Dad’s Nuke

by Henry on March 7, 2004

Building from Belle’s post on end-state anarcho-libertarianism, a question for the floor. 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.

{ 51 comments }

1

Doug 03.07.04 at 9:13 pm

Neither. I just enjoy the early-cyberpunk, Marc Laidlaw reference. Burnt chrome, anyone?

2

Ken C. 03.07.04 at 9:29 pm

Off topic, but: why doesn’t the second amendment to the US constitution make any laws against private nukes unconstitutional? Does the NRA support such an interpretation?

…and even more off-topic: why doesn’t “original intent” interpretation of the second amendment restrict limits only for eighteenth century armament? Our Founding Fathers only had flintlocks, and not nukes, in mind, after all.

3

Nicholas Weininger 03.07.04 at 9:41 pm

I’m an anarcho-cap, and my answer is: maybe. Vinge’s argument is a pretty good one. There is, however, a case to be made against private ownership of nukes and other area weapons on the grounds that they are inherently non-targetable and so their mere possession represents a threat of force against the innocent bystanders whom you will inevitably kill if you set off your nuke. This reasoning does not apply to, say, shoulder-fired antitank missiles, since it is entirely possible to use those in a way that does not kill innocent bystanders.

You might put this argument as follows: any an-cap recognizes a right of private citizens to own ordinary firearms, but most an-caps nevertheless would say that people do not have the right to brandish such weapons at random unoffending strangers. The nature of nuclear weapons is (so the argument goes) such that mere possession of one is really equivalent to brandishing it at all the strangers in the blast radius.

Note that this argument applies only to ownership on the surface of the Earth. I think most an-caps would agree that, if you have your own asteroid, you should be perfectly free to have nukes on it.

Note also that I’m really not sure whether I buy this argument or not, and I don’t think it’s worth spending a whole lot of time figuring it out since there are roughly 5,896,334,253 more important questions regarding the rights of individuals.

4

Nicholas Weininger 03.07.04 at 9:43 pm

… and to ken c.: not to drag this too off-topic, but that last argument of yours is very much like saying that the First Amendment allows unlimited censorship of the Internet, since the Founders clearly didn’t have it in mind and couldn’t possibly have envisioned its power.

5

Greg Hunter 03.07.04 at 9:53 pm

The logical intent of the 2nd amendment meant that individuals could and should own nuclear weapons. The founders understood if you worried about your citizens’ more than foreign powers, you might have a country and a world that would not have to worry about liberty.

This idea was lost, when Americans initiated the nanny state in the early1900’s. Until this time, a group of locals could be as well armed as the feds. Then we decided that we could not have any one drinking and then came prohibition. Prohibition brought out criminals and they increased the firepower. That’s when America decided to ruin the 2nd amendment by making laws to limit its effectiveness as a federal deterrent. In essence the 2nd amendment died along time ago, we are just arguing how to bury it.

6

Kikuchiyo 03.07.04 at 9:59 pm

I think that it is clear from a game theoretic perspective that all individuals of voting age (if not younger) should own nuclear weapons. Ideally, these should be small enough to be worn as backpacks so that everyone has to be really nice to everybody else at all times.

7

Henry 03.07.04 at 10:03 pm

Nicholas – I don’t think your distinction works here. Some categories of nukes are quite targetable – tactical weapons for one. And your argument against ‘brandishing’ could certainly be applied to anti-tank missiles or even pistols and BB-guns, unless you state a hard criterion to distinguish between them (they all have offensive as well as defensive uses).

Maybe it might be helpful to spell out Vinge’s argument in the short story at greater length (feel free to dispute my interpretation if you’ve read the piece). Vinge sees a problem for anarcho-libertarians in a world where the libertarian utopia co-exists with traditional states that potentially might invade and re-establish tyranny. In this situation (or even, one presumes in a situation where such states _might_ come into being), a necessary condition of liberty is that individuals be able to deter, and if necessary repel hostile states through the kinds of advanced weaponry that can counter the sorts of massive force that states can muster. In other words,if you’re an anarcho-libertarian, individually owned nukes are not only permissible, but may be a necessary defence against tyranny. Not an irrelevant argument at all …

8

Iron Lungfish 03.07.04 at 10:37 pm

The posts in this thread have only demonstrated that anarcho-libertarians can only exist in the two more fantastic locations mentioned within it: asteroids and the internet.

