“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me” ~ John Galt
If you follow a gun control debate long enough eventually the anti-weapon side will bring up nuclear weapons as something that no one would ever support. This is usually at the end of a series of progressively more powerful weapons, challenging the pro-weapon side until they cave in. Then the anti-weapon side will argue the line in the sand back to progressively less powerful weapons. Usually the pro-weapon side caves when nuclear weapons are brought up, but if they don’t the anti-weapon people will simply say that the idea of a privately owned nuke is too ludicrous to bother arguing about. Better to simply ridicule it. Unfortunately private nuclear weapons is a concept so far outside the Overton window of the average person that this argument works.
I intend to show that the arguments deployed against private nuclear weapons are faulty, inconsistent, and ultimately based on pure fear. I focus on nuclear weapons, but these arguments could apply to most nuclear devices.
I should give credit where it is due. Conservatives get it half right about weapons. Partly because they worship The Founders, and partly because they understand some of the ramifications of privately owned weapons. Sadly they also get it half wrong. This is because their theories are a hodgepodge of ad hoc justifications for what they know to be true under certain conditions. Because their theories are for the most part non-generative they fail when pushed out of that narrow range. This leads to arguments such as the Cooper Rules argument, and the Indiscriminate Destruction argument.
Cooper Rules Argument
One argument against private nuclear weapons has to do with what are known as the “Cooper Rules” aka “The Four Rules” for safely using a firearm:
1) The gun is always loaded
2) Never point a gun at something you are not willing to destroy
3) Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire
4) Always be aware of your target and what is behind it
Most of these translate to nuclear weapons in obvious ways (please don’t play with the detonate button). The problem comes from trying to apply rule 2. The detractors say that it is nearly impossible to avoid “pointing” a warhead at anyone. I guess governments do not have to abide by these rules. Are state controlled weapons inherently safe? Bridge For Sale; Cheap.
But being consistent in this leads to some problems. Am I “pointing” a demolition charge at everyone inside the potential blast radius when transporting it? Am I “pointing” my car at people when driving down the road, what about in icy conditions? Is a railroad “pointing” at people when it transports hazardous materials?
And then there are aircraft.
A commercial aircraft is an inherently unstable machine for at least two reasons:
1. It requires a constant input of energy to stay in the air.
2. Aircraft are designed to be unstable (it turns out that a completely stable plane is also uncontrollable).
This means that keeping an aircraft in a safe working condition requires constant monitoring and control input, whether by a human pilot or autopilot. While in flight there is a lot of energy stored in the plane itself in the form of its speed (kinetic energy) and altitude (gravitational potential energy), as well as the fuel.
This is a problem because the stored energy of a plane in flight is effectively “pointing” at every single thing in its potential glide path. Whether directly in front, or off to the side should the plane curve as it goes down. To push the comparison further, with an only slightly looser definition of “pointing,” the argument could be made that an aircraft in flight points at everything in its range, worse in fact than an ICBM in flight which only points at what is in its ballistic trajectory.
When confronted with these inconsistencies the person will respond that, for example, a commercial airliner is not intended to be a weapon. However, intentions were not considered relevant when they put forth their argument, so I see no reason to give their argument the prop of intentions either.
Indiscriminate Destruction Arguement
Another argument against private ownership is that a nuclear weapon is “indiscriminate” in its use (both in the size of its effect and the lingering fallout) and therefore has no function in self-defense. This argument is not against nuclear weapons per se, but any weapon which is either imprecisely targeted, or has an area of effect larger than some arbitrary threshold. Aside from the amazing prescience that this person has in knowing that there will never be a self defense situation where a nuclear weapon is the correct option, it conflates human controlled targeting with area of effect. A weapon’s area of effect does not say anything about whether it will injure an innocent, it merely changes the scenarios in which the weapon can be used without injuring an innocent. Similarly the possession of a weapon does not constitute an aggression to another person, in and of itself. Only the actual use or serious threat of use can be aggression, whether intentionally or by incompetence (drunk jerk with a gun).
It also assumes that a person requires a “self-defense” justification to own something classified as a weapon. Why? Why does someone need to give anyone any reason whatsoever? And who does the classification? The universe doesn’t have convenient slots built into its structure labeled “weapon,” and “not weapon.”
But this quote deserves special attention:
“The following tools are completely indiscriminate, and may harm innocent people decades after their use.” ~ Lazamataz, Free Republic
Really? So a nuclear weapon is completely impossible to target? Again, then why are states allowed to have them? As for the possibility of fallout hurting people in the future, in order to be consistent with this argument it is necessary to forbid any activity which can result in dangerous pollution (even on a person’s own property), not just radioactive pollution. Does this person want to be consistent? Kiss all industrial activity goodbye, unless someone can find a process that not only does not emit pollution past the property line, but does not emit any pollution. And it doesn’t stop there. There can not even be the chance that it ever emits pollution. Because if it does, someone, someday might be hurt by it.
