American optimism, guns, and wealth

In this post, I speculate that American attitudes about guns and wealth are linked by a general optimism about the world, and about one’s ability to determine one’s own destiny.


John Steinbeck said, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” This claim has often been used to explain why the poor in America seem so often to vote for right-wing policies which are opposed to business regulations, labor rights, powerful unions, and the welfare state. In short, Steinbeck suggests that the American poor don’t see themselves as essentially poor, only poor through some turns of circumstance which will be righted shortly through a combination of personal virtue, talent, and hard work.This is probably, of course, an oversimplification, but I think it speaks to something about our national character—our love of rags-to-riches stories, triumphant underdogs, and good-guys-win-in-the-end-narratives. We each see ourselves as David (even those of us, often, who are actually Goliath). With faith (in God, or country, or self), we can achieve what we’d always hoped. Consequently, there is no need for us to enact major social welfare policies: everyone who is poor is about to work their way out of it, or they’re not working hard anyway. Although it can manifest itself as a bigotry against the poor, I think that this is, at its core, a kind of optimism: things shake out alright in the end.

Why are we like this? I’m inclined to think it has something to do with our shared heritage as immigrants—people who believed, or gambled, or desperately hoped that by coming to the New World they could build a better life. And many of them did. I suspect, also, that it may go back to the Puritans. The Puritans presumably shared that same essential optimism that immigrants do (despite their forbidding theology), but they also—as I understand—tended to see obedience as a path to material success. A proper work ethic was likely to result in earthly success, because it was working as God wanted them to. I suppose this is speculative, but I think it has at least some plausibility.

Now, consider the gun rights debate. Many people argue, quite understandably, that the average person with a gun is far more likely to commit a crime with it or kill themselves than they are to use it in self-defense. I happen to think this argument is probably good, and that for most people owning a gun is a net loss. Yet many people—including people who know that they are suicide risks, including people who live in extraordinarily safe areas—continue to own guns. Why?

My thought is that the explanation is probably related to our national optimism: it’s a belief that we are never just victims, but can always do something to change our circumstances. When it comes to poverty, we believe that we can work our way out of it with just a little more elbow grease. When it comes to violent crime, we believe that we’re not the “type” of person who is just a victim, and thus we prepare ourselves so that if bad things come our way, we will have the means to change the circumstances.