Nuclear Weapons in Libertarianism

What does the NAP say about ownership of nukes?

Nuclear weapons like to pop up from time to time and make the headlines. They held the national attention during the Cold War, and now Iran is allegedly close to being able to build a bomb of their own. If the Iran bit sounds like déjà vu to you, that’s because it is – Iran has been “only months away” from making a bomb for quite some time:

– “Iran Poised To Build Bombs” (Sept 2003) [1]

– “Iran Only Months Away From Making Nuclear Bombs” (Jan 2006) [2]

– “Iran could have ability to build nuclear bomb by 2010, study warns” (Jan 2009) [3]

– “Goodspeed: Iran may be two months from bomb, two new studies say” (June 2011) [4]

– “Iran just months from N-bomb” (Sept 2011) [5]

I’m not a physicist, but I’ve heard that time travel is possible, so there could be something to it – they just happen to be a time-traveling nuclear power.

The point of this article is not to make bad jokes about the nuclear weapons in Iraq Iran, however, but to answer a question posed to libertarianism from time to time: “In a libertarian society, are you allowed to own nuclear weapons?” I will first address the ethical aspect and then the practical one.

Ethical component

Does ownership of a nuclear weapon violate the Non-Aggression Principle [6]? The essential be-all, end-all of any question regarding the ethics of weapon control is addressed brilliantly by Block and Block in “Toward a Universal Libertarian Theory of Gun (Weapon) Control: a Spatial and Geographical Analysis” [7]. If you would like to know the definitive libertarian methodology for understanding weapon control in a free society, please read that paper. There could be bits here and there with which I do not completely agree, but the paper is a fantastic synthesis of many libertarian concepts. I will try to summarize the relevant details here (and possibly add a few ideas of my own). I’m proud to say that I independently arrived at almost the same conclusions as the two Blocks.

Initially, it might seem that libertarians are against any and all gun control [8]. After all, it appears that it would interfere with the right to own property. Most of the time, this is so. However, not always. Here’s why:

We generally agree that a person can own a gun, correct? You can carry it, shine it, and kiss it before you go to bed. Can you point it at a random person? Of course not, that’s a threat of aggression. Therein lies the key insight.

Imagine that each protrusion is a gun facing outwards.

Imagine another weapon – a sphere made of guns pointing in all directions radially outwards. Are you allowed to walk around with this weapon in a mall? The answer is no, because that weapon cannot be pointed – it is always being pointed at everyone around you, and is a threat of aggression against them. As such, it’s equivalent to you pointing an individual gun at every person who happens to be passing you. Since this is illegal, so is the gun of spheres, which is essentially a threat against everyone around you within a specific distance.

That is why Block and Block advocate a geo-spatial analysis of gun control. They present a situation called the “cpb,” or “crowded phone booth” – a world where everyone is always jammed up against everyone else. In this scenario, owning a gun would most likely be illegitimate, because even when you are not pointing it at a criminal, you are still pointing it at someone!

Apply this understanding to nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons explode in all directions with an impact within their blast radius. As such, they are a constant threat of aggression to everyone around them, even if the owner has no intention of using them. It’s as if I were to point a gun at the heads of everyone in the blast radius.

What does this mean? It means that if there exists a settled society, then no person within that society may obtain a nuclear weapon and keep it in his house. Other people will be within the blast radius and hence be under constant threat, as if with a gun to their heads. A person may, however, own a nuclear weapon on an island by himself that is not within blast radius of previously-settled societies.

Suppose, for a second, that Australia were completely deserted and then I waltz into the middle and make myself a nuclear weapon (the kangaroos help me make it). In that case, if someone tries to come in and settle into the area and then claim that I am aggressing against them, he has no valid point, because I came into the area first and he willingly submitted himself to a threat afterwards. Conceptually, it’s similar to a person running up in front of me while I’m polishing my sword and claiming I’m about to kill them. No – if I obtain a nuclear weapon in an area that has not been previously settled, the latecomer has no case to make against supposed threats by my nuclear bomb – I have, in a sense, homesteaded an easement to own the bomb. Of course, this doesn’t mean that I may detonate the bomb legally!

The stars are actually explosions

Can I ever detonate the bomb legally? Actually, there could be specific scenarios where this is possible. Take, for example, a situation where I not only moved into Australia first with my bomb, but I specifically started blowing up bombs and using the place as a nuclear testing spot. As such, I am homesteading the land within the blast radius for nuclear testing. No one may come onto the land and demand I stop detonating bombs [9].

One more scenario is interesting to consider – what if a nuclear power decides to attack my society, and I happen to own a nuclear bomb in an underground location with walls thick enough to make the bomb not be a threat to society around me? May I take the bomb out and use it defensively against the foreign power [10]? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. When an attacker threatens your life and is holding another person hostage as a human shield, you are within your rights to eliminate the attacker. This is not a pretty picture – hostage standoffs usually aren’t. The key to understanding this situation is to keep in mind the concept of causation – who was the person that initiated the aggression in the first place? If innocent people die in this scenario, it is the causal fault of the attacker who created the situation. [11] After understanding the ethics behind this, consider the pragmatic consequences of the opposite of this ethical rule – that an attacker with a hostage may not be attacked because the hostage might get hurt. In this case, a single attacker could take on the entire world and rain much glory on himself. All he would need to do is create a device that kills the hostage as soon as the device detects the death of the attacker. He could very well become a king or emperor in society, if this were the rule to go by! [12]

This concludes the ethical analysis of nuclear weapon ownership in a free society. The verdict? Threats of aggression matter. The owner cannot have the bomb in a situation where it is threatening others who were within the blast radius before he came onto the land. If he is able to safely contain the bomb, then he likely may keep the bomb.

Practical component

I am neither a nuclear physicist nor an accountant for the government. Therefore, I do not have access to the specific data on how expensive it is to construct nuclear weapons. That being said, neither designing nor actually producing a nuclear weapon is cheap. The expense does not end there, however. You need safe storage and deployment methods [13]. As such, you need an entire society to be able to meaningfully create and own a nuclear weapon – not because of some ethical reason but because of real-world practical limitations [14]. Even if we are to take “Friedman’s Law” into consideration (“It costs any government at least twice as much to do something as it costs anyone else” [15]), building a nuclear weapon is very difficult.

I’d have to give up quite a few of these to even attempt to get a nuke

Total costs run well into the millions. A society could perhaps be wealthy enough to divert production away from other goods and into nuclear weapons for a period of time, yet it would be very difficult for an individual to do so. Libertarianism cannot fully please both the fans of complete disarmament and those of more nuclear armament – in reality, it’s possible that some groups (probably large) could potentially create and maintain nuclear weapons.

Before anyone runs to the hills, however, remember that this is in fact the situation in the world at the moment – different nations can and do own weapons. Furthermore, as outlined above, actually having your nuclear weapon be NAP-conforming is a very tricky business. Chances are that only large, publicly-supported groups that keep the weapons in case of foreign threat would be able to have these nuclear weapons – both for ethical and practical reasons. [16]


Libertopia – nuclear wasteland? Probably not.

The majority of this article discusses situations in which it would be legal to own a nuclear weapon. However, do not be fooled – applying the NAP and an understanding of what is considered a threat of aggression to the issue of nuclear weapons, it becomes apparent that nuclear weapons would not be allowed in most situations to which the original question relates – that is, typical individual ownership (like that of a gun). There are specific scenarios where they could be legal and consistent with the NAP – when 1) Outside of blast radius of previously-settled societies, 2) In an area at least as large as the blast radius where the owner settled first with his/her bomb, 3) If properly stored by the owner to prevent damage to the surrounding population, and 4) While in transit to be used as defensive measures against other nuclear powers that actively threaten the owner. There might be some corner cases not covered in this list; as long as they are justifiable by the criteria elucidated above and in Block and Block’s paper, they would be NAP-compliant and hence permissible. Their exclusion here is not due to their lack of legality, but due to my lack of a broad-enough imagination. [17]








[6] The NAP being the libertarian principle that you cannot rightfully/legally initiate aggression against the property of another person. Note that this covers initiation, not retaliation.


[8] It goes without mention that individual property owners may set their own rules preventing the carrying of guns on their property.

[9] Unless, of course, the effects of the bombs happen to spill over to areas that I had not homesteaded for this use, in which case I would be liable for a crazy amount of damage. As to the issue of fallout, I think that it can be treated in essentially the same way as the primary effects of the bomb within the blast radius. Hence, when I use the term “blast radius”, I’m being a little sloppy in my definitions and actually include the fallout radius as well. If a reader does not believe that this is a fair treatment of fallout, please let me know. The way I view it is simply as a slowed down bomb.

[10] Here I ignore the issue of attacking an entire nation when it is in fact just its government that is aggressing against you. This is a thorny issue that requires more in-depth analysis. The purpose of this paper is not to consider this aspect of the use of nuclear bombs on others. Rather, the analysis is geared toward the society of the person owning the bomb. An astute reader might point out that “his” vs. “the other’s” society are arbitrary distinctions, and this point itself has merit – that’s why libertarian war theory is a complicated topic. War is inherently collectivist, which poses some challenges for the methodological individualism of libertarianism. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be overcome; it means that I’m not trying to recreate the world is seven days in this simple article.

[11] It is important to note that the force that may be used in retaliation must be proportional to the crime being committed – for example, if an attacker threatens to cut off your leg, you’re not justified in bombing the entire city just to be able to get him. This introduces a large subjective element, but this is a condition that reality forces on the situation. We must be careful not to slip into the Nirvana fallacy.

[12] A note should be made here on the use of the nuclear weapon in a purely defensive manner – if the weapon happens to explode due to defects, this would most likely be ruled to be negligence on the part of the defender and he would be liable for all the deaths caused by it.

[13] This is so not just to prevent the deaths of innocents who reside within the blast radius, but also to actually have the bomb be useful for anything, such as defense.

[14] This is not to say that ethics aren’t useful in addressing real-world physical/practical limitations – in fact, property rights exist exactly to mitigate the fundamental problem of scarcity. I use “practical” in the popular sense here.

