Rational anarchism & TANSTAAFL: An Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction

Here is our Appreciation of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein’s 1966 Hugo-winning novel and a bestseller that popularized the libertarian slogan TANSTAAFL (“There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch”) as a rallying cry in a story imagining an American-Revolution-style revolt for liberty on the moon.

By William H. Stoddard

Science fiction writers have been exploring ideas that we now call “libertarian” since before the genre was named. Rudyard Kipling, E.E. Smith, Robert Heinlein, C.M. Kornbluth, Eric Frank Russell, Poul Anderson, Edgar Pangborn, and others presented such ideas – along with other, unlibertarian ideas such as Smith’s portrayal of a literal War on Drugs.

But it was Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress that established libertarian science fiction as a distinct genre. Nothing could have been more fitting than its being one of the first two books elected to the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Hall of Fame for Best Classic Fiction.

A big part of its influence came from its portrayal of Luna as a society without government. To be precise, Luna had political authorities — the Warden and his enforcers — but the “Loonies” never saw them as legitimate and wouldn’t have dreamed of going to them for protection of their legal rights or any other governmental services. They were endured, in the spirit voiced by the novel’s viewpoint character, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis: “I do business with law of gravity too.”

But the actual legal order by which Loonies lives was the product of self-help. Law was enforced by the people themselves — in extreme cases, by throwing offenders out the nearest airlock. Disputes were resolved by judges paid by both parties to the dispute; in one key incident we see O’Kelly-Davis taking on such a job, when a tourist from Earth is in danger of being put to death for touching a Loonie girl without her consent.

And as he explains to the Earthman, Stuart René LaJoie, Lunar laws are “natural laws,” products of economic necessity, not of legislation or of the Warden’s decrees. David Friedman, author of the libertarian classic The Machinery of Freedom, has spoken of this imagined society as a crucial influence on his “anarchocapitalist” proposals and his economic arguments for them (and in turn, Vernor Vinge has spoken of Friedman’s book as an influence on his own fiction).

Heinlein also gave libertarian ideas an explicit voice through the character of Professor Bernardo de la Paz, a self-designated “rational anarchist.” Exiled from Earth for his political activities, de la Paz supported himself as a teacher – of a young O’Kelly-Davis, among others – and this is his central role in the novel. He appears as an advocate of a radical libertarianism that is the theory corresponding to the practices of Loonie society, advocating ideas ranging from free markets to the prohibition of taxation, and suggesting schemes for setting up a legislature that avoided rule by majorities (with the consequent risk of oppression of minorities) – ideas that turned up later in L. Neil Smith’s North American Confederacy novels.

At the same time, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress has more ideas than political and legal ones. One of its central characters, Mycroft Holmes, is one of the first self-aware computers to appear as a character in science fiction—and, notably, as a sympathetic character, who at the start of the novel is a close friend of O’Kelly-Davis. Heinlein shows him using his computational powers to create a virtual face for himself, long before computer animation was achieved. He also raises the question of computer counting of votes as a way to ensure that elections turn out the “right” results, which may have nothing to do with the actual votes cast—now an actual concern in elections.

Another major character, Wyoming Knott, supports herself as a “host mother,” or as we would now say, a surrogate mother. Heinlein also explores the ecological basis of Lunar society, and the threat to its survival posed by the export of food to Earth with no water or organic matter being returned. It’s long been understood that science fiction can’t actually predict the future – and we certainly don’t have prison colonies on the Moon, or any sort of settlements – but Heinlein scored an impressive number of hits. In 1966, when the novel came out, they were like a display of fireworks in the readers’ minds.

This ecological threat provides the motivation for the novel’s plot: As Lunar ice deposits are used up and not replaced, the Moon’s inhabitants are at risk of death. Asked how long they can survive, Mycroft predicts food riots in a few years and cannibalism a few years after that. But the Warden and the Lunar Authority cannot be expected even to recognize the problem, let alone be interested in doing anything about it.

