Robert Heinlein (1907-1988),
The Libertarian in the Lifeboat;
Heinlein's Freehold; or,
the Fallen Caryatid

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.

Robert A Heinlein

The following passage is out of the second volume of the biography of Robert Heinlein by William H. Patterson, Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century, Volume II, 1948-1988, The Man Who Learned Better [A Tor Book, Tom Doherty Associates, 2014]. In 1977, Heinlein had an encounter with people from the nascent Libertarian Party. Although the libertarian Professsor de la Paz in The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress [1965] says that he can get along with a "Randite," it looks like by 1977 Heinlein had largely lost patience with "Objectivists" and the ideologues that seemed to populate the new Party. Although some have expressed uncertainty about Heinlein's own political commitments, he consistently described himself as a libertarian and even an anarchist, like de la Paz; but, also like the professor, he was not reluctant to compromise for pragmatic considerations, or out of necessity -- or in the terms familiar to him as a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and, for a time, a career naval officer. Thus, elsewhere in the biography, Heinlein is quoted as saying:

I miss being an utter anarchist only by a very narrow margin -- i.e., a misgiving about the possibility of maintaining a complex society capable of mass production without a certain amount of sheer force, both internal and external. (I'm still searching for the libertarian philosopher who can explain convincingly how this can be done -- I haven't quite given up hope.) [p.302]

Heinlein was thus predisposed to be skeptical of utopian kinds of politics, libertarian or otherwise. As it happened, Heinlein and his wife Virginia strongly supported Barry Goldwater in 1964 and were pleased to meet him in person some years later. Of course, Goldwater's own speechwriter, Karl Hess, subsequently became a libertarian anarchist and adopted a live-off-the-grid lifestyle, avoiding reportable income, taxes, and government issued identification -- like some others I have known of that persuasion (such as the late Samuel Edward Konkin III -- or the fictional character of F. Paul Wilson's "Repairman Jack"). Heinlein was not likely to follow in such footsteps. Instead, after being a socialist Democrat in the 1930's, Heinlein finally registered as a Republican and supported Ronald Reagan in 1980. Indeed, Heinlein ended up on the "Citizen's Advisory Council" that formulated the basic terms of the anti-ballistic missile defense project that became Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative" (SDI), dubbed "Star Wars" by the press. This resulted in a bit of a breach with his colleague and old friend, Arthur C. Clarke, who actually testified to Congress against "Star Wars." Clarke was invited to meet the Citizen's Advisory Council, where some errors in his mathematics were corrected, and where Heinlein spoke to him rather sharply about the wisdom of his criticism and the very propriety of his weighing in on an issue of American self-defense. Clarke, who had actually been visited by the Heinleins at his home in Sri Lanka, was unsettled by the encounter. He never came out in favor of "Star Wars," but he ceased criticizing it. In the last year of his life, Heinlein was part of an attempt to draft Jeane Kirkpatrick to run for President in 1988. Kirkpatrick begged off and, as it happened, Heinlein passed away before the election of the "kinder and gentler" George H.W. Bush. Anyone who can remember the testy and even hostile interviews with Kirkpatrick from "liberal" reporters like NBC's Andrea Mitchell will understand the contrast between Kirkpatrick, and evidently the Heinleins, and the "moderate" Bushes (both of them).

Thus, in 1977 Heinlein seemed determined to have a bit of fun with the Libertarians, using one of the moral dilemmas familiar from these pages. While there are libertarians who found their views on a Utilitarian view of ethics, a rigid, uncompromising, and deontological natural rights take on the matter seems more characteristic of conspicuous people in the libertarian movement, and especially of their philosophers, such as Ayn Rand (1905-1982), Murray Rothbard (1926-1995), and Robert Nozick (1938-2002) -- the latter's Anarchy, the State, and Utopia [1974] made a big public splash at the time and figured in debates where the liberal anointed would rather have ignored libertarian ideas altogether. This "lifeboat" dilemma is just right to throw a monkeywrench into libertarian ideological rigidity, since the inability of the captain to violate the rights of the passengers to Life, Liberty, and Happiness will probably mean that everyone on the boat will die. Heinlein the naval officer would not let that happen, and it is noteworthy here that Heinlein's focus shifts from the dangerous sea to "space," with a final reference to "shipmates." We know where he is coming from.

