Nuclear Weapons in a Free Society: Walter Block Gets It Wrong

When an argument over gun control breaks out between a libertarian and a statist of some variety, it is only a matter of time before the libertarian backs himself into a corner where he must defend the right of individuals to own nuclear weapons by extension of the principle that anything that is not aggressive is legally permissible. According to Walter Block and Matthew Block, however, this is not the libertarian position. Instead, in any realistic context, they argue, nuclear weapons would be prohibited in a free society.

Rather than being predicated upon the issue of the would-be owners’ property rights, Block and Block write, “[t]he libertarian response to this is predicated upon the issue of whether it is possible to use these weapons in a purely defensive manner; if so, there can be no objection to them per se.”1 Right from the start, this is the wrong way to address the issue. The response to whether one should be able to own a certain weapon should be based on whether one can own the weapon without violating rights; the response to whether one should be able to use a certain weapon should be based on whether one can use the weapon without violating rights. So, while a society may permit the ownership of nuclear weapons, it can also prohibit their use if they cannot be used in a way that avoids harming innocent bystanders. Addressing such weapons’ capability in that respect, Block and Block continue,

Consider a bazooka, for example. Can the power of this implement be confined to those at whom it is aimed? Yes. Therefore it can be used purely for purposes of self-defense, and its possession is not an ipso facto violation of the libertarian code. If it is not possible to limit, to its intended targets, the physical harm created by a weapon but, rather, this must necessarily spill over onto innocent parties, then such an implement must be eliminated from legitimate arsenals. When viewed in this manner, it is clear that all of the weapons mentioned above, except for the thermonuclear device, do allow for pinpointing: namely for confining their destructive power to the ‘bad guys’. Therefore, it would be licit to own any of the former, but not the latter.2

This argument is also faulty in that it presupposes that all conceivable targets would be in a well-populated environment. It is entirely possible that a group of murderous outlaws could establish their hideout in the desert or the wilderness. As Block admits, “potential danger” is not justification for banning a certain weapon.3 Even if detonating a nuclear weapon in the vast majority of places would be a danger to innocents, this only makes the use of nuclear weapons in those places illicit. Since nuclear weapons could be owned in a populated area and could possibly target a location where no innocents will be harmed, ownership of nuclear weapons in a town or city is legitimate; their use there is not.

It would logically following from the Blocks’ reasoning that concealed carry of a firearm in any significantly populated environment must be prohibited as well, since the firearm could discharge and hit an unintended target. A firearm, of course, is more likely only to hit its intended target, but this is only different from the nuclear bomb in degree, not in principle. Or is there some level of risk at which we can say a weapon must be prohibited? There is also the chance—a very likely chance—that someone could walk closely by and their foot could be in the holstered pistol’s line of fire. This is the same sort of danger posed by a nuclear lying dormant in some underground facility with no one’s finger on the big red button. We would not say that, in either of these situations, anyone is being threatened.

The point is that you do not have to use a weapon simply because you own it. There is a difference between ownership and use, and a difference between risk and threat. Just as carrying a gun is not the same as threatening or shooting innocents, storing a nuclear weapon is not the same as threatening or bombing innocents. If nuclear weapons are to be made illegal on the assumption that anyone who owns them will use them, pistols must also be made illegal on that same assumption. (For an interesting consideration into whether it is in line with libertarian theory to use nuclear weapons against innocents, see this video.)

The Blocks go on to discuss what assumptions can be made:

Suppose A comes rushing at B carrying a knife in the up-thrust position, while yelling ‘Kill!’ in a blood-curdling manner, whereupon B draws his pistol and shoots A dead. Later, it turns out that A was merely an actor, practicing for a part, and that the knife was made of rubber, as are most stage props of that sort. Is B guilty of murder? Not a bit of it. Rather, B would properly be judged to have done no more than exercise his right of self-defense.4

Few would argue that B was wrong to defend himself against what could only reasonably be judged on short notice as a threat from A. But threats are often not a black-and-white matter. Let us consider another example: Suppose A and B are walking toward each other on a sidewalk and B accidentally bumps A’s shoulder. A, who is brandishing a pistol on his hip, turns to look at B and 1) makes an angry face; 2) says to B, “I’m going to hurt you”; 3) places his hand on his pistol; 4) removes his pistol from its holster; 5) points his pistol at B’s head; and 6) puts his finger on the trigger. At which number is A a threat? At which step could B justly respond with self-defense? Each step was certainly more threatening than the one before, but which step crossed the line? We see that ‘threat’ is not so clearly defined and that the concept is nonbinary.

