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

Don't know any answers.

Wish I could ask Mike.

I wake up in night and think I've heard him -- just a whisper: "Man... Man my best friend..." But when I say, "Mike?" he doesn't answer. Is he wandering around somewhere, looking for hardware to hook onto? Or is he buried down in Complex Under, trying to find way out? Those special memories are all in there somewhere, waiting to be stirred. But I can't retrieve them; they were voice-coded.

Oh, he's dead as Prof, I know it. (But how dead is Prof?) If I punched it just once more said, "Hi, Mike!" would he answer, "Hi, Man! Heard any good ones lately?" Been a long time since I've risked it. But he can't really be dead; nothing was hurt -- he's just lost.

You listening, Bog? Is a computer one of Your creatures?

Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 1966 [A Tor Book, Tom Doherty Associates, Inc., 1996, p.382]; voice of narrator, Manuel "Mannie" Garcia O'Kelly, about the (late) sentient computer Mycroft "Mike" Holmes; Bog, Бог, Russian for "God," cognate to Sanskrit भग, Bhaga.

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 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.

"Law-abiding people," Dubois had told us, "hardly dared to go into a public park at night. To do so was to risk attack by wolf packs of children, armed with chains, knives, home-made guns, bludgeons... to be hurt at least, robbed most certainly, injured for life probably -- or even killed. This went on for years... Murder, drug addiction, larceny, assault, and vandalism were commonplace. Nor were the parks the only places -- these things happened also on the streets in daylight, on school grounds, even inside school buildings. But parks were so notoriously unsafe that honest people stayed clear of them after dark."

I tried to imagine such things happening in our schools. I simply couldn't. Nor in our parks. A park was a place for fun, not for getting hurt. As for getting killed in one -- "Mr. Dubois, didn't they have police? Or courts?".

Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers [Berkley Madallion Book, 1959, p.91]. Heinlein here presciently foresaw the crimewave of the 1960's. Unfortunately, much of this sounds more like the 2020's than the 1960's. Students at Columbia University used to be warned not to enter Morningside Park after dark. After crime had been suppressed in the 1990's, these warnings were forgotten. Then on December 11, 2019, new student Tessa Majors was murdered by three teenagers in the park -- just as described in 1959 by Robert Heinlein.

The Sabotage of Starship Troopers

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 residents are otherwise respected, only military veterans have the vote. The principle is that only those ready to give their lives for their fellows, to sacrifice their self-interest for the good of all, are entitled, or qualified, to exercise political power over them. Not Heinlein in an anarchist phase.

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 (at least today -- not after the Civil War, for instance, or after World War I -- the "Bonus Marchers" helped bring down Herbert Hoover), 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. At the same time, full franchise democracy seems vulnerable to the diseconomies and chaos referenced in the epigraph above.

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 everyone 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 -- even as they now enforce totalitarian ideology and practices at American universities.

We can gather a lot from the oath sworn by recuits into the "Federal Service" of Starship Troopers:

"I swear to uphold and defend the Constitution of the Federation against all its enemies on or off Terra, to protect and defend the Constitutional liberties and privileges of all citizens and lawful residents of the Federation..." [Berkley Medallion Book, 1959, p.30]

Heinlein has one of the instructors in the book (at "Officer Candidate School," O.C.S.) give this characterization of the Troopers state:

...personal freedom of all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. [p.144]

The Left will have two complaints here (at least). "Progressives" no longer believe in the First Amendment, or any of its parts (speech, religion, assembly, etc.), and certainly not in the Second (to keep and bear arms). Also, the restriction of "liberties and privileges" to "lawful residents" is no longer acceptable. The Left views illegal aliens, including convicted criminals, as possessing more rights than lawful residents, let alone citizens.

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 very much 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, which exposes his bias, is no more than that "militarism" produces "fascism."