Robert agreed to give an after-dinner speech for a meeting of the recently formed Libertarian Party, for a fee of fifty pints of [donated] blood [Heinlein was promoting blood drives at the time] -- which they paid by a sheaf of donor slips put in his hand as he came into the hall.

Robert thought of himself as a libertarian-with-a-small-l -- Judith Merril had once called herself a democrat and a libertarian. "I think that describes me, too," he told her --

-- still a democrat not because I love the Common Peepul and not because I think democracy is so successful (look around you) but, because in a lifetime of thinking about it and learning all that I could, I haven't found any other political organization that worked as well.

As for libertarian, I've been one all my life, a radical one. You might use the term "philosophical anarchist" or "autarchist" about me, but "libertarian" is easier to define and fits well enough. But I'm glad you didn't use the term "liberal" which used to mean much the same thing and with which I once tagged myself. But today "liberal" means to me a person who wants to pass laws and use coercion to force other people to live in his notion of utopia -- the word "liberal" no longer seems to have any connection with its root "free" -- it always means "Pass another law! Make the bastard do it our way." Whereas my solution to almost everything is "Let's repeal that law" or, possibly, "Let's not do anything -- let's wait."

But he came this time to kick some over-upholstered butt. Most of these new converts had been brought in by Ayn Rand and suffered from a peculiar kind of mental arthritis. Robert had no use for theoretical doctrinaires, so he decided to play advocatus diaboli and took as his text the lifeboat problem:  You are ship's officer in a lifeboat, in freezing, choppy seas, he posited, with the only gun. There are too many people for the boat's supplies to sustain, and more in the water. What do you do?

This was a good test problem, because it requires you to take a position on an extremely fundamental question:  the moral relationship of the public and the private. "I find that if a man can face up to the 'lifeboat problem,' find a solution that makes sense, I can deal with him." But the simplistic, doctrinally pure answers favored by this generation of libertarians gave no help.

Any libertarian so doctrinaire that he cannot find a pragmatic solution to this problem deserves no tolerance from others. His opinions on "rights" in space are worthless; the rest of us are under no obligation to let him waste our time.

Unfortunately a large percentage of those who describe themselves as "libertarian" are indeed that doctrinaire, and would thereby be a mortal danger to their shipmates.

He would not let them change the terms of the problem, or tap dance out of it. One older man became so angry he cursed Robert and stomped out of the meeting; a younger man became so upset that he began to stammer and could not talk.

His work there was done. [pp.389-390, color added]

As related by Reason magazine writer Brian Doherty, a fuller statement of the dilemma was found in the Heinlein Archives by Patrick McCray:

You are boat officer in a lifeboat, rated capacity 50 persons and it is filled to capacity, a mixture of men, women, and children. In the water are others…The sea is Beaufort scale four or higher; the water is freezing cold. You are armed with a loaded pistol. So far as you know no one else is armed…but you may be mistaken.

What apparently did not occur to Heinlein, as it has occurred to few (if any) moralists and philosophers, is that he will never find the "libertarian philosopher who can explain convincingly how this can be done" because the moral resolution of such dilemmas, including dilemmas of "the moral relationship of the public and the private," cannot be done. Machiavelli is the proper guide to begin reflection in this matter, but moralists and philosophers have shied away from him because of the mistaken view that his counsel is simply one of opportunism and cynicism, something that also precludes the consideration of most libertarians, whose ideal informs the rigid "Party of Principle," whose utopianism and detachment from Planet Earth renders most of its advice, let alone electoral prospects, moot.

