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Volume 29, Number 4, Summer 2011

Libertarianism and science fiction

By Ilya Somin

Libertarianism is better represented in science fiction and fantasy than in any other literary genre. From Robert Heinlein to the present day, libertarian writers have been among the leaders in the field. Even many genre writers who are not self-consciously libertarian have often made use of libertarian themes in their work.

 

While there is no definitive survey data on the subject, libertarian readers also seem more likely to be attracted to science fiction and fantasy than other genres. Historians of the movement routinely emphasize the role of science fiction works in helping to inspire it. Ayn Rand, probably the most widely read libertarian writer of modern times, included science fictional elements in her most famous novels, including Atlas Shrugged.

Why is science fiction so much more libertarian than other genres? The answer matters both to people interested in the genre and students of political ideology. I will try to explain both the reasons why science fiction is unusually libertarian and the reasons why it matters.

Analysis of the connection between libertarianism and science fiction is more difficult than it should be because both libertarianism and science fiction are contested concepts. Self-described libertarians disagree among themselves over many matters. Most favor strictly limited government, but some would abolish the state entirely. Libertarians are also divided between those who base their views on natural rights and those who emphasize utilitarian consequentialism. For present purposes, I define libertarianism broadly as the ideology that seeks to impose very tight limits on government power on both economic and social issues. Anarchists, advocates of the minimal state, natural rights libertarians, and utilitarian ones all agree on that much.

Similarly, barrels of ink and huge numbers of computer pixels have been devoured by the debate over the proper definition of science fiction. Here, too, I opt for a broad, inclusive definition. Science fiction includes any story set in a world that is vastly different from our present-day reality and any past historical society. This covers fiction set in low-tech fantasy worlds as well as high-tech futures, though at times I will consider fantasy literature as a separate category of its own.

Why the Politics of Science Fiction Matters

Why should we care if there is an unusually high concentration of libertarian writers and readers in the science fiction genre? It turns out that the politics of science fiction has implications that go beyond the genre itself.

Most people pay little attention to politics, but spend much more time and energy following popular culture. And science fiction is an important part of that culture. A 2010 Harris poll found that about 26% of American adults read science fiction novels, thereby making science fiction one of the most popular literary genres (trailing only mysteries and thriller novels). That is a much larger proportion than read nonfiction books about politics (17%) and “current affairs” (14%). And the figure does not include the many people who watch science fiction movies and TV shows. Given its popularity, science fiction may well influence the political views of a large number of people.

Moreover, science fiction may have an especially great political influence because it affects our perception of what the future will be like. That includes ideas about the political institutions that we are likely to need in that future. Far more people read or watch science fiction than read serious nonfiction studies about future political and economic trends. Science fiction also has political impact because a disproportionate fraction of its readers are young. According to the Harris poll, 31% of people in the 18-33 age group read the genre, compared to 20% of those over 45. Numerous studies show that people’s political views are most susceptible to change when they are young. Other things equal, a genre read primarily by young people is more likely to affect the distribution of political opinion than one read by the middle aged or the elderly.

The genre also tends to attract readers with higher than average levels of education. Such people are also more likely to be politically active and influential.

For these reasons, the politics of science fiction is worthy of inquiry even for those who have little interest in the genre for its own sake. It is equally important to try to understand why science fiction and fantasy are so much more libertarian than other literary genres. Several factors are at work, some having to do with the nature of the genre itself, and others with the nature of people likely to be attracted to libertarian ideas.

Politics is far from the only important aspect of a literary genre. Good literature can advocate bad political ideas and vice versa. But although politics is far from the only noteworthy aspect of science fiction, it is important enough to try to understand better.

The Prevalence of Libertarian Ideas in the Genre

Science fiction and fantasy have long had a much greater libertarian presence than any other literary genres. Robert Heinlein, one of the founding fathers of modern science fiction, was self-consciously libertarian. Several of his books incorporate libertarian, antigovernment themes. Other prominent, explicitly libertarian science fiction writers include Larry Niven, David Brin, and Vernor Vinge. There is also a much larger number of writers who do not think of themselves as libertarian, but nonetheless have strong libertarian overtones to their work, especially in taking a skeptical view of government power. Ursula LeGuin, one of the most influential science writers of the last forty years, is a left-wing anarchist whose antigovernment views are reflected in her work. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for many other nonlibertarian science fiction writers.