9

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 10:45 pm

Ding ding ding! Iron Lungfush wins the prize for stating the obvious. Of course, the purpose of Henry’s question wasn’t to get a serious answer, as Nicholas tried to give, but to provide an opportunity for a subsequent commenter (Kieran or D^2, if no other commenters fulfilled their duties) to ridicule libertarians for taking such questions seriously enough to answer them. Thanks for contributing, Iron Lungfish. You’ve done your job well.

10

Carlos 03.07.04 at 10:46 pm

Are there any discussions of anarcho-libertarianism (cap or soc variants) that *don’t* adduce examples from science fiction?

I love the genre, but IMO it’s thoroughly poisoned the discourse. An author always rigs the argument. It’s like discussing steroid policy through a debate over who is stronger, the Hulk or Superman.

C.

11

Stephen 03.07.04 at 10:59 pm

Ok … one more time …

…and even more off-topic: why doesn’t “original intent” interpretation of the second amendment restrict limits only for eighteenth century armament? Our Founding Fathers only had flintlocks, and not nukes, in mind, after all.

The founders anticipated “letters of marque and reprisal” — that is, weapons of mass destruction (ships of the line and privateers) in private hands. Sir Francis Drake comes to mind as an example of how dangerous city busting ships were (he and the later period Brits actually took cities to the ground with what were essentially privateer sorties).

Now, am I all in favor of nerve gas in every attic and a nuke in every garage? I hope not (I haven’t lost my senses and believe in informal amendment as a process that keeps the constitution alive).

But while the NRA backs off from the essential core of the second amendment, the thing was promulgated by people who felt that the populace needed to be able to engage in violent revolution with full military force (and all the weaponry that implies).

On the other hand, there are certain elements to an educated and armed populace (the same people who felt arms were proper also felt it was ok to limit the vote to people who were educated and owned land) … certain elements that make sense.

Anyway, it is a much broader topic than this one and takes a lot more space than a blog allows, but the answer is:

(a) the NRA backs off of the intent of the second amendment.
(b) the second amendment anticipated species of WMDs in private hands — ones capable and used to destroy cities.
(c) I believe in limits to arms and that we need to work out a reconceptualization of the entire area of discourse and arms.

Anyway, my two bits …

12

Stephen 03.07.04 at 11:00 pm

Ok … one more time …

…and even more off-topic: why doesn’t “original intent” interpretation of the second amendment restrict limits only for eighteenth century armament? Our Founding Fathers only had flintlocks, and not nukes, in mind, after all.

The founders anticipated “letters of marque and reprisal” — that is, weapons of mass destruction (ships of the line and privateers) in private hands. Sir Francis Drake comes to mind as an example of how dangerous city busting ships were (he and the later period Brits actually took cities to the ground with what were essentially privateer sorties).

Now, am I all in favor of nerve gas in every attic and a nuke in every garage? I hope not (I haven’t lost my senses and believe in informal amendment as a process that keeps the constitution alive).

But while the NRA backs off from the essential core of the second amendment, the thing was promulgated by people who felt that the populace needed to be able to engage in violent revolution with full military force (and all the weaponry that implies).

On the other hand, there are certain elements to an educated and armed populace (the same people who felt arms were proper also felt it was ok to limit the vote to people who were educated and owned land) … certain elements that make sense.

Anyway, it is a much broader topic than this one and takes a lot more space than a blog allows, but the answer is:

(a) the NRA backs off of the intent of the second amendment.
(b) the second amendment anticipated species of WMDs in private hands — ones capable and used to destroy cities.
(c) I believe in limits to arms and that we need to work out a reconceptualization of the entire area of discourse and arms.

Anyway, my two bits …

13

dsquared 03.07.04 at 11:04 pm

I think that in an anarcho-libertarian society, I’d probably shell out a few quid a year to someone like Tony Blair for providing the service of randomly bombing the living crap out of people on the flimsiest suspicion of their having nukes!

14

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 11:11 pm

Are there any discussions of anarcho-libertarianism (cap or soc variants) that don’t adduce examples from science fiction?

Yep, but none as entertaining as good science fiction.