The principal duty of the state, in theory and in practice, is self-defense. This is where Heinlein sometimes seems to wander the farthest from his anarchist and libertarian principles, nowhere so conspicuously as in his novel Starship Troopers [1959]. The thesis there is that, although military service is voluntary, and the personal and property rights of other citizens are otherwise respected, only military veterans have the vote. The principle is that only those ready to give their lives for their fellows are entitled to exercise political power over them. This is a serious argument, and the best counter-argument may just be that the history of veterans organizations seems to illustrate, not their disinterested public consciousness, but, as described by Public Choice economics, the self-serving agenda of any other political interest group. Veterans may deserve a considerable level of respect and attention, and politicians may ignore them (as in the Veterans Administration scandal of 2014) as only a minor constituency, but neither their interests nor their expectations can be taken as identical to the best interests of the public or the State. Libertarian ideologues, of course, like the idea of the privatization of the military into multiple self-organizing entities, a formula that seems more likely to produce a civil war between gangster empires than a unified regime of peace, justice, and freedom.

Rather than a sensible argument, critics of Starship Troopers have tended to dismiss it as "fascism," which is an odd accusation to make against a regime that forces no one into the military and otherwise leaves citizens alone to their own devices. This is not remotely like a fascist or any other totalitarian kind of state -- with our suspicions aroused when the critics themselves often seem remarkably complacent about totalitarian states on the Left. Nevertheless, the characterization of "fascism" is repeated by the confused, self-righteous Dutch film maker Paul Verhoeven, who directed an elaborate movie version of Starship Troopers [1997]. Yet even Verhoeven had difficulty putting anything in the movie to vindicate his "fascism" viewpoint, except that the uniforms by the end of the movie seem to have come out of a Hollywood wardrobe for World War II German soldiers. The height of his political analysis in the director's commentary is no more than that "militarism" produces "fascism." He makes no attempt to deal with the context of Heinlein's own story, where humans are in a life-or-death struggle with a race of intelligent insects, where the usual pacifist arguments about about communication, understanding, and negotiation are meaningless (lampooned in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [2003]). No communcation of any sort with the "Bugs" exists, and Verhoeven provides no intelligence or suggestions how, in such a situation, fascism and human extinction could both be avoided. Nor is it unusual in science fiction to encounter such implacable enemies, which are familiar from the Alien movies and from popular classics like Independence Day [1996] or Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956], with a pedigree back to H.P. Lovecraft's terrifying "Old Ones," whose place in horror fiction often overshadows the science fiction premises of the stories.

An ambiguity in the passage quoted concerns the word "democrat." When Heinlein says "I haven't found any other political organization that worked as well," does he mean the Democratic Party, of which he was still a member, or, in general, the political organization of a democracy? The latter would make a bit more sense, since the mere fact that a political organization, such as a political party, "works" well would not be anything to recommend it. We might say that the Nazi Party or the Soviet Communist Party "worked well," for their purposes, but that would not make them any more attractive. On the other hand, Heinlein might actually still retain some affection and respect for the Democratic Party, for which he was enthusiastic in his youth. It is hard to tell; but indeed we would not have much in the way of a complete political theory unless there is something about a democratic political organization that, in general would recommend it to us. But we never get from Heinlein the kind of reflection on democracy that I have provided here for Socrates.

It is hard to tell from this passage if Heinlein appreciated the nature of the lifeboat dilemma to the extent of understanding at all the scruples of the ideologues whom he was teasing. The truth of a dilemma, after all, is, as I have argued in these pages, that it is a dilemma. The rights that Heinlein dismisses in the context of the lifeboat are not the sort of thing that Heinlein otherwise disparages. Professor de la Paz offers the original text of the Declaration of Independence for the Lunar congress to pass when it declares its independence of Earth in 2076. If Heinlein then does not actually believe in "natural rights," he should not be offering that text as a revered model and paradigm for the future. The Declaration and the lifeboat can only be reconciled with a theory of dilemmas, which Heinlein does not offer -- indeed, no moralist or philosopher did in his lifetime. Nor do mainstream philosophers even now.

