Review: The pros and cons of “libertarian” seasteading communities in Naomi Kritzer’s Liberty’s Daughter

By Michael Grossberg

It’s nice to see more sf writers exploring various visions of a fully free future – even writers who aren’t avowed libertarians.

Case in point: Naomi Kritzer, whose Liberty’s Daughter (published by Fairwood Press) is one of 17 diverse 2023 works nominated for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

Well-written and well-paced, with believable characters, an interesting plot and setting and a controversial theme, Liberty’s Daughter explores the drawbacks and benefits of a constellation of linked seasteading communities, most set up with libertarian rationales.

Rather than portraying an outright dystopia, Kritzer dramatizes the higher levels of cooperation and resilience required to live and work within such a minimal-government or no-government framework.

Moreover, Kritzer recognizes that crime, deception and corruption sadly are predictable and inevitable in any human society. So the real issues and questions for her characters involve how they respond to such eventualities and address their society’s flaws.

A HEINLEINESQUE HEROINE

At the center of the twisty story is a young libertarian-spirited heroine (one surprisingly similar to a Heinlein-juvenile protagonist, like the title characters in Friday or Podkayne of Mars).

Beck (short for Becky) begins as a “finder” (of hard-to-get goods more common in mainland U.S. markets), but she quickly becomes a deft detective investigating a missing bonded worker, a category of seasteading employees most vulnerable to abuse and manipulation.

In the process, Beck displays the decency, honesty and concern for justice of a young and conscientious individualist who strives against the odds to right some wrongs committed under duress or under abusive so-called “contract.”

Kritzer also dramatically compares her seasteading communities (such as minarchist-governed Min or anarchist Lib) with the highly regulated and paternalistic government of the United States – and finds all to have various pluses and minuses.

Significantly, when Beck returns to California, she finds her situation as a legal minor inconvenient and frustrating and wants to return to her sea-steading home despite its challenges and perceived inequities.

At the same time, some mistreated seastead workers don’t want to flee for the mainland, but prefer to stay with hopes to get better contract terms and be freed from fraudulently imposed restrictions.

In both cases, Liberty’s Daughter implicitly respects individual choice as a foundation of cooperation and civility.

THE FLAWS OF FREEDOM? (OR ARE THEY HUMAN IMPERFECTIONS?)

But Kritzer suggests that individual choice has its limits, too, especially when the choices are unethical and cross the libertarian boundary between consent and coercion.

When seasteaders learn that one wealthy émigré from the mainland was not only a tax evader but an embezzler, they shun him and refuse to hire him as an untrustworthy person.

Even if Kritzer may have started out to dramatize the defects she perceives in a libertarian society, her novel ends up showing that such bad behavior can be countered effectively – even in a society without government (or with an extremely limited government, as many libertarians advocate).

However the general public may react to this novel – and some might be surprised to learn that libertarians don’t approve of the bad behavior depicted, and don’t believe that it would arise in a lawful free society, at least anywhere close to such an extent – objective and open-minded readers of Liberty’s Daughter will recognize the story’s intriguing and persuasive examples of how voluntary private and social behavior can enforce norms even when laws are minimal or non-existent.

LFS members will especially appreciate Kritzer’s plausible development of her central theme of cooperation, as seasteaders find ways to cope with very real problems from deception and abuses of power to strange new diseases.

A CAUTIONARY TALE ABOUT CORRUPTION

Overall, Liberty’s Daughter offers a cautionary tale about how corruption and crime can arise and how basic individual rights can be violated even in an allegedly “libertarian” or fully free society.

It’s also in some ways an inspiring story, grounded in realism and everyday practicalities, about how all sorts of people facing very real limitations and obstacles can nevertheless figure out ways to survive and perhaps even thrive.

Superficially, one might find it hard to imagine that Libertarian Futurist Society members could nominate a novel so critical in some ways of a libertarian “utopia.”

But Kritzer, who has done some homework about the history of libertarian seasteading efforts (including Minerva, mentioned in the novel), doesn’t end up doing a hatchet job on libertarianism.

IS A LIBERTARIAN SOCIETY UTOPIAN?

Perhaps it’s relevant for context here that libertarianism isn’t a utopian philosophy – not in any way.

Perhaps that’s one reason why so many past Prometheus winners and finalists are dystopian – and why several (such as Donald Kingsbury’s 2002 Best Novel winner Psychohistorical Crisis) offer explicit and incisive critiques of utopian thinking.

In fact, most leading libertarian thinkers have been anti-utopian, most notably Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and his son David Friedman and the philosopher Robert Nozick, best known for his National-Book-award-winning Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Former Reason magazine editor Virginia Postrel, in particular, has offered profound insights in her seminal books The Future and its Enemieand The Power of Glamour into why utopias of all varieties – whether Left or Right, secular or religious, and no matter their superficial seductiveness – tend to collapse into collectivist nightmares of failed central planning, dictatorship, famine, poverty, exploitation and war.

A FREE SOCIETY IS A PROSPEROUS AND BETTER SOCIETY
At the same time, a broad understanding of and familiarity with history and economics documents the overwhelming (and mostly unpredicted) progress that humanity has made in recent centuries to eliminate slavery, nearly eliminate famine and extreme poverty and greatly reduce the impact of disease, natural disasters and other real problems – all accomplished primarily through freedom and free markets.

Undeniably, freedom is messy, reflecting the fact that human beings are fallible and that life itself poses a never-ending series of challenges, some of which may not have easy or happy solutions.

