Why do libertarians love science fiction?

by on August 22, 2006 at 6:41 am in Political Science | Permalink

The ever-so-loyal Jessica Pickett asks:

A few of your posts – taken together with other econobloggers – would seem to suggest a correlation between being a libertarian economist and being a die-hard sci-fi/fantasy geek.  Does your experience support this anecdotal observation, and if so, can you elaborate on the possible causation?

I see the connection, and I can think of a few possible answers:

1. The rude: Because both groups live in a fantasy world.  But even if that is true, many other ideologues live in a fantasy world but fail to have the same attachment to science fiction.

2. The trivial: Both loves are correlated with "young upper middle class nerdy white male," but otherwise the connection has no significance.

3. The proud: Libertarian economists like to imagine how things otherwise might be.  This spills over into a love for science fiction.

4. The Freudian: Libertarians feel an infantile need to rearrange the pieces of the moral universe, due to thwarted childhood desires and ongoing sexual frustrations

5. The sociological: Character development is notoriously weak in science fiction and libertarians are prone to see societies in terms of abstract laws rather than very definite individual human beings.

5. Denial or minimization of the fact: I doubt if the connection holds outside the USA.  Plus bloggers are a very, um… "select" sample.  Is Milton Friedman out there reading The King of Elfland’s Daughter?  Much recommended, by the way.

My question: If you discover that your personality can be explained by a smaller rather than a larger number of dimensions, should this make you happy or sad?  More or less trusting of your intuitions?

Bill Gardner August 22, 2006 at 7:17 am

The Crooked Timber writers are also chided for their attachment to science fiction. Early members of the blogosphere were probably more likely to be SF readers.

stephan Kinsella August 22, 2006 at 7:52 am

I actually doubt there is much of a correlation, but to the extent there is, #2 and 3 make the most sense, esp. #3. 1, 4, and 5 are silly.

Jessica August 22, 2006 at 8:16 am

Thanks for posting my question! I’m a little surprised, though, that you didn’t include what I thought was perhaps too obvious of an answer: namely, that growing up on Star Wars engendered an early suspicion of big government and planted a seed of libertarianism that only need a good dose of econ 101 to take root.

Not to mention that being outside of the middle-school mainstream (aka dorks) probably resulted in some clashes with “authority” (aka bullies) and could naturally lead to a healthy skepticism of the ruling class on the political playground as well…

joan August 22, 2006 at 8:38 am

Physicist also love science fiction, probably for the same reasons.
Part of 5 “libertarians are prone to see societies in terms of abstract laws rather than very definite individual human beings”. Much of science fiction is based on the implications of such an abstraction. The fact that character development is notoriously weak in science fiction is not a plus, but is not that important.

Jason August 22, 2006 at 9:24 am

Both groups are connected with upper middle class white males? Hmmm… Robert Nozick and David Schmidtz grew up poor. (So did I, relative to my peers.) I thought left liberalism was the ideology of upper middle class kids.

Jason August 22, 2006 at 9:32 am

I’ve got it the answer (akin to that Duke professor saying that most academics are leftist because they’re smart):

Science fiction appeals to smart people who aren’t trying to show off what good people they are. Libertarians are smart people who aren’t trying to show off how good they are.

jon August 22, 2006 at 9:49 am

I think it’s libertarianism is very attractive to geeks and geeks read science fiction. Geeks are usually smart and hardworking people whose priviledge is to a large extent invisible. They are usually products of middle class families who prize education and the beneficiaries of decent public schooling ( but which they see as sub-par because they’re the smart kids who are being held back by the average pace). Geeks are consistently told that their successes are the products of the moral virtues of intelligence and hard work.

They don’t see the how they have been placed in the position where intelligence and hard work can benefit themselves as the result of priviledge. They are not usually the products of wealthy families, so they see themselves as not starting with massive advantages. This is a perfect recipe for believing the myths of libertaranism. They are self-made men who succeeded because they were better than others in intelligence, imagination, persistence, and work ethic and government is tool for lesser beings to hold them back.

Megan August 22, 2006 at 10:20 am

Just thought I’d mention that I‘m not arguing 4. Until this week, I hadn’t given that much thought to libertarians. And I can’t really call anyone else sexually frustrated.

Richard August 22, 2006 at 11:09 am

What I like about libertarianism is precisely what I DON’T LIKE about sci-fi.

Libertarianism WORKS: free-market economies really do grow more quickly and produce more wealth. Libertarianism, to me, is the most empirical, the least FANTASTIC, of political positions.

Sci-fi, which is all about fantasy, is the opposite.

So, quite frankly, I fear that you libertarians who like Sci-Fi are not libertarianism’s best ambassadors. You’ll be prone to make abstract philosophical arguments (who cares?) rather than just note that libertariasm WORKS.

Half Sigma August 22, 2006 at 11:45 am

I read a lot of Robert Heinlein when I was young, and perhaps it converted me to libertarianism.

Barkley Rosser August 22, 2006 at 1:07 pm

While Milton Friedman probably does not read _The King of Elfland’s Daughter_
or much other SF or fantasy (although I do not know that, maybe he does), I
would lay odds that his son, David does, arguably a harder line libertarian
than his dad.

A non-trivial amount of SF has taken the form of anti-utopia novels, some
very classic and read outside the SF world, with Orwell’s _1984_ and Huxley’s
_Brave New World_ being arguably the archetypes.

