Let’s Talk About Private Nukes

Start a discussion about either or both of two topics — victim disarmament (“gun control”) or anarchy — and invariably, sooner or later, you’re going to get an earful about private nukes.

“We must have some restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms — after all, we can’t have every Joe Sixpack walking down the street with a hydrogen bomb strapped to his back.”

“If we get rid of governments, what happens to all those nukes they have lying around? What if al Qaeda gets them?”

These two lines of argument are intended to shut down the respective discussions, and they’re often successfully deployed to that purpose. But just this once, let’s have a look at the facts instead of throwing up our hands in horror and conceding the validity of.

The first fact to take into consideration is that nuclear weapons (or even primitive atomic fission devices) are incredibly expensive and difficult to develop and build. So expensive, in fact, that it generally takes a huge organization with a coercive monopoly on the incomes of lots and lots of people — in other words, a government — to build one.

The US government spent about $23.6 billion (in 2008 dollars) on the Manhattan Project, which yielded three fission weapons: One detonated as a test, the other two dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Altogether the US government has probably spent somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 trillion (once again in 2008 dollars) — or, to put it a different way, more than half its “national debt” — on nuclear weapons development, testing, maintenance and production. Even relatively well-funded governments of relatively populous nations — that of Iran, for example — haven’t figured out a way to make the production of nukes cheap or easy.

The second fact to keep in mind is that nukes really aren’t really good for very much. Or, rather, they’re not good for much here on Planet Earth. Elsewhere they may be good for quite a few things, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Here on Earth, the only thing they’re useful for is extortion or deterrence of same, and then only in the context of huge populations whom small groups of individuals — in other words, governments — claim the authority to negotiate on behalf of.

Those two facts taken together inevitably lead us to two conclusions:

First, that no matter how badly someone might want a private nuke, there aren’t more than a handful of people on Earth who could afford one.

Second, that among that handful of people on Earth who might be able to afford a private nuke — if they liquidated all their assets and devoted those assets exclusively to the purchase of one — it’s likely that not a single one of them would see any reason to buy/build one for terrestrial use.

The threat of “private nukes” is non-existent, and would be so even in the absence of laws forbidding them. Anyone who pulls out the “private nukes” argument in favor of “gun control” — or the continued existence of the state — is, by doing so, confessing that they’re all out of real arguments and grasping at straws.

But let’s come back around to my note that there’s a potential use for “private nukes” off-planet — and that hanging threat of nukes just “lying around” in the absence of government. These two topics were made from each other.

Off-planet, nukes could be useful. For example, they could be used to propel a Project Orion type spacecraft. Or they could be used to terraform Mars — detonated over its polar caps to melt them and release their water and carbon dioxide, thickening the atmosphere, etc.

On-planet, nukes are a threat because they are, in fact, just “lying around,” waiting to either be unleashed on all of us in war, or to be stolen and used by al Qaeda or some other nefarious group. For either outcome, we can thank government, if we live through the experience. The existing nuclear threat isn’t the threat of “private nukes.” It’s the threat of stolen “public nukes.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t believe in rewarding knotheads who bring threats like this by leaving them in charge. Government should go, and so should its nukes … preferably at a deep discount to private space exploration/exploitation firms which promise to get them the hell off of our home planet and put them to some useful purpose elsewhere.

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