We even get underhanded methods. We hear in the movie that a "license" to have children is only available to veterans. This is nonsense. The narrator of the book, Juan Rico, would not even exist if this were so, since there are no veterans in his family. So what it looks like is that Verhoeven felt like he couldn't come up with enough real "fascism" for his movie to make the Troopers state seem fascist enough. So he made some up. It is the worthies of Communist China, not Robert Heinlein's fiction, who control births, with the help of forced abortions -- often directed at oppressed minorites, like Tibetans and Uighurs. This is praised, as it happens, by the 白左 American Left -- the same people always calling everyone "fascists" and "racists." But genocide in China escapes their notice.

Verhoeven 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 communication, understanding, and negotiation are meaningless (lampooned in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [2003]). No communication 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, in his estimation, be avoided.

Nor is it unusual in science fiction to encounter such implacable alien 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.

Nor does Verhoeven address Heinlein's actual argument, that voting should belong only to those willing to defend others. "Fascism" does not seem commensurable with the idea of self-sacrifice or selflessness, except blindly to the State or its dictator; and, as with a lot of Verhoeven's more political work, one may wonder about a sense of guilt in someone from a country that, despite the great nobility of its history, contributed the largest percentage of foreign recuits to the German SS, and who deported far more of its Jews than, say, Italy did, let alone Denmark. And someone informed on Anne Frank.

In Black Book [2006], Verhoeven even toys with the idea of a moral equivalence between the Allies and the Germans in World War II, the sort of thing we might expect from a Nazi apologist, like Martin Heidegger -- e.g. when we hear that the bombing of Dresden was no different from Anschwitz. To me, that bespeaks a bad conscience and bad faith, if not the extreme of moral nihilism in Heidegger. I don't think that Verhoeven is really a Nazi apologist, but he is morally confused in a lot of these matters. It mostly ruins Starship Troopers, subverting the whole meaning of the book. Heinlein is betrayed and sabotaged by Verhoeven.

Conduct a thorough reading of questionable college rape reports, and you'll begin to see a pattern: A legion of confused young women, long coached that sex means nothing -- casual sex is just something that empowered women do, after all -- who quickly and traumatically realize, either consciously or not that something feels dreadfully wrong...

Bathed in the sexual revolution and its culture of sexual freedom, many young Americans, male and female, now have no idea how -- or why -- to impose even the flimsiest moral framework around the most intimate, exposing, literally naked act in which two human beings can engage. Having been told that sex is easy, meaningless, and always pleasurable, many young people are shocked [shocked!] to discover that's not invariably the case -- that sex is often anything but casual, that it triggers deep and powerful emotions and needs they cannot integrate with the cultural insistence that sex is no big deal. They do not have the vocabulary or the clarity to grasp why. What has happened to them feels wrong, not right. It is disturbing, not ecstatic. And for these feelings, they believe they deserve redress.

Heather Wilhelm, "The 'Rape Culture' Lie," Commentary, March 2015, pp.27 & 29.

A noteworthy moment in the Starship Troopers movie is a shower scene. All the recruits, male and female, shower together; and, unlike some old Catholic schools, they are not wearing anything. All the nudity was not so remarkable in 1997, but mainstream movies have mostly had less of it since then.

Since there is no flirting or sexual byplay in the scene, some think that this is Verhoeven's comment that Fascism has squeezed the libido out of our young men and women. Of course, the "Anti-Sex League" is a feature of Communist society in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four [1949], and is not found in Heinlein's book. Indeed, the shower scene is entirely non-canonical. In the military of Heinlein's Starship Troopers, there is sexual segregation, and men and women only mix in the officer's mess, where sexual propriety reigns.

Instead, I always took the scene in the movie to mean that sexual harrassment was a thing of the past and that male and female recruits could mix in the future, even shower together naked, without anything happening to disrupt discipline or decorum. Rather than Fascism, Verhoeven might just suppose that gender enlightenment has triumphed and that, Fascism or not, there are no problems with the recruits showering together.

Whatever Verhoeven's thoughts or intentions, I expect that "gender enlightenment" is a fantasy. The recent American military, with many women mixed in among the men, although probably not showering together, nevertheless has had serious problems with sexual harrassment and rape. We hear about how bad this is every so often, but I also suspect that the full story is kept quiet, since the voluntary military relies on female recruits and it doesn't want bad publicity. When women started being placed on warships, pregnancies resulted, leading to the "Love Boat" designation of the warships. Whether this has continued in the same way is something I have not noticed in the news or public discourse.

