Volume 18, Number 2, June, 2000

Guest Editorial

Confessions of a Cheerful Libertarian

By David Brin
"Scratch the surface of most cynics and you find a frustrated idealist—someone who made the mistake of converting his ideals into expectations."

    —     Peter Senge

I get confused looks from some of my libertarian pals, when I say I'm one of them.

On the one hand, I send money to the LP every year and routinely vote Libertarian in primary elections. I was even a keynote speaker at the California LP Convention, last year.

On the other hand. I admit turning around and often voting for Democrats in general elections. I also send cash to Greenpeace and the ACLU. So what the hell am I?

After serious thought, I can only conclude that I must be a … (shudder) … pragmatist.

No word is better guaranteed to offend those who love the memic pleasures of ideology. According to the tradition of Plato, the world is made up of essence—some may be right and others wrong, but any person worthy of respect must believe in some essential "truth," some law or model of human nature, whether it's the labor theory of value or an absolute right of property. Men of the True Right and True Left often respect each other, but they cannot bear those wishy-washy types who see partial truths coming from all sides.

Sorry. I have urgent needs for the present and dreams about tomorrow. I want those needs satisfied and those dreams fulfilled, but the last century has proved that ideologies aren't especially helpful at achieving practical goals. Moreover, recent advances in anthropology, neuroscience, and complexity theory converge toward one conclusion: even the most compelling ideological description can never encompass the range of emergent and often contradictory qualities contained in a single human being, let alone whole societies.

What do I need right now? Because I'm a brash eccentric, I need a society that is open, tolerant, even welcoming of eccentricity. One whose institutions are accountable enough to minimize the inevitable capricious power abuses that fester in every human culture. One where competition takes place under conditions that maximize fair comparison of quality (in goods, services, and ideas) while minimizing the destructive effects of our most loathsome human trait—our talent for rationalizing cheating and oppression.

What do I want for tomorrow? A world where coercion is minimized and individuals are free to achieve the maximum they can by making deals with each other, leveraging off others' talents, and benefiting from the mutual criticism that only true freedom engenders. Now I concede—heck, I avow!—that these desiderata sound awfully libertarian. But let's recall that ironically, the same futurist dream was shared by Marxists! They, too, envisioned a final destination without states or any coercive institutions, only human beings interacting autonomously. The difference was always over the right path to achieve that paradise of emancipated individuals. Marxists fantasized that it would emerge semi-violently from some final sage in industrial capitalization—as if that ongoing task could ever be finished! Libertarians, on the other hand, see the ultimate apotheosis of individualism coming as a result of … Well, here's where we have a problem, because there are some real contradictions that I seldom hear my libertarian friends talk about. Especially over the basic difference between evolution and revolution.

Revolution is far more gut-satisfying and romantic, but in order to justify it, you must assume the worst. To hear some true believers rail against today's society, you'd think we live in a wretched Orwellian dictatorship filled with bovine Democrats, porcine Republicans, and sheeplike voters, all of them too stupid to perceive the Truth.

I admit that I'm drawn to these characters, because of their admirable passion. I find much that's appealing abut their ardent dream of a better world. Alas, their stern righteousness makes them irresistible targets for playfull teasing. For instance, I find that nothing causes these delightfully articulate firebrands to go tongue-locked more efficiently than asking the following question. Can you name one human civilization, past or present, that was even half as close to what you desire as contemporary America is today?

Like their spiritual cousins—radical feminists—these fellows enjoy the indignant rush of knowing they are right. And like radical feminists, they find it galling to be reminded how far freedom has already come. Or how this culture seems almost designed to bring them about. Or that their citizenship may have real value in a civilization that—while still flawed—is nevertheless more hope-filled and worthy of the name than any other.

In light of where I'm publishing this draft—a libertarian SF newsletter—let's narrow the discussion to science fiction.

I contend that most libertarian SF is similar, at heart, to radical-feminist SF, sharing roots that run far deeper than their superficially disparate political preconceptions. Both perceive a desperate need to tear out a pervasive evil—root and branch—replacing it with something much more uncomplicated and, in the author's view, more inherently "natural." It's all part of a grand tradition of polemical, rather than exploratory science fiction. Instead of suggesting realistic but tedious possibilities for gradual reform, both libertarian and feminist SF often focus on wish-fantasies portraying one paramount dream—simplification through revolution.

Take a glance at the most popular works in both subgenres. Plot scenarios nearly always revolve around chopping away society's complex institutional structures, replacing them with a thumbnail prescription simple enough to fit on a few pages, to be imposed by a few super-competent protagonists-heroes who can dispense with accountability because their inherent virtues make it unnecessary. Only instead of kindly matriarchs who take over after some devastating war or disease (a chief cliche in feminist novels), the most hackneyed archetype in libertarian SF features rebellious space colonies cutting their ties to decadent Earth and proclaiming some trimmed-down utopia in orbit, setting themselves proudly aloof from the irredeemable masses festering below.

