Libertarianism in Science Fiction

I am a huge fan of old school sci-fi. Robert A. Heinlein, H. Beam Piper, Larry Niven, Gordon R. Dickson and Jerry Pournelle were some of my favorite authors back in my youth and I still enjoy revisiting them today.

However, upon revisiting, I’ve become aware of something that was surely obvious at the time (I simply lacked the context to notice it). Most of my favorite SF authors were Libertarians. And as these were some of the most popular science fiction writers of the time, that makes me reflect on the place of Libertarianism in speculative fiction.

Definition: Libertarianism- an extreme laissez-faire political philosophy advocating only minimal state intervention in the lives of citizens.

Libertarianism is a powerful force in US politics today. With the financial backing of people like the billionaire Koch brothers, it has swept into the philosophic underpinnings of modern conservatism and the Republican party. Libertarianism is an anathema to socialism and its adherence tend to view even modest public support programs like public schools as somehow communistic. And before we go any further–full disclosure, I am not a Libertarian.

However, Robert A. Heinlein definitely was. And the heroes of his novels were just the kind of guys that Libertarians strives to be; self-reliant, capable, men of action who earn what they’ve got and feel no need to share. Curiously, Heinlein was also a bit of a militarist. He himself had graduated from the US Naval Academy and served a few years as a naval officer in peacetime. In one of his most well-known works, Starship Troopers, service to the state is considered the highest moral good and military service is prized above all. And, folks, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction with the freewheeling individualism of an ardent Libertarian I don’t know what does.

This kind of militarized Libertarianism is also found in the works of one Jerry Pournelle, who’s series concerning John Christian Falkenberg (The Mercenary) features a military hero fighting for “freedom” against “socialist” of the colonial frontier led by the morally dubious Grand Senator Bronson. In Pournelle’s future history, a well-meaning but inept bureaucratic government establishes “welfare islands;” neighborhoods where everybody lives on public assistance and no opportunity exists for economic advancement except for crime. Street gangs run rampant in these areas and when the government forces the populations to relocate off-world, criminal gangs pose a threat to the colonial governments. Salvation lies in the hiring of mercenary troops (private enterprise?) to vanquish the gangs and force people to rely on themselves to build sustainable, free market, societies.

Gordon R. Dixon also seems to have taken a big drink at Heinlein’s well just before he penned his Dorsi novels. The Dorsi are soldiers for hire who support their homeworld by fighting in other people’s wars. The planet Dorsi itself is a collection of homesteads where families sustain themselves through farm work and independent living.

Now, to be sure, these old SF authors differed in their ideas concerning a utopian Libertarian society from the ideas of the modern Republican Libertarian movement. True, modern American Libertarianism is rife with military idolatry, but it is also chalk full of religious conservatism that is wholly absent from the authors I’m referring to. The grand master himself, Heinlein, was famously liberal in his sexual morals. And in book after book, he crafted societies where group marriage and libertine sex were not in the least uncommon or looked down upon.

So, what gives? Why was Libertarianism so in vogue with early SF writers?

Well, every culture has a mythology, well-constructed fantasies that work to convince people that they are from a special breed of men and women who fill a role unlike any other in world history. For Americans, that mythos is found in the Western. And all of these authors grew up in the cultural shadow of the American Western. The movies, dime-novels, short story magazines, and later the TV shows of that time were dominated by men in wide hats who wore six-guns and solved problems without help from outside resources.

Western fiction portrays strong pioneer characters who struck out on their own to carve out a homestead with their own two hands. These bold heroes didn’t rely on a government to protect them (although they seemed only too glad to accept help from the sheriff, US cavalry, or even a random masked stranger sometimes). No, my friends, these American cowboys were the real deal; tough, independent, and the perfect example of frontier virtue. It is not hard at all to see how early science fiction writers would gravitate to this mythological model when envisioning life on some far future frontier world.

Of course, the myth hardly ever matches the reality. A lot of the settlement of the American west had to do more with folks pitching in and cooperating with each other than rugged individuals toiling alone. In fact, the Mormons can be argued to be one of the more successful pioneer groups, and they succeeded in large part due to their collective approach to problem-solving. But myth is often more powerful than truth simply because it has the ability to grab our attention and hold it for longer. And what is science fiction, or any fiction, other than a collection of entertaining myths?

As to the militarism, I think World War II had everything to do with that. All of these authors lived through that war and some (Gordon R. Dixon) even fought in it. So there was a respect for the military that had been earned in blood right before these author’s eyes.

And two decades before Vietnam caused America to question the rightness of war, these writers watched young men and women sacrifice wholesale for the collective good of our nation and our world. Therefore, despite the contradictions between selfless service to the state and freewheeling individualism, they personally placed a high value on all things military. And perhaps, as these authors matured in their careers throughout the 1960s and 70s, they felt they had something to say to the Baby Boom generation that viewed war as a less than noble enterprise.

Today, cowboy movies are no longer quite in vogue and there are many more of us are alive who remember the flawed wars of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afganistan than the outright victories of World War II. And with the rise of the Republican party, the American people today are no longer so enchanted with a Libertarianism that clears the way for the rich to get richer but doesn’t do much for the rest of us. Where is the new generation of SF writers you may ask? I would point to Zack Penn and Ernest Cline who gave us Ready Player One.

The new science fiction hero is the rebel who resists the heartless world that the fat cats have imposed and struggles for a better society for us all. And where in all this is the work of your humble Clayton J. Callahan?

Well, I would put myself in the middle. I was once part of the military and do have respect for it, however, I know the army too well to see the services as a panacea for all of socialities woes. I also value individual hard work and believe one should keep what one earns. However, I also feel strongly that wealth is meant to be put to work on behalf of others so that everybody can get a chance at moving up.

After all, none of us got where we are entirely on our own…not even the great authors of the past (don’t believe me? Read their dedications).


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