Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 734, August 18, 2013

Not a single American alive today was ever a slave—
except, of course, of the military and the RS. Not a
single American alive today has ever kept slaves—
except, of course, for the politicians and bureaucrats.

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In Praise of Social Benefactors
by L. Neil Smith

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Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

[NOTE: a somewhat different version of this essay was initially prepared for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.]

I don't know if the public schools teach about Robert Fulton any more. Most likely, he's been crowded out by the dire threat of global warm ... er, climate change, and the all-important need to recycle plastics.

When I was young, Fulton was a genuine hero in a uniquely American pattern. As a boy, he'd figured out that if you cross two boards so they became a set of four paddles, hung it over the side of a small boat, and used a bent iron rod to connect it with another set of paddles just like it, instead of the backbreaking job of rowing, you could turn the crank and propel yourself across the water smoothly and easily. It's exactly the same system employed today in tiny pleasure craft on the lakes of city parks everywhere, only your feet do the cranking.

What Fulton chiefly became known for, however, was hitching his paddles, on a much bigger boat, to another new invention of the time, the steam engine. One fine day in 1807, the first commercially viable powered boat, later known as the Clermont, steamed up the Hudson, past noisy, jeering crowds on the banks who didn't realize then—and probably never did—that history was being made before their very eyes.

In every sense of the word, in terms of saving wasted hours of a limited human lifespan previously lost to slower means of transport, in terms of commerce, knowledge, and civilization wider spread, in terms of lives saved by faster medicine and fresher foods of greater variety, Robert Fulton deserves to be remembered as a great social benefactor.

Happily, our world has been filled with such individuals. Edward Jenner, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Joseph Lister taught us how to defend ourselves against invisible microscopic enemies—germs— saving uncounted hundreds of millions of human lives over three centuries.

Washable cotton clothing has been linked, along with iron pipe for carrying water, to human lifespan increasing three and a half-fold from 1750 to 1850, Eli Whitney's cotton gin, a device for mechanically removing seeds from the raw cotton boll, made processsing cotton much easier and cheaper, adding to the lives saved or lengthened by cotton itself.

Physician Crawford W. Long and dentist William T.G. Morton brought anesthetics out of the age of witchcraft, into the age of science, making modern surgery possible. Dr. John Gorrie invented refrigeration and air-conditioning primarily for medical purposes. (And Clarence Birdseye used refrigeration to preserve fresh food so it could be stored and transported to every corner of the planet so kids of every race, creed and color could look down at their plates and say, "Ugh! Peas!")

In the 20th century, Jonas Salk led the effort to create a vaccine for the child-crippling disease, polio, and South Africa's Christiaan Barnard among others developed techniques for transplanting human hearts,

During the same explosively creative couple of centuries, Thomas Edison banished a million years of darkness and terror by inventing the electric lightbulb, and filled our lives with music from his phonograph. In all, he registered over 2000 patents for new Wonders of the Age. Samuel F.B. Morse had invented a way—the telegraph—that messages might be sent by wire across the continent at the speed of light. Edison's contemporary, Guglielmo Marconi, made it possible to send the same messages through the air, across the sea, and around the world.

Henry Ford put America, and the world, on wheels, unintentionally generating a massive social revolution that isn't over yet. Alexander Graham Bell—and as it turns out, historically, Elisha Gray slightly before him—gave a voice to those messages, and never knew they would someday become the fathers of the greatest revolution of all, the Internet. The Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, gave humanity wings.

And eventually, the mile-high club.

Today, to those of us to whom history matters, these individuals, and many more like them, are regarded as benefactors to the human race, for the billions of lives their work has saved, lengthened, and enriched

Notice there are no politicians on this list. What they do best is lie, cheat, and steal. They specialize in breaking things and killing people, terminating, shortening, and impoverishing their lives. It isn't just the Nazis and the communists who need to be remembered for this. The so-called Progressive movement in America was, more accurately, a desperate attempt to slow progress—which, among other benefits, had given individuals unprecedented control over their own lives—or to stop it altogether, so it could be controlled by the government.

Now let's consider a different list of names.

Oddly enough, it begins with Eli Whitney, not for his cotton gin, but for having invented a system of manufacturing in which parts were made identical to one another, so that they could be assembled with little or no hand-fitting. Whitney was the father of mass production that made things like the Model T Ford possible a century or so later, but one of the first things it was applied to was the making of guns.

Until Whitney, although a rifle was a family necessity for most Americans, especially along the opening frontier, for food-hunting and defense from hostile natives, the British, and free-lance criminals, it required about a year of a skilled craftsman's best effort, and represented an investment comparable to a high-quality automobile today.

Whitney's method greatly reduced the demands on a highly-skilled craftsman's time, allowing the employment of less-skilled workers in the process, and permitting the rifle to be obtained at a much lower price. Mass-production soon became the handmaiden of the new republic, as more and more Americans could afford to join those who were already properly armed and equipped—the "well-regulated militia" the Second Amendment describes as "being necessary to the security of a free state".

