Regular Gentle Readers have noticed that I’ve been indirectly touting this novel recently. A couple have expressed curiosity about it: “If you’re going to sneak pitches for your novels into your op-eds, why that book? It’s one of your oldest.” One, whom I know more personally than most of my other readers, went even further: “Why did you write this? It seems unlike you.”
The conversation that followed was interesting, to say the least. Apparently, my interlocutor, aware that I’m a retired engineer who’s been steeped in the sciences and technology practically from the cradle, expected that a science-fiction novel from my pen would involve a lot more whiz-bangery: i.e., the speculative scientific and technological motifs that characterize what’s usually called “hard” SF. Which Art In Hope contains practically none of that. It concerns itself with the society of a world without any government whatsoever. Moreover, it depicts that society, and the lives of those within it – with a few notable exceptions – as orderly, even tranquil.
That is exactly why I wrote it, and why I’ve decided to push it at this time, though the explanation might take a few words more.
Lately, the foremost of the topics on my mind has been habituation. It’s well known among cognitive scientists that human adaptability includes the ability to accommodate oneself to conditions one cannot change, as long as they’re not utterly unsurvivable. Other things being equal, people generally dislike certain conditions and try to avoid them: intense heat or cold, isolation or crowding, and others. Yet people sometimes choose to endure those conditions. He who chooses to live in the Sahara Desert will accommodate himself to the heat. He who chooses to live in Oymyakon will accommodate himself to the isolation and the cold. He who chooses to live in Calcutta will accommodate himself to the crowding. And so forth.
Note that people choose – usually – to live in those places despite conditions they would otherwise strive to avoid. Such people have priorities that put other considerations higher than avoidance of the disliked conditions…possibly much higher. And as the saying goes, what can’t be cured must be endured. So they accommodate themselves to the disliked features of their chosen locales. Perhaps, after a while, some of them cease to notice them. In any case, they “make their peace” with them.
This is the case with government – all government. Centuries of habituation have persuaded us, subconsciously at least, that government, however noxious typical instances of it may be, is inevitable. Centuries of habituation worked their magic on the Founding Fathers. Thus, rather than abjuring government a priori, they strove to detoxify it with a Constitution that sharply limits what it may do. That arrangement worked very well for a while, then fairly well for a while more, then haphazardly for a couple of decades more. Today it no longer works at all.
But the dominant premise was and remains that government is inevitable. For centuries the contrary idea has largely gone unexamined. Some writers have examined it:
- Vernor Vinge.
- S. Andrew Swann.
- L. Neil Smith.
- J. Neil Schulman.
- Ursula Le Guin.
- Cyril M. Kornbluth.
- Robert A. Heinlein.
- And I.
The other writers in that list are, of course, far better known than your humble commentator. (One or two of them are almost as good 😁.) But our tales differ widely in scope and focus. Theirs were largely about clashes between governed and ungoverned societies. Mine was about the achievability of normality without government.
I had a mission, you see: to open a path in the reader’s mind to dishabituation from government. If those other writers shared that mission to some degree, nevertheless the stories they told emphasized other considerations.
In my opinion, government is no more inevitable than acne, overweight, or rheumatoid arthritis, to name just a few other unpleasant conditions. We have been habituated to it over many generations by persons with an innate interest in persuading us of it. The interest was usually a desire for power over others who had no such aspiration. And because those who captain governments and proclaim their inevitability are unusually good at deceiving others, they’ve almost always had their way.
The Spooner Federation Saga is about the requirements of individual freedom, about the progression by which it gives way to government, and the historical remedy for government’s ascent to tyranny. That remedy is not revolution. As many commentators have noted, revolution almost always results in worse tyranny. Rather, they who were determined to be free had to flee: to seek a frontier across which they could escape. Until about 1900, frontiers of that sort existed on the land surface of the Earth. They exist no longer.
The closing of the land frontiers has led many to believe, whatever they believed beforehand, that at long last government has become inevitable. After all, there’s no patch of habitable land that remains unclaimed by a government of some sort. (Some are claimed by several entities claiming to be governments, but that’s a topic for another tirade.) While there is a prospect of a “high frontier,” which entices many to believe that Mankind might reach for freedom once again, few imagine that it will open in their lifetimes. Indeed, governments have done all they can to control access even to low Earth orbit – and while that’s a generally inhospitable locale, it’s a necessary “first step” to more agreeable real estate elsewhere in the Solar System.
But however remote the possibility of escape might seem, the spirit of freedom – the fervent desire for individual liberty and the conviction that government can be dispensed with, whether in whole or in large measure – must be kept alive. Many labor to sustain it. We don’t all agree on methods, current directions, ultimate destinations, or what specific issues to engage. The method I chose is fiction.
Fiction has proved more persuasive than any other method of communication. The reasons are well known. The demonstration is the extraordinary influence the great stories of freedom have had throughout the years. Probably the best known today is Atlas Shrugged, which for all its flaws awakened more minds to the requirements of freedom than anything written in a century or more. So I mention it whenever the context makes it relevant…which, given my proclivities, is pretty often.
But I have a couple of advantages over Ayn Rand and her magnum opus. For one, I’m still alive and writing. So I tout my own stuff as well. Given the threat of ever-expanding, ever-encroaching government, which even here in the Land of the Supposedly Free has eliminated de facto the concept of inviolable individual rights, I consider it a moral obligation. Perhaps it’s even a religious one, for did Our Lord not tell His disciples that “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32) – ?
I hope that will suffice.
Concerning our habituation over just the last hundred years:
DERB ON LIBERTY : So far as liberty is concerned, my own thoughts always start from the opening page of A.J.P. Taylor’s English History, 1914-1945 (one of the volumes in the Oxford History of England). I’m going to give you the whole page, I can’t bear to précis or cut it. Here you go (with British spellings left unchanged ):
Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police. Unlike the countries of the European continent, the state did not require its citizens to perform military service. An Englishman could enlist, if he chose, in the regular army, the navy, or the territorials. He could also ignore, if he chose, the demands of national defence. Substantial householders were occasionally called on for jury service. Otherwise, only those helped the state who wished to do so. The Englishman paid taxes on a modest scale: nearly £200 million in 1913-14, or rather less than 8 percent of the national income. The state intervened to prevent the citizen from eating adulterated food or contracting certain infectious diseases. It imposed safety rules in factories, and prevented women, and adult males in some industries, from working excessive hours. The state saw to it that children received education up to the age of 13. Since 1 January 1909, it provided a meagre pension for the needy over the age of 70. Since 1911, it helped to insure certain classes of workers against sickness and unemployment. This tendency towards more state action was increasing. Expenditure on the social services had roughly doubled since the Liberals took office in 1905. Still, broadly speaking, the state acted only to help those who could not help themselves. It left the adult citizen alone.
Taylor was somewhat more positive about the liberty of the Englishman than was Herbert Spencer, who felt that England was headed into “a century of socialism and war.” Spencer, however, was born well before Taylor and died well before Taylor wrote. What one has lived through can make a large difference to his evaluation of what he has seen.
Please note : in the confirmation email you sent me, both of the links were malformed and would not function until I removed a long x-doc prefix from the URL