The version of the lifeboat dilemma that Heinlein offers is a little different from what I have otherwise described in these pages. In Heinlein's version:

You are ship's officer in a lifeboat, in freezing, choppy seas, he posited, with the only gun. There are too many people for the boat's supplies to sustain, and more in the water.

In the form that I have considered:

...more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive.

The situation that Heinlein describes is in one way less acute. The boat is not overloaded -- although in the version related by Patrick McCray, the boat is at least filled to capacity -- but we are told that there are "too many people for the boat's supplies to sustain." However, if a quick rescue could be expected, "supplies" would probably be irrelevant. If we take on board the people "in the water," overloading might become an issue in a rough sea -- although Beaufort force 4, a "moderate breeze," is not particularly dangerous, with "small waves, becoming longer; fairly frequent white horses." If supplies are the only problem, then it would be relevant to Captain Bligh set adrift in the South Pacific, but not to Titanic survivors in the busy shipping lanes of the North Atlantic. Heinlein's "freezing, choppy seas" sound more like the North Atlantic than the South Pacific.

This alters the dynamic. Heinlein's captain does not need to make a quick decision about the people in the boat. He does need to decide what to do about the people in the water, but then we don't know whether they could be taken on board without overloading and endangering the boat -- many of the boats of the Titanic were actually only partially loaded -- although a boat at capacity probably can't take many more. In the other version, the captain must decide quickly, since the threatening storm could swamp the boat and kill everyone. Both captains will look bad if they kill survivors but then are quickly rescued. Heinlein's captain, however, has more reason to avoiding killing anyone for the time being, especially if timely rescue is likely in the North Atlantic. But he may need to abandon the ones in the water. The other captain could wait a little, until the storm actually does endanger the boat; and he will look better, even with a timely rescue, if he acts only in the case of an acute threat to the boat.

We don't know from Heinlein's summary statement whether any of the Libertarians raised questions about the actual complexity of the considerations that would be involved. The key moral question is whether the captain has the moral or legal right to kill or eject any of the survivors within his power. That is where Heinlein would get a rise out of his auditors, and perhaps that is the only issue of interest here. But even if the authority of the captain is conceded, and the possible necessity of some deaths allowed, that does not mean there is an obvious answer to the dilemma, in either version.

As a moralist, one must recognize that the difference between a teleological theory, where we aim for the better outcome, and a deontological theory, where the innocent cannot be summarily sent to their deaths for the sake of others, is not just a theoretical difference in ethics, but a practical difference, not just of situations, but of personalities. Some people just don't like the captain(s) killing people, and this may be why, "One older man became so angry he cursed Robert and stomped out of the meeting; a younger man became so upset that he began to stammer and could not talk." I've had students get up and leave my Ethics class when I suggested that a concentration camp inmate was not guilty if a Nazi guard killed two people because the inmate had refused to kill one. Of course, the inmate may reason that one will die anyway, so he may as well act to avoid an additional death. This, however, makes him the accomplice of the guard, which is probably what the guard wants. On the other hand, the failure of the inmate to act does not in the least relieve the guard of the guilt of two murders. The guard may say, "Look what you made me do," but this is a lie. The inmate didn't make the guard do anything. The proof of this is that the guard will be on trial at Nuremburg for the murders, not the inmate. Some people seem to have a difficulty grasping that.

Thus, the purpose of moral education is to identify the difference between teleological and deontological points of view and to consider the meaning and implications of each. I doubt that Robert Heinlein really devoted much analysis to this, although he could easily put his finger on a sore point in doctrinaire libertarian ideology. He may not have noticed that libertarains actually do argue with each other about this, and that the libertarianism of Milton Friedman or F.A. Hayek is much more pragmatic and consequentialist than that of Rand, Rothbard, or Nozick.

