Libertarianism in fiction and in fact




I’ve been reading some stories by the late, great Philip K. Dick, and I came across a passage that – among many others, of course – is worth sharing.

In his suspenseful tale “Paycheck,” written (according to Wikipedia) in 1952 and first published in 1953, Dick sets a story of corporate skullduggery in a believable near future. In this future security state, “the SP [Security Police] were everywhere,” he wrote.

“Everywhere?” he continued. “Not quite. When an individual person was defenseless, a business was not. The big economic forces had managed to remain free, although virtually everything else had been absorbed by the Government. Laws that had been eased away from the private person still protected property and industry. The SP could pick up any given person, but they could not enter and seize a company, a business.”

In Dick’s story, “this had been clearly established in the middle of the twentieth century.”

Recall that on January 21, 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision on the case of Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission, validating the idea that corporations are “persons” entitled to the same freedoms and rights that our Constitution grants to “the people.” The right affirmed in that decision is the right to influence elections. (For more information on this decision, see Move to Amend, a coalition whose slogan is “We the People, Not We the Corporations.”)

How far off was Dick in anticipating such a world?

And how am I going to connect “Paycheck” with space exploration and development, you may be wondering?

After more than a week of extensive and adulatory coverage of multibillionaire Jeff Bezos in the Washington Post this summer, upon the occasion of his purchase of the paper, finance columnist Allan Sloane reported on Bezos’s personal politics, which are libertarian. “If you’re going to own a high-class journalistic enterprise like The Post, whose job is to call powerful forces to account, you should expect to be called to account yourself,” Sloan wrote.

“If you check the numerous articles about Bezos…you see that he ducks and weaves when he’s asked about libertarianism…. I’d at least like to hear from Bezos what his beliefs are and to have him reconcile the question of his being a libertarian who’s benefited immensely from taxpayers’ R&D money.” Sloan was referring in this case to the federal government’s aiding and abetting of the development of what we now call the Internet, without which Amazon would not have made billions for Bezos.

Bezos reportedly has invested millions in the Seasteading Institute, which wants to build floating communities in the world’s oceans, free of national or global governance, creating a new real estate market in international waters. (What about what’s under the water? What about the global commons?) The Institute’s list of staff, trustees, and advisors includes zero females, I notice.

As Salon’s political writer Brian Beutler has observed,  “Libertarianism didn’t become a well-financed political movement because it has a large constituency, but because libertarian elites provide the valuable service of promoting respectable-sounding intellectual arguments for regressive fiscal policy. If libertarian populists didn’t believe that stuff too, they’d just call themselves ‘populists’.”

According to the Libertarian Party platform adopted in 2012, Libertarians “seek a world of liberty…in which all individuals are sovereign over their own lives [and] free to follow their own dreams…without interference from government or any authoritarian power.” They “believe that respect for individual rights is the essential precondition for a free and prosperous world…”

(I happened to notice that among the Libertarian Party’s “leadership” are 14 males and two females….)

In a Wikipedia entry on “libertarian science fiction,” books by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Robert Heinlein, and (alas) Neal Stephenson are offered as examples. I thought Stephenson’s Snow Crash was stunning. Wikipedia’s description of the books matches with my memory of it, so I’ll offer a bit of it here: “The story begins in Los Angeles in the unspecified future, no longer part of the United States. The federal government of the United States has ceded most of its power to private organizations and entrepreneurs. Franchising, individual sovereignty, and private vehicles reign (along with drug trafficking, violent crime, and traffic congestion). Mercenary armies compete for national defense contracts while private security guards preserve the peace in sovereign, gated housing developments.” Stephenson’s near-future world was, like Dick’s in “Paycheck,” disturbingly believable.

I met Stephenson a few years ago at a meeting in D.C. and found him both a razor-sharp intellect and a nice guy. He declared at that meeting that he was done with cyberpunk and now interested in private development of space launch capabilities. (You can read an article he wrote in connection to that meeting here, and another related piece of his here.)

According to Wikipedia, Stephenson has served as an advisor to Blue Origins, the commercial space launch company owned by Jeff Bezos.