(Of course, now that Earthers have been warned in advance by such novels, cities will act to prevent rebellion by ungrateful astronauts. They'll accomplish this by the simple means of choosing adults to crew space stations, instead of boys obsessed with hotwiring mobile home in space.)

Why do simplification-fantasies have such a powerful draw, no matter how repetitiously or even preposterously they are told? Pondering this subject, I realize I have more questions than answers. One sign of an infuriating pragmatist nonideologue, I'm afraid! So I did the obvious … I wrote a questionnaire!

Drop by http://www.kithrup.com/brin (updated link --Editor) and see my "questionnaire on ideology". It was written to explore some deep assumptions that run—like underground river — below many political system. For example: how did you arrive at your beliefs? People tend to credit their own convictions to logical appraisal of the facts, while blaming their opponents' obduracy on intrinsic character flaws or conformity to propaganda. But does this image really hold water when it comes to libertarianism?

You want propaganda? Modern western media messages—e.g., in nearly every Hollywood movie—emphasizes in-your-face individualism and suspicion of authority, more relentlessly than any other propaganda theme in human history. Never before has an idea been given such play! So might our libertarian attitudes actually arise from indoctrination? Flom lessons we've imbibed since childhood, suckling them from the teat of a society that is much less conformist and more cherishing of individualism than we let ourselves imagine?

When I mention this in public, some audience members greet the apparent paradox with displeasure, even anger. It's discomfiting to imagine that a proudly singular trait might have arisen from endless propaganda. that others, faced with unmistakable evidence—their own memories of every movie and novel they ever enjoyed—broke out into smiles, even chuckles, over the rich irony. These alphas, true individualists, don't feel threatened or shamed by the insight. So society wants them to be eccentric and defy authority? Well, then, so be it! Thee past is over, as far as they are concerned. What's ahead is all that matters.

Hence the name I give my own brand of libertarianism … Cheerful Libertarianism.

Angry types tend to think that an individualist paradise has been prevented. We are kept from a natural state of grace because a grievous sin (in this case, government) that can only be overcome through revolution. They believe this, neve noticing the quasi-religiosity of their philosophy, or the old-fashioned righteous satisfaction that it offers.

Cheerful Libertarianism takes a diametrically opposite view—that the natural human condition for thousands of years has been either gruesomely oppressive feudalism or Lord-of-the-Flies chaos. Only now, After near-uniform worldwide repression and woe, things seem to to changing at last, in important ways. Our present levels of freedom, tolerance, individual eccentricity, and general rambunctiousness are unprecedented and growing at incredible rates. Instead of being fallen creatures, we seem to be rising toward incredible levels of self-actualization, individual achievement and liberty. Moreover, the society that got us this far-though fraught with troubles and occasional outrages-just might be pretty good compared to everything that came before, offering an excellent platform for evolution toward better things.

Here's a thought that might revolutionize modern libertarianism: perhaps our fellow citizens aren't fools after all! Maybe the bulky government they've repeatedly voted for isn't intrinsically vile, but an awkward, intermediate necessity that's one stage along the way from feudalism toward a world of open opportunity that our brainy, hyper-educated grandchildren will take for granted.

Instead of railing how stupid our fellow citizens have been, Cheerful Libertarianism congratulates them on how far they managed to come using such gross and crudely inefficient tools. Only now (we add) it's time to outgrow the complicated and coercive, bureaucracy-heavy tools! For example: universal education in state schools helped uplift prior generations out of illiterate class systems; now the lack of choice is preventing further progress by stifling Educational innovations that might arise out of competition. With rising sophistication, we can move on to simpler and more mature synergies that make progressively less use of coercive state power, leveraging against individual effort more and more as time goes on.

People might actually vote for such a mirage! A message that congratulates them for their past success with crude tools, while insisting that the future should be different. A message filled with ideas that are pragmatic, incremental, even accepting of compromise, yet always applying pressure in the direction of less coercion— bureaucracy and more reliance on the creativity of autonomous human beings.

One thing is certain: contemptuously railing at voters isn't working. They do not-and won't ever-cast ballots for candidates who call them fools, repeating the standard, self-righteous rant. A rant that says this gentle, prosperous, tolerant, improving civilization is actually a cesspit of brutality and devoir. Oh please.

Yes, the rant feels good. But I want to see freedom-loving candidates actually gain some power. So here's an idea. let's replace the failed harangue with a message offering our fellow citizens both congratulations and new hope. Hope that we can rise even faster toward a future of freedom and opportunity for all.

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