But this is a larger social problem. "Trans-women," i.e. biological men, have been placed in women's prisons and allowed in women's restrooms and locker rooms. Rapes and pregnancies then occur in the prisons, if not elsewhere; and this reminds us why there has traditionally been sexual segregation in the first place. Women wish for privacy, do not appreciate unsolicited sexual advances in private situations; and they are vulnerable to sexual assault. Thus, in much of modern society, such concerns seem to be dismissed and ignored. Feminists have been no help since they tend to believe that sexual segregation enforced sexual inequality.

Indeed, when I was a Freshman at the University of New Mexico in 1967-1968, the women's dorms were locked at night; but the men's dorms were not. If women wanted to spend the night away, or returned after the dorm was locked, they needed to account for their whereabouts. Men didn't. Obviously, this was to "protect" the women. Now, on the other hand, this is all gone and most schools have "co-ed" dorms without any separation of the sexes. Colleges are very secretive about the crime statistics for such practices, just as we rarely hear about suicides at colleges, which are actually common. On the other hand, we hear a lot about the "rape culture" at colleges, which implies that the level of sexual crime is significant. Somehow the possible connection between co-ed dorms and sexual violence is rarely discussed.

Instead of restoring traditional protections for women, colleges decided instead to remove traditional judicial protections for those accused of sexual misconduct or crimes. The accused would not be informed of the charges against them, would not be able to face their accuser, would not have assistance of counsel, and would not be able to cross-examine an accuser but could be expelled if convicted by an single presiding official of the college. All of this was recommended, without any required administrative process, by the Obama Administration. However, colleges have been successfully sued by the victims of their kangaroo courts. The Trump Administration restored judicial protections; but now, of course, the Biden Administration is trying to remove them again.

One wonders what the motivation is for these actions. It begins to look like the desire to prove the existence of "rape culture" leads to a desire to obtain "convictions" that could not stand in a real court and that could be used by scorned and vindictive pseudo-"victims" for revenge against targets of personal grudges. It all does nothing to protect women from unwanted sexual advances or attacks, whose real existence is then buried under fake statistics.

Instead, it is the sort of thing that is persuading more men that college degrees are a worthless fraud and that a hostile environment for men is being deliberately created by misanthropic ideologues. Women already outnumber men in "higher education," and the cost of it has advanced far beyond the rate of inflation, while the content of courses have become increasing political, biased, and worthless. It is dawning on much of the public that the Imperial education establishment has no clothes.

This leads to other issues. If women being harrassed, assaulted, and raped is bad for military discipline and bad for college life, this is easily generalized into a larger sexual dimension of military life. Thus, if women have a right not to be hit on in the shower, so do men. But when homosexuality is allowed in the military, this can happen; and it will be particularly offensive to anyone who believes that homosexual acts are sinful. And that isn't just fundamentalist Christians. Devout Muslims do not like being naked even in private. If nudity then makes them vulnerable to sexual advances that are not sanctioned by Islamic Law, they will find it intolerable.

Thus, the "don't ask, don't tell" policy of the Clinton Administration, denounced by all right thinking persons, apparently, did mean that in the intimate circumstances required by military life, homosexuals were going to need to keep their preferences to themselves. Christians, Muslims, and others could serve their time without feeling themselves the targets of sexual interest. Just as, as much as possible, women, if they wish, should be preserved from similar feelings.

Thus, the shower scene in Starship Troopers, whether Verhoeven's own vision was utopian or distopian, bespeaks an impossible level of either self-discipline or inert sexuality for all concerned. In the shower, bodies are going to brush up against each other; and how can one tell whether this is accidental or deliberate, flirtatious or, in the ancient language of such things, mashing? We see in old movies that the "masher" earns a slap in the face. Somehow that has dropped out of popular culture; and, as "sexual harrassment," the only recourse for a woman is the police or a civil rights lawyer. But in the world of Paul Verhoeven, as in the co-ed dorm, how does a third party know the difference? One virtue of the locked dorms was the absence of ambiguous drunken rolls in the dorm room, that weeks later begin to seem like rapes -- a staple of modern university life.