Similar patterns are also prevalent in fantasy literature, where recent work by George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie, Daniel Abraham, and many others has taken a highly critical view of state power. In both Martin’s popular Song of Ice and Fire series and Abercrombie’s First Law series, nearly all of the contending governments and rulers seem to be repressive in nature, and all are portrayed as structurally flawed. That contrasts with some, more traditional heroic fantasy, which ascribes the flaws of government to individual bad rulers and implies that government would function well if only the right people were in power. Obviously, the former approach is much more libertarian than the latter.

Over the last decade, the two science fiction or fantasy series that have had the greatest cultural impact have been J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings (which was made into a highly successful series of movies), and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Both series have very strong libertarian elements.

In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien deliberately incorporated his strong suspicion of government. The Ring of Power after which the book is named allows the wielder to control the will of others and eventually corrupts himself as well. It is, in some ways, a metaphor for political power. Significantly, not even good people like the wizard Gandalf can be trusted with the Ring. If they try to use it, they will inevitably be corrupted by it. The only way to eliminate the threat posed by the Ring is to destroy it. It cannot be used for good. This, of course, is very similar to the libertarian attitude towards political power, of which the Ring is a symbol.

More subtly, the few favorably portrayed governments in the Lord of the Rings are all very minimalistic in nature. The Shire, the society where the Hobbits live, has almost no government to speak of other than a small security force. When the Ring is destroyed and Aragorn is established as High King at the end of the story, the book hints that he will wield very little power and leave the different regions to make their own decisions in most matters.

More explicitly antigovernment is the symbolism inherent in the chapter on “The Scouring of the Shire.” When the secondary villain Saruman temporarily takes over the Shire, he and his henchmen institute a system of “gathering and sharing” under which the state expropriates the wealth of the population and transfers it to politically favored groups. The episode was likely inspired by the wartime rationing system that the left-wing Labor Party government continued even after World War II. More broadly, it represents Tolkien’s critique of socialism.

Tolkien himself was not a libertarian. He was more of a traditionalist conservative. But he did have a libertarian-like suspicion of government that is very much reflected in his work. In a personal letter, he wrote that his “political opinions lean more and more to anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control, not whiskered men with bombs).” He went on to say that “[t]he most improper job of any man, even saints …. is bossing around other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Most libertarians would agree. Tolkien differed from many libertarians on some issues, especially in his distaste for industrialization and modern technology. But he was very libertarian in his attitude towards government power.

Like the Lord of the Rings, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series also includes strong libertarian themes. The main enemies facing Harry Potter and his friends Ron and Hermione are the Dark Lord Voldemort and his “Death Eaters.” But they also constantly find themselves at odds with the Ministry of Magic, the government of the wizard world. In his article “Harry Potter and the Half-Crazed Bureaucracy,” law professor Benjamin Barton points out that the Ministry exemplifies the worst nightmares of libertarian public choice economists. It is a government that consists almost entirely of unaccountable bureaucrats who pursue their narrow self-interest at the expense of the public good. Ministry officials routinely abuse their powers with little or no effective constraint imposed by the press, public opinion, or the democratic process. They violate civil rights, imprison the innocent, and engage in crude propaganda. When pompous Ministry bureaucrat Dolores Umbridge temporarily takes over as headmistress of the heroes’ Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, she institutes a virtual reign of terror.

The Ministry also signally fails to carry what even most libertarians agree is a core function of government: defense against attack. Despite repeated warnings from Harry, his mentor Albus Dumbledore, and others, the Ministry remains oblivious to the threat of Voldemort until it is far too late. The only genuinely effective opposition to Voldemort is provided by the Order of the Phoenix, a private organization.

Ultimately, the Ministry is defeated by Voldemort, who then takes it over and uses its accumulated power to enact a reign of terror of his own. The abuses of the Death Eater-controlled Ministry, however, are merely more extreme extensions of the practices of the “normal” Ministry that preceded it. Both imprison innocent people without trial, both persecute their political opponents, and both are unaccountable and self-seeking.

Throughout the series, Rowling implies that the Ministry’s flaws are structural, not merely a result of the wrong people being in power. Even after the ineffectual Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge is replaced in the sixth book by a more decisive leader, the Ministry’s performance does not improve. There are some well-intentioned and competent officials in the Ministry, such as Ron’s father Arthur Weasley. But they are unable to effectively oppose the more ruthless bureaucrats who dominate the organization. The idea that the flaws of government are inherent and can only be alleviated by limiting the state’s powers is, of course, central to libertarian thought.