I’ve written in previous posts here about the strong libertarian flavor of the ideology of many commercial space advocates. (See, for example, this post from earlier this year.) Individual (now including corporate) freedom, free-market capitalism, private property rights, no government interference – these values are dear to so many advocates of the idea of commercial exploitation of space. They are at the core of a belief system that insists that humans are destined and thus have the right to expand into the solar system and beyond, using whatever resources they can grab to get along.

There is nothing free and open about this conception of space development, as it gives first dibs on extraterrestrial resources to those who have the means to get up there and take them.

Saving the world from NEOs



In reviewing literature for a paper that I’m writing, I’ve come across a marvelous paper published in the journal Social Studies of Science in 2007. In “Colliding worlds: asteroid research and the legitimization of war in space,” British scholar Felicity Mellor thoroughly documents the evolution of the NEO-threat narrative in the late 20th century. She shows how “during the 1980s and 1990s, a small group of planetary scientists and astronomers set about actively promoting the asteroid impact threat,” drawing an “an expanded empirical base” and also on “narratives of technological salvation.” By the turn of the new century, she observed, “the meaning of asteroids had gone from being distant relics of Solar System history to being a hidden enemy that could strike at any time with catastrophic consequences.”

My direct involvement with the NEO community of scientists who study NEOs began around the turn of the century. Picking up where Mellor left off, I will focus in my paper on the continued evolution and propagation of the NEO-threat-response story in the 21st century, up to and including the Obama Administration’s embrace of a human mission to an asteroid, asteroid mining, and the need for “planetary defense” against NEO impacts.

Mellor is interested, as I am, in “the ideological function of narrative,” and she explores in her paper how astronomers and planetary scientists who believed funding agencies were paying insufficient attention to NEO observation and characterization joined forces, over time, with nuclear weapons developers who were looking for a worthy target for their “toys.” This joining of science and war is nothing new. Nonetheless, I have always found it disturbing, and I find it disturbing in what I call “NEO World.” This coupling was very much in evidence during the proceedings of this year’s international planetary defense conference, which I wrote about in a previous post. (If you’re interested in more on nuking asteroids, see this post.)

By a thorough examination of technical papers, official reports, and popular accounts, Mellor saw how “scientists promoting the [NEO] impact threat have repeatedly turned to narratives of technological salvation that imagined the ultimate superweapon – a space-based planetary defense system that would protect the Earth from the cosmic enemy.””

Think of the current “save the world!” mantra repeated by many advocates of the administration’s Asteroid Initiative. Even corporate mining of the asteroids for precious metals and other marketable materials is promoted these days as a way to “save the world”. Really.

If you don’t believe me, check out this Google+ “hangout” on asteroids, offered by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on May 31. I tuned in live. Speakers included then-NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye, B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu, Planetary Resources Co-Chairman Peter Diamandis, and OSTP assistant director for grand challenges Cristin Dorgelo.  (Just FYI, from 2006-2012 Dorgelo was vice president for prize operations with the X Prize Foundation, founded and headed by Peter Diamandis.) I found the discussion a cheerleading session for B612, Planetary Resources, and NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission.  No surprise…. Pretty much everybody chanted the “save the world” mantra, claiming that’s what their respective projects would do. (If you don’t believe me, you can hear it for yourself, here.)

Back to Mellor. “By 2002,” she noted, “the notion that asteroids were threatening objects had become commonplace among asteroid scientists.” Right on. Whether knowingly or not, these scientists were promulgating a “traditional narrative logic” which demands a cause and an effect – say, a threat and a response. Thus they constructed NEOs as actors, as objects with agency, and what NASA’s NEO program prefers to call “potentially hazardous asteroids” became “killers” and “destroyers.” The result was, and remains, what Mellor characterizes as “the construal of asteroids as acting agents, of astronomy as the means to salvation, and of human intervention in space as a moral cause.”

And where does this narrative lead? According to Mellor, it led these scientists into “collaborations with weapons scientists and helped fuel a discourse of fear that served a particular ideological purpose.”

I’ll offer a couple of quotes that come to mind as I consider this matter. “Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness” (Marshall McLuhan – and, no, that’s not a typo. And “What a man [sic] believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts” (George Bernard Shaw).

Talk amongst yourselves….

Will humans survive? Discuss.