It used to be, at least as late as the Civil War, that regiments for the United States Army were often privately raised. The sponsor, who often took command, would pay expenses, recruit the soldiers, and perhaps even provide distinctive uniforms. Or recruits would then elect their own officers. Often regiments were raised by particular States, and their local identity persisted through the War. Monuments to them can be found in many State Capitals.

A particuarly famous example was the "Iron Brigade," which consisted of five regiments from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. Its battle history, with the Army of the Potomac, was outstanding and illustrious.

If this tradition had continued, rather than being lost, perhaps in the creation of the National Guard, then the rules of the regiment, perhaps in allowing open homosexuality, or women in combat, would be determined by the regiment itself. Discipline problems, if any, would be the problem of the regiment, under more general rules, as for criminal acts, established by the Army. This may no longer be possible, but allowing it would be a compromise with libertarians who want the entire United States Army to consist of privately raised units. And this would certainly defuse the problem of soldiers with privacy issues or moral objections to homosexuality. A "gay" regiment could mean more than one thing.

On Hollywood


A noteworthy peculiarity of Starship Troopers is Heinlein's frequent appeal to "mathematical logic" to vindicate the moral doctrine of the book. The constant claim is that the moral and political teaching of the Federation can be proven "mathematically" through "symbolic logic," just like anything else in "science." This is sheer nonsense; and, of course, none of the arguments of the book are presented in any such form.

This goes back to the conceits of Logical Positivism, which Heinlein had swallowed, hook, line, and sinker, and never, even decades later, thought better of. And it is of a piece with his similar attachment to the foolishness of "General Semantics," which began as little better than a cult, and whose fictions Heinlein continued to respect the rest of his life. Perhaps it is better that he did not move on to later fads in philosophy, like Wittgenstein, but that did not bespeak any superior level of understanding. Heinlein's actual arguments can be addressed with some seriousness, without, of course, dignifying the pseudo-scientific claims made for them.

Heinlein's ideology in Starship Troopers often seems confused. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Professor de la Paz offers the unaltered text of the Declaration of Independence to be used for the announcement of Lunar independence. But in Troopers, we get an open disparagement of the Declaration, dismissed as "magnificent poetry," whose moral doctrine is itself meaningless:

"The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual. Nobody preached duty to these kids in a way they could understand -- that is, with a spanking. But the society they were in told them endlessly about their 'rights.'

"The results should have been predictable, since a human being has no natural rights of any nature."

Mr. Dubois had paused. Somebody took the bait. "Sir? How about 'life, liberty, and the pusuit of happiness'?"

"Ah, yes the 'unalienable rights.' Each year someone quotes that magnificent poetry. Life? What 'right' to life has a man who is drowning in the Pacific? The ocean will not hearken to his cries. What 'right' to life has a man who must die if he is to save his children? If he chooses to save his own life, does he do so as a matter of 'right'? If two men are starving and cannibalism is the only alternative to death, which man's right is 'unalienable'? And is it 'right'? As to liberty, heroes who signed the great document pledged themselves to buy liberty with their lives. Libery is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it always vanishes. Of all the so-called natural human rights that have ever been invented, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost." [ibid. p.96]

Heinlein starts off well here, "The basis of all morality is duty," but he immediately engages in a wrong turn with the sense that duty is no more than the "self-interest" of the group, signaling a collectivist, rather than an individualist, ideology. Yet he then immediately implies that individual liberty is a good thing, for which we might give our lives. Why? We actually get no explanation, while he rejects the assertion of the Declaration itself, that "governments are instituted among men to secure these rights," i.e. natural rights. Also, there is no reason in principle why the Federation should have a voluntary military. He does say that draftees will have the wrong attitude, but that is a prudential, not a moral, consideration -- unless you think that the group, somehow, can impose moral duties on individuals, which will not pass any critical test.