Obviously, the Ministry’s ineffectiveness against Voldemort is to some extent necessitated by the plot. If the Ministry had defeated Voldemort early on, there would have been little for the heroes to do. However, Rowling did not have to make the Ministry oppressive as well as ineffective, and she did not have to devote such a large part of the plot to its flaws.

Unlike Tolkien, Rowling may not have consciously intended to include antigovernment themes in her work. By all accounts, her political views are, for the most part, conventionally left-liberal.

Nevertheless, the Harry Potter series reflects a suspicion of government almost as great as that of libertarians. Barton speculates that Rowling’s negative portrayal of the wizard government stems from her own unpleasant experiences with British welfare bureaucrats during her years as a poor single mother. Be that as it may, the series certainly incorporates some strongly libertarian themes, whether or not that was the author’s conscious intention.

Libertarian ideas are less common in science fiction TV shows and movies than in written novels, possibly as a result of Hollywood’s strongly liberal orientation. Unlike science fiction novel writers, most of whom specialize in the genre, Hollywood producers and writers tend to be generalists. That includes those who work on science fiction movies and TV shows. They thereby reflect the political attitudes prevalent in their profession as a whole rather than those among science fiction writers specifically.

Even so, libertarianism does seem to have influenced the work of Joss Whedon, probably the most successful science fiction and fantasy TV producer of the last twenty years. Whedon has said that he deliberately incorporated libertarian themes in his 2002 science fiction series Firefly. They are also evident in his far more famous series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where government institutions are consistently portrayed negatively.

Although Buffy and her friends attend an affluent public school that does not lack for funding, most of the school officials are incompetent or worse. Later in the series, the US government’s efforts to use vampires and demons for its own benefit are viewed extremely negatively. The government’s intervention nearly leads to disaster. By contrast, Buffy and her friends, “the Scoobies,” are much more successful in their private efforts to combat the underworld. As in the Harry Potter series, government turns out to be inferior to the private sector even in its core defensive function. To drive the point home, the colonel leading the government Initiative even denounces Buffy and the Scoobies, as “anarchists,” an epithet the latter embrace.

Obviously, the vast majority of modern science fiction is not libertarian. Much of it is largely apolitical, and many other works promote conventional left-wing or conservative ideas. There is even a long tradition of socialist science fiction, dating back to the nineteenth century efforts of Edward Bellamy and H.G. Wells. The Star Trek movies and TV shows, perhaps the most popular science fiction series ever, portrays a socialist future favorably.

Even so, the incidence of libertarian themes in science fiction is far greater than in any other literary or pop cultural genre. No other genre boasts so many libertarians among its most prominent authors, and none has been so effective in conveying libertarian ideas so often.

Why Science Fiction is so Libertarian

The relative prevalence of libertarian themes in science fiction has both supply and demand elements. On the supply side, libertarian writers are more likely to work in this genre than others. From the demand perspective, libertarian readers are also more likely to be attracted to it.

There are several reasons why libertarian writers are unusually common in the genre. Unlike traditional literary fiction, which is mostly set in the present-day world or in the historical past, science fiction works are usually set in worlds vastly different from our own. This makes it easier for authors to explore ideologies that differ radically from those dominant in the real world, including libertarianism. Utopian and dystopian stories have been a staple of science fiction since the origins of the genre. The works of Edward Bellamy, Wells, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and George Orwell are all well-known early examples. So too are some of Ayn Rand’s famous novels promoting libertarianism, especially Atlas Shrugged, which might be considered near-future science fiction.

This factor doesn’t necessarily differentiate libertarianism from other ideologies that advocate a radical break with the political status quo. And it is indeed the case that other radical ideologies are also overrepresented in the genre, notably socialism and left-wing anarchism. It does, however, help explain why libertarianism is overrepresented in the genre relative to more mainstream ideologies.

A second connection between science fiction and libertarianism is technological optimism. With rare exceptions, libertarians tend to be optimistic about the possibility of new technologies improving our lives. Relative to adherents of most other ideologies, they are more likely to welcome such technological advances as genetic engineering, cloning, and nuclear power. Although there are important examples of technopessimist science fiction, the genre as a whole also tends towards technological optimism, creating an affinity with libertarianism.