Do humans have a long-term future? If so, how, and where? Scientists and scholars considered “the longevity of human civilization” last week at a symposium organized by planetary scientist David Grinspoon, inaugural NASA/Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in astrobiology at the library’s Kluge Center.

I’m a member of the school of thinking that describes “nature” as a social construction created by “modern” humans who saw themselves as separate from their environment. This conception of “nature” has enabled humans to think of themselves as free to exploit the environment they live in for their own individual benefit. He who eats the fastest gets the most, as the old saying goes. And so here we are in the developed world of early 21st century fretting about dwindling resources while the rich get richer and use up more stuff as, consequently, the poor get poorer. Some poor don’t ever get a chance to drive, or even ride in, an automobile, while most rich own several (one of which will be a high-priced hybrid, or even a Tesla, of course)….

Before I digress into fretting about human greed and corporate amorality, let me relay a few lines about the symposium.

Grinspoon put these questions (among others) to participants: What’s worth saving in nature? What should we choose to save? Can we form a healthy, stable, long-term relationship with technology and the biosphere?

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of the National Museum of Natural History said what we need to save is human resilience. Paleoclimate records have revealed that the last 6 million year’s of Earth’s history – the period of human origins and evolution – is marked by “dramatic instability.” And over the past 20 years the scientific narrative of human origins and evolution has changed from one of gradual human dominion over nature to one of persistent human adaptation to change. The difference between homo sapiens and its hominid predecessor species, Potts said, is our species’ ability to alter our environment. “We live in the world by altering it.” This is both good news and bad news…. In order for human life to survive, we – that is, homo sapiens – need to embrace a planetary, or even solar-system or cosmic – perspective, Potts argued, a way of thinking that will enable us to change our relationship with our environment (Earth, the solar system, the universe) in ways that will improve rather than degrade our long-term prospects for survival.

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson said he’s “dubious” about the proposition that the human species must extend its presence into outer space to ensure its survival. His “terracentric” view is that humans are a product of Earth, evolved to live here. As to speculations about machine intelligence eventually matching or surpassing human intelligence or an eventual merger of human and machine, Robinson is also dubious. We don’t understand thinking and consciousness, and “the singularity is not close to happening.”

Planetary climatologist Jacob Haqq-Misra posed the question, “Who is it bad for?” if the human species goes extinct. Humans tend to think of Earth, and other planetary bodies, as objects of instrumental value (providing us with resources). Perhaps we should consider the idea that planets have intrinsic value….

Values, morals, and ethics were a topic of discussion throughout the day – in particular, the values of democracy and capitalism. Democracy – government by, for, and of “the people” – and capitalism – a socioeconomic system in which private property rights, private profit, and individual rights (and remember that the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that corporations have “individual” rights) – co-exist in many parts of the world. I would argue, however, that they do not co-exist peacefully. Democratic values – justice, fairness, equality, the common good – are in conflict with exploitive capitalistic values. Robinson and others at the symposium raised the point that if capitalism continues to run roughshod over democracy, then humankind is, indeed, doomed to extinction. (One scientist in attendance who took to the microphone to point the finger at capitalism as practiced today prompted a Kluge Center staffer to attempt to take the mike away from him – bad form, I say. “American self-government was created by a small group of people who were thinkers as well as doers, engaged in the world of affairs and the world of ideas,” the Kluge Center states on its web site. “The Library of Congress, at the beginning of its third century, has an unprecedented opportunity to help revive this traditional American interaction through the [Kluge Center].”)

Here’s my five cents worth on the topic: if we humans can’t learn to think and act globally (“planetarily”?), then we’re likely doomed. Advocating for colonizing outer space as a means to ensuring human survival is a way of avoiding this pressing need to re-think our relationship with our environment. And if we, the people, continue to embrace the exploitive, rapacious, amoral version of capitalism practiced today as a way of life, then we deserve what many scientists and scholars speculate we’re going to get….

The Kluge Center has posted a brief recap of the symposium proceedings online, and a video recording of the event will be posted soon. A transcript and webcast of a February 28 symposium organized by Grinspoon on “ the evolving moral landscape: perspectives on the environment – literary, historical, and interplanetary” is also available online.