The foundational argument against private nuclear weapons (and many other things) is that they are simply too powerful to allow civilians to have them (remind me again why states can be trusted with them?). Much of this is wrapped up in the scale problem.
This argument is structurally identical to arguments against private firearms:
“If you have [evil object] there are potential scenarios which are undesirable, therefore you are not allowed to have [evil object] regardless of any mitigating factors or positive outcomes, and regardless of how probable or real they may be.”
The problem with this is that most people are not bloodthirsty maniacs, and the possibility of someone hurting another person is not the same thing as actually causing injury. If it were then a person’s mere existence is enough to make them guilty. Who decides what the evil objects are? What gives them the right? And how are they different from any other band of holier-than-thou thugs?
What has the person who simply owns or builds a nuclear weapon (without intent to injure) done that counts as aggression against anyone?
The defining feature of a nuclear weapon is that its energy is sourced from the mass converted to energy when atomic bonds are broken, not the size or composition of the energy release. It is (at least theoretically) possible to build low yield, and “clean” nukes that emit very little fallout. Aiming this argument at nuclear weapons requires a form of naturalistic bias/magical thinking, resulting in the ridiculous position that a hypothetical clean 50 ton yield nuke is BAD, but 50 tons of TNT is acceptable. This doesn’t even consider antimatter or large kinetic weapons.
Even ignoring implementation, the argument from destructive power is never held consistently. If it were then the person asserting that nuclear weapons should be banned would also be forced to ban innumerable other things that can injure or kill on a large scale. If the person is consistent with this argument the situation does not get any better. Unfortunately many, if not most forms of heavy industry have the feature that if Murphy decides to unleash his wrath a lot of people are going to die. Consider for example the 2005 Graniteville, SC collision of two freight trains due to an improperly lined switch. The crash ruptured one of the tank cars, which was filled with chlorine, spilling approximately 60 tons of its 90 ton load (a typical chlorine tank car holds a little over 17,000 gallons). Nine people died and hundreds were injured, and this was a tiny disaster.
This argument would also necessitate a complete ban on spaceflight, because any launch method that can put a given mass in low orbit can easily put that same mass in a suborbital trajectory towards any target the launching entity may choose, possibly in the form of several hundred guided kinetic kill penetrators, aka “Rods From God.” And any spacecraft on an interplanetary trajectory can release kinetic weapons against any target along its vector, doing damage equivalent to several times the mass of the attacking projectile in TNT, even on a “slow” interplanetary orbit.
Let’s ignore all the problems with the arguments against private nuclear weapons, all the false assumptions, and all the inconsistencies. Assume for purposes of argument that nuclear weapons really are as uncontrollable, polluting, and generally horrible as they say. Why does the state get a pass? America alone has detonated a little over 1,500 warheads (by official counts), plus the Soviet Union and other countries. State ownership doesn’t change physics. If anything it’s been proven time after time that states and organizations intertwined with states never manage to do things in a way that is both safe, and economically efficient (see NASA for an example of Safety Über Alles).
The Nut Job Problem, or rather: The Scary One
Even after arguing that most people are not going to go out and blow up the nearest city because someone burned their breakfast there is still another problem, which is a subset of the Destructive Power argument. That is:
“What about the people who really are insane? The true psychopaths who really think that they are doing a good thing by spreading murder, torture, and whatever other evils they come up with.
The problem here is not that the people who are still somewhat rational can’t be deterred from aggression. They can be, even if at a cost. The problem is not even that a lone nut job stops taking his meds and wants to go out with a bigger bang then shooting up the local mall. They can do that now, but pretty much don’t. The lone nut job almost invariably has a certain sort of fantasy, and impersonal explosives just don’t fit that fantasy. The problem is people who have an idea, and are willing to commit the most horrible acts in service of that idea. That may be a Marxist destroying “capitalist oppressors”, or it might be a Muslim breathing fire at the infidel, or a Christian who has decided that blowing up the abortion clinic isn’t enough, but he must destroy the city that contains it.
I concede that I do not know how to handle this one. It is a hard problem. When nuclear weapons were first developed there were serious engineering difficulties building them, such as getting all the explosives to detonate within a sufficiently short period of time. Most of those difficulties can now be solved with hobbyist level equipment, and as far as I know the only real showstopper at this point is the availability of the nuclear materials themselves. The implication is that if wealth levels increase much further the last difficulties will fall away.
For a while everyone could pretend that nuclear weapons would always be too hard for anyone to build on their own. Most people still have their heads in that sand. But given these conditions it is only a matter of time until Bin Laden 2.0 turns some port into a radioactive crater, or a General Ripper flips out and attempts to protect the Purity Of Essence. At that point whoever is around, whether that is a state or a private defense network, is going to have a massive headache on their hands. About the only method I know of that could actually work, and does not involve extreme totalitarianism, is the retaliatory punitive expedition, but this will cause many libertarians to scream bloody murder because it violates the purity of the NAP.
Will the earth become a mushroom patch? Will people irradiate each other over petty disputes? Will the vegetables in your garden attack you? We need to come up with some better ideas, whether we have a state or not.