The Libertarian Case For Private Nuclear Weapons

Whenever statists push for restrictions on private ownership of firearms and libertarians defend the right to keep and bear arms, some statists will attempt a reductio ad absurdum in the form of asking libertarians whether it should be permissible for private individuals to own nuclear weapons. The libertarians will usually back down, after which their inconsistency allows the statist to win the argument. But there is no need to do this. Let us explore why private ownership of nuclear weapons not only fails as a reductio ad absurdum in the gun control debate, but is actually essential for the creation and maintenance of a stateless society, along with other benefits.

Background

The starting point for all of libertarian ethics is self-ownership, that each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body and full responsibility for actions committed with said control. Note that in order to argue against self-ownership, one must exercise exclusive control of one’s physical body for the purpose of communication. This results in a performative contradiction because the content of the argument is at odds with the act of making the argument. By the laws of excluded middle and non-contradiction, self-ownership must be true because it must be either true or false, and any argument that self-ownership is false is false by contradiction.

Because each person has a right to exclusive control of one’s physical body, it is wrong for one person to initiate interference with another person’s exclusive control of their physical body without their consent. This is how the non-aggression principle is derived from self-ownership. Because each person has full responsibility for the actions that one commits with one’s physical body, one may gain property rights in external objects by laboring upon unowned natural resources, and one owes restitution for any acts of aggression that one commits against other people or their property. But because the non-aggression principle and private property rights are derived from self-ownership, they are dependent upon it. That which is dependent cannot overrule that upon which it is dependent, therefore self-ownership takes primacy if there should be a conflict between the self-ownership of one person and the external private property rights of another person. Furthermore, the theory of negative homesteading allows one to harm innocent shields if one is under attack and it is impossible to defend oneself without doing so.

Theoretical Objections Rebutted

Now that a logical framework is established, let us consider the issue of private ownership of nuclear weapons. Note that there are two cases which must be considered concurrently; that of of private ownership versus state control, and that of private ownership versus nuclear-free. Following the essentials of libertarian ethics, one may rightfully own anything if one creates it by laboring upon unowned natural resources. Furthermore, one may trade or gift anything one owns because an inability to do so would not constitute exclusive control. The burden upon the opponent of private nuclear weapon ownership is to show that mere possession of such a device inherently constitutes an act of aggression against people and/or their property, that state control is superior to private control, or that a free society would not have such weapons in the first place. Many arguments have been made to support this position, so let us examine them.

First, there is the argument that nuclear weapons were created through state programs and would not exist otherwise. This response attempts to deal purely in theory while remaining devoid of any context or practical application, all while claiming an astounding level of prescience concerning a counterfactual world in which no states survived into the 20th century. In reality, science and technology march on regardless of government involvement, albeit along a different path. While one may reasonably assume that a stateless world would have no Manhattan Project, it is entirely possible that the economic growth possible in the absence of statism could have funded scientific research and technological innovation to such an extent that nuclear technology could have been discovered earlier. It is quite implausible that no one would have discovered the possibility of nuclear weapons and tested it by experiment by now, and all but impossible that this would never become an issue in the future. A variant of this argument is that nuclear weapons are too expensive for individuals to develop, purchase, or maintain. This is also highly suspect because wealth levels tend to increase over time, meaning nuclear weapons (and everything else) will be more affordable in the future, if they are not affordable now (which is doubtful).

Second, some will argue that unlike small arms, a nuclear weapon is always pointed at someone. The implication is that such a device cannot be stored safely, and so must not be stored at all. The problem with this argument is that it confuses risk with aggression, accident with intent, and incompetence with malice. This argument also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the construction of nuclear weapons; like small arms, they may be stored in such a condition as to be unavailable for immediate use. We also cannot take this argument to its logical conclusion, as doing so would prohibit any activity which potentially endangers someone, such as flying aircraft or spacecraft, transporting hazardous materials by rail or pipeline, or even driving cars. However, there is one legitimate concern raised by this argument; that of radiation pollution from improper storage. But a free society could deal with radiation pollution by much the same procedure as it would use for any other form of air or water pollution.

