A common attempt at a reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism is the nuclear weapons argument: in a society following the non-aggression principle (NAP), wouldn’t every person be free to own a nuclear weapon (and wouldn’t that likely lead to the destruction of civilization)? In a post a few months ago, I argued that child abandonment is a fatal flaw for libertarians, but this time I’ll argue the opposite.
The most common response by libertarians against this reductio starts by pointing out that the NAP allows for the use of purely defensive force, but not aggressive force (i.e. the initiation of force). For example, if Bob initiates force against Phil, and Phil responds by defending himself against Bob, Bob has committed a crime and Phil has not. But if Phil responds not just by using force against Bob, but by also initiating force against an innocent third party, he has gone beyond his right of self-defense and is now an aggressor himself. Since certain weapons, such as nukes, cannot be pinpointed and necessarily transgress the rights of innocent individuals even if they are directed at an aggressor, individuals have no right to own them.
Many (including previously even myself), especially those familiar with Austrian subjectivist economics, find this argument atrocious. They respond that yes, it’s true that individuals defending themselves can use force against aggressors, but cannot aggress against third parties. And it’s true that nuclear weapons cannot typically be used to defend oneself since it will break this principle by harming innocents. However, a typical use is not the only use. For example, in a very rare situation, perhaps the entire area that a WMD is targeted at contains only aggressors and no innocents. Or perhaps the nuclear weapon is “used” by being sent into space and harming no one. Or perhaps the individual owning the nuclear weapon is someone with merely historical interest in State weaponry and “uses” it by looking at and contemplating it. In other words, even if a weapon is typically used in an aggressive manner, that wouldn’t outlaw all ownership, but only specific uses of or actions with that ownership. For an analogy, just because a gun can be used to aggress against someone doesn’t mean we can outlaw it on that basis: there are many other uses!
What this objection misses (and it is not entirely the fault of those who make the objection – those who make the original argument generally do an extremely poor job explaining it and tend to do so in a misleading way, as I have done on purpose above) is two things: 1) it is not the initiation of force per se that is the issue at hand, but the threat of force, and 2) the way the entire libertarian system is defined, including what can justly be owned, what is considered aggression, and what is considered a threat, has continuum problems and is dependent on what is called the “reasonable man standard.”
Let’s first discuss point #1. The reason I call the original argument misleading is because it makes a person think the main issue at hand is the use of actual force, e.g. the dropping of a bomb or the firing of a weapon. As such, since there’s a distinction between ownership and a particular use of ownership, one naturally argues that ownership itself cannot be outlawed merely because a large number of typical uses involve aggression. But the use of actual force is not what is relevant. What is relevant to this argument is what is actually a threat. And the mere ownership of a nuclear weapon by various, random individuals would certainly be considered a threat by many.
This brings us to point #2 – what is a threat? It seems odd to define this subjectively, either by the individual(s) feeling threatened or the individual(s) doing what is considered threatening by others. The former seems strange because individuals often feel threatened by things that are not actually threatening. And if we were to accept this as a principled way of defining a threat, at its most absurd, we’d have to listen to insane and paranoid individuals calling others threatening for doing nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, there are some cases in which we’d accept the subjective perception of the individual(s) feeling threatened even if they were wrong. For example, Walter Block points out:
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. Even the reasonable man would have so concluded. (pp. 294-295)
In this example, if we were to follow the subjective desire of the “attacker” A, we’d consider B a murderer. But even in such a scenario we do not.
On top of this, what is and isn’t considered a threat is subject to continuum problems. For example, if A shakes his fist and shouts at B when he is only a few feet away, this could be reasonably considered a threat, and if B punched or attacked A first, it would be reasonable to consider B acting in defense and not an aggressor. However, if this occurred while A was a few hundred feet or a few miles away, etc. the opposite would hold true. This suggests that there is some point in between where A turns from an innocent individual into an aggressor and vice versa for B. However, any point picked seems arbitrary. Let’s say we chose 30 feet as our dividing point. Why not 1 foot more or 1 foot less?
The answer to both these problems is to use what’s known as the reasonable man standard. How would a “reasonable person” in a given society act under such circumstances? In practice, this would likely be determined by a jury of some number of disinterested individuals making a judgment on the case. The reasonable person would likely side with B in our first scenario: after all, how is he supposed to know that A is not “really” threatening him as he runs toward him with knife in hand. In our other scenario, the reasonable man would side with B if A was shaking his fist at him at a very close distance. At some further distance, the decision would become murky, but eventually it would fall to the opposite side.
How would the reasonable man standard apply to the case of nuclear weapons then? It is plausible to think that most people in a society would consider the mere possession of nuclear weapons by random individuals as a threat. For one, an analogy can be drawn between A shaking his fist under B’s nose from a proximate distance. After all, a nuclear weapon constantly poses a danger to those in its vicinity if it were to go off. And like in the other scenario, where A runs toward B with knife in hand, even if A does not intend to harm B does not necessarily mean the reasonable person wouldn’t side with B using force against A.
All of this is conjecture, of course, but that’s the point. There is no clear connection between the non-aggression principle and legal ownership of nuclear weapons, because nuclear weapons fall, at the very least, on the murky area of the continuum of threatening behavior.