Private Nukes

Henry Farrell asks:

Everyone?s favorite libertarian SF author, Vernor Vinge, makes the case for private ownership of nuclear weapons as an important bulwark of liberty in his short story, ?The Ungoverned? (it can be found in his recent Collected Stories). If you?re a serious anarcho-libertarian, do you agree that individuals should be able to have their very own nukes? If you disagree, on what grounds do you justify your disagreement? Discuss.

I disagree with the interpretation of the story. Statements made by the residents of the Ungoverned lands indicate that most protection services outlawed owning nukes. From "The Ungoverned":

[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?

and

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.

The "armadillos" were individuals who did not subscribe to any protection service. The character Schwartz was one such armadillo.

I have written before on Catallarchy about the issue of private ownership of nukes, with specific reference to "The Ungoverned":

Private Ownership of Nukes

To summarize briefly, purely in terms of ethics, my argument is that a nuclear weapon is a nearly purely 'non-discriminating' weapon, a threat by its very existence to the lives of those in the immediate vicinity for miles around. If it "goes off" accidently, it won't just hurt the owner, but also everyone who is in the effective radius. Thus, it is like a gun pointed to the heads of all those within many miles of it. So no individual may own nukes, including those any that call themselves "governments", i.e., there can ethically be no nuclear monopolies either.

Since the original post started with a science fiction reference, let me just also add that in a futuristic society in which it was possible to own nukes without threatening anyone else due to large distances, such as in outer space, I would support the private ownership of nukes as a means to self-defense.

Where and how do you draw the line between a nondiscriminating weapon and a targeted one? Common law courts could do this, or various market-based schemes of liability insurance could play a role.

And to underscore a broader point, people often have the misconception that libertarians want to get rid of all laws. On the contrary, I fully support laws that I believe to be ethical. I have come to the conclusion that laws against private ownership of nukes are just. Laws against murder, theft, fraud, rape, assault, etc are fully consistent with a libertarian outlook. When I criticize laws on this blog, it is because most laws on the books today are unjust. They punish people engaging in voluntary associations or minding their own business, or they allow actions against individuals without their consent.

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A better response to this

A better response to this challenge, as I posted on Crooked Timber, is to ask exactly what difference a law against private nukes makes. The type of people out there who have or want nuclear weapons are not likely to be deterred by a law against it.

Yeah - but the point of the

Yeah - but the point of the story as I recall it (don't have my copy close to hand) is that anti-social armadillos like Schwartz turn out to be very useful indeed when the expansionist state next door comes knocking. This is something I could perhaps have been more explicit about in my original post - Vinge is on the one hand saying that the ownership of nukes can be antisocial (i.e. it isn't a right that should be exercised in a libertarian utopia for purely personal defence against other individuals), but on the other hand arguing that it can be a positive bulwark of liberty in circumstances where you face a resurgence of "tyranny." It's not the usual 'what would you do if the Joneses had the bomb' dilemma. I think that this is a more interesting pro and con argument for libertarians - and I still haven't seen a direct response from a libertarian to this particular argument of Vinge's (as I interpret it). PNH's tongue-in-cheek reference to Ken MacLeod is about the closest thing that's been offered - and Patrick is as libertarian as I am (i.e. hardly at all).

When you talk about it

When you talk about it "going off accidentally", you are talking about liability, not discriminatory vs. non-discriminatory. Nukes are pretty hard to set off, and it is virtually impossible (we're talking, "Hand of God" events) to have it happen by accident.

If the question is liability, then doesn't that make your argument moot for those who store them far underground, or for those who own large tracts of land on which they are the only ones who would be damaged by an accidental activation?

If you have an issue with discriminatory vs. non-discriminatory, then we are going to get all the way down to the issue of automatic weapons. The "spray and pray" crowd thinks those are non-discriminatory weapons too.

Sorry - should make it clear

Sorry - should make it clear that the "hardly at all" refers not to general left-liberal inclinations, but rather to the attachment to markets above other forms of politics.

Henry, You are correct in

Henry,

You are correct in that it was implied by Vinge that the expansionist state next door was very reluctant to conquer the Ungoverned lands because they did not want to take their chances in facing more armadillos like Schwartz. And yet at the same time he thinks that most protection agencies would outlaw nukes. Like you said - contradictory perhaps.

My personal view is that personal ownership of nukes is not justified by anyone. As far as defense against other states trying to conquer anarchocapitalist societies, that would be a challenge (at least in theory). However, even in Vinge's story, the 'little' protection agency chose to cooperate with the 'big' protection agency in the end, because both benefitted ('profitted') from safety from the invading state.

Phelps, When you talk about

Phelps,

When you talk about it "going off accidentally", you are talking about liability, not discriminatory vs. non-discriminatory. Nukes are pretty hard to set off, and it is virtually impossible (we're talking, "Hand of God" events) to have it happen by accident.

Even if there is no possibility of accidental triggering, the implied threat is still there IMO. The person can activate it himself. There are different degrees of threat implied by even regular gun use, from carrying a gun (which I do not take as a threat) to pointing a gun at someone to pointing a gun at someone with finger on trigger. Even at the pointing a gun at someone without finger on trigger stage, if I was on the other end, I would perceive a threat and take action for defense. Similarly, a nuke in a basement that has no chance of going off accidently is still a threat to anyone nearby.

If the question is liability, then doesn't that make your argument moot for those who store them far underground, or for those who own large tracts of land on which they are the only ones who would be damaged by an accidental activation?

Yes, as I said above, if the nuke is stored in space for example, without any danger from the 'threat radius', I would have no problem with that. A science fiction example of a nuke being properly used in self-defense might be if the Loonies from _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ placed nukes between the moon and the earth to prevent an invasion from the earth. If they were far enough away from the surface, they would not be in the 'threat radius' to any Loonies but could be maneuvered against any invading threats.

If you have an issue with discriminatory vs. non-discriminatory, then we are going to get all the way down to the issue of automatic weapons. The "spray and pray" crowd thinks those are non-discriminatory weapons too.

Yes, other weapons are also non-discriminatory, but most do not pose a threat anywhere close to as large as a nuke. The line has to be drawn somewhere between a 'targeted personal self-defense weapon' and a 'non-discriminatory threat by mere existence'.