The most libertarain thing about Robert A. Heinlein may just be his sense of the value of being left alone. The fortified house at the end of Farnham's Freehold [1964], which is the eponym of the title but not otherwise any part of the previous story, exemplifies a spirit that we otherwise see in many of Heinlein's stories about exploration and pioneering. We also see it in the houses that Heinlein built for himself, especially the one in Colorado Springs, where the Heinleins lived for many years. Heinlein ended up building a fallout shelter for the house, even though the granite bedrock under the place required blasting to make space for the shelter. There was no shelter for the subsequent house built outside Santa Cruz, California; but the house was on its own five acres of land, with its own spring, well away from the urban area. This no longer looks much like a survivalist's project, however, since Heinlein never installed even a generator, or the propane to run it, despite periodic power failures in the area and the absence of natural gas service. Perhaps the overall impression is of the moderate version of the "philosophical anarchist" or "autarchist" ideology to which Heinlein owned. He did not seem as prepared as any recent survivalist, or even a Mormon.

All in all, Robert Heinlein's political philosophy is neither completely consistent nor completely incoherent. The basic principles are simple, obvious, and reasonable enough. Jeffersonian. The inconsistencies and difficulties arise from conflicts that are not unique to Heinlein, that are not easily resolved by anyone, and of which Heinlein himself was quite aware. The exclamation of Professor de la Paz, "We're stealing it," embodies the paradox that an effective and conscientious government -- or in this case just a revolution -- must sometimes violate the principles and laws that the libertarian purist, at least of the sort that Heinlein encountered, would regard as inviolable. Much the same could be said for the practice of Thomas Jefferson himself, who bought Louisiana and sent Marines to Tripoli even though, on a strict reading, the Constitution may not have empowered him to do so. His real justification, of course, was simply raison d'état, which the Constitution allows as "necessary and proper" to the conduct of his office. Such a justification can be, and often has, been misued, but the principle cannot be sensibly disputed. Theoretically, Robert Heinlein does not seem to have had a way to deal with this; but he needed one. Like most of us, Heinlein was just trying to make sense of it all; and he understood better than many the uncertainties and difficulties involved.

Finally, there is the curious tribute in A Stranger in a Strange Land to Auguste Rodin's sculpture, the "Fallen Caryatid Carrying Her Stone" (modeled in 1881; the New York Metropolitan Museum copy, seen here, was cast in 1981). This is described by the Heinlein-like character of the book, Jubal Harshaw, was used as cover art for early editions, and "Fallen Caryatid" was one Heinlein's original ideas for the name of the book. So this fits in somewhere important in Heinlein's world. It is not the most optimistic image that one might think of. The Caryatid cannot hold up the weight, but keeps trying -- Rodin included it on his "Gates of Hell" sculpture.

If this was intended to represent the plight of Michael Valentine Smith, the Man from Mars (also another early title of the book), its pessimism did not survive the writing process. Smith is killed at the end, but he choses this fate as part of his own plan; and he not only survives death but incorporially prevents Harshaw from committing suicide in despair. Despite such a spirit, and the general optimism of Heinlein's stories, he was clearly aware of the often thankless difficulties and hopeless tragedies of life. In that vein, the ending of The Moon is Harsh Mistress (not a great title, but no better ones were suggested), is bittersweet to the point of tragedy. Professor de la Paz dies in the hour of triumph; and Mike the sentient computer, who in many ways is the emotional heart of the book, even as he makes the Lunar revolution possible in the first place, is damaged and becomes unresponsive about the same time. In a later book, Heinlein rescues Mike (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, 1985 [note]), but that hardly alters the sense of loss in the original story. Mike the computer, more than Michael Valentine Smith, ends up looking like the Fallen Caryatid. What goes along with this is the political disappointment of the story, that the Lunar Republic ends up like any other kind of venal government, without taking any of the advice of de la Paz (reinforced by The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, which takes place more than a century after the original story). This goes along with a sentiment expressed by Heinlein himself, that the only way to really preserve one's freedom is to get as far away from authority as possible. This was the real promise of space -- a promise very far from being fulfilled in the twilight of my own years, when it begins to look like space travel and colonization are going to be much more difficult to accomplish than anyone had ever imagined. Space is just too hostile. Freedom may require a furious defense against government at home, something whose prospects right now seem little more promising than lunar colonization. The Ruling Class is doing all too well at fooling most of the people most of the time.