Making Sense of English Law Enforcement in the 18th Century,” The University of Chicago Law School Roundtable (Spring/Summer 1995)

Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case,” 8 J. Legal Stud. 399, (l979)

An American Experiment in Anarcho-Capitalism: The Not So Wild, Wild West,” 3 Journal of Libertarian Studies 9 (1979)

The Rise and Fall of Private Roads in England.” Private Roads to the Future, Gabriel Roth, ed.

And others not mentioned

15

Henry 03.07.04 at 11:43 pm

Nope Micha, wrong – it’s a real question. You’ll notice that I treated Nicholas’ response seriously, even if I disagreed with it. I’m saying that anarcho-libertarians either have to recognize some limits on personal freedoms and the right to bear arms (and if so, to construct some reasonable sounding criteria for defining those limits), or else to embrace a position that is hard (though perhaps not impossible) to defend. If you think that this is a false dichotomy, or a bogus question, fair enough. But at least tell us why it’s a false dichotomy or bogus question, and we can argue over that. If it’s not a bogus question – but you think that the libertarian position on it is embarrassing or likely to be unpopular – well then tell readers like iron lungfish why there’s a serious, considered libertarian response, and they’re wrong to laugh at you. This is the first time I’ve seen you reluctant to articulate the libertarian position on something relevant … I’d half-expected you to be the first commenter telling me why I was wrong.

16

Micha Ghertner 03.07.04 at 11:59 pm

Oh, I think it’s a reasonable question; I just suspect (perhaps wrongly) that there may have been an ulterior motive involved in its asking, i.e. to tease out the kind of comment I expected someone like Iron Lungfish to provide.

I’ve heard various libertarian arguments on this issue; I tend to lean on the side of: I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a community where my neighbor has a potentially unstable nuclear weapon in his basement, or where my neighbor can play loud music at night, or sunbath naked on his front lawn, etc. That’s why I find the unsophisticated rights-based libertarian theories lacking. These are the kinds of questions that cannot be resolved with simplistic theories; they require a weighing of the costs and benefits, and either a unanimous agreement by the relevant community, or a decision by an arbitration agency based on tort law claims for damages/excessive risk.

On the other hand, with recent geopolitical events, the day may not be so far off when non-state controlled suitcase nukes are a real possibility, and barring universal intervation and occupation of every unstable regime in the Middle East and elsewhere, neither a libertarian, socialist, welfare-statist nor any other kind of society may be able to deal with them effectively. Scary stuff, but I don’t see too many solutions. Pandoras box was opened nearly 60 years ago, and it probably would have been opened eventually anyway.

17

Carlos 03.08.04 at 12:12 am

Micha, in the past I’ve caught Friedman fils making up stuff about medieval Iceland, so that reference immediately enters the circular file. And I’m sure those fellows from Hanover named George would be deeply surprised that the nation they ruled was a) anarchical and b) capitalistic. Britain was perhaps the most efficient state power of that era (see Brewer, _The Sinews of Power_, for instance). And the Anderon & Hill paper seems to be arguing against a strawman, or perhaps a Sam Peckinpah movie. Do they even know what the Vigilance Committee was used for in San Francisco? Lynching.

Anyway. Looks like you got “True Believer” stamped on your forehead, so I’ll let you get back to your echo chamber. HAND.

C.

18

Micha Ghertner 03.08.04 at 12:26 am

Carlos,

I honestly try to be as skeptical as possible regarding my own personal political beliefs; most of the libertarians I talk to actually find my self-doubt disconcerting. Incidentally, I run a libertarian organization at my university and I have trouble speaking to large groups of people because I don’t like to make positive claims about libertarianism; I would much rather challenge someone else’s assumptions.

I know libertarian “True Believers” and they are indeed scary (as are the socialist, conservative, and welfare-state liberal “True Believers”).

I don’t presume to have either the historical knowledge or the time to evaluate the various historical claims cited above. I hope to do so, one day, but for now, I can content myself with just answering simple questions which are in within my ability to answer. You asked for examples not culled from science-fiction. Those are a few I have come across. I cannot vouch for their accuracy.

However, I do have reason to trust Friedman. I’ve read much of his work and have found many of his arguments to be especially persuasive. I’ve also lurked on usenet and watched his various debates with others, and I’ve never seen him “make stuff up;” any factual errors he did make appeared to be unintentional without intent to deceive.

19

digamma 03.08.04 at 12:32 am

I wonder exactly what practical effect a law banning private ownership of nuclear weapons achieves. Are people who would like to own nuclear weapons deterred by such laws? “Curses! Our plan to end America’s imperialist tyranny has failed – they’ve illegalized our bomb!”

