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Heinlein as Libertarian 
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Post Heinlein as Libertarian
It is no secret that Robert Heinlein is greatly beloved by many, if not most of those who label themselves or their political viewpoint "libertarian." My question is, why?

I pose this question not because I disbelieve that Heinlein was at least sympathic with the general notion of libertarianism, or that those who admire him for that quality are somehow wrong. It just seems to me that the question and the answer are mired in that swamp of "everybody knows" that has plagued so many other areas of Heinlein understanding. As we've seen, taking a good hard objective look at things "everybody knows" have turned up some surprising, often contrary conclusions.

Heinlein was a political chameleon. One assessment (the older "everybody knows" one) is that he was a socialist democrat in his earliest days, so far left that his fringes were distinctly pink... who then apparently morphed into a strong conservative, very right-wing, in later years. What seems to me to be a more thoughtful and realistic assessment is that established by Bill Patterson and others, that Heinlein's view and value set changed remarkably little over his lifetime, and that it was the political continuum that changed around him. (This can seem positively heretical to those who know politics only in our current, ultra-polarized present; if you aren't aware, for example, that the Democrats were until quite recently the party of racial oppression while the Republican party came into existence on a platform of abolitionism, or otherwise understand how much the political landscape shifts and heaves from era to era like any other living entity, you may not be able to contribute much to this discussion.)

Heinlein was certainly deeply involved with what are regarded as far-left movements in his earlier life (until he was about 40), and supported strongly right-wing candidates and positions later in life (from about 50 onwards.) There is also no question that Heinlein, in his later years, went out of his way to obscure his early political connections with the Social Democrats, Upton Sinclair, EPIC, etc. This is all background to the central question, though.

That question, as best as I can distill it, is this: Were Heinlein's political views at any time, especially in the latter third of his life, truly well-characterized as "libertarian"? Is the admiration that libertarians have for Robert Heinlein well-founded? As a collateral question, analyze why The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is so beloved of libertarians - this seems to be key to much of the perception of Heinlein's stance, and may lead to a fiction vs. fact dichotomy.

I'll state that I have no horse in this race: you can end up proving that Heinlein was anything from Communist to Fascist for all I care. (I find Heinlein's politics to be one of the least interesting areas of study, although I am evidently in some minority there.) I am just bothered, when it comes to the "libertarian" tag, by the rather sloppy "everybody knows" nature of the beliefs and attributions. I'd like to see the collective brain kick over a few rocks in pursuit of some more rigorous truth. I'd like it even more if the discussion relies more on facts supported by specific citations than on sweeping claims and generalizations.

I have placed this discussion in the Advanced forum not to discourage anyone from participating but to emphasize that I'm looking for the best this community can do in contributing to a definitive result.

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Tue Aug 25, 2009 4:04 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
My general opinion about Heinlein, politics, and fiction, not of particular relevance to libertarianism, but perhaps helpful in this discussion:

Heinlein enjoyed figuring out what he could do if he had a fission-powered rocket that heated liquid zinc, or a torchship that directly converted matter to m-c-squared and could swallow any working fluid, or a family space yacht that ran on "single-H." He covered butcher paper with calculations working out orbits, launch windows, Oberth maneuvers, and so forth. He had the necessary mental tools to speculate about spaceflight, and he loved doing so.

Same with governments.

He played around with variations and erected fictional governments in considerable detail. Beyond This Horizon. Starship Troopers. Double Star. They weren't consistent with one another. They weren't necessarily systems Heinlein wanted to live under. He was exploring them. And he wanted to get the reader to explore them too.

This culminates in the celebrated passage in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress where Prof tosses out half a dozen wacky ideas for a fresh Loonie government. They may not be practical, but they certainly bear thinking about.

To Heinlein, governments were toys. Rather like starships.

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Tue Aug 25, 2009 5:15 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
beamjockey wrote:
<snip>Same with governments.

He played around with variations and erected fictional governments in considerable detail. Beyond This Horizon. Starship Troopers. Double Star. They weren't consistent with one another. They weren't necessarily systems Heinlein wanted to live under. He was exploring them. And he wanted to get the reader to explore them too.

This culminates in the celebrated passage in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress where Prof tosses out half a dozen wacky ideas for a fresh Loonie government. They may not be practical, but they certainly bear thinking about.

To Heinlein, governments were toys. Rather like starships.

Yes, well said. And that also pretty much says why he was a libertarian in the broadest sense -- the type/style of government was not a given of his world view, but an element of intellectual play. This also says he was intellectually a turn-of-the-century progressive -- not terribly incompatible with libertarianism as it became after 1975, and possibly even with Nock and the libertarianism of the early 20th century. (oh, and Jim, you neglected to mention with your other croggling example that at the turn-of-the-20th progressive Republicans were the liberal reformers, whereas the Democrats were the party of the Political Machine."

However, the short and definitive answer to why Heinlein is thought of is a libertarian is found in the Schulman interview, where he says something to the effect that, it doesnt matter if a free market is more efficient or productive than a managed economy -- the important thing is that it is free.

Now, practical politics is the art of doing what you can with what you have to work with. Heinlein's positions on particular issues and what he suggested could be done with them have very little to do with his philosophy -- they have to do with seeing what's available to work with and what you can do with it.