Semantics and "General Semantics"

The Fragility of Thalassocracy, Pericles to Heinlein

Some Moral Dilemmas, the Overcrowded Lifeboat

Machiavelli and the Moral Dilemma of Statecraft

Heinlein's Crooked House

Time Travel Paradoxes

Positive & Negative Liberties in Three Dimensions

Ayn Rand (1905-1982)

Political Economy

Ethics

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Copyright (c) 2014 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

Robert Heinlein (1907-1988),
The Libertarian in the Lifeboat; Note

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is one of five late novels [1980-1987] that Heinlein wrote after a hiatus of some years following Time Enough for Love [1973], and after major surgery to restore circulation in his brain. Curiously, Mike is only rescued, off stage, at the very end of the book; we don't even know if the rescue and his revival have really been successful until Heinlein's last book, To Sail Beyond the Sunset [1987]; and even then Mike is not present as a character in the story. The last we ever hear from Mike directly is in Mistress, despite the participation of other sentient computers in several books. Thus, for some reason Heinlein avoids giving Mike his say in propria persona.

Looking back over Heinlein's body of work, one is tempted, as with all science fiction authors, to see what he got right about the future and what he missed. A big miss was how Heinlein (and all other science ficiton authors) was unable to anticipate the role that things like pocket calculators and then computers would come to play. In our day, people now barely remember slide rules. The young have no reason to know about them at all. Yet Heinlein kept around their use and their memory for years and then centuries in his stories. Even Isaac Isimov's robot books, where the robots have fully functioning electronic ("positronic") brains, Asimov had no idea how these would work and failed to imagine that small devices, like calculators, would end up with computer power greater than mainframe computers from the 1940's. Miniaturization defeated the imaginations of them all.

In his final books, however, Heinlein scores one solid hit. In Friday [1982], Heinlein imagines something quite like the Internet -- which he even calls "the net":

People are so used to the computer net today that it is easy to forget what a window to the world it can be -- and I include myself [i.e. the protagonist of the book, the covert operative Friday]. One can grow so canalized in using a terminal only in certain ways -- paying bills, making telephone calls, listening to new bulletins -- that one can neglect its richer uses. If a subscriber is willing to pay for the service, almost anything can be done at a terminal that can be done out of bed. [Del Rey Book, Ballantine, 1983, p.219]

As we might expect, while a lot of this sounds familiar, it also sounds a bit odd. Heinlein was thinking that the computer "terminal" could be used to access libraries, which is what Friday does. However, while this now can indeed be done, he has missed that there will be massive amounts of data intrinsic to the Net -- hypertext pages on the World Wide Web. He has also missed that personal computers, now getting down to ipads and smart phones, will take the place of the traditional "terminal," which merely connects one to a mainframe. Thus, the subscriber does not need to be "willing to pay for this service"; the service is already included, often just in the phone bill. Nevertheless, what might have surpised people the most in 1982 could have been the idea that we would actually be "paying bills" over the Internet -- with the danger of hackers stealing our identity. Given the miserable abilities of home computers at the time, when for a while 16KB sounded like a lot of memory (the present webpage alone is over 32K -- 16K is what my Sinclair ZX81 computer had, with a special add-on, in 1982), it was hard to anticipate how things would change. Our girl Friday sitting at her computer and reading books in distant libraries was thus a pretty good leap. It is the notion that people would find this ability "easy to forget" that sounds odd.

Although Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts are always hyperventilating over it, sentient computers still lie in the future. I have not noticed that the argument of Roger Penrose in 1990, that the present algorithmic architecture of computers cannot duplicate the functions of the human brain, has yet been answered. I'm not sure that some people discussing the issue even understand Penrose's reasoning. If AI is successful, it is also not clear that we would get the benign and lovable Mike, Dora, Minerva, Athena, and Gay Deceiver of Heinlein's books (although Gay is sentient with the help of some magic from Oz), or the murderous Skynet of the Terminator movies. If Penrose is right, it will still be a long time before we find out.

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