George Kateb’s “Nuclear Weapons and Individual Responsibility,” (Dissent, Spring 1986) achieves an instant credibility by his open acknowledgment of what we prefer to ignore—the possibility of nuclear annihilation and the anonymity of the powers that control that possibility, impervious to the considerations that sway individuals—such as the loss of all we love, of trees, dogs, and wheatfields, not to mention ourselves, in a nuclear holocaust. It is surely important that that unacknowledged reality be made overt and become a part of our decision-making.
It is, however, not so clear that this well-deserved credibility should extend beyond the initial recognition to Kateb’s proposals for dealing with the nuclear threat. These are somewhat surprising. “Remote as the connection may seem,” he tells us, “the encouragement of state activism, or the failure to resist it, contributes to nuclear statism and thus to the disposition to accept and inflict massive ruin and, with that, the unwanted and denied possibility of extinction.” Given his definition of
state activism—which includes everything beyond the most minimal police function allowed to the community by classical liberalism—this would mean that if we encourage, say, the Social Security system or even if we just fail to resist it, we are contributing to a future nuclear holocaust. In turn it would seem to follow that if we wish to prevent nuclear extinction, we should, for starters, dismantle the Social Security system, abolish Amtrak and put an end to farm subsidies, all in the name of saving the world from a holocaust. The nuclear threat has become a rather novel argument for Ronald Reagan’s social policies.
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