Was Robert A. Heinlein a Libertarian?
by Jeff Riggenbach
Anson Heinlein died 22 years ago this month, in Carmel, California,
at the age of 80, the wonder of it all was that he had managed to
live as long as he did. Heinlein, who was born in 1907 in Butler,
Missouri, a small town about 65 miles south of Kansas City, had
been in poor health for most of his adult life.
had connections with the powerful Pendergast political machine,
the outfit that later put Harry Truman in the US Senate, but Heinlein
still had to spend his freshman year in a two-year Kansas City "junior
college" what today we would call a "community
college" before the Pendergast machine was finally able
to wangle him an appointment to Annapolis. After graduating from
the naval academy in 1929 with a degree in mechanical engineering,
Heinlein went to sea as an officer. But in his fourth year of active
duty, he contracted tuberculosis and was honorably discharged
retired, really, with a small pension after a lengthy hospitalization
at Navy expense.
It was now
1934, the depths of the Great Depression. Robert A. Heinlein was
27 years old and living in Los Angeles, where the Navy had sent
him upon his graduation from Annapolis five years before. He applied
for admission to graduate school in physics and mathematics at UCLA,
was accepted, and enrolled in classes there. But he dropped out
after only a few weeks, partly for reasons of his still-precarious
health, partly because he had become interested in politics and
wanted to devote his time to working for Upton Sinclair's gubernatorial
campaign instead of studying math and physics.
an outspoken and self-identified socialist, whose campaign as the
Democratic nominee for governor of California in 1934 was an outgrowth
of his EPIC movement. "EPIC" was an acronym for End Poverty
in California. In Sinclair's words, the EPIC
propose[d] that our unemployed shall be put at productive labor,
producing everything which they themselves consume and exchanging
those goods among themselves by a method of barter, using warehouse
receipts or labor certificates or whatever name you may choose
to give to the paper employed. It asserts that the State must
advance sufficient capital to give the unemployed access to good
land and machinery, so that they may work and support themselves
and thus take themselves off the backs of the taxpayers. The "EPIC"
movement asserts that this will not hurt private industry, because
the unemployed are no longer of any use to industry.
Robert A. Heinlein
worked for Sinclair's campaign in 1934 it won a little more
than a third of all the votes cast in the election then stayed
with the EPIC movement for a few more years. He became a staff writer
for, then editor of, the EPIC News, the movement's flagship
publication, with a paid circulation of two million. Having discovered
what seemed to be a natural bent for writing, he tried his hand
at a novel a utopian socialist polemic entitled For
Us, the Living, that never saw publication until after his
death. In 1938, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the California
state legislature on an EPIC platform. Then, in 1939, at the age
of 32, he began writing short stories for the commercial science
immediate success. Within months of publishing his first short story
in the pages of the leading science fiction magazine of the day,
Science Fiction, he was widely regarded as the leading writer
in the field. Within eight years, by 1947, the year he turned 40,
he had become the first science-fiction writer to break the pulp
barrier that is, the first science fiction writer to publish
not just one story but an entire series of stories, not in the cheaply
produced "pulp" magazines like Amazing Stories,
Astounding Science Fiction, or Thrilling
Wonder Stories, but rather in the more expensively produced,
more prestigious, larger-circulation, better paying, "slick"
magazines like Town & Country and the Saturday Evening
Post. The Saturday Evening Post alone published nearly
half the stories, including the title story, that made up Heinlein's
celebrated 1951 collection, The
Green Hills of Earth.
It was also
in the late '40s that Heinlein began publishing science fiction
stories in Boy's Life, the monthly magazine of the Boy Scouts
of America. It was in the late '40s that he began writing, at the
rate of one novel per year, what Brian Doherty calls "a series
of S.F. novels for boys, published by Scribner's, that seemed to
make it into every high school and elementary school library"
a series of "coming-of-age adventure tales" that
made Heinlein a top favorite author of baby boomers long before
those boomers were old enough to vote or order a drink in a bar.
he wrote science fiction for adults as well. During the '50s and
'60s, Heinlein won four Hugo awards for best science fiction novel
of the year. In 1969, he joined Walter Cronkite on national television
to offer commentary on the first manned moon landing in history.
In 1975, he was named the first recipient of the Grand Master Award
for lifetime achievement in the field, by the Science Fiction Writers
of America. By the time of his death in 1988, his nearly four-dozen
books including novels and collections of short stories
had sold more than 40 million copies. And they haven't stopped selling
in the more than two decades that have gone by since then.
Why is all
this important from the point of view of the libertarian tradition?
Because, among the many hundreds of thousands of readers who made
Robert A. Heinlein's career in science fiction such a brilliant
success were quite a few who later came to think of themselves as
libertarians and to associate themselves, in one way or another,
with the organized libertarian movement. Not a few of these would
be happy to tell you that it was by reading Heinlein's stories and
novels that they discovered libertarian ideas and became persuaded
of their power and truth.