Libertarianism is not, of course, the only ideology compatible with technological optimism. Early twentieth century Communists and Fascists were also bullish on modern technology, as were many left-liberals. Since the rise of the environmental movement and the threat of nuclear weapons, however, much of the political left has tended towards technological pessimism. And traditionalist conservatism has always had a certain suspicion of new technology. Thus, libertarianism is more compatible with science fiction’s dominant attitude towards new technology than the two other ideologies most prevalent in the Western world today.

A common attitude towards tradition also unites libertarians and many science fiction writers. The genre has a long history of challenging traditional attitudes on political and moral issues. Although libertarian scholars such as F.A. Hayek have emphasized the importance of freely chosen traditions that have developed in free markets and civil society, libertarianism as a whole tends to be skeptical of tradition. After all, statist control of the economy and society is a longstanding tradition in most of the world.

What is true of science fiction writers is also true of genre readers. They too tend be more open to radical new ideas, more technologically optimistic, and less deferential towards tradition than readers of most other genres. As a result, they are also more likely to be libertarian.

There is also a personality factor that might incline libertarians to become science fiction fans and vice versa. In a recent study, political psychologist Jonathan Haidt finds that, relative to liberals and conservatives, libertarians tend to be more logically oriented but less empathetic towards other people. In other words, they are likely to favor logic over emotion as the basis for their political views.

That doesn’t necessarily prove that libertarianism is correct. Attempts at logical reasoning can sometimes mislead us, and emotion is occasionally a useful guide to reality. Regardless, valuing logic over empathetic identification is also a characteristic of the science fiction genre, one that helps explain why libertarian readers are disproportionately attracted to it.

Traditional literary fiction is primarily character-focused. What grabs the reader’s attention is an empathetic identification with one or more characters and their emotional development over the course of the plot. By contrast, science fiction stories are relatively more focused on world-building. The real star of the show is often not the main character but the imaginary world created by the author. Think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Larry Niven’s Ringworld, George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, or Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea. Genre fans love to consider the pros and cons of these imaginary worlds and whether or not they are logically consistent. A person who is attracted to logic more than emotion is more likely to enjoy a literary genre focused more on world-building than character development. And such a person is also more likely to be libertarian than one who is less logic-oriented and more empathetic.

Obviously, the best science fiction stories also have good characters, and some traditional literary novels also have world-building elements. The two are not mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, as a general rule, science fiction tends to emphasize world-building over character development, whereas most other literary genres tend towards the opposite.

The combination of receptiveness to radical ideas, technological optimism, skepticism about tradition and valuing of reason over emotion helps explain the relative prevalence of libertarianism in science fiction. No other genre combines all of these attributes, and few have more than one or two.

Conclusion

Libertarianism and science fiction have a longstanding affinity. It is no accident that science fiction works by authors such as Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein have played an important role in introducing libertarian ideas to new audiences. The disproportionate presence of libertarian ideas in the genre is likely to continue, as will its role in spreading the ideology.

This is critical because science fiction plays an important role in popular culture and in forming many people’s conceptions of future politics. The genre also has an audience that is disproportionately likely to be politically influential.

At the same time, there are important limits to the genre’s reach. While almost one third of men read science fiction novels, only 20 percent of women do. Science fiction also still lacks the intellectual prestige of traditional literary fiction, which makes it less appealing to some highbrow audiences. Finally, science fiction has less appeal to people with low levels of education.

The question then arises whether libertarian successes in science fiction can be replicated in other genres. For example, according to the Harris poll, the most popular literary genre in the United States today is mystery and crime, read by 48% of Americans. This genre creates some obvious opportunities for libertarian writers, such as works focused on the iniquities of the War on Drugs. Yet there is little if any libertarian presence within the field.

The same can be said for traditional highbrow literary fiction, where there are also very few libertarians in the field. The most notable exception is Peruvian libertarian Mario Vargas Llosa, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature. It remains to be seen whether Vargas’ success can be replicated in the English-speaking world.

Other genres have fewer affinities with libertarianism than science fiction does. But that does not mean that they are totally inimical either. There is plenty of room for progress. For the time being, however, science fiction is likely to remain the most libertarian part of our cultural landscape.

Ilya Somin is an Associate Professor at George Mason University School of Law. He writes regularly for the popular Volokh Conspiracy law and politics blog.

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