Their overthrow isn’t simply a matter of ethical beliefs about human rights; it’s a question of survival. The need to achieve that overthrow drives much of the plot of the novel. And this isn’t simply an action/adventure plot; it’s also a plot about the ethics of emergencies, a central concern of Heinlein’s thought. He shows his characters taking a variety of measures that clash with their ethical principles, justified by an appeal to necessity; and in the end, he has O’Kelly-Davis wondering if food riots are too high a price to pay for leaving people alone. Heinlein doesn’t simply advocate libertarianism but also questions it, and that’s one of the strengths of this novel.

I reread The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress about a year ago, after some time away from it. And this time what struck me about it is its tragic aspect.

O’Kelly-Davis sees the victory of the revolution, and the recognition of Luna by the nations of Earth; and in the same instant, de la Paz dies in the midst of his victory speech, and Mycroft falls silent, apparently never to speak again, leaving O’Kelly Davis alone. And Luna itself establishes a much more conventional government than de la Paz advocated, one with the usual powers to tax and regulate; the freedom Luna enjoyed under the Warden’s despotic rule is ironically forgotten. Ultimately, this is a deeply sad novel, and that sadness gives it its emotional power.

 Further food for thought comes from libertarian-leaning economist and bestselling author Tyler Cowen (In Praise of Commercial Culture, Public Goods and Market Failures: A Critical Examination, Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero, Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous and Responsible Individuals). Cowen reread Heinlein’s novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 2017 and posted a positive review of it on his fascinating and illuminating Marginal Revolution blog:

“Published in 1966, it nonetheless holds up very well and in fact has aged gracefully. It is surprisingly feminist, not at all dewey-eyed about actual rebellion, does not sound antiquated in its tech issues (e.g., malicious AI), has China as central to geopolitics and circa 2076 Greater China controls most of southeast Asia, and the book is full of economics and public choice. TANSTAAFL is coined, but when understood as a section heading it is actually a Burkean slogan, not a libertarian or Friedmanite idea. The lunar rebellion does not achieve independence easily or by keeping its previous friendly nature, nor does Earth receive those “grain shipments” gratis, so to speak. Burke is the Straussian upshot of the whole book — beware societies based on new principles!”

Note: Robert Heinlein (1907-1988), a mentor to several generations of younger sf writers, ultimately became the author most recognized by the Prometheus Awards, with a record seven awards as of 2020.

Robert Heinlein (Creative Commons license)

Other works inducted into the Hall of Fame include his bestselling novel Stranger in a Strange Land (in 1987), the novel Red Planet (in 1996), the novel Methuselah’s Children (in 1997), the novel Time Enough for Love (in 1998), the story Requiem (in 2003) and the story Coventry (in 2017.)


* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40thanniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history.

• Other Prometheus winners:  For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website.

* Read “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction,” an essay in the June 2020 issue of the international magazine Quillette that favorably highlights the Prometheus Awards, the Libertarian Futurist Society and the significant element of libertarian sf/fantasy in the modern genre.


• Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

3 thoughts on “Rational anarchism & TANSTAAFL: An Appreciation of Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a 1983 Prometheus Hall of Fame co-winner for Best Classic Fiction”

  1. Ayn Rand might be up there with Robert Heinlein had she published more than four novels (of which only two could be called “science fiction”).

    1. Yes, Rand rates very highly among Prometheus voters.
      In fact, I’ve sometimes wished that the Prometheus Awards had a broader focus, allowing us to recognize all genres of fiction that might dramatize libertarian or anti-authoritarian themes or explore the perennial tensions between Liberty and Power.
      No other fiction award covers that territory, and the Prometheus Awards is best positioned to do so (perhaps with a separate occasional Special Award category for libertarian but non-sf fiction).
      Of course, practically speaking, LFS members have our hands full just finding and reading eligible works of fiction within the torrent of annual sf and fantasy. And what mostly unites us is our love of science fiction/fantasy .
      But if at some point we did inaugurate a Special Award category for Classic Fiction (all genres, beyond sf), I predict that Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead would be among the very first winners, quickly followed by her first novel, We the Living, set in the early Soviet Union’s early Communist dictatorship and a novel that I rank roughly as high as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame – i.e. one of the best romantic tragedies ever written.

      1. By any chance have you seen Noi Vivi, the Italian film based on it? I remember it as being very well done, though it’s been a long time.

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