Joe the Plumber is an idiot. But in his latest idiocy—a crass dance on the graves of the just-murdered mass-shooting victims in Isla Vista—he teaches us all an important lesson about exactly how conservative thought on individual rights has shifted in recent years.

Joe, whose real name is Samuel Wurzelbacher, inexplicably became famous as the moron who "stood up" to candidate Barack Obama in 2008, and he's since made some money as a failed Tea Party congressional candidate and talk-radio ranter. Continuing his tradition of providing answers to questions no one fucking asked him, Joe decided to post an open letter to the families of victims killed in Elliot Rodger's murder-suicide rampage over the weekend. Just the victims who were shot, though; not the ones who were stabbed.

His message of hope and love: Stay the fuck away from my guns.

I am sorry you lost your child. I myself have a son and daughter and the one thing I never want to go through, is what you are going through now. But:

As harsh as this sounds – your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights.

Richard Martinez, whose son (Christopher) was among the murdered, choked back tears at a news conference, blaming politicians the next day: "The talk about gun rights. What about Chris' right to live?" Martinez said – and much more...

But the words and images of Mr. Martinez blaming "the proliferation of guns", lobbyists, politicians, etc.; will be exploited by gun-grab extremists as are all tragedies involving gun violence and the mentally ill by the anti-Second Amendment Left...

We still have the Right to Bear Arms and I intend to continue to speak out for that right, and against those who would restrict it – even in the face of this horrible incident by this sad and insane individual. I almost said "Obama Voter" but I'm waiting for it to be official...

In conclusion, I cannot begin to imagine the pain you are going through, having had your child taken away from you. However, any feelings you have toward my rights being taken away from me, lose those.

There's something refreshingly honest in Joe's acknowledgement that this tragedy is all about him. It's the reductio ad absurdum of an ethos that's obsessed with the self and the self's freedom without a concomitant empathy for other selves and their freedoms. Joe's rant illuminates quite starkly how the right-libertarian absolutist interpretation of individual rights comes into direct conflict with the lives of his fellow countrymen and their children. To talk of responsibilities is to water down a right, and we cannot do that, no matter what the cost! (On the other hand: "They talk about gun rights," Martinez said in his stirring press statement about his son. "What about Chris's right to live?")

It's part of a larger move in conservatism away from appeals to the common good and toward an antipathy for anything but the self. Where conservatives used to justify the free market, for example, in Adam Smith's practical terms—the invisible hand provides for all, a rising tide floats every boat—they now rationalize it in Ayn Rand's fundamentalist terms: Who gives a shit if the market is good or just? It's right. Now get the fuck out of our way, you illogical bromide-hawking self sacrificer.

Likewise for gun rights, where conservatives led by lobbyists and luddites like Joe the Plumber have abandoned talk about the good and replaced it with talk about the right. The good can be negotiated as hard cases arise. The right is non-negotiable. It is immutable. It is either respected or infringed. If you believe, as Joe and the NRA do, that the Second Amendment is an absolute right to personal firearms ownership—not merely that it's good for something, like self-defense or recreation, but that it's an immutable right—then even background checks or limits on multiple-magazine purchases or just simply talking about compromise and offering real sympathy to survivors is an infringement on that right.

In this ideology, talk of social responsibility in the exercise of rights becomes synonymous with socialism. This is the ultimate problem with the modern movement that clubbed traditional conservatism to death, squeezed into its clothes, and now traipses around like it owns the place.

Even if you believe that a discussion of social responsibilities is the same thing as socialism—and frankly, only an ignoramus could—you can't fight socialism by becoming a sociopath.

[Photo credit: AP; h/t TPM]