Mr. Libertarian, Murray Rothbard, attempts to provide an answer to the problem:

It is important to insist, however, that the threat of aggression be palpable, immediate, and direct; in short, that it be embodied in the initiation of an overt act. Any remote or indirect criterion—any “risk” or “threat”—is simply an excuse for invasive action by the supposed “defender” against the alleged “threat” […] Once we bring in ‘threats’ to person and property that are vague and future—i.e., are not overt and immediate then all manner of tyranny becomes excusable.5

Just as there are degrees of threat with a pistol, there are many shades of grey between white and black with regard to nuclear weapons. Just as we did with the pistol example, we can imagine 1) a nuclear weapon existing in parts in an underground facility; 2) a fully assembled nuclear bomb; 3) a nuclear bomb loaded onto an aircraft; or 4) such an aircraft flying over a busy city. At what point does this become aggression? Certainly a disassembled nuclear device is not an overt and immediate threat to anyone if it stays in that stage, but any reasonable person would see a nuclear bomb hovering above their head as a threat.

It seems safe to say that ownership of a nuclear weapon, if it is not used to overtly threaten (interpretation of this is up for debate) innocents is no more an act of aggression than going to the grocery store with a pistol inside your jacket and is a licit act, permissible in a free society. Where the weapon is housed is of no significance since only its use—in overtly threatening or bombing—can be illicit and an act of aggression.

Now is the point in the discussion one must ask: Would anyone in a libertarian world want or seek to own nuclear weapons? Even just one is very costly. Recent plans of the United States government simply to refurbish existing nuclear weapons will cost approximately 20 million dollars per bomb.6 Creating a single nuclear weapon from scratch would cost even more. This price does not include the costs of housing, maintaining and deploying such a weapon. There is also likely an economy of scale in producing nuclear weapons. Anyone who does not have the near-unlimited funds of the United States federal government would be paying a much higher price per unit for less bombs.

Funding this project would exhaust the wealth of almost any individual, especially in a society free of government privilege and granted monopoly. And there is the chance that customers who find out the owner of Acme Software is assembling his own arsenal of nuclear weapons will quickly decide to do business elsewhere and cut off his source of wealth. There is the even greater possibility, though, that this issue would turn out to be entirely moot, and once the nuclear stockpiles of the statist epoch expire and are discarded, no one will ever bother with such destructive instruments again.

Footnotes

1. Walter Block & Matthew Block, “Toward a Universal Libertarian Theory of Gun (Weapon) Control: a Spatial and Geographical Analysis” Ethics, Place and Environment Vol. 3, No. 3 (2000), 290.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid., 294–95.
5. Murray N. Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 78. 6. http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/ask/2013/nuclear-weapon-cost.html

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4 comments

  1. Sasquatch · · Reply

    Isn’t Walter Block the same guy who thinks blackmail is perfectly justifiable in a libertarian society? I know his theory on roads is devoid of reason. I’m not sure why he’s so respected in the community.

    As to the nuke question, Mr. Block is definitely wrong. Although, I have to admit that keeping a nuke for self-defense could be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the villagers find out you have one they might grab their torches and pitchforks and storm your castle.

    Nukes may be beyond the reach of individuals but it is feasible larger companies could manage them. This is where the possible threat lies. If all the companies have their own nukes there’s little to stop them from banding together in tyranny over the masses. Instead of pointing the nukes at foreign targets they could target their own cities to “encourage” obedience. In case of rebellion, the company could head for the hills and press the button to erase the problem.

  2. This is one of the better posts I’ve seen on the topic of nuclear weapons and libertarianism. I feel as though the Blocks in that paper argue with their conclusion already in mind. Even when they argue that convictions depend on “evidence beyond a reasonable doubt,” they fail to substantiate that in the particular example of ownership of nuclear weapons. If the defendant was trusted in the community, could that not be considered reasonable doubt? What if there was no evidence of intent to harm? Etc. The Blocks’ fear of the reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism, of random individuals being able to own nuclear weapons, dissuades them from exploring the matter any further.

    1. I’ve slightly changed my mind on this, enough so that my opinion on the matter has changed. You can find my updated thoughts here:
      https://theinterventionistparadox.wordpress.com/2015/12/27/nuclear-weapons-in-a-libertarian-society-a-nuke-for-everyone/

  3. […] is part of an introduction to a blog post (of which I am building upon and recommend if you prefer brevity) by C. Harrison Myers. In it, […]

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