Instead, Heinlein should have been aware of the legal principle that rights and duties imply each other -- a right imposes duties on others, while a duty implies a right in others. Thus, if, "The basis of all morality is duty," this implies the very rights that Mr. Dubois dismisses.

If the signers of the Declaration of Independence pledged "to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor," this was not out of duty to the "group" but in order to secure the natural rights with which they were "endowed by their Creator." This doesn't even rate mention by Mr. Dubois. Thomas Jefferson, who was the one writing about "unalienable rights," himself said, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants," to which Dubois refers, without attribution, by saying "the blood of patriots." So either Jefferson had incoherent ideas, or Mr. Dubois has rather missed the point.

It seems that what has confused matters is Heinlein's idea that moral duty can be derived from Evolution. This is a temptation of many in the field of "sociobiology," but it fails to establish existence of any moral duties or rights. Thus, if behaviors are evolved, and behaviors serve to protect the group, they nevertheless do not establish obligations, which is the whole issue by which Hume argued that an "ought" cannot be logically derived from an "is." Also, the collectivism of this gives us no clue why we would pledge "our sacred Honor," or anything, in order to secure the "blessings of Liberty." So Heinlein's libertarianism here seems to be at odds with with the statism or collectivism of the arguments of Starship Troopers.

Heinlein's dismissal of natural rights because they don't help anyone drowning in the ocean is irrelevant. Both duties and rights are things only understood by rational beings, among whom does not number the Pacific Ocean. The case of the starving men is more interesting, but neither Heinlein nor academic philosophers do much of a job of dealing with such dilemmas, although cannibalism by the starving does turn up as a legal issue.

Finally, as I have noted, Heinlein's argument would leave us puzzled why the Signers of the Declaration would be worried about "Liberty" at all, when the whole point of the exercise, according to Mr. Bubois, is the survival of the group. There is a kind of Bait and Switch there, where the self-professed libertarian and near-anarchist Robert Heinlein tries to impress us with the maximization of Liberty in the Federation, but then the moral and historical basis of the politicial system seems entirely collectivist and statist, providing a toe-hold, at least, for those who want to accuse the whole thing of Fascism. Elsewhere, as in Time Enough for Love [1973], we find the idea that Liberty can actually be better protected in a dictatorship or monarchy. Since libertarians have made arguments for monarchy, this paradoxical debate probably would simply confuse people like Paul Verhoeven, whose political understanding seems to be a matter of popular stereotypes and clichés.

An ambiguity in the passage quoted above from Heinlein 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 or for basic problems with democracy.

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 libertarians 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 libertarian 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 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.

The Moon is Harsh Mistress is not a great title. The publishers didn't like Heinlein's The Brass Cannon, which referred to the sort of useless political patronage job, polishing a courthouse cannon, which Heinlein saw as symbolic of government -- where self-government is the fellow who bought his own cannon and "went into business for himself." Professor de la Paz brings a small brass cannon back from Earth, and it is later installed as a monument to him. This addresses the possibility that the Lunar revolution was, in a sense, futile, and so bespeaks the aspect of tragedy in the book. The Mistress title, however, relates to nothing in the themes or action of the story, except for one statement by de la Paz, "Luna herself is a stern schoolmistress" -- as they say at CinemaSins, "Roll credits."

In a later book, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls [1985], Heinlein rescues Mike, 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 [note].

What goes along with this is the political disappointment of the Mistress 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. Manuel considers going out to the asteriods.

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 -- Heinlein already has the Moon colonized by 2000, which now is far distant in the rearview mirror of time. Space is just too hostile, with serious problems now obvious from extended weightlessness and ambient radiation, and its advantages for economic development not at all obvious. 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"

Science Errors in Science Fiction

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



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Copyright (c) 2014, 2017, 2022 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 -- which were shockingly accurate, at best, to only three significant figures. 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 The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, set in 2076, there are still typewriters being used, which now are as much ancient history as slide rules, and as poorly remembered.

