Friday, August 10, 2007

Tilton: There Ain't No Such Thing as a Future Libertarian?

Matthew Jarpe gives a link to a post by Lois Tilton on Deep Genre about Libertarian sci-fi. Tilton points out that space is perhaps not the best place in the world for a do-your-own-thing kind of enironment.

Matthew, who previously confirmed my opinion that he leans in the "governs best that governs least" direction, nevertheless points out that the list of Prometheus winners contains some egregious starry-eyed libertarian offenders.

Of the Prometheus winners listed, I have only read Stephenson and McLeod (I just started Rainbow's End by Vinge, but I'm not far enough in yet). McLeod's odd, because he can't decide if he's a Trotskyite or a libertarian, but Stephenson is definitely a both-feet-in libertarian. In Snow Crash, the Federal government has become so irrelevant that at a meeting of important characters, one of them self-importantly announces his name, and when people look at him puzzled he has to explain that he's the President of the US. But Stephenson hasn't written anything in space, so I'm not sure that Tilton is directly addressing him.

Jarpe offers the Heinlein story "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," in which people enforce the rules of right and wrong together without needing rules. "That guy just raped a girl. Call a cop? Build a jail? Why bother? We know what he did. Just throw him out the fricking airlock and have done with it." This might work great as long as the population was under 150 or so. Then things would get complicated because all of a sudden people really wouldn't know who to throw out the airlock. But how to figure it out? Hmmm, maybe if we got twelve ordinary guys, told them all the facts, then they could...oh, wait.

And then again, it might not even work in a small setting. In a lot of small Southern towns, the guy that ended up getting hung for a rape or a suspected rape generally turned out to be a guy who happened to have a perfect tan and naturally curly hair. I'm not even suggesting that there is any correlation between libertarianism and racism, as I suspect that r is near 0.0 in that case. I'm just pointing out what has tended to happen in the past when the enforcement of society's rules have depended on mob rule.

In general, though, I think that what you'll find is that most small like-minded groups are able to get by fine without a lot of rules, because everyone knows everyone. I also think that most people who want to limit government, all the way back to Rousseau, tend to aspire to a small society of like-minded individuals, which is great when you can get it.

Unfortunately, a lot of us happen to live in places that are not so small and certainly not like-minded. In circumstances like that, there is a lot of disagreement about who to throw out the airlock, if anyone.

Many libertarians seem to assume that people go running around and making all these rules just because they're mean and petty and want to restrict a red-blooded man's natural way of living. And in fact, this does happen. I would go so far as to say that "regulitis" could account for up to ten or fifteen percent of the rules in society, and these rules could be safely shaved off if you could actually tell what they were, which isn't so easy.

But most of the cloying, restricting, restraining, PC, money-costing, business-clogging rules out there were formed as a necessary response to genuine problems. True, it may not have been the best response. And in some cases, the law passed is worse than doing nothing. But I find it incredibly naive to pretend that the environment, labor conditions, or food and drug safety, to name a few examples, would be as good as they are now if we just hadn't passed any laws about them. This, by the way, is totally different from saying we could have better laws, which is a progressive rather than libertarian argument.

Which is a long way around to agreeing with Tilton that I think that life in space would in fact have to be quite strictly regulated, more so than Earth in fact. Libertarianism is one of those ideologies like communism that has the advantage that it is both instinctively appealing and simple enough that you could explain it to someone from Alpha Centauri in a single sentence. And who doesn't dream of a world where the solution to all of our problems could be so obvious?

Come to think of it, maybe speculative fiction is the perfect place for the libertarians after all.


Matt Jarpe said...

"This might work great as long as the population was under 150 or so."

In fact, probably not so great even then. You'd have to start with the right 150 people. No assholes. Then you're back to a lot of restrictions.

I've been working on a book where I described an anarchist society on Mars. Whenever the Martian describes her world people say "That would never work." To which she invariably responds "It doesn't work. It's a total mess. Just like everywhere else."

Would I actually want to live the Harsh Mistress world or my own anarchist Mars? No thanks. But it's good to speculate just to challenge the underlying assumptions in our society. As long as you stay true to human nature it makes for good reading.

Jim Stewart said...

Good point. I don't think any system "works" in and of itself. For most of history people assumed that democracy wouldn't work, and in a lot of places it still doesn't. Somehow you have to have enough people buy into the system, and make a social contract not to abuse or take advantage of it.

I think my last sentence came off sounding more sarcastic than I meant it to. I really do think that spec-fic is a great place to imagine how things could be different. It's one of the reasons McLeod is one of my favorite writers.