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Monday, March 24, 2014

How Science Fiction Introduced Me to Freedom

    Brian Monteith has put this up on ThinkScotland and also, with the speech edited as it uses a shorter format, on the Free Society blog Please put any comments there.

WHEN I AND THE WORLD were much younger than now and both of us thought we were more “leftist” than today I read a book, set on the Moon, about a revolution where the very lowest in society rise up and overthrow the corrupt imperialist running dogs of the ruling class. By throwing rocks at them.

With a fair bit of liberated sex thrown in, which played to one of my interests at the time, and an awful lot of slang dialogue, which was not such an interest, it definitely established itself as hip countercultural stuff.

The book is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein (whose picture on the cover astonishingly showed him with a military style crew cut.) It took me some time to realise that the absolute free market regime this underclass live under was not “left wing”. It exists only because the oppressors, an EU style world state, are too lazy to run society and the lack of any popular democracy means people cannot oppress each other in the name of democracy as we do today.

As is normal with Heinlein the social engineering is as well thought out as the traditional sort of engineering. Only years later did I find out that the mentor character, Professor Bernardo de la Paz was closely based on the real life anarchist philosopher Robert LeFevre. There is no shortage of the action needed for an exciting story full of ideas from an intelligent computer to a remarkably simple and genuinely effective ultimate weapon - enough to satisfy anybody looking for such. Also, there are as many ideas per paragraph most writers give per book, but then that applies to most of the Heinlen’s  books.

The philosophical heart of the book is this speech from the professor made to the Lunar Constitutional Convention: 

“Like fire & fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom - if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting - but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.

Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional ...for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.

This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proven innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the _only_ way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation ... or by age ... or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large - and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.

You might even consider installing the candidate who got the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don't reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous - think about it! In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes worse than overt tyrannies.

But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district. For example you each represent about 10,000 human beings, perhaps 7,000 of voting age - and some of you were elected by slim majorities  Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by 4,000 citizens. He would then represent these 4,000 affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would be a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice. Or a man with 8,000 supporters might have 2 votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out - many of them! But you could work them out ... and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government; the disgruntled minority which feels - correctly - that it has been disenfranchised.

But whatever you do not let the past be a straitjacket!

I note 1 proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent - the more impediment to legislation the better. But instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a 2/3rds majority ... while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere 1/3rd minority. Preposterous? think about it.

If a bill is so poor that it cannot command 2/3rds of your consents is it not likely to make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as 1/3rd is it not likely that you would be better off without it?
But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative. Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies ... no interference, however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation ... no involuntary taxation. Comrades if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.

What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government power to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labours."

As a Scot, with our SNP government having made some comments about how, come the day, they will provide us with a constitution that will enshrine all sorts of rights (the second ‘draft’ is now available), not for us to restrain the state but giving the state a duty to restrain us in the name of the "environment", education or what have you, I wish any of them had as much understanding as the Professor's audience.

I don’t want to upset any fans of Ayn Rand, who is a libertarian icon (rather a contradiction in terms) but she isn’t a fraction as good as Heinlein. Possibly her leaden prose and hammering the ideas home makes her better guru material. More likely the fact that Heinlein plays with all sorts of social ideas in different books; bureaucracy Star Beast; military rule Starship Troopers; absolute monarchy Glory Road; constitutional monarchy Double Star; by secret conspiracy Friday; dictatorship Time Enough For Love; theocracy Stranger in a Strange Land and this made him too big and unpredictable to be buttonholed as anybody’s guru.

On the other hand his successful societies have at least as much freedom as we have seen in our lifetimes. What more should you ask for?

“Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbours than the other sort.”
Robert A. Heinlen 1907-1988

Neil Craig is proprietor of Scotland's largest independent science fiction bookshop

Brian also found the "Lone Wolf" picture which is rather cool of him

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