I suppose in this case, the law serves less to prevent nuclear events than to enshrine in law society’s disapproval of the weapons.

20

artclone 03.08.04 at 12:35 am

Individual freedom is a side-constraint.

Besides, A can keep B from execising the right to bear nukes if A provides B just reimbursement.
(reimbursement could be not to get nukes either, or the promise of a safer world, healthier envirnment, etc.

21

asg 03.08.04 at 12:35 am

I’ve read a lot of Friedman’s writing, as well as his exchanges with people who disagree with him. Friedman is a rare breed, an honest radical, and his even-temperedness and willingness to deal with irritating and stupid people with equanimity is frankly amazing.

So, FYI, carlos claiming that he has “caught” Friedman making stuff up about medieval Iceland inclines me to doubt carlos’ honesty rather than Friedman’s. I suppose that makes me a “true believer” too. It is kind of funny to see someone talking about “that reference going straight into the circular file” passing snide judgment on someone else being in an “echo chamber”, though. Good thing Carlos’ own echo chamber has no mirrors.

22

Nicholas Weininger 03.08.04 at 12:52 am

Henry: I do recognize that some designs of nuclear weapons may be somewhat targetable, and that the targetable/nontargetable distinction is not always a perfectly clear one. I’m not claiming that an an-cap society would find it *easy* to draw the line– just that, in principle, you may be *able* to draw such a line consistently with an-cap beliefs.

Certainly the existence of offensive uses of a weapon cannot make its possession equivalent to brandishing. Indeed that would be absurd, since virtually every modern mechanical device can be used as an offensive weapon. The distinguishing criterion, for me, is whether it is *at all possible* to use the weapon defensively without harming innocent bystanders– sorry if I didn’t make this clear. Missiles, pistols, etc. obviously can be used in this way, and that’s enough to make them legit. At least some types of nukes arguably cannot.

23

Carlos 03.08.04 at 1:05 am

Well, I’ve caught him deliberately misrepresenting Jesse Byock on his population figures for Iceland, as well as Byock’s description of the Gragas law code. This is a pretty sleazy thing to do, and certainly fits under most definitions of ‘intellectually dishonest’.

So I wouldn’t take his word on anything Iceland-related that is a product of his interpretation.

Which is most of his case for historic anarcho-capitalism; but hey, if he was *serious* about it, he should be more rigorous about the facts, wouldn’t you agree?

Btw, this is my own judgement, and not an echo of someone else’s. So your attempted rhetorical jiu-jitsu doesn’t wash. Typical, though.

C.

24

Micha Ghertner 03.08.04 at 1:15 am

Carlos,

Do you happen to have a link to the newsgroup thread, assuming this deliberate misrepresentation occurred on usenet, of course. Google should have it archived.

Friedman’s article on Icelandic anarchism I cited earlier was published in the Journal of Legal Studies. Did the deliberate misrepresentation occur in this article, and if so, did anyone write a followup piece for the journal criticizing Friedman’s methods?

25

asg 03.08.04 at 1:39 am

I too would like to see a link to the Google usenet archive. If it’s legit then I’ll be very disappointed in Friedman.

26

Carlos 03.08.04 at 2:10 am

Micha:

You bet I do. The thread is a little disjointed, due to Friedman’s continual attempts to snip away or evade relevant data, but here are some on Iceland:

<20020712121605.01872.00000016%40mb-mo.aol.com>

<20020712152258.01872.00000043@mb-mo.aol.com>

and my personal favorite, this sequence:

<20020705132043.01486.00001824@mb-fa.aol.com>

<20020708053653.16753.00003742@mb-fr.aol.com>

where he misinterpreted casualty numbers from the Battle of Gettysburg he pulled from a _radio hobbyist’s website_, apparently on the spur of the moment, came up with a (falsely authoritative) 30% kill rate, and then claimed that Icelandic battles weren’t all that bloody in comparison.

That should get you started.

You may be dismayed by my somewhat hostile tone towards one of your intellectual heroes. Trust me, it’s nothing that he didn’t earn, in spades. A net.weasel of the first rank.

I attempted to contact Jesse Byock by e-mail, but received no reply.

C.