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 surprised 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 60K -- 16K is what my Sinclair ZX81 computer had, with a special add-on, in 1982 -- and the successful Commodore 64 computer, 1982-1994, had, well, 64K -- now one can easily buy a computer with a TeraByte, TB, of memory), 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. Today, people sit in coffee shops reading books on their telephones.

Besides miniaturization, Heinlein was well behind the curve on wireless connections, such that whole books could be read on those telephones without physical connection to the source. We find Manuel of Mistress dragging telephone cords around so that he can stay in touch with the computer Mike, decades after cellphone technology. Indeed, in Stranger in a Strange Land [1961] -- one of Heinlein's best titles -- he was still thinking that Mars would be out of radio range of Earth. Little did he imagine that spacecraft at Pluto would be sending back high quality photos of the planet's surface -- a spacecraft that then continued on to more distant objects.

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.

Besides predictions about life in the future, Heinlein, of course, could not avoid saying things about science in his "science fiction" stories. These references and explanations were not always accurate. I have examined some such problems elsewhere, in "Science Errors in Science Fiction."

Even with accurate predictions, time has altered our awareness of certain things. Thus, when Luna threatens to "throw rocks" at the Earth, this is taken as a joke by much of the public, some of whom go to picnic at the sites where Lunar rocks are aimed to strike. Our awareness of the danger of celestial impacts, however, has risen considerably since 1966. Movies like Deep Impact [1998] and Armageddon [1998] featured the danger posed by asteroids or comets hitting the Earth; and every child is now probably aware that the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid strike 65 million years ago. Rebels on the Moon throwing large rocks at the Earth now would probably strike no one as funny or harmless.

Apart from science, we might note some odd references to culture and history in Heinlein's books.

Thus, in both The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Starship Troopers, we find references to the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina as though it was a major cosmopolitan center, even of science. Heinlein might well have anticipated such a future at late as the 1930's, when Argentina seemed to have, or was approaching, a European level of economic development. Since the Argentines had wiped out the area's Indians, the population of the country consisted entirely of European immigrants, who we might expect simply brought their culture with them.

Unfortunately, Argentina fell into the fascist dictatorship of Juan Perón (1895-1974), who was incautiously elected President in 1946, overthrown in 1955, went into exile, and then actually returned to power in 1973, until his death. Perón, who distinguished himself by harboring Fascist refugees from Europe, including the infamous Adolf Eichmann (1906-1962), destroyed any hope for Argentina to attain or maintain First World levels of economic and political development. Instead, it lapsed into a typical Latin American combination of kleptocracy, military dictatorship, corruption, tyranny, and pauperization. Curiously, Perón's charismatic wife, Eva (1919-1952), became a postumous superstar with the absurdly fawning musical Evita [1976], which made fascist dictatorship sexy.

Heinlein lived to see a lot of this, but its import does not seem to have caught up with his previous impressions.

But the damage of Argentina lapsing into a Third World backwater goes well beyond a folly in popular culture. Hollywood celebrities, like Sean Penn and Danny Glover, helped promote the regime of Hugo Chávez (1954-2013) in Venezuela, which now has descended into full dictatorship and pauperization, abetted with police state advice by cadres from Cuba, whose popularity with "progressives" continues. American members of Congress dismiss anti-government demonstrations in Cuba, which subject demonstrators to arrest and torture, as illegitimate and somehow the result of American interference with "the Cuban People." That such fools cannot simply be called "communists" is part of the distortions of American political life.

Most sadly, Pope Francis, from Argentina, although gaining a reputation for opposing the Marxist "Liberation Theology" in the Catholic Church, nevertheless came away convinced of the destructive socialist and statist principles of "Peronism," so that as Pope he has declaimed ignorant anti-capitalist nonsense on many occasions. After Pope John Paul II helped overthrow Communism, this is a bitter pill; and it is not clear what advantage, if any, this has over the previous "Liberation Theology." It wipes out initial hopes that Francis would distinguished himself, like John Paul, for pastoral care and wisdom. Instead, we get levels of ignorance and folly to match American universities.

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