Volume 10, Number 1, Spring, 1992

Where's the Libertarianism?

By Victoria Varga

In 1975 I read Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed for the first time. I could hardly get through the book. Reading it sent me into acute cognitive dissonance (academic jargon for ideological discomfort). After all, I had read Atlas Shrugged at least 400 times. I knew very well what made a novel "moral" by Objectivist standards, and The Dispossessed certainly did not qualify. The book's hero, Shevek, lived in a communal society, for god's sakes, where people were intimidated into sharing from the very youngest age. People in Shevek's commune made fun of "propertarians," but the society they were making fun of was fascist: property was owned by the people, but controlled by a very authoritarian state.

A few years later I read Le Guin's book again at the suggestion of a libertarian friend. I'd long since been kicked off the Ayn Rand Letter subscriber list for daring to disagree with Rand, by mail, on some point or another, I think it was her intolerance. The Dispossessed no longer made me uneasy. This time I noticed the subtitle: "An Ambiguous Utopia," and I finally began to see what Le Guin was trying to do. She had created the best anarchical-communal society possible, the "best of all possible worlds" according to the ideals of a couple of centuries worth of non-free market anarchists. Then she demonstrated to the reader that the best wasn't good enough. Unless Shevek had control of his work, of his property, he could not be free. The Dispossessed—like the 1991 Prometheus Award winner, In the Country of the Blind—reminded us that The Government is merely a symptom of the disease we must fight: people's desire to control one another by any means except open persuasion.

Of course many LFS members don't see The Dispossessed in that same light. The most striking characteristic of libertarians, after all, is their advanced ability to disagree with one another. A free-market anarchist friend of mine thinks that Atlas Shrugged is an elitist novel that has only one libertarian character: Ragnar Danneskjold. That's his opinion.

In an editorial, Lenda Jackson lists qualities that she has decided are required by good libertarian fiction: a successful hero/ine, an idealistic view of the human condition (proof that human action is worthwhile), and understandable, interesting prose. I wouldn't agree that all of these characteristics are necessary, or even desirable, for good fiction, though I would acknowledge that they are probably what all LFS members are looking for in good libertarian fiction.

I would like to suggest, however, that each member will find these qualities in different books, and we will often disagree about what we've found. To me, for instance, The Dispossessed fulfills all Lenda Jackson's requirements. It boasts stunning (and understandable) prose. It also features a memorable hero, Shevek, who disobeys the restrictions of his culture, finding in the process that the problems of the "propertarians" are caused by a dictatorial government—not property. Shevek then, personally, foments a revolution. The necessity and efficacy of individual action are thus extolled, and the "good guy" wins.

After listing the necessary qualities of libertarian fiction, and discussing the books that do not have these qualities, but are nominated anyway, Jackson asks: "What is the essential missing point? And who is missing it?" To me these questions have a slightly sinister tone: perhaps because I am one of those she is addressing. When LFS was being organized, many worried that non-libertarians would join and vote for statist books. As far as I can tell, our paranoia has so far been unjustified. No non-libertarians want to join, and most of the books that have created controversy between members have been nominated by people who have been active libertarians for over a decade. Perhaps they have been secret statist agitators all this time, perhaps they have worked within the movement without really understanding libertarian principles, or perhaps intelligent, freedom-loving people can disagree.

What about nominees that don't seem to be libertarian by anybody's standards? How could such books possibly be nominated? First, sometimes people nominate—or even vote for—books before they've finished reading, or before they've done a thoughtful appraisal. A few members have admitted that they nominated books because the cover blurb, or even the title, was libertarian-sounding. Perhaps we all ought to read a little harder, and be a little more careful.

But I do not exactly share the concerns expressed in a letter by Prometheus Award-winning author Victor Milán, who wonders why books by decidedly non-libertarian writers are nominated. George Orwell was not, and Ray Bradbury is not, a libertarian, but Nineteen Eighty-Four and Fahrenheit 451 are extraordinarily libertarian. The presence of these two books in our Hall of Fame helps to explain what we are all about to outsiders, perhaps encouraging them to read something less familiar on the awards list.

More to Milán's point, some of us have been guilty of nominating and recommending books that, upon reflection, seemed to be written by someone who was decidedly working against libertarianism. For instance, I would never again nominate a John Shirley novel for a Prometheus Award unless he undergoes a brain transplant. He not only seems to hate libertarians, but all life, human and otherwise. The more I read his stuff, the less I want to continue doing so.

As Victor Milán suggests, I, and others who make the mistake of nominating the "wrong" books, probably confuse rebellion with libertarianism. And I do tend to get enthusiastic about anybody who is fighting against tyranny. So from now on I promise to ask myself the following question before I nominate a title:

"After the protagonists have overthrown the dictator/alien warlord/police-state/king, will they destroy the throne or—like John Shirley—place their own asses upon it?"

Even with this cautionary note, I would like to request that we not be afraid of considering novels that later turn out to be "unworthy," or of an author that later turns out to be a non-, or even an anti-libertarian. The process of deciding and the arguments that result are the most interesting part of being an LFS member.

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