27

Carlos 03.08.04 at 2:19 am

Drat, the IDs didn’t come through. Let’s try this:

[20020712152258.01872.00000043@mb-mo.aol.com]

[20020712233214.08238.00000242@mb-fl.aol.com]

[20020712121605.01872.00000016@mb-mo.aol.com]

[20020705132043.01486.00001824@mb-fa.aol.com]

[20020708053653.16753.00003742@mb-fr.aol.com]

C.

28

Micha Ghertner 03.08.04 at 2:30 am

Thanks, Carlos, I’ll look through it. The thread is extremely long, so it may take me a while.

A greatly respect and admire Friedman, but if what you say is true, I would rather be aware of that fact then remain ignorant. The unexamined life is not worth living, yadda, yadda, yadda.

29

Henry 03.08.04 at 2:52 am

Nicholas – I’m not an expert on the technology so feel free to correct me, but can’t battlefield tactical nukes be deployed without direct risk to civilians?

Micha – I think you’ve answered half the question, but only half. In addition to the rights-derived argument (everyone deserves their own nuke if they want one) that you disagree with, there’s a protection of liberty argument, which is the claim, in fact, that Vinge is making as I understand him. What he’s saying is that an anarcho-libertarian society needs nuclear weapons in order to maintain liberty – otherwise it’s too vulnerable to takeover from powermongering tyrannical states. I obviously don’t agree with Vinge – but then I’m pretty far away from being an anarcho-libertarian.

We had the same discussion about suitcase nukes and bioweapons in my IR class for the Ph.D. students this Wednesday. Scary stuff.

30

Carlos 03.08.04 at 3:15 am

Um. Back to the topic at hand (sorry about the digression, Henry). It strikes me that a situation where anyone can be armed with vastly destructive weapons leads to something like Mutually Assured Destruction, no? But on a mass scale.

And under MAD, unilaterally defensive tactics — hardening, missile defense, or Ghu help us, even ‘bobbles’ — are destabilizing.

But in an anarcho-libertarian society, everyone is an Army of One. So all it takes is one A-L Ungoverned type to put up a Magic Missile Screen to catalyze a mutually destructive destabilizing situation. And while liberty is great, you do have to be alive to enjoy it.

Not sure where to go with that argument.

31

Henry 03.08.04 at 3:22 am

>under MAD, unilaterally defensive tactics — hardening, missile defense, or Ghu help us, even ‘bobbles’ — are destabilizing

Vernor Vinge, meet Tom Schelling. Tom Schelling, meet …

Lovely comment.

32

asg 03.08.04 at 3:27 am

Oh, Coyu is YOU? Heh. I should have guessed. Well, no, I shouldn’t have. I gave up Usenet awhile ago.

Anyway, thanks for posting the links to the archive. They do confirm my view of Friedman, and of you.

33

John Quiggin 03.08.04 at 3:57 am

Greg Hunter is quite right to say that the 2nd Amendment relates to military weapons. It would seem to me to be consistent with the 2nd Amendment to allow private ownership of assault rifles, RPGs, tanks and so on (as part of a well-regulated militia on my reading, but that’s debatable), but to ban flickknives and handguns. The current situation is pretty much the reverse.

Nukes and WMDs are a special case – I’m sure the founders would have allowed a ban on poison weapons, the closest contemporary equivalent.

Even with a tight reading of the militia clause, though, I think the evidence is that the 2nd Amendment was a mistake. A militia is not much of a defence against military tyranny, since it will usually end up on the same side as the army.

Widespread disorganized ownership of weapons isn’t a defence against anything, except the other owners of weapons, which is a Pareto-dominated Nash equilibrium.

34

Micha Ghertner 03.08.04 at 3:58 am

The problem with this argument is that on a national level, we are currently living under anarchy. Neither the Soviet Union nor the United Stated had any authority controlling them other than their own self-interest.

Clearly, nuclear weapons do not necessarily lead to nuclear war, even under anarchy, and even when two sworn enemies are at each other’s throats for an extended period of time. Stability is possible, even without a sovereign authority.

I am not suggesting that individuals citizens should have the absolute right to own such weapons; at least not if they wish to live in a community with peaceful people. But barring some kind of mutually agreed upon ban among all nuclear countries – and even that wouldn’t necessarily prevent future nuclear weapons developments, nuclear weapons will be around for the forseable future, and less stable states, especially in the Middle East, will acquire them.

So the real question is: what makes a state a more responsible owner of nuclear weapons than a private security organization? I don’t know the answer to that question, but it’s pretty frightening either way.

35

Micha Ghertner 03.08.04 at 4:14 am

A militia is not much of a defence against military tyranny, since it will usually end up on the same side as the army.

Except that the militia is every able bodied male and female above the age of 16 and below the age of 45, including both those in the organized militia (National Guard) and those in the unorganized militia (everyone else).

Further, the militia clause is merely one, and not the only, rationale for preserving the individual right to keep and bear arms.

Widespread disorganized ownership of weapons isn’t a defence against anything, except the other owners of weapons,

And a defense for the physically weak against the physically strong.

36

Carlos 03.08.04 at 4:45 am

Micha, the nuclear powers weren’t engaged in multilateral MAD. Some didn’t have enough weapons to do so, and some didn’t have the range. That leaves the US and the USSR. In the years where bilateral MAD was applicable, roughly 1970 to 1991, the powers came to the brink at least once — the Able Archer episode, accidentally — even without seriously destabilizing policies.

So I don’t think the extrapolation of stability holds.

ASG, did you think I was reporting something I learned secondhand? After I explicitly warned you about my tone in that thread? Silly.

C.

37

shelby 03.08.04 at 7:12 am

Micha: “what makes a state a more responsible owner of nuclear weapons than a private security organization?”

At root, the fact that the state probably has to convince more people to allow the use of nuclear weapons, before they actually get used. Even if you stipulate a dictatorship, you at best create a situation similar to a security organization, in terms of how many people have to sign off on creating centralized decision-making on use of the nukes.

In any other governmental structure, more people will have knowledge – and approval rights – regarding the authorization to use nukes. In general I would expect this to make nukes less readily used, though maybe someone with more knowledge of group-think will say otherwise.

38

dsquared 03.08.04 at 8:56 am

Nukes and WMDs are a special case – I’m sure the founders would have allowed a ban on poison weapons, the closest contemporary equivalent.

I’m not so sure they wouldn’t; JS Mill has a long passage on On Liberty in which he discusses the issue of widely available poisons (suggesting it was a live one at the time) and comes down in favour of legally available poison (suggesting it was the libertarian position at the time).

39

John Quiggin 03.08.04 at 11:04 am

Mill was weighing legitimate (rat poison) uses against illegimate (murder) uses. He accepted tightly-drawn restrictions on poisons designed to prevent them being used to kill people.

But Mill is too sensible to be regarded as a representative of the libertarian position (at least at any time after his youthful crisis). What characterises libertarianism (more than even the most doctrinaire Marxism) is the willingness to push arguments to their logical conclusions, without questioning the premises. Mill wasn’t afraid of going against the conventional wisdom but he never accepted conclusions that were patently silly.

40

TomD 03.08.04 at 11:17 am

The defensive weapons needed to dissuade powerful collectives from exerting their power over individuals must meet several criteria. They should be *devastating* and *effective*; precisely *targeted*; and capable of a *proportionate response* to threats. It’s hard to see what kind of system can really work.

If the individual had a button which could detonate a proportionate number of lethal, precisely-targeted weapons at a place of his or her choosing, that might do it. In case the individual were unwilling to use lethal force against a non-lethal threat, there would be the option of non-lethal incapacitating agents (i.e. chemical weapons!).

Nukes are inadequate for several reasons: mainly the issue of targeting, already mentioned, and the issue of proportionality in response. If your only response is one that will kill tens of thousands and ruin millions of square miles of the environment, you may be unwilling to deploy it in response to minor provocations. If all you have is a nuke, what are you going to do if someone shoves you off the sidewalk?

You need, in addition, an array of weapons with a smaller footprint, with effective delivery systems. This would add up to quite a big backpack.

Shoulder-fired missiles could be one element of this array, although it should be noted that you need a certain amount of physical strength and dexterity to aim and fire them successfully. We wouldn’t want the physically weak to be disadvantaged in self-defence, would we?

A stable anarchy through personal WMD mutually assured destruction? Could be, but not with today’s technology.

