You will not find anyone, other than a psychopath, who would contend the rape and murder of small children is acceptable. Such acts violate fundamental laws. Those who are religious might refer to them as God's laws. Others might say they are basic laws of nature. In either case, a conundrum presents itself: if such laws are set by God, or by nature, then how can they be altered by government?
Thousands of years ago leaders solved this problem by claiming to be gods themselves. Egyptian pharaohs, for example, were held to be living gods. During the Middle Ages kings claimed not to be gods, but to rule with unlimited authority given directly by God. (A doctrine referred to as the divine right of kings.)
But how do modern leaders claim the authority to create laws? They are not gods, nor do they rule with God's permission. How can they claim the prerogative to define what is right and wrong?
They employ trickery, the same way leaders have always claimed the right to rule. Their ruse is simple. They shroud themselves with pomp and ceremony so elaborate it amounts to a type of mysticism.
Our leaders meet in large stone edifices similar to temples. Their actions while in government are a series of elaborate rituals: parliamentary debates, readings, and committees, and parallel activities in the Senate. Their laws are written in a strange language average citizens have difficulty understanding. People will normally have to hire a special kind of high priest (a lawyer) if they need to decode this arcane terminology. Everything about government, the furniture they use, they rooms they sit in, will be made to appear as grandiose as possible, in an attempt to awe citizens into a state of reverence.
They will also attempt to elevate some principles (such as patriotism and democracy) to the status of religous dogma, then appeal to these doctrines when seeking support for legislation. The ultimate test of the legitimacy of any law we will be told, is approval by the majority of the nation's citizens. Even normally sensible people will frequently fall prey to this sophistry. (For example, Preston Manning has stated that he is opposed to abortion, but would vote for it if the majority of his constituents were in favour.) But is fifty one percent always right? In the past, democratic nations have sanctioned slavery and the imprisonment of people based on race. Right and wrong do not change with the whims of the electorate. Slavery is evil not because the majority of Americans would now vote against it, but because it deprives people of the fundamental right of self-ownership.
There are some primitive tribal cultures that still practice voodoo or other forms of black magic. These people maintain the belief that a sorcerer, by the utilization of a series of elaborate rituals and incantations, can place a curse on someone. The unfortunate individual who has been cursed will often develop a psychosomatic illness, so strong is his belief in the power of the witch doctor.
Those of us in more advanced societies might be inclined to laugh at such primitive superstitions. Witch doctors cannot alter the laws of nature. They cannot cause someone to develop cancer by sticking pins in dolls. But many Canadians fail to see our leaders have no more ability to change nature's laws than a tribal sorcerer. They cannot cause something that is inherently wrong, such as theft, to become right and just, simply by calling it taxation and surrounding it with abstruse rituals. They cannot cause something that is inherently right, such as the possession of an effective means of self defense, to become evil simply by declaring it so. Governments can no more alter laws governing right and wrong than they can alter the laws of physics, or require two plus two to equal six. Those Canadians that accept the authority of the state to legitimize inherently illegitimate acts, or the reverse, have fallen victim to the same type of deceit primitive witch doctors practice on their fellow tribesmen.
In the introduction to his latest book, Freedom In Chains, James Bovard observes that "Too many political thinkers treat government like some wizard of Oz, ordaining great things, enunciating high ideals, and symbolizing all that is good in society." He raises an interesting point. I have often thought this movie formed the perfect metaphor for the relationship between most citizens and their government.
As everyone knows, Dorothy and her friends (the citizens) petition the wizard (the government) with a list of requests: a heart, a brain, and courage (health care, education, and security from crime). The wizard lives in a magnificent palace, belches smoke and fire, and in a thunderous voice proclaims he is "great and powerful". He will grant all their wishes, he declares, if they perform "one very small task", bring him the broom belonging to the wicked witch of the west (or in our case, give up half our income in taxes and surrender all of our rights). Of course, the small task ends up being a major undertaking that very nearly gets them all killed. In spite of the fact they comply completely with his outrageous demand, the wizard is unable to fulfil a single one of their requests. In the end, the small dog pulls back the curtain, and they discover the "Great and Powerful Oz" is but a very ordinary man. They realize, in addition, that they had the solutions to their problems within themselves all along.
Too many Canadians, like the scarecrow in the movie, are still bowing and scraping before the "Great and Powerful Oz". We submit meekly to demand after preposterous demand, gathering witches' brooms by the dozens. Like the small dog, we need to pull back the curtain, and glimpse the very ordinary men behind the smoke and flames. These men have neither the power to grant wishes nor the right to set rules for our behaviour. We must come to understand that the State, like the fictional wizard, derives its moral authority entirely from smoke, mirrors, and magicians' tricks.