Libertarian Vampires

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Recently by Anthony Gregory: Sustainable Living, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Urban Farms

     

I've long been impressed by Murray Rothbard's discussion of the rights of non-human beings in The Ethics of Liberty, in which he even explores the rights of alien races. "If our hypothetical u2018Martians' were like human beings — conscious, rational, able to communicate with us and participate in the division of labor," Rothbard writes, "then presumably they too would possess the rights now confined to u2018earthbound' humans." But what about the predatory undead? Rothbard continues:

[S]uppose, on the other hand, that the Martians also had the characteristics, the nature, of the legendary vampire, and could only exist by feeding on human blood. In that case, regardless of their intelligence, the Martians would be our deadly enemy and we could not consider that they were entitled to the rights of humanity. Deadly enemy, again, not because they were wicked aggressors, but because of the needs and requirements of their nature, which would clash ineluctably with ours.

Indeed, if vampires behaved as they have been portrayed in every folklore tradition to feature such a creature, at least as far as I can recall, this would be correct. But what if, instead, vampires were not intractably our enemies — what if the market and civil society could produce a harmony of interests between bloodsuckers and humans?

L. Neil Smith's new novella, Sweeter Than Wine, addresses this question while telling an exciting story in the process. J. Gifford, the vampire in his tale, is a productive member of society — a private eye. He gets all the blood he needs through consensual exchange.

Smith, a sci-fi writer, offers a very clever explanation for Gifford's affliction. It is not a supernatural explanation. As with all science fiction, the reader must suspend his disbelief, but it is far easier here than it is concerning the scientific explanation for Jedi powers given in the Star Wars prequels. If you're going to take away the mysticism of a fantasy story and replace it with fictionalized science, it had better be compelling, as it is in Sweeter Than Wine.

Neil's prose is sharp, and the libertarian lessons are presented compellingly without being preachy, a tough balance to strike in this kind of writing:

A wise man once asked, "What shall we have accomplished when we have made a law?" . . . . He goes on to point out that those who agree with the new law are most likely "obeying" it already, before it's ever passed. Meanwhile, those who don't agree with it will either obey it grudgingly, which is very dangerous in the long run, especially in a democracy, where nothing is ever really settled, or they will break it surreptitiously. . . .

What we will really have accomplished, says the wise man, is to have given more jobs to cops, and bought more guns and clubs. . . . If law really worked, there'd be no need for it.

Governments are described as "more voracious and implacable than any vampire could be." And as usual in Smith's works, we get a shout out to the serious thinkers of our tradition. Some of the action takes place across the street from the "Ludwig von Mises Memorial College campus."

Reading this story has reminded me of Smith's imaginative power and narrative artistry, which were instrumental in radicalizing me in my libertarianism years ago. His book The Probability Broach, a modern classic, has been hailed on these pages before. By painting a picture of a libertarian world free of state interference of virtually any type, Smith inspired me with a positive ideal vision of a possible future, the liberal utopia that Hayek often stressed we needed in addition to our radical critique of the state. Just imagine a Congress with virtually no power whatsoever, a world where all policing was done with respect to individual rights, where the glories of medicine and science flourished beyond our dreams due to the infinite creativity unleashed by the free market. Reading the graphic novel version of the Probability Broach recently reminded me of its fantastic alternative American history, in which George Washington was a villain, which helped pique my interest in revisionist history early on and probably set me on the path to reading lots of it to this day.

One major point that came to mind in reading Sweeter than Wine was the importance of fiction in fomenting a cultural shift of any sort. Science fiction has long had an important role in the classical liberal and libertarian heritage, from C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy and Robert Heinlein's works to Robert Anton Wilson and Withur We, the new novel by Matthew Alexander. More broadly speaking, we can include Douglas Adams, given his brilliant take on bureaucracy in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and nearly every other dystopian author as having relevance to the libertarian mind. Although not a libertarian, Kurt Vonnegut has long had an important place in my heart as well as my anti-state thinking for his great antiwar books Slaughterhouse Five and Mother Night as well as his terrific short story "Harrison Bergeron," probably the best artistic refutation of egalitarianism imaginable in less than ten pages. Surely the theme that power corrupts seen in the Lord of the Rings, one of the most famous epic stories of our time, should resonate with all libertarians. Smith himself gave a talk in the 1990s, "You Can’t Fight a Culture War If You Ain’t Got Any Culture," that argued both for the importance of libertarian artists and a general libertarian awareness of the arts. I completely concur, and there is a lot of great libertarian fiction out there, but we can always use more.

To broaden the discussion even further, fiction is a most important medium, serving a crucial role in the humanization of other people, providing a peek into different cultures and attitudes that is crucial for a libertarian, who is, after all, seeking to defend humanity from the state, a humanity that we learn about through reading fiction as we can through nothing else. I'm not always sure what the exact libertarian themes are in my many favorite storytellers of the English language, whether it's Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Chesterton, or Stephen King. Nor do I always read my favorite translated works by those writing in another language, such as the masterful Italo Calvino, through an ideological lens. But fiction's unique contributions in identifying and depicting cross-cultural universals as well as exploring the individual character as the primary unit in human action are essential to having a well-rounded appreciation of that which we're fighting for. It also never hurts to read fiction if you wish to write, whether fiction or non-fiction, or even speak in defense of the ideas of freedom.

Neil's latest story reminds us of the important part storytelling plays in the contemplation of ethical principles. It shows us that the peripheral concerns of theory can sometimes best be explored through an unusual protagonist's tale. Neil has always been an unashamed libertarian and this comes across clearly in all his work. His is a difficult role to play, the polemicist who defends ideals through flawed characters and plots complicated by the nuance of human imperfections. There is always the risk of coming off preachy and hurting the very message meant to be conveyed, undercutting that precarious balance between potent art and ideology. There is always the danger of turning off readers and shrinking one's audience by sticking tightly to principles, especially in a postmodern age when people would often prefer their novelists and other artists not take a stand on anything, much less eternal and old-fashioned concepts of individual liberty. Neil has kept the libertarian tradition in fiction alive for over thirty years, and Sweeter Than Wine is a great notch on his belt and a fine addition to the wide-reading libertarian's library.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is research editor at the Independent Institute. He lives in Oakland, California. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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