Just us

In one of his routines on the justice system dating back to the early 1970’s, comedian Richard Pryor commented sarcastically (in language rated XXX): “You go down there looking for justice, that’s what you find: Just us.”

Pryor was referring to the racial composition of the players involved in the administration of justice. Times have changed substantially in that respect, but reading Ben Shapiro’s account of President Obama’s gun control speech in Colorado last week, I was reminded of Pryor’s routine:

In his big pitch in Colorado on Wednesday for further gun control, President Obama made an astonishing statement about gun rights advocates’ fears of governmental gun seizures. He said that such worries would just feed “into fears about government. You hear some of these folks: ‘I need a gun to protect myself from the government. We can’t do background checks because the government’s going to come take my guns away.’ The government’s us. These officials are elected by you…I am constrained as they are constrained by the system that our founders put in place.”

Obama’s point about constraints does not exactly square up with his assertion that there’s nothing to worry about, “the government’s us.” There is an unacknowledged tension between these points.

The founders of the United States were profound students of politics and history. They understood the difficulty of reconciling individual rights with democratic rule. In Federalist 1 Publius observes, “of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants.” In the clip, to borrow the language of Publius, Obama is paying obsequious court to the people. He’s not “commencing” a demagogue. He’s been there for a while.

The founders saw that democracies had “ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” They set about to limit the powers of government to protect our liberties from the likes of President Obama — and from “us.”

UPDATE: Jean Kaufman has more thoughts here.

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