Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Icons of Libertarianism

Robert Heinlein

The front line issues as seen by libertarians reflected their youth and the fact that most of them were male. This was natural. Each of us sees through the lense of our individual assumptions and experiences.

Therefore the Vietnam War, the illegality of pot, economic issues, and gun rights dominated the minds of most activists who were also living out the sexual revolution. The most emotionally compelling heroes of the movement were the idea spinners who spoke through the images of fiction.

Robert Heinlein's “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged,” brought the emotional focus that popularized the ideas considered in such nonfiction works as Rose Wilder Lane's “The Discovery of Freedom,” and Isabel Patterson's “God of the Machine,” and more academic treatments. In much the same way Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin” had penetrated the mainstream of American consciousness a century before, Rand and Heinlein achieved in the 20th Century presenting ideas woven into fiction. 
“Shrugged,” and Fountainhead were in effect intellectual bodice rippers that today still sell more books than anything else but the Bible. “Stranger in a Strange Land,” the novel Robert Heinlein wrote to break the stifling contract he had tied himself into for writing juvenile potboilers became one of the influences that supercharged the sexual revolution as groups experimented with alternative forms of marriage and grokked the winds of social freedom. 
Robert Heinlein's many science fiction novels continue to be read by new generations despite the fact they have been outdated in many cases. Written as juvenile potboilers they became classics, reframing the ideas of human organization through stories that allowed young readers to think about alternative forms for human society. 
The willingness to think outside the box characterized the libertarian movement in these early years. 
While no one much thought about it at the time a wrestling match was taking place between two men who would be acknowledged as the greatest writers of science fiction in their time, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The battle between centralized power and cooperative action took place simultaneously to the beginning of the libertarian movement. This theme repeated itself in science fiction and also, some years later, in the Libertarian Party itself. 
The early years of libertarianism were filled with battles over ideas, and egos were very present in those ongoing wars for a share of the intellectual market.

The Market in Markets

Always present in economics were the many works of Murray Rothbard. Rothbard, growing to intellectual maturity in New York in the years that preceded and included the Second World War, was a diligent student of economics, history, and politics. An economist of rare insight, Rothbard prodigiously produced books and papers that included incisive points on the cause and effect of Austrian Economics. 

However, Rothbard liked internecine warfare the way some men like football and beer; through the late 60s and 70s Rothbard engaged in political maneuvers using ideas like Conan the Barbarian used his trusty club, ripping his way through the developing libertarian movement leaving a reputation for dissension in his wake. 
Murray delighted in the blustering idea battles of politics that took place as he attacked what he characterized as the 'libertarian right,' digging his own divide between the admirers of Goldwater and the 'libertarian left.' He had initiated this avenue for activism when he lead a group of Libertarians into the convention of the Peace and Freedom Party in 1968 in an attempt to create solidarity with the new left that was less than successful. This approach was a product of his upbringing and the cultural icons of his youth, which were populist and socialist; Rothbard celebrated the success of the 'common people' without really understanding that viewing people through the lens of labels limited his understanding of the very human action he was trying to change. 
Rothbard, who was too young to serve in WWII and too old for Vietnam, never faced the violence of war and sublimated a male hankering for war in his approach to political action. He was short, plump and academically brilliant. His oversights were few but significant and replicated the mistakes of the previous century, setting the stage for yet another round of idea manipulation to be played out through the 80s and 90s.

Not himself inclined to take such conflict personally, he did not realize that he was accumulating a reputation that would eventually exact unexpected costs. Rothbard and his cadre of 'left libertarians' had left the Peace and Freedom Convention far less peaceful that it had been, although Eric Garris, an early Libertarian and founding member of the Radical Caucus, would work as an organizer for the Peace and Freedom Party's efforts for ballot access. 
Unaware of the dynamics in play he set himself, and the Libertarian Party, up for as successful a take over as any in history. Actions as well as ideas have consequences and the personae who present those ideas become part of the message conveyed to those whose ears – and eyes, who are taking it all in.

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