But I look at his core philosophy and what I see is a radical individualist -- so much more radically libertarian than the general run of libertarians that they tend to gasp and run away. In the last several books, he recapitulates Nietsche and goes him one better: Nietzsche moved morals over to the category of esthetics; Heinlein moved metaphysics over to the category of esthetics. You can hardly get more radical-individualist than that.

Most radical individualists tend to be anarchists. Heinlein wasn't an anarchist because he didn't see the practical politics of it. But he has the basic attitudes that characterize individualist anarchists. So, no matter where you place him on the spectrum, there is always going to be a dissonance -- because there was a dissonance in his own mind.


Tue Aug 25, 2009 5:46 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
JamesGifford wrote:
It is no secret that Robert Heinlein is greatly beloved by many, if not most of those who label themselves or their political viewpoint "libertarian." My question is, why?

<snip>That question, as best as I can distill it, is this: Were Heinlein's political views at any time, especially in the latter third of his life, truly well-characterized as "libertarian"?

Is the admiration that libertarians have for Robert Heinlein well-founded?

As a collateral question, analyze why The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is so beloved of libertarians - this seems to be key to much of the perception of Heinlein's stance, and may lead to a fiction vs. fact dichotomy.


Ok, just trying to isolate the questions from the explication of background.

There is a core problem with this discussion in that I don't know what you mean by "libertarian." There is a deep schism within the movement brought about by the Libertarian Party's welcoming of people who can, in all charity, be characterized as people -- and particularly conservatives -- with only libertarian "leanings."

From the perspective of the movement, libertarianism means, au fond, only one thing: a libertarian is someone who believes all political and social interactions should be conducted only by consentual arrangements.

to be continued


Wed Aug 26, 2009 12:05 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
BillPatterson wrote:
There is a core problem with this discussion in that I don't know what you mean by "libertarian." There is a deep schism within the movement brought about by the Libertarian Party's welcoming of people who can, in all charity, be characterized as people -- and particularly conservatives -- with only libertarian "leanings."

This is, as I've discovered over the years, the biggest barrier to fruitful discussion of the matter. Moreso than most other political labels, "libertarian" seems to have a high Humpty-Dumpty quotient, with the term meaning whatever the user wants it to mean.

It is not even useful, many times, to try to frame the discussion in terms of what the core Libertarian Party states as its platform, because too many self-designated "libertarians" disavow agreement with some large part of that platform.

At some point, the term loses all meaning as a descriptive, serving only to identify the bearer as being not part of, and likely opposed to the overall stands of the two major parties.

All that said, there must be a productive way to frame this discussion in addressing Heinlein's political beliefs and the way his political admirers see him. The idea that being a Heinlein libertarian means little more than being a "libertarian," which means only what the bearer wants it to mean, is too pat.


Wed Aug 26, 2009 12:29 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
Continuation of reply to Jim Gifford

However, this is not a definition of libertarianism -- it is merely the indispensable, ground condition to be met. If your target does not meet this qualification, he/she/it is *something else.*

There are dozens of different kinds of libertarians, who concentrate on different aspects of theory and practice. The individualist anarchists who make up the radical MOLL wing of the movement, consider that the minarchists who make up the overwhelmingly predominant center of the movement are kidding themselves, and that once you give a state the right to claim sole right to regulate use of force (the technical definition of a state), then there is no pragmatic way to restrict it to the three functions most minarchists agree are "legitimate" functions of a state - police, courts, army.

So, having stated the groundwork, was Heinlein at any time in the last half of his life legitimately characterized as a libertarian that would be recognized as such by people in the movement?

As a side note, he characterized himself in letters as both a libertarian and as an "individualist anarchist" who does not call himself that for pragmatic reasons; and in person he introduced Neil Schulman around as a young writer, in the early 1970's (probably 1974-ish) saying "Neil and I are libertarians."

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Wed Aug 26, 2009 12:32 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
Actually, Bill, both Republicans and Democrats were run by political machines -- it's just that the Democrats tended to do so in the big cities, because of the immigrant populations. There were also progressives in both the parties, as witness Woodrow Wilson, and the progressive reforms the Democratic-controlled Congress passed during his presidency.


Thu Sep 24, 2009 6:03 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
RobertJames wrote:
Actually, Bill, both Republicans and Democrats were run by political machines -- it's just that the Democrats tended to do so in the big cities, because of the immigrant populations. There were also progressives in both the parties, as witness Woodrow Wilson, and the progressive reforms the Democratic-controlled Congress passed during his presidency.

Too Twoo. I tend to forget that because the progressives in the Democratic party were so busy fighting the machines that the Republican progressives got a lot more press for other things.

I think the way people at the time tended to think of it was that the Democrats were the party of Tammany Hall, Tammany standing in for all big-city machine politics.


Fri Sep 25, 2009 5:51 pm
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
Was Robert A. Heinlein a Libertarian?

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Wed Jun 02, 2010 7:13 am
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Post Re: Heinlein as Libertarian
Thanks for the link, Fred. It was an interesting article. It brought in some players that I wasn't aware of, who might have influenced Heinlein.


Wed Jun 02, 2010 8:07 am
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