Anthony August 22, 2006 at 1:33 pm

First, a distinction must be made between “hard” science fiction and fantasy. While there’s a lot of middle ground between those two poles, it’s my experience that people who prefer fantasy to hard SF are much less likely to be libertarians. Hard SF fans are people who like dealing with the world as it really is; who understand that even when there is a technological solution, it may not be economic; and who believe that progress is good, but that human nature is fairly fixed.

Science fiction fans are also less likely to believe that their tribal customs are laws of nature, and thus are more willing to entertain the possibility that social and political arrangements could be radically different than they are now. This might also explain the small, but influential, number of Communists in SF, and the large number of science-fiction fans in the polyamorous community.

Kathleen Fasanella August 22, 2006 at 1:54 pm

6. The neurological.
Libertarians/SF fans share disproportionate characteristics of high functioning autism (asperger’s syndrome).

Lars Smith August 22, 2006 at 3:04 pm

The largest science fiction section I have ever seen in a bookstore was at the MIT Coop. There is a whiff of autism about science fiction. Are there many aspies among both engineers and economists?

jrfay August 22, 2006 at 3:40 pm

Without being rude, I would have to go for a combination of 1 and 5. Envisioning a pure, fully functional anarcho-capitalist society and writing a science fiction novel both require a powerful imagination and an ability to spin out the logical implications of an abstract starting premise. I still think that the old “Market for Liberty” idea of replacing the State with competing insurance companies is a great start for a science fiction novel. Just add characters and a plot, and maybe a convenient nuclear war that eliminated the State.

Anthony August 22, 2006 at 4:24 pm

jrfay – Vernor Vinge and Neal Stephenson have had societies which looked pretty mcuh anarchocapitalist in their fiction. For that matter, the lunar society in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is somewhat AC, too.

Douglas Knight August 22, 2006 at 7:13 pm

Barkley Rosser:
I would lay odds that [Milton Friedman's] son, David does

Because he’s published by Baen?
I’m sure Milton’s read Harald

Swimmy August 23, 2006 at 12:04 am

1) I’m not sure there’s as much correlation as it seems. This is the internet and all. I know several libertarian economists who have no interest in the stuff.

2) 5 seems about right. I was planning on writing my own overly-long blog entry in response to that poster, and that was essentially my answer. I was going to use videogames more than scifi, though. What more are videogames than a world with set boundaries and laws? Most of them don’t even need to be explained, they’re intuitive, especially for those acquainted with the medium.

David Zetland August 23, 2006 at 1:28 am

I am reading Ray Bradbury’s book on writing (Zen in the Art of Writing. Yes, it’s a horrible title and he admits it) and one thing that pops out is the possibility of expressing yourself and stretching the limits of the possible through SF. That seems to fit the individualistic side of libertarianism fairly well. On a related note, I add Fahrenheit 451 to the list of anti-utopian books. What’s more libertarian than a library full of rebellious books and readers?

CWuestefeld August 24, 2006 at 3:02 pm

Funny. I agree that there appears to be a sci-fi/libertarian correlation. But it seems like it *ought* to be the opposite. Much s/f, particular the “classics” before the last quarter of the century, demonstrate a huge amount of the scientific positivism that Hayek criticizes in The Fatal Conceit. That is, there is a common theme that scientists and engineers can get together and build something to solve the problem du jour, as opposed to the emergence of solutions through market forces.

Of course, writing ones way through all of the market forces is (a) impractical for the very same reasons that Hayek describes, and (b) probably as exciting to read as to watch paint dry.

Tom McMahan August 26, 2006 at 5:25 am

I think there is a correlation as well, and it has mainly to do with sci-fi’s focus (usually) on a more rational-based, scientifically-literate universe than the one we now live in, as well as a certain sense of alienation that more individualistic thinkers share vis-a-vis modern culture.

Someone asked about writers in other genres and libertarianism…Neil Peart, lyricist and drummer of Rush (rock music), is a “left-leaning” libertarian, in his words. And he’s also written several sci-fi type of songs for the band.

J. Michael Stryzinski (sp?), who wrote the TV series Babylon 5, also obviously had libertarian leanings, if you watched that series through and through. One more sci-fi, libertarian connection.

I think the notion that libertarianism = right-wing that exists in America is largely misplaced, though. There are as many moderate and liberal libertarians as there are the capital L party version.

Seth Edenbaum August 28, 2006 at 1:00 pm

Speculative fiction is popular with those who like to imagine a one to one correlation between what they think of themselves and what they are in the world, and who take to forms that discount craft and the dangers -as psychological risk- of multiple implication in favor an esthetic of simple illustration. Sci Fi is art without subtext for people who like to pretend there’s no subtext in their own speech. The real world complexity is seen mostly by the unconverted, who cringe or shrug.

That people who profess an interest in politics and policy (specifically economic policy) let alone those with degrees in related subjects[!] are fans of sci fi should be a warning.

Jose September 12, 2006 at 7:31 am

People are also overlooking the fact that a very high percentage of Science Fiction fans and writers are also communists.

I think the real connection is in utopian thinking, the belief that a vastly different better world than our own is possible. If you subscribe to that thinking then a political ideology that promises a plausible sounding utopia if only society did X might be more attractive. I don’t think you need to look any further than that.

I’m not a communist or libertarian myself although I do see the attraction they hold for SF fans.

Kay Shapero December 28, 2006 at 8:06 pm

After scanning through the above, all I can find to add is that s/he who speaks of science fiction (and fantasy for that matter, or any other subject that can be found in print) would be wise to read a properly comprehensive sample of it first.

That and recall the lesson of the blind men and the elephant.

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