Thursday, June 23, 2005
WMDs and the Ethics of Individual Rights
One survey contributor, Professor Graham Allison of Harvard's Kennedy School, stated publicly (on Warren Olney's "To The Point" 22 June 05) that he places the probability of the detonation of a nuclear weapon, possibly in the United States, by terrorists at greater than 50%. He has suggested a set of relatively low cost actions that could be taken to greatly reduce this threat, but which aren't being pursued -- at least not particularly vigorously.
This issue raises two extremely important points for anyone interested in promoting freedom.
1. What would be the effect of a terrorist nuclear attack? I don't mean the physical effects -- I mean the political & cultural effects. (If you're uncertain about physical effects go to http://www.nuclearterror.org/blastmaps.html and have fun placing blast zones on the U.S. cities of your choice.)
In the aftermath of a successful nuclear attack, we would expect at the very least the imposition of martial law and an end to liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of movement, and probably the persecution large numbers of people on political, ethnic, and religious grounds. The details are not so important as the overall picture -- America, and maybe most of the world, would quickly become a genuine police state, and much of the public would approve. Let me be so bold as to make a prediction (something I am usually loathe to do): Prospects for liberty would not be particularly good.
Hopefully efforts such as the Lugar report will trigger some reasonable preventative action, and hopefully Allison's estimate that the probability can effectively be reduced below 1% is correct -- it would be rather pleasant to suppose the probability of a nuclear-incident generating a police state is down from the current 30-50%
2. More generally, this raises an issue that has bothered me for some time yet seems to be completely off the radar. Never mind the particular threat raised by Allison et al. Given continued economic growth and continued advance of technology, the capability of developing one's own WMD's is likely to be in the reach of the individual, at least in the developed world -- if it isn't already. (Figure that in the U.S. average income should roughly quadruple in the next 50 years, given the historical 3% growth rate. I don't have good measure of the rate of growth of technology, and knowledge, but it is obviously rapid.) And beyond traditional WMDs there's the growing capacity of the individual for commiting cybernetic, electronic, and other forms of high-tech mayhem.
All of this will serve as incentive and excuse for establishing much more authoritarian political regimes...which in turn will also provide increased incentive for mayhem on the part of those who are oppressed or imagine they are.
The biggest part of this problem is that human civilization has made remarkable advances in developing and adopting technology and means of producing wealth. We have done much less well in developing -- and particularly adopting -- ethical systems that are similarly advanced. We employ the latest 21st century technology and medieval (or even more primitive) mystical ethical systems side-by-side.
A basic principle of any modern ethic ought to be (to paraphrase Ayn Rand) that no man should regard other men as prey. An ethic suited to our contemporary world would hold it anathema for one to violate the rights of another. It is a libertarian ethic.
Such an ethic isn't against human nature, as some might argue; it is inherent in the what Adam Smith called our "propensity to truck, barter, and exchange." But neither is the tendency to prey on others against our nature. development and widespread adoption of a libertarian ethic calls for intentional, conscious, concerted effort.
One way to do this is for libertarian adherents of this ethic to practice it at all times -- to make certain that they remain civil and respectful of all others, to show that being a libertarian doesn't just mean wanting the govermen off our backs -- it means absolute respect for the individual. Such an ethic ought to be appealing to most people, and we had better start speading it.
The second point is cultural: liberty and the respect for rights (and individuals) must be manifest in the vast expanse of the population of a society – it must be part of the culture. And, given how the globe has shrunk, we have all become neighbors. So I understand the motivation of those that seek to reform foreign cultures even though I prefer other courses of action.
These facts imply there is a race condition: will the culture change fast enough to avoid an illiberal reaction? How can we increase the time for change while seeking to hasten the change itself?
My view is that appreciation for reason and for liberty is something fundamental to humans that transcends what we usually think of as culture. Developing this appreciation everywhere is a necessary condition for the continuation & advance of human civilization(s).
Working for change of attitudes & understanding both fosters change and increases the time for change, in the race you've posited, I think. Can we do it? In a future post I'll argue "yes."