Yet, how many people truly would be happier living in the opposite of a free society – from the communism of the Soviet Union and national socialism of Hitler’s Germany to the theocratic or militaristic, socialistic and fascist dictatorships sadly common from the Middle East to parts of Africa, Asia and South America?

Yet, contrary to a few passages in Liberty’s Daughter that imply free markets or fully libertarian societies inevitably lead to poverty and injustice for the masses and inequitable extremes of wealth and privilege for the one percent, the truth is nearly the opposite.

Many of the rich – though not all – do tend to get richer over generations, but so do the poor wherever there’s more liberty and free-market opportunities for advancement through such free cooperation for mutual profit.

Notably, the massive and uneven move of billions of people worldwide from extreme poverty to middle-class or upper-middle-class status over the past century – with the notable and tragic exception of people still suffering under dictatorships of the Left or Right – has made a much greater difference in furthering individualist and libertarian ideals of facilitating a better life, more liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Admittedly, many well-meaning, educated people who don’t read widely, and rarely venture beyond conventional academia or a few establishment media outlets, don’t realize this or may only partly grasp it.

That’s why, even if you prefer to read sf/fantasy most of the time,  it’s wise and highly enlightening – mind-expanding, even – to also read such seminal non-fiction books as Michael Cox’s and Richard Alm’s Myths of Rich and Poor, Hayek’s edited anthology Capitalism and the Historians,  Johan Norbert’s Open: The Story of Human Progress, Henry Grady Weaver’s The Mainspring of Human Progress, and Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progressfor starters!

RESPECTING RIGHTS

Thus, it really shouldn’t be hard for libertarians to recognize that free societies and free markets can and do fall short of perfection (because everything does), especially when some citizens (as some always will) violate the basic libertarian moral/legal code prohibiting the initiation of force or fraud.

Respecting the basic individual rights of others, as well as each person’s human dignity, requires a constant effort and will be a perennial challenge, even in fully free societies. This basic truth shouldn’t have to be said, but perhaps it’s worth repeating, even though it’s a reality at the root of both libertarianism and its close sociopolitical-philosophical cousins, classical liberalism and peaceful anarchism.

THE PROS AND CONS OF LIBERTY’S DAUGHTER

That’s why it’s fascinating for LFS members and other libertarian sf fans to read – and likely debate – the pros and cons of Liberty’s Daughter, which offers both negative interpretations (and some misconceptions) of libertarianism and surprisingly positive portrayals of characters and self-organizing communities determined to be free and independent, whatever the cost.

One literally lawless scenario imagined in Liberty’s Daughter is Lib, perhaps the most extreme of the novel’s depicted seasteading communities.

Yet, despite her research and good intentions, Kritzer seems unfamiliar with leading libertarian thinkers (notably Murray Rothbard and David Friedman, but also Bruce Benson, author of The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the Statewho have detailed various visions of fully libertarian societies as possible, functional and socially harmonious without coercive government but with laws (specifically a moral/legal code prohibiting the initiation of force or fraud).

Furthermore, ever since John Stuart Mill’s 1858 essay On Liberty, liberals and libertarians (basically the same thing in the 1800s and early 1900s) have recognized indentured servitude or “debt slavery” as incompatible and unenforceable in a free society. Thus, some of the most dubious aspects of the “libertarian” seasteading portrayed in Kritzer’s novel merit serious skepticism.

Even so, on balance, freedom-loving sf fans should find intriguing and thought-provoking the many complex social possibilities explored and dramatized in Liberty’s Daughter.

Read critically but open-mindedly, Kritzer’s novel fulfills its potential to make us think and reflect on our deepest assumptions, as we hope her enjoyable, fast-paced novel will spark fresh thinking by other sf fans and readers.

* Check out the full list of this year’s 17 Best Novel nominees and read the Prometheus Blog’s recent five-part series offering a guide to each nominee with capsule descriptions. Here are the links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three and Part Four of the guide to the nominees for the next Prometheus Award for Best Novel.

* Libertarian Futurist Society members, Prometheus-nominated authors and other libertarian sf/fantasy fans are welcome to submit reviews of relevant literature to the Prometheus Awards. Contact Michael Grossberg, one of the Prometheus Blog editors, at bestnovel@lfs.org

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE:

* Prometheus winners: For the full list of Prometheus winners, finalists and nominees – including the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the enhanced Prometheus Awards page on the LFS website, which now includes convenient links to all published essay-reviews in our Appreciation series explaining why each of more than 100 past winners since 1979 fits the awards’ distinctive dual focus.

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

Watch videos of past Prometheus Awards ceremonies (including the recent 2023 ceremony with inspiring and amusing speeches by Prometheus-winning authors Dave Freer and Sarah Hoyt), Libertarian Futurist Society panel discussions with noted sf authors and leading libertarian writers, and other LFS programs on the Prometheus Blog’s Video page.

* Check out the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Facebook page for periodic updates and links to Prometheus Blog posts.

Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards and support a cultural and literary strategy to appreciate and honor freedom-loving fiction,join  the Libertarian Futurist Society, a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans.

Libertarian futurists believe that culture matters! We understand that the arts and literature can be vital in envisioning a freer and better future – and in some ways can be even more powerful than politics in the long run, by better visions of the future, innovation, peace, prosperity, positive social change, and mutual respect for each other’s rights, individuality and human dignity.

 

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.

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