One of the first to apply Whitney's new methods was Samuel Colt, perfector of the revolving pistol and its relatively inexpensive manufacture. "God created men," the saying goes, "and Sam Colt made them equal". Although handguns of several other brands were employed by both sides in the War Between The States and later in the westward movement, variations of Colt's revolver are the most iconic of the period.

In the late 1850s, clothing manufacturer Oliver Winchester bought into an ailing firearms company stuck with a flawed handgun design— rather, a flawed cartridge—and with the brilliant aid of a great engineer, B. Tyler Henry, turned it into a lever-action masterpiece whose brand name became generic in other parts of the world for "rifle".

These weapons, hanging above the fireplace or the front door, or standing in a corner in the kitchen, have continued to perform the duties once expected of colonial flintlocks, feeding families and defending them from wild animals and two-legged marauders to this day.

Horace Smith and his partner Daniel B. Wesson were the guys stuck with the bad cartridge design that Oliver Winshester bought out. Thanks to him, they went on, with the help of another great engineer, Rollin White, to develop the first revolvers to use self-contained metallic cartridges, making personal self-defense easier and much more effective than it had been with loose powder, round balls, and primer caps.

The parents and wives and sweethearts of young soldiers in the War Between The States sent them the first of these tiny, not terribly powerful weapons, but over the years they evolved into the reliable .38 in the policeman's holster, the snubby in Grandma's handbag, and Dirty Harry's .44 Magnum, not really the most powerful handgun in the world, but well capable of making a punk ask himself if he was feeling lucky.

Possibly the greatest of them all, John Moses Browning began designing guns in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th when he died in 1926. He improved lever-action rifles for Winchester. He invented semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, And while he created many weapons—machineguns and automatic rifles—for military use, and others for hunting ducks, the 1911 ,45 on your night table, or the P-35 "High Power" 9mm in your desk drawer are his enduring gifts to self-defense.

A sentimental favorite, and competitor to Browning in more than one respect, Arthur Savage is best known as the inventor of radial tires. But his Model 99 lever-action rifle, hammerless, with its unique rotary magazine, is still a wonder, and his 1907 .45 pistol came close to being the Army's handgun instead of Browning's 1911. The removable box magazine for rifles that politicians hate so much was his invention, too.

Savage's advertising—"Ten Shots Quick!"—was memorable for being forthright. In a striking magazine ad, a young matron fires her ten-shot .32 at an intruder climbing up a ladder to her bedroom window. Blazed across the ad is the motto, "Banishes Fear!" What a pity firearms advertising today is not this straightforward and unflinching.

Now consider this: respected academics like economist John Lott and criminologist Gary Kleck, inform us that in the United States, privately-held handguns are used more than two million times every year in self-defense. That is to say, two million times a year, lives are saved, and crimes are foiled or prevented, by guns in private hands,

Over the century and three quarters that this kind of thing has been going on, just since Sam Colt marketed his first revolver in 1836, what do you suppose is the total number of times it has happened?

How many lives saved, how many crimes stopped?

Firearms in private hands represent a benefit to any civilized society, and no society can be called truly civilized without them. Experts inform us that fifty times as many lives are saved each year by privately-owned guns as are ended by them. Although Don B. Kates says they are attacked three times as often, civilians shoot twice as many criminals as the police, and only half as many of the wrong individuals.

A lot is said, by foreigners and the left, about America being a violent society. Yet if you subtract the crime statistics for its largest cities—places that have been under the strict political control of so-called "progressives", sometimes for many generations—what remains, the real America, is the most peaceful, productive, prosperous, and truly progressive civilization in all of human history.

And, according to firearms magazine editor Jan Libourel, speaking with industry representatives, that civilization possesses some 750 million privately owned guns "of modern design, in good working order".

Isn't it as reasonable to regard those responsible—Whitney, Colt, Winchester, Smith & Wesson, Browning, Savage, and others like them—as social benefactors, fully as much as Fulton, Pasteur, or Edison?

And what of the people who sell guns in America's cities and towns? In the view of many a politician, shamefully ignorant of the good work they do, they are little more than criminals. They are hounded by the media and persecuted by the government. And yet it is largely thanks to them that those two million acts of self-defense are possible.

Politicians have driven gunshops out of cities like San Francisco, New York, and Chicago, and, as a direct result, those and other cities like them are among the most violent on the planet. Half a century ago, there were about 140,000 federally-licensed firearms dealers in America. But as a matter of deliberate policy by Presidential administrations like Bill Clinton's, that number was reduced to only 40,000.

Given the good to society done by gun manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, and retailers, such a policy is exactly like deliberately burning down hospitals, or blowing up fire houses and paramedic stations,

It is clearly stupid, evil, or insane.

Perhaps it is all three,

The next time you visit your local firearms dealer, surprise him. Thank him for helping to make America safer and less violent than it otherwise might be. Stand up for all of those who care enough to make and sell the weapons that keep us and our families safe and give us pleasure.

It's an act of love.

There are easier ways to make a living.

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