Third, there is the argument that nuclear weapons necessarily kill innocent people because of their area and duration of effect. This argument, like the first, requires an impossible kind of knowledge, as no one may know precisely what area and duration of effect that a weapon may need in order to stop some future aggressor. Without such knowledge, this argument would set an arbitrary and capricious limit upon weapon ownership, as every weapon has some area and duration of effect. Furthermore, this argument is a straw man because even if this argument were completely valid, it would only prohibit the use of nuclear weapons, not their manufacture, possession, or trade. This is because the mere possession of an object cannot constitute aggression; only the use or threat of use in a manner which may harm innocent people and property constitutes aggression. Finally, under the theory of negative homesteading, killing innocent people can be acceptable if they are being used as human shields by an aggressor and it is impossible to subdue the aggressor without harming the human shields.

Fourth, there is the possibility that a mentally unstable person who would seek to use one in anger may acquire one. This is a serious concern, but there is no answer for it now that such weapons exist. While it is in the rational self-interest of everyone who is mentally stable to keep such munitions out of the hands of those who have a first-use policy, and it would be justified to use any means necessary to prevent those who have a first-use policy from obtaining and/or using nuclear weapons, there can be no guarantee that this disaster will not happen. A notable subset of this problem is that of the nuclear extortionist who says, “I want X or that city over there gets it!” But everyone who understands economics or psychology knows that subsidized behavior will become more frequent, resulting in more extortionists and more payments. We can therefore expect that the proper response of extermination of anyone who makes such threats will be used. Even if this results in a few uses of nuclear weapons, it is far better than the alternative. Furthermore, this scenario does not depend on nuclear weapons, as conventional explosives can easily be scaled up to sufficient size to cause this problem.

Fifth, there is the argument that technology will march on and render nuclear weapons obsolete. This argument does not address the issue because whatever technology would replace nuclear fission and fusion (e.g. matter-antimatter reactors) would have even more destructive potential if weaponized.

Sixth, there is the argument that nuclear weapons exist on a scale that makes mass murder and destruction too easy. But this can be true of any increase in firepower. (And who shall draw the line between what is too easy and what is not?) As military technology marches on and increases in scale, so does peaceful technology. That which would have eliminated an ancient tribe of hunter-gatherers may go almost unnoticed in a modern community, and a nuclear explosion may go almost unnoticed in an interstellar civilization. That which seems too powerful today may be laughable in the future.

Finally, there is the argument that a nuclear weapon is too powerful for a civilian to own, and thus the state should maintain control of them. But states created this issue in the first place (at least in our timeline), immunize themselves from responsibility for their pollution, suffer no serious consequences from threatening innocent people with nuclear weapons, are harder to stop from delivering nuclear weapons to those with a first-use policy, and are subject to the same mutually assured destruction as would be a private owner. As such, state control is actually the greater of two evils given that nuclear weapons exist. Note that in order to be consistent, one would also have to oppose private ownership of non-nuclear devices of equal or greater strength, even if used for peaceful purposes such as mining. As for the level of strength, this argument would set another arbitrary and capricious limit upon weapon ownership at the minimum possible yield for a nuclear warhead.

The Positive Case

With the theoretical arguments against private nuclear weapons rebutted, let us consider the good that private nuclear weapon ownership can do. First, nuclear weapons have a history of preventing total warfare, the most destructive statist activity. Before nuclear weapons were invented, rulers could invade other countries with little chance of being personally affected by the violence. When only the United States had nuclear weapons, Truman was able to use them against Hiroshima and Nagasaki with impunity. But once the Soviets exploded RDS-1 on August 29, 1949, the monopoly on nuclear capability was lost, never to be regained. The advent of mutually assured destruction meant that anyone who dared to use nuclear weapons could expect to be hit with them in return in a matter of hours (minutes with modern delivery systems). While the ruling classes used the funds they extorted from their populations to build shelters to survive a nuclear exchange, they knew that such survival would not truly be life; they would have no useful territory to control and no people to rule upon emerging from their bunkers. As such, the creation of nuclear weapons has led to a more peaceful world, at least in terms of major wars between world powers. It stands to reason that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by private individuals or defense agencies would take all-out warfare off the table for them as well, as the incentives which apply concerning nuclear-armed states also apply concerning nuclear-armed private individuals or defense agencies.

