L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 25, April 1, 1997
Making Liberty "Respectable"
By Wendy McElroy
Exclusive to The Libertarian Enterprise
One of the most puzzling aspects of libertarianism to me is why
the movement dismisses its fiction writers, especially those who
specialize in science fiction.
This attitude is all the more baffling when you consider how many
of us became politically aware through the novels of Ayn Rand.
Moreover, some of the most prominent science fiction writers
explicitly call themselves libertarian: Robert Anton Wilson, James
Hogan, David Brin, Vernor Vinge .... They are among the most
successful libertarians in our culture, and they all make a living
through the propagation of ideas. Yet when have you heard them give
speeches at movement conferences? Which libertarian magazine
publishes their editorials, or even reviews their books? To their
great credit, Laissez Faire Books offers a small but decent selection
of science fiction works, but who else acknowledges and exploits the
dynamic raw energy of these pro-liberty writers?
Socialists have always feted the literati among them --
Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair, Lillian Helman are merely a few of a
long list of examples. But modern libertarians are loath to grant
legitimacy to those who fictionalize ideas, rather than footnote
This has not always been the case.
Literature played a prominent role in Benjamin Tucker's 19th
century periodical Liberty, for example, with Tucker keeping
current on the state of art in France, England, and America. For
example, when Max Nordau published his anti-modernist
(Entartung), Tucker was discerning enough to solicit a critique
from the one man best able to handle it -- George Bernard Shaw.
Shaw's subsequent essay, entitled "A Degenerate's View of Nordau,"
was the first article by the British literary giant to appear in
America. Among the literary works Liberty translated and published
were: Claude Tillier's My Uncle Benjamin, Zola's Money and Modern
Marriage, Octave Mirabeau's A Chambermaid's Diary, Felix Pyat's
The Rag Picker of Paris, and Sophie Kropotkin's The Wife of Number
This fascination with cosmopolitan literature led Tucker to
publish The Transatlantic (1889-1890), a biweekly literary
magazine. The advertisement in Liberty promised: "Every number
has a complete translated novelette, a piece of European Music, a
Portrait of a Foreign Celebrity and part of a translated European
Serial." The Transatlantic consisted of 'the cream of the European
press translated into English." Predictably, much of the literature
which interested Tucker had political implications. When Oscar
Wilde's plea for penal reform, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol", was
widely criticized, Tucker enthusiastically endorsed the poem, urging
all of his subscribers to read it. Tucker, in fact, published an
American edition. From its early championing of Walt Whitman's
Leaves of Grass to a series of short stories by Francis du Bosque
in its last issues, Liberty was a vehicle of controversial,
Moreover, various 19th century libertarian theorists were
applauded for their fiction as much as their "non": Voltairine de
Cleyre is the finest example.
This level of respect for the power of fiction is unheard of in
contemporary libertarianism, yet I do not believe that today's
libertarians consume fewer novels than Tucker's clique. Why, then,
does the movement discard its fiction writers?
I believe part of the answer lies in the movement's drift toward
"respectability": and, in terms of ideas, this means "academic
respectability" ... not science fiction.
Anecdotes are a poor method of argumentation but since I'm merely
presenting my impressions here, let me give two examples of this
The first is a personal one. In 1982, I published a
comprehensive index to Tucker's Liberty, which was used as an
organizing centerpiece for a scholar's conference on the Tucker
circle. Because I had only a high school degree, I was barred from
attending even as an audience member. I say this with no bitterness.
It was their money, I was not pursuing an academic career ... and
they wouldn't have invited Tucker, either.
The second anecdote concerns a different institute, which swore
its determination to reach the "mainstream" through sponsoring
journalism and writing seminars. "Who", the organizer inquired of
me, "could do a presentation on science fiction?" I prepared a list
of several names, including those of Robert Heinlein (who was still
living), L. Neil Smith, and J. Neil Schulman. "No, no," she shook
her head in annoyance as she scanned my suggestions, "who can do a
presentation?" In the end, they settled on philosophy professor
from England, who had just started to teach a class on modes of
"being" in SF.
It would quite literally take days to list the many times I have
witnessed the dismissal of quality work in favor of pieces with
greater "prestige" or "respectability". Often the people dismissing
the work openly acknowledged that it was superior to the respectable,
mediocre one which was chosen. I don't believe this is the way of
the world. I think it is the way of an ideological movement which is
slightly embarrassed by its own ideas and radical background.
Most libertarian institutes, for example, would be mortified by
the almost manic enjoyment of ideas that erupts during science
fiction conventions. They would grimace at the late-night boisterous
and beery discussions on how a future anarchist society could be
sculpted. "Not relevant", they would declare with disdain, and turn
back to yet another interpretation of Tocqueville, as though his
reflections on 18th century American society were the true path to
21st century liberty.
I am extremely fond of Tocqueville and I value the continuing
legacy of his work, but I am baffled by why the movement is so
inflexible that it must exclude Heinlein in order to make space for
more discussion of Hobbes. Why must it be either/or? I am irritated
by the uncomfortable silence that falls over a table of scholars when
Vernor Vinge's thrilling story "True Names" is raised as a brilliant
exposition on how to preserve individual liberty and privacy in
True, ignoring the contribution of science fiction writers is not
unlibertarian: it violates no rights. True, judging ideas by their
pedigree rather than by their content is not a criminal offense: it
is the norm of our culture. And, true, people have the right to
refuse association with anyone for any reason. I staunchly defend
But as long as we are listing truths:
It is still true that Benjamin Tucker would not be invited to
seminars by libertarian institutes who claim to be his ideological
descendants; nor would Lysander Spooner; nor Herbert Spencer. It is
still true that some of the bestselling libertarian writers remain
unacknowledged by outreach institutes, precisely because those
writers are "popular". To paraphrase one of my favorite lines from
Tennessee Williams (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof): there is a powerful
odor of hypocrisy about this.
A contributing editor to Liberty magazine, Wendy McElroy has
published widely in feminism beginning in 1983 with Freedom,
Feminism and the State (CATO) and most recently in 1995 with XXX: A
Woman's Right to Pornography (St. Martin's Press). Her articles have
appeared in such diverse publications as National Review and
Penthouse. Her 'day' job is writing and editing documentaries, some
of which have been recorded by Walter Cronkite, George C. Scott and
A Juror's Creed: As an American juror, I will exercise my 1000 year
old duty to arrive at a verdict, not just on the basis of the facts of
a particular case or instructions I am given, but through my ability
to reason, my knowledge of the Bill of Rights, and my individual
-- L. Neil Smith
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Enterprise, Number 25, April 1, 1997.