41

Patrick Nielsen Hayden 03.08.04 at 2:36 pm

I enjoy Vinge, but I’m surprised that in forty comments nobody’s mentioned the time-sharing approach to nuclear deterrence in Ken MacLeod’s “Fall Revolution” novels. For a price, the tiny breakaway Central Asian “International Scientific and Technical Workers’ Soviet” will undertake to nuke anyone who attacks one of its clients. In the same way that banks don’t actually have to own money equal to all their commitments, this enables the world to get by with significantly fewer actual nuclear missiles.

This seems as plausible as any other model for the privatization of nuclear weapons. Of course, it does eventually result in the vaporization of Berlin, but that’s market forces for you.

42

rea 03.08.04 at 5:17 pm

“The founders anticipated ‘letters of marque and reprisal’ — that is, weapons of mass destruction (ships of the line and privateers) in private hands”

A completely ahistorical post, I’m afraid.

The example you give of a privateer destroying a city (Francis Drake)is about as far removed in time from the founding fathers as we are. And he didn’t use a ship to destroy a city–he landed troops, captured the town, and burned it.

You’ll be hard pressed to find an example of a ship of the line used as a privateer. Heck, even the US government didn’t think it could afford to build them.

And ultimately, you’ve got to remember the phrase “well-regulated” appears in the amendment. While there is an argument that the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right to own weapons, not merely the right of the various states to organize militias, there is no respectable argument that leads to a conclusion that the government doesn’t have the right to regulate possession and use of arms.

43

Robin Green 03.08.04 at 7:19 pm

I think what I will dub Bostrom’s Theorem is apposite here:

“If everyone is able to access nuclear weapons, the end result will likely be human extinction.”

Justification: Suppose there are 10,000 homicidal maniacs in the world at present. Suppose each nuke kills on average 1,000,000 people. Then the world population would be almost or totally eliminated by those homicidal maniacs setting off their nukes.

Even if the number of maniacs who are homicidal in the relevant way is only like 2 people – it would still be a calamity.

44

Jonathan Wilde 03.08.04 at 8:29 pm

Building from Belle’s post on end-state anarcho-libertarianism, a question for the floor. 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).

That is simply not true. I believe you have misinterpreted the story (if you have read it). Vinge does not believe anyone, including governments ought to own nuclear weapons. This was pointed out in many statements made by residents in the Ungoverned lands:

[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.

Speaking as an anarcho-leaning libertarian, I have written on this topic before at Catallarchy, and do not believe nuke ownership is justified by any individual, including those individuals who are part of governments, at least when in the vicinity of other individuals whose life or property is put at threat by the existence of those nukes:

Private Ownership of Nukes

Private Ownership of Nukes II

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Charlie Stross 03.08.04 at 8:40 pm

(Kudos to PNH for getting in a mention of Ken’s Fractional Reserve nuclear deterrence before I read to the bottom of this thread …)

But that just leaves me to make my main point: has anyone actually read “The Ungoverned”?

Vinge’s story is explicitly science fictional, and it’s set in a future where in addition to libertarian communities with privately-owned nukes there exist devices for generating “bobbles” — cheap, impermeable force fields within which time stops for a period of seconds to megayears.

To the extent that any SF story is a thought-experiment, I can’t help thinking that this whole thread is inapposite because the bobbling technology is nuke-proof; it provides a functional defense against weapons of mass destruction (and indeed in the prequel novel “The Peace War” red-blooded free-range libertarians armed with bobbling machines tackle the rather inept planetary Peace Authority).

Vinge indeed makes the point about a basement nuke being a gun pointed at the head of all your neighbours — they exist in the world of his story, but the general response to their use (without a suitable justification, like an invasion by degenerate second-handers — oops, liberal democrats wih tanks) tends to be a lynch mob. And furthermore, he posits that a society that tolerates personal nukes is not going to be a dense urban community.

Bluntly, as a starting point for analysing the theoretical role of WMDs in libertarian society “The Ungoverned” is rather deficient. Maybe Vinge knows something I don’t, and his bobble technology really exists, but in their absence all we’re left with is an interesting SF story that says, “what if nukes — the ultimate personal offensive weapon — could be countered by bobbles — the ultimate personal defensive weapon?” Which is a whole ‘nother kettle of eels.

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Thomas Nephew 03.09.04 at 2:27 am

@micha,

A well-regulated militia may not be the only reason to assert gun rights. But it’s the only one in the Constitution. It’s a good thing, too, because as far as I see that’s the main constitutional barrier between us and VingeWorld.