As a corollary of the first point, possessing nuclear weapons allows one to spend less resources on maintaining conventional military forces, thus freeing up resources to be used for other purposes. Just as the United States has generally lowered its military budget as a percent of GDP since nuclear weapons were invented (with a few exceptions for wars), a private defense agency can also lower costs by maintaining a small number of nuclear missiles rather than a much more numerous conventional arsenal. This also means that military equipment providers will have less influence over the society than they otherwise would, thus lessening the likelihood that they can start a conflict for their own profiteering.

Third, the transition from statism to anarcho-capitalism will almost certainly not occur overnight. There will almost certainly be a period of time in which some parts of the world still have governments while other parts of the world are anarchist control zones, regardless of the means used to circumvent or abolish existing states. When this happens, the stateless people will have economic advantages over those who live under the burden of government currency debasement, regulation, and taxation. Eventually, this will lead to conflict as rulers blame the anarcho-capitalists for luring away people and resources that governments need to continue functioning. States in this time period will be dealing with an existential threat of a sort that they have not faced in time memorial and to which they have no answers other than to abolish themselves or use violence. Those in power who are unwilling to give up violent dominion and live peacefully with their fellow human beings could consider this situation worthy of using nuclear weapons, and if the anarcho-capitalists wish to survive and win this conflict, they will need to wield equal or greater firepower themselves. In this sense, private ownership of nuclear weapons will be vitally important for the effort to abolish statism.

Fourth, private nuclear weapons have peaceful uses, such as mining, excavation, asteroid deflection, and propulsion. Looking forward, humanity must form a space-faring civilization if it is to survive long-term, and it is in this final frontier that nuclear devices have their utmost potential. Nuclear weapons are capable of providing a powerful defense against an asteroid which could threaten all life on a planet, whether they are used to alter its course or to blast it into pieces which are sufficiently small to burn up in the atmosphere before impacting the surface. Short of destroying or deflecting such an object, nuclear weapons could be used to excavate asteroids for the purpose of mining their interiors for valuable metals which are not commonly found elsewhere. Nuclear weapons can also be useful for getting to such an asteroid, as well as more general space travel. A series of nuclear explosions detonated behind a ship designed to absorb the impact and be propelled by it is the most primitive effective method of achieving the velocities needed to make long-distance space travel feasible.

Practical Objections Rebutted

Although there is a strong positive case for private nuclear weapons, some people still have difficulties with the practical aspects of their ownership. As such, it is necessary to consider some practical objections to their ownership.

First, there is the argument that in a stateless society, private individuals or defense agencies would not have an incentive to have nuclear weapons. But no nuclear-armed state has ever been invaded by a foreign power, and this cannot be said of any other class of weapon. This perfect track record is an extremely powerful incentive for a private individual or defense agency who seeks defense against invasion. Private defense agencies would also realize economic benefits from maintaining a nuclear deterrent versus maintaining a much more numerous conventional military force to achieve the same purpose.

Second, there is the argument that regardless of the theoretical soundness of private nuclear weapon ownership, people will view nuclear weapon owners with suspicion and seek to destroy them in order to eliminate the potential danger posed by them. The problem with such an effort is that aside from it being aggression against people and property, it greatly increases the likelihood of a nuclear weapon being used, especially if its owner is vastly outgunned or has no other weapons available. Note that assassination markets are not an answer, as a nuclear weapon owner could respond to the possibility of assassination by connecting the launch mechanism to one’s vital signs and programming the weapon to activate if one’s vital signs terminate in such a way as to indicate murder. As such, it makes far more sense to only target nuclear weapon owners who actually make threats of their use.

Finally, there is the concern that a person or defense agency in possession of a nuclear weapon can make demands of everyone else because of their power. This concern is a variant of the mentally unstable person who would seek to use one in anger discussed earlier, and is subject to the same rebuttal as well as the threat of mutually assured destruction.

Conclusion

Socrates once said,

“I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good.”