[15] The Machinery of Freedom, Part II – “Might Have Been”. This “law” is clearly not a law in the sense of the laws of nature, but it is humorously (and sadly) close to true.

[16] It is interesting to consider for a second what would happen if libertarian ethics did (by assumption) allow individuals to own nuclear weapons on their property in the middle of other societies. First of all, insurance rates would be through the roof. Next, if the society doesn’t approve of the weapons (loosely speaking), the roads agencies could very well deny access to his property. There is a whole flood of likely blowback that would make it extremely difficult for an individual to own nukes in such a situation. Of course, this is irrelevant, since libertarian ethics have been shown to not in fact allow ownership of nukes in the sense implied in the original question of the article.

[17] If the reader thinks that the solution presented in this paper isn’t pretty, it would be good remember that the ethical systems that may be alternatives to the libertarian theory of nuclear weapons explained here are not pretty either – consider them one by one, and you will find practical flaws in each of them – Total “freedom” to own (which, as I have shown, is not freedom properly understood), total ban, and special power to own by a select elite. For some topics, the solutions simply aren’t pleasant. I believe I have presented the solution that is both consistent with the Non-Aggression Principle and the most palatable one in “practical” regards.  See note 14 on the use of the word “practical.”

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11 thoughts on “Nuclear Weapons in Libertarianism

  1. kelvinsilva69 12/24/2012 at 10:29 Reply

    Does this mean that if i own a grenade it is also aggressing everyone around me, as far as geo spatialness is concerned?

  2. wheylous 12/24/2012 at 10:44 Reply

    Good question. The analysis here does have implications for other weapons besides nuclear ones.

    The answer that comes to mind is that if you own grenades, they would have to be stored in someplace where they cannot harm anyone around them. This means either far away enough from other people or in special containers (don’t know whether such containers actually exist).

  3. Marko 12/26/2012 at 18:20 Reply

    I don’t understand how you can go from concluding that, as long as you are non-hermit and do not own a continent all to yourself, obtaining a nuclear device is not permissible, because it would by necessity mean it was targeted at scores of innocents. To then go on to say that in a case of war pointing such a device at innocents and detonating it thus killing these innocents was perfectly fine. It would follow that if you’re not permitted to point your weapon at someone, that then you’re likewise not permitted to cook them in a nuclear explosion.

    If you’re allowed to kill innocent people with a nuclear weapon if you don’t like their government then you’re certainly allowed to aim a gun at their heads and your whole morality falls apart.

    • Marko 12/26/2012 at 18:27 Reply

      In fact think of it this way. In the scenario you bring forward to try to demonstrate this point, if you indeed launched this weapon, would a relative of one of the innocent victims now have the right to come over to your house and gut you like a pig? The answer is obviously yes, he would. And if that is the case then it must be you didn’t have the right to do what you hypothetically did.

    • wheylous 12/26/2012 at 19:48 Reply

      Marko, you misunderstand my analysis. I say in footnote 10 “Here I ignore the issue of attacking an entire nation when it is in fact just its government that is aggressing against you.” This article examines the situation of ownership within a society, not use against an entire society. As I point out, libertarian just war theory is complex – and not the topic of this article.

      I agree with you – it seems doubtful that such defensive tactics are admissible. They might be – I don’t know – I haven’t read about or analyzed such a scenario. The hostage example was used to analyze the threats of aggression against the owner’s own society, not the killing of innocents in the society of the enemy.

      • Marko 01/01/2013 at 04:17 Reply

        Who are the hostages in your scenario? Which of these two societies you speak of are they part of?

  4. Jonathan Finegold 12/27/2012 at 10:41 Reply


    Regarding Iran and the nuclear bomb, this Foreign Affairs piece might be of interest: “Botching the Bomb” (it may be gated, though).

    P.S. For some reason, it’s extremely difficult for me to comment on this blog; my comments don’t go through.

    • wheylous 01/01/2013 at 11:14 Reply

      Jonathan, thank you for your link! Do you know of any way to reach the premium content without buying the article?

  5. […] voluntaryism to resolve, though it has been addressed by libertarian scholars in great detail.  (One view is that nuclear weapons are an implicit threat – an act of aggression – against those […]

  6. […] found quite a few ideas about nuclear weapons among some libertarian bloggers, like here, here, here and here.  Several pointed me to Walter and Matthew Block’s “Toward a Universal Theory […]

  7. leifkbLeif 08/23/2015 at 18:12 Reply

    Isn’t a threat a communication, rather than a specific mechanical action?

    Let’s say you corner someone in a dark alley, pull a gun out of your waistband, show it to them (without pointing it at them), and say “please give me all your money”. Aren’t you threatening them, even though you’re not pointing the gun and your words themselves (without the context of the scenario) are non-threatening? You intend for your victim to feel threatened, and they no doubt will feel threatened.

    Or what if I have a gun in my house pointing at the outside wall toward the sidewalk? Obviously if I shot an innocent passerby, that would be an act of aggression; but does merely pointing the gun in that scenario count as a threat? No one can see the gun, so how can anyone feel threatened?

    Similarly, what if someone builds a nuclear weapon in secret? It seems like no one can feel threatened by a nuclear weapon if they don’t know it exists.

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