Nukes in a free society

In Perry's attempt to meme-hack the term 'social individualist' into the political lexicon, he makes an important point about legal documents and their relationship to rights. He correctly points out that rights are objectively inherent to the individual as a consequence of his nature as a human being. In any free society, individuals should be allowed to pursue their self-defined ends, and this framework gives rise to the concept of rights - barriers against outside coercion which allow them to pursue their ends. Legal documents like the Bill of Rights, even with all of their succint elegance, are not the source of rights. They merely outline them as a reminder for future generations and serve as bulwarks against tyrannous incursions.

In the comment thread of that entry, the topic of nuclear weapons and their interpretation under the 2nd Amendment came up. I want to give some thoughts on what I believe a free society might look like when nuclear weapons technology becomes cheap enough that the common man can afford it. That time is coming soon. As with any technology, real costs drop over time. The possiblity exists today for someone to relatively easily buy a 'dirty nuke' - a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material. As the technology advances and becomes cheaper in the future, any smalltime gangster, terrorist, or mafia boss will be able buy true nuclear bombs - those containing uranium or plutonium that set off fission chain reactions like the ones used in World War II. Unfortunately, complete and total non-proliferation is a fantasy, no matter how efficiently the War on Terror is fought.

Would the ownership of nukes be covered by the 2nd amendment? Would they fall under the right to keep and bear arms? Although some argue yes, I would surmise that they would not. As mentioned above, the 2nd Amendment is not the source of the right to bear arms, it is simply a formal codification of it, and to analyze the status of nukes, first principles have to be applied. As rights are simply barriers to coercion, an individual is not obligated to choose someone else's life in preference to his own. When attacked with lethal force, defense with lethal force falls under just action. At the moment a gun is pointed at him, his will is no longer his. He can no longer pursue his own ends as owed to him by his dignity as a human being. Consequently, he can justly use lethal force to preserve his life; he does not have to wait until the trigger is actually pulled. This is the genesis of the right to keep and bear arms.

When viewed in this context, nukes cannot be considered arms in the service of self-defense. When Smith stores a gun in his basement for its potential use in self-defense, it is not a direct threat to anyone. If it accidently goes off, nobody other than possibly Smith will be hurt. However, when Smith stores a nuke in his basement, his neighbor Jones and the entire city they live in are in the crosshairs. Whether Smith 'ignites' the nuke, or it sets off accidently, the lives and property of anyone within a large radius of his house will perish. Rather than being agents of self-preservation, nukes are a direct threat to anyone physically located near them. As such, those individuals would be just in acting to remove that threat in self-defense.

In his short story The Ungoverned, Vernor Vinge portrays a free society in which the ownership of nukes is a rare occurrence, and only done in secrecy, as they are illegal by all standards of self-defense.

[Will Brierson] knew about nukes - perhaps more than the New Mexicans. There was no legal service that allowed them and it was open season on armadillos who advertised having them...

Anyone who openly admitted to having nukes would be attacked by his neighbors. Anyone could be hired for money take out the nuke owner.

They probably didn't realize that Schwartz would have been lynched the first time he stepped off his property if his neighbors had realized beforehand that he was nuke-armed

Of course, the society portrayed in The Ungoverned is very different from the societies we live in today. Today, we put our trust in monopolies to safeguard the use of nukes and prevent their possession by unscrupulous individuals. A negative consequence of this is the massive buildup of nukes by those monopolies deemed 'trustworthy' or rather just more powerful than the rest. If a true nuclear war did break out, it would mean the end of the world. The time is coming when technology makes these weapons so cheap that states cannot succeed in their most basic purpose - protection of its citizens. Think what the month-long rampage by the DC snipers would have been like if instead of a rifle, the pair possessed weapons many magnitudes more destructive. Would we be confident that law enforcement authorities will deal with the threat in an efficient manner?

In the afterword to his story, Vinge states:

...the most likely... scenario is one in which nukes are occasionally used, but never in large numbers - basically because large power blocs are not tolerated by their smaller neighbors. Such a world would be a moderately dangerous place (especially for bullies), but it might be safer than our world.

The transition to the sort of world where nukes are not tolerated and used only sporadically will be painful, but once there, the danger of complete and total destruction will be slim, and large concentrations of power like we see today will be few and far between. That kind of society can only exist when personal defense is an efficient undertaking, when power at the periphery enables individuals to overcome centralized dominanace, and when thugs like the DC snipers are taken out as soon as they show themselves. Such a society would need more individual liberty, not less. As always, the tradeoff between liberty and security is not only false, but such notions are also dangerous.


Edit June 28, 2003. It seems that due to less than clear writing, I have conveyed the wrong message. A follow-up entry with further thoughts is found here.

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