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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: