Science Fiction and the Humanity of the Libertarian Ethos
Libertarian Science Fiction: Commentary From Your Libertarian Opinionizer
Libertarians love their science fiction. For many, SF was the launch pad that opened their imaginations to innovative ideas, unique ways of thinking, exciting future possibilities, and escape from the conventional wisdom of the status quo. Ayn Rand and Objectivism only confirmed and expanded the concepts already accepted and libertarianism was merely the natural next step.
From there, the philosophy of individual freedom and personal responsibility orbited back onto itself, making “Libertarian Science Fiction” a recognized subgenre of futurist literature. Wikipedia’s introduction to the topic includes this synopsis:
The identification between libertarianism and science fiction is so strong that the U.S. Libertarian Party often has representatives at science fiction conventions and one of the highest profile authors currently in the subgenre of libertarian science fiction, L. Neil Smith, was the Arizona Libertarian Party's 2000 candidate for the President of the United States.
The Big Three: Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke
Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke were considered the "Big Three" writers of science fiction’s Golden Age, typically identified as the period from 1938 to 1946 but extending into the 50s and 60s as well. Some, such as Robert Silverberg, consider the 1950s as the true Golden Age and certainly the “Big Three” were still writing during that decade and beyond and possibly producing their best work.
Heinlein was self-consciously libertarian but Asimov seems not to have been so inclined. Here’s a quote from Asimov about Heinlein and his libertarian ethics:
He always pictured himself a libertarian, which to my way of thinking means "I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve." It's easy to believe that no one should depend on society for help when you yourself happen not to need such help. – Isaac Asimov, I. Asimov: A Memoir (1994), p. 308
This is an incredibly small-minded comment from such a grandly imaginative mind, and a Mensa member, that was otherwise capable of conjuring up and creating entire future histories like the Foundation Series, the Robot series (I, Robot), the Galactic Empire series and "Nightfall," considered the best science-fiction short story ever written.
Asimov’s Animus for Americus Libertarius
He was apparently completely unaware that American libertarianism nowhere says or even remotely implies that “no one should depend on society for help.” The only thing different about the libertarian view of society than everyone else’s collectivist view of society is that all interactions in society must be voluntary. No libertarian has any right to prevent anyone else from helping anyone who is starving. How could it have not occurred to Asimov himself to step in and help another person? Millions of people every day, including libertarians, voluntarily help others in spite of the interference, interventions, restrictions and regulations of bureaucratic government program do-gooders.
A Tumblr blogger who posted the Asimov quote speculated on the possible motivation behind Asimov’s displeasure with Heinlein’s libertarianism:
And I wonder how much of the political and social differences between these were because Heinlein grew up in a comfortable home in the Midwest, with enough political connections to get an appointment to Annapolis, while Asimov grew up poor in an immigrant community in Brooklyn and ran headlong into bigotry (he went to a branch of Columbia designed to educate Jews since there were quotas on how many could actually attend the Ivy League School) and the difference that government programs could make in someone’s life.
Asimov should have tried setting up a table in a public park, or even on private property, and placing free food on it for the poor and hungry homeless. He then could have experienced personally how quickly the “authorities” would show up to shut him down and threaten him with arrest. The blindly dogmatic enforcement of existing laws and rules and codes and policies and procedures, not the needs of people, are what matter to governments and the petty functionaries who run their programs.
While Asimov developed “The Three Laws of Robotics” it was another science fiction writer, Jerry Pournelle, who developed “The Iron Law of Bureaucracy.” Stripped down to its essentials the Iron Law states that all bureaucracies, i.e., all government programs, exist primarily to benefit the people who run them.
But if he could imagine worlds and times and beings beyond this earth, this solar system, this galaxy why couldn’t he imagine a society based on voluntary mutual assistance rather than on coercively mandated government programs?
Thinking Outside the Books
Although he wrote for Astounding Science Fiction magazine it’s an equally astounding story of how one’s personal experience can inescapably stunt one’s imagination even as that imagination soars in other areas of life.
While it has become common for some to say to others “Think outside the box” it’s inevitably true that we each live in the mental box that is our own mind. Our ideas develop from many sources: Inherited in our genes, in our DNA, absorbed from our social environment, from personal experiences and learning and reading and researching and thinking, from wishing and speculating and experimenting and sampling and remixing as much or as little of the total human experience that we can or want to do.
Thus many who have been limited or thwarted or perhaps even abused by government become most familiar with that and come to see the libertarian ethos as an escape from it. But others, even brilliant ones such as Asimov, who may have grown up limited or thwarted or even abused by society become familiar with that and see government programs as an escape from it.
So “thinking outside the box” of one’s own experiences and reactions to them ultimately means continually redefining the inside of one’s own mental box. And that can ultimately get one somewhere, anywhere, or nowhere.
Think about that Asimov quote again: “I want the liberty to grow rich and you can have the liberty to starve.” Now ask yourself if this doesn’t describe, not freedom-loving libertarians, but the mentality found at the very top of every statist corporatist militant power-grabbing wealth-stealing people-manipulating power pyramid ever created by the psychopathic/sociopathic ruthless people who rule over us.
Government is the ultimate hierarchical control structure. While it may attract well-meaning people to its lower echelons, typically based on a deep misconception of government’s true nature, it’s the upper reaches where the truly opulent wealth and unbridled power resides that attracts the worst that the human race can produce.
Replies to Asimov?
This quote from libertarian Heinlein might actually serve as an unintended response to Asimov’s anti-libertarian pro-government program mindset:
“Why should anybody want that sort of power?"
"Why does a moth fly toward a light? The drive for power is even less logical than the sex urge, and stronger. – Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
People who seek security above all else will gravitate toward government, unmindful that any government strong enough to guarantee their security is strong enough to strip it from them at will. Those who understand that security and freedom balance one another – one must be secure enough to seek freedom and free enough to seek security – will gravitate toward libertarianism.
But while some see government as the source of civilization and others see it as the source of legalized organized gangsterism the one fact that holds true is that the bigger, more powerful and more wealthy a government grows the bigger, more powerful and more wealthy the psychopathic rulers it attracts.
For libertarians the only solution is either no government or a fully 100 percent voluntary government whose justification for existence is to consistently protect the natural rights of all human beings with no exceptions. Both options are problematic and risky, but government itself has proven throughout history and around the world to be the biggest problem and greatest risk of all.
Lest he not be overlooked, liberal humanist Arthur C. Clarke, the third member of the "Big Three" writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, had his own take on all of this:
“Because politics is the science of the possible, it only appeals to second-rate minds. The first raters only interested in the impossible” ― Arthur C. Clarke, The Fountains of Paradise. (Published in 1979, incidentally, not in 1938 to 1946 but during the “New Wave” period of the 60s and 70s.
Since dissenters routinely consider libertarian ideas as being impossible to implement in the real world it might be fair to say “Libertarianism is the science of the impossible.” That’s why, in the long run, libertarianism will attract all of the first-rate minds who will then make the impossible possible.