My right to a well regulated militia is co-equal to, not inferior to, someone else’s right to bear arms.

Micha is right to worry about the thought exercise, because it shows the way towards banning high-caliber, rapid-fire assault weapons too. Which would be a very good thing.

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gamini 03.09.04 at 2:30 am

At long last, robin green cuts to the heart of the problem. All speculation about stable MAD scenarios rests on the assumption that the individuals involved are rational, deterrable actors. The libertarian promise of general security can be realized only to the extent that those who control devastating force place supreme value on their own survival, within a time horizon sufficient to encompass the prospect of retaliation.

In the case of nation states, we hope this holds true (with an uneasy glance toward Kim Jong Il). In the case of private individuals, it is not even approximately true: human beings, for a whole host of reasons including but not limited to criminal psychosis, exhibit disregard for the proportionality and consequences of their actions, routinely and in large numbers. If mass casualty weapons were easily obtainable, such irrational actors would destroy human civilization before the libertarian intelligentsia finished calculating their pareto-optimal strategies.

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Carlos 03.09.04 at 4:37 am

Hey Charlie, good to see you here.

But that just leaves me to make my main point: has anyone actually read “The Ungoverned”?

Well, yes. I mentioned bobbles myself. But I decided Henry’s premise was more interesting than the fine details of Vinge’s story which provided the seed for it.

This is another reason I feel adducing examples from science fiction is so poisonous to discussing libertarian ideas. All of a sudden, the dialogue shifts to comparing fine points of story details, with all the nitpicking rancor that can generate:

“Well, after Crisis on Infinite Earths [1], Superman’s powers were way reduced. So the Hulk could easily take him now.”

“But not to the Hulk’s pathetic levels. Superman can still lift up buildings. Idiot.”

“Who are you calling an idiot, idiot? The Hulk held up an entire mountain in Secret Wars!”

“Didn’t Alan Moore use Swamp Thing as a metaphor for steroid abuse?”

Both: “Who the hell are you??”

Et cetera.

I know you’ve seen this happen.

C.

[1] If this (or other fanboy details) is incorrect, I don’t care; it’s not relevant to my point. Which is my point.

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Charlie Stross 03.09.04 at 11:08 am

Carlos: quite right.My pet objection, I guess, which I didn’t articulate as a general one, is that in addition to the scope for discussions to degenerate into fine story points, authors almost invariably posit too many developments to make it a useful medium for enquiry. I mean, we’re in the business of telling a story, not writing a political manifesto (with one or two dubious exceptions — L. Neil Smith springs to mind). Not only do SF authors tend to shovel in several plot McGuffins in order to keep things bubbling unpredictably, they tend to make things happen for reasons of plot, pacing, character development, and climax — which is anathema to any sane political discourse.

(I’m kind of glad I don’t live in a world with a literary plot. For several years Hitler managed to fool a lot of Germans into thinking that they did, and look what happened to them …)

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bill carone 03.09.04 at 5:14 pm

Henry,

“I still haven’t seen a direct response from a libertarian to this particular argument of Vinge’s (as I interpret it).”

After a little research, I found that David Friedman has something to say about this; not directly about nukes, but about the legality of the draft.

Briefly, and in my words, he argues that he can easily see situations where the draft would be the right thing to do. In other words, he would support (in certain cases) a coercive system that violated “typical” libertarian rights.

I’m not sure, but I think you can extrapolate Friedman’s argument to support, again in some cases, a coercive system banning individual ownership of nukes, while keeping some around for defense against tyranny (not having read Vinge, I don’t know quite how it works, but I can imagine.)

I think Friedman uses a straightforward consequentialist argument, but rights-based arguments can work too; most have a “catastrophic” exception to rights. In other words, different rules apply to planet-destroying situations than to ordinary situations. (Just in case you think so, this doesn’t reduce to consequentialism.)

It becomes difficult, though; you need to define catastrophe, say what rules apply, etc. But it isn’t particularly hard to get libertarian arguments on this sort of thing.

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Gary Farber 03.10.04 at 1:51 pm

As it happens, I had a back and forth on this very issue of the Second Amendment and private nuclear weapons with libertarian Eric Raymond, recently enough that it’s still the most recent post on his blog. You can read his explanation of why, without bobbles, a ban on private nukes is less sensible than banning handguns. Private nukes? No worries! Don’t neglect the comments. I had a brief sputter here.

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