It is hard to imagine a greater embodiment of this idea at present than privately owned nuclear weapons. The logical case for their ownership is clear, and the objections in favor of either state control or complete elimination do not withstand scrutiny. While the prospect can be terrifying, the alternative is even worse, as the only way to prevent private nuclear weapon ownership from becoming a reality someday is to endure statism in perpetuity while bringing all innovation to a complete standstill. This would eventually result in a purposefully engineered Malthusian catastrophe on par with the most gruesome horror fiction, and the death toll would certainly be greater than that of a society which embraces freedom and nuclear technology. Fortunately, we will escape that fate because those who accept nuclear weapons for their legitimate uses will have an advantage over those who do not. In the words of Foo Quuxman,

“The ones who use it will inherit the stars. Those who don’t will be left to scratch out an existence on a single rock until something wipes it clean.”

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  • FooQuuxman

    Nice to see someone else getting this.

    I wrote a series of articles a couple years ago, making almost the same points. Though I focused more on the technical angle as I was trying to defuse some of the misunderstanding and hysteria on who nuclear devices function.

    Your writing is better than mine though 🙂

    EDIT: oh, *facepalm*, you did read my series. I thought the wording looks very similar. (I don’t begrudge you the rewrite, the more this gets out the better)

    • Matthew Reece

      Your writing is not worse than mine. I just wanted to focus on the case without any tangents.

      I haven’t seen any content from you lately. Write something else!

  • Coralyn Herenschrict

    Though I understand you are a big exponent of the matter, I wish you had not gratuitously inserted what I regard to be the false philosophical premise that self-ownership differs from property ownership. This is a wholly separate debate. It’s unnecessary and irrelevant to the topic of nuclear bomb ownership.

    This is the crux of the nuclear bomb issue:

    The problem with this argument is that it confuses risk with aggression

    I’ve pondered this subject at length. It’s a rich and interesting topic of where “acceptable and normal” risk turns into negligence turns into aggression. In the end, this appears to me to be a continuum problem. Libertarians cannot and need not definitively answer these a priori. Competing libertarian courts would create and inter-negotiate standards for this. Much along the lines of how standards for what constitutes bona-fide homesteading would be arrived at.

    As you observe, nuclear bomb possession risk can be lowered almost to 0 with the elaborate handling processes, including exhaustive checks and balances with auditing, verification, etc. The sky-high price of liability insurance covering the case of accidental or aggressive use of one would relentlessly force safety practices to extreme lengths.

    People living within the blast zone of one would insist on any sellers of materials to make a bomb as well as buyers of such materials obtain such liability insurance on pain of ostracism so absolute and severe those sellers and buyers would be reduced to incapacity of having any ability to trade with others at all, rendering them incapable of supplying the materials or obtaining the materials for a bomb.

    The resulting aggressively down-managed risk would be vanishingly small. Far, far lower than it is today. Today the nuclear button is under the thumb of a totally opaque process, by a completely unaccountable, arbitrary, aggressive, and incompetent government monopoly.

    • Fred Bastiat

      “The nuclear button is under the thumb of a completely unaccountable, capricious, incompetent, and inherently aggressive government monopoly.”

      Well said, I might expand to button(s). The danger of state controlled nukes is multiplied as you add more capricious, power mad, and monoplistic state actors.

      History has shown mass murder of its own citizens, wholesale property destruction, and ethics are not deterents to state actions. Yet, murder, property destruction, and ethics play into most reasonable persons calculous. The only obvious and compelling solution is abolition of the state to make way for better solutions driven by more individual and natural human concerns. The state is divorced from humanity, not connected or restrained since it is above ethics in its founding.

      Have not forgot our previous discussion, going over some notes.

      • The presumption that government officials would be more responsible with nuclear weapons than private citizens is absurd. Government officials have never been more responsible than private citizens on any single issue under the sun.

        Never forget that people who seek out “high office” tend to be sociopaths. People with sound mental health tend to prefer honest trade in the free market place.

        This is hardly “mere theory”. Just look at how irresponsible Hillary Clinton has been with drones. Could the average person picked at random off the street do any worse?

        • I highly doubt that nuclear weapons would have gone uninvented these 70+ years without government involvement, but I agree otherwise.