What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?

A bust of J.R.R. Tolkien in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford. (Creative Commons photo). 

By William H. Stoddard

The Prometheus Award has been given annually since 1982, and the Hall of Fame Award since 1983. All through the twenty-first century, lists of four to six finalists have been announced for each award. And for much of that time, online comments on the nominations and awards have often questioned their rationale.  There have been comments suggesting that the awards could go to virtually any book, or to winners that have no libertarian content, or indeed are actively opposed to libertarianism.

“Virtually any book” is an exaggeration. There are any number of compelling books whose themes aren’t political: The Island of Dr. Moreau, At the Mountains of Madness, and Ringworld are all examples. Even past winners of the Prometheus Award have written such books, such as Michael Flynn’s brilliantly tragic The Wreck of The River of Stars. There are also books written from viewpoints opposed to libertarianism, such as Star Maker or the Foundation series. I think it’s safe to say that none of these could have been a Best Novel nominee, or can be expected to be a Hall of Fame nominee.

On the other hand, it’s long established that our awards go to the book, not the author. There’s no list of official libertarian authors, or of unacceptable antilibertarian authors. A work can be considered if it attempts to envision a free society, or to show a path that might lead to increased freedom, or if it shows the dangers of authoritarianism as such, or deconstructs an earlier work based on antilibertarian assumptions. Prometheus Awards have gone to authors such as Ken MacLeod (several times!), Terry Pratchett, Charles Stross, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton because our members agreed that they had something important to say to us about these topics.

But on the gripping hand, exactly what it is that marks a work as of libertarian interest, or disqualifies it from being considered that way, isn’t always clear to nonlibertarians. (For that matter, libertarians may disagree about this; our juries have some lively private discussions each year!) So I’d like to discuss one of our recent honorees, a work whose admission to the Hall of Fame evoked an unusually large volume of questions: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.

On one hand, I’ve seen a number of comments to the effect that there’s nothing in The Lord of the Rings that’s relevant to libertarianism, or to political philosophy of any sort. That seems a surprising statement! This is, after all, a novel about a magical device that grants the user power over others, and particularly the ability to take over and control other magical devices; that is an invaluable tool of conquest and domination; and that also is dangerously addictive to the user. In fact, the One Ring is a modernized version of Plato’s parable of the Ring of Gyges, an ancient legend about the corruption of power. It’s hard to imagine a premise for fantasy better adapted to make a libertarian point. Despite Tolkien’s disclaimer of “allegory” and overt messages, the applicability is there.

It’s also worth noting that the Shire, the home of the novel’s hero and his friends, is a much freer society than is common in fantasy. It has a mixed government, part aristocracy and part commercial republic, but its only important functions seem to be police (and concerned more with strayed beasts than strayed hobbits) and the mails; it’s really quite a good fit to the old idea of the “minimal state.” Tolkien’s description of it seems to owe something to independent Iceland, in which several libertarian writers have found inspiration.

Later in the story, the Shire gets taken over by outside intruders, who propose to modernize it, and who set up a system of “gatherers and sharers” who, as one resident of the Shire says, do a lot more gathering than sharing. Tolkien doesn’t push the reader’s face into it, but this episode looks a lot like a socialist takeover, and like many such takeovers, it leaves the Shirefolk both poorer and less free.

On the other hand, some commenters have thought that The Lord of the Rings had elements that were clearly and obviously opposed to libertarianism. More than one commenter, in particular, has pointed to the accession of Aragorn (or “Strider”) to the throne of the reunited kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, taking it that monarchy is obviously at odds with libertarian ideas.

Many libertarians are anarchists, and rule by a king is obviously opposed to anarchism. (Tolkien, incidentally, expressed sympathy for anarchism in one of his letters.) But so is rule by a voting majority, or any other sovereign entity. How bad a given monarchy is depends on what sort of rule the monarch engages in; a good monarch can be a lesser evil than a bad popular government.

On the other hand, many libertarians are not anarchists, but supporters of constitutional government that respects people’s rights. And in a libertarian view, the important rights are “life, liberty, and property”—freedom to think for oneself, to express one’s thoughts, to form relationships, to trade and produce, and by doing so to sustain one’s life and happiness. The right to vote is a less important issue, and would be even less important if government were barred from violating the primary rights. What’s important is that rights and law are prior to government, and that rulers should be restrained by them. A democratic majority unrestrained by law, and doing anything it pleases, is unlibertarian; a king ruling under law—as was assumed in much of the medieval writing that Tolkien studied—need not be. And Tolkien showed Aragorn acting as such a king, and moreover, not asserting the right to rule through superior power, but asking the people of Minas Tirith to consent to his rule. It’s especially notable that Aragorn makes a point of preserving the rights of the Shire, that happy near-anarchy, to maintain its own laws and customs, to the point of not himself crossing its borders.

In other words, the element in The Lord of the Rings that seems incompatible with libertarianism for many readers is less so than it appears. It’s arguably incompatible with democracy, but democracy isn’t a primary value to libertarians; democratic majorities have too often voted to take away rights that libertarians want to preserve. It seems that some readers, not very familiar with libertarian ideas, may have assumed that libertarians must agree with them, instead of finding out what libertarians think. And one of the goals of the Prometheus Award and the Hall of Fame is to provide a list of works that will help people find that out—among which The Lord of the Rings is a good example, offering many ideas congenial to libertarian thought, but not by any means the only one.

One thought on “What Do You Mean ‘Libertarian’?”

  1. Nice job Bill – Although Tolkien isn’t, as he stated, writing “allegorically” in the “Rings” the “applicability” is certainly there and he was certainly applying his knowledge of 1930’s style totalitarian dictatorships to his portrayal of Sauron’s Mordor. Incidentally, all true libertarians will probably have need of the type of “northern” courage exemplified in characters such as Aragorn and Gandalf before long. Best Libertarian Regards – RW

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *