Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

Jonathan Schell has a good article addressing some of the arguments against total nuclear disarmament. Interestingly, he turns one potentially pro-nuclear argument around: Some proponents of nuclear weaponry say it is futile to rid of them, since people will always be able to create them, now that the technology is known. But Schell says this is a reason not to worry that some rogue nation with the only nukes in the world can hold the planet hostage—the larger powers could always create nukes if they needed to for deterrence, and the threat of doing so and retaliating is an effective sort of deterrence in itself.

The article cuts nicely to one of the main problems with the current reality of a world with 25,000 nuclear weapons: “Human beings are fallible. A single mistake in the nuclear realm can mean the end of cities, nations or all of us. Fallible human nature and instruments of annihilation make bad company, and should be parted. Let’s remember the deterrence formula—a threat to use nuclear weapons that aims to produce non-use. The trouble is that the world is held perpetually on a knife’s edge, uncertain about witnessing the non-use that’s hoped for or the use that’s threatened.”

From a natural rights perspective, and practicing a methodological individualism in our analysis, we can see the problem with nuclear weapons as devices of self-defense. Pro-war Second Amendment enthusiasts and anti-gun, antiwar liberals alike will often argue that the difference between nuclear arms and personal arms is a mere difference in degree, not kind. But as Murray N. Rothbard put it:

It has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era. Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number of human lives, the difference is a very big one.[4] But another answer that the libertarian is particularly equipped to give is that while the bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.

Surely, even in cold strategic terms, nuclear weapons are no sensible or effective remedy to America’s foreign enemies of today—terrorists hijacking planes, setting off improvised devices or, God forbid, launching bio warfare. Nuclear weapons offer even less deterrence against stateless terrorists than they did against the USSR. After the Cold War, Robert Higgs asked if nuclear weapons could be scrapped. I must agree fully with Higgs’s characterization of the anti-nuclear weapons cause as a “crusade for sanity.”

Anthony Gregory is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and author of the Independent books, American Surveillance: Intelligence, Privacy, and the Fourth Amendment and The Power of Habeas Corpus in America: From the King’s Prerogative to the War on Terror.
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