In the early
1970s, according to a survey undertaken at the time by SIL, the
Society for Individual Liberty, one libertarian activist in six
had been led to libertarianism by reading the novels and short stories
of Robert A. Heinlein. Among the prominent libertarians of the late
20th Century who have named Heinlein as an important influence on
the development of their own political thinking were Dave Nolan
(the founder of the Libertarian Party) and the late Samuel Edward
But was Heinlein
a libertarian? There certainly are libertarian ideas in some of
his books. The
Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, for example, the winner of the
Hugo award as the best science fiction novel of 1966, is the story
of a libertarian revolution on the moon a revolution designed
to free Luna from the control of politicians and bureaucrats on
Terra, that is, the Earth.
One of the
leaders of the revolution is a "distinguished man with wavy
white hair, dimples in cheeks, and [a] voice that smiled,"
Professor Bernardo de la Paz, who speaks of "the most basic
human right, the right to bargain in a free marketplace." De
la Paz calls himself "a rational anarchist" and argues
that the question we need to put to ourselves when thinking about
political issues is this one: "Under what circumstances is
it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member
of the group to do alone?" According to Professor de la Paz,
this is "the key question
[a] radical question that
strikes to the root of the whole dilemma of government."
As the professor
anarchist believes that concepts such as "state" and
"society" and "government" have no existence
save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible
individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame,
share blame, distribute blame
as blame, guilt, responsibility
are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere
Both in his
physical appearance the wavy white hair, the dimples, the
smiling voice and in his ideas, Professor Bernardo de la
Paz bears a striking resemblance to a real-life libertarian who
flourished and enjoyed considerable influence within the libertarian
movement during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s Robert
LeFevre. Now it so happens that Robert A. Heinlein and his third
wife, Virginia Heinlein, lived in Colorado Springs throughout the
1950s and through the first half of the 1960s, the very period during
which Robert LeFevre, a neighbor of theirs as it turns out, was
serving as editorial page editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.
writing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress during the years when
LeFevre was operating his famous Freedom School up the road a few
miles in Larkspur and working to transform it into a degree-granting,
four-year institution he wanted to call Rampart College during
the years when, in effect, LeFevre was transforming himself from
an editorialist, controversialist, and rabble rouser to a professor.
It has generally been assumed, though it was never confirmed by
either Heinlein or his widow while they were alive, that the fictional
Bernardo de la Paz was based on the real Robert LeFevre.
Is a Harsh Mistress is unquestionably a libertarian novel. It
is unquestionably one of the three or four most influential libertarian
novels of the last century. But whether its author, Robert A. Heinlein,
can plausibly be described as a libertarian in his personal political
views remains a troubled question.
We have seen
that Heinlein's first period of political activism, in the mid-to-late
1930s, was devoted to the advocacy of policies like a guaranteed
annual income, universal tax-funded schooling, and government seizure
of unused private factories and farms so they could be transformed,
at taxpayer expense, into workers' co-ops. Whatever this is, it
is not libertarianism.
next period of political activism came in the late 1950s, during
the very years when he was first getting acquainted with Robert
LeFevre. On April 5, 1958, the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph
published a full page ad sponsored by but let's let Robert
A. Heinlein tell the story. The following quotations are taken from
the full-page ad he wrote in reply and paid to have published a
week later, on Saturday, April 12, 1958.
in this city appeared a full-page ad intended to scare us into
demanding that the President stop our testing of nuclear weapons.
were seventy-odd local people and sixty-odd national names styling
themselves "The National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy."
is the rankest sort of Communist propaganda
in idealistic-sounding nonsense.
We the undersigned
read that insane manifesto of the so-called "Committee
for a 'Sane' Nuclear Policy" and we despised it. So we are
answering it ourselves by our own free choice and spending
only our own money.
If it comes
to atomic war, the best we can hope for is tens of millions of
American dead perhaps more than half our population wiped
out in the first few minutes.
cannot be avoided other than by surrender; they can be reduced
only by making the free world so strong that the evil pragmatists
of Communism cannot afford to murder us. The price to us will
be year after weary year of higher taxes, harder work, grim devotion
and perhaps, despite all this death. But we shall
We the undersigned
are not a committee but simply two free citizens of these United
States. We love life and we want peace
but not "peace
at any price" not the price of liberty!
and pacifists will think otherwise.
his readers to join a new organization he was starting up, called
the Patrick Henry League, to promote his ideas.
this may be, it is not libertarianism. As Murray Rothbard explained
in his classic essay "War, Peace, & the State," published
in 1963, five years after the publication of Heinlein's fatuous
that he or his property is being invaded, aggressed against, by
Smith. It is legitimate for Jones
to repel this invasion
by defensive violence of his own. But now we come to a more knotty
question: is it within the right of Jones to commit violence against
innocent third parties as a corollary to his legitimate defense
against Smith? To the libertarian, the answer must be clearly,
no. Remember that the rule prohibiting violence against the persons
or property of innocent men is absolute: it holds regardless of
the subjective motives for the aggression. It is wrong
and criminal to violate the property or person of another, even
if one is a Robin Hood, or starving, or is doing it to save one's
relatives, or is defending oneself against a third man's attack.
Now, with regard
to nuclear weapons, here is what Rothbard had to say:
bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will
be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot.
These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate
mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare
case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a
vast geographical area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the
use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a
sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.
is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot
be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner,"
Rothbard argued, "therefore, their very existence must be condemned,
and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own
sake. And if we will indeed use our strategic intelligence, we will
see that such disarmament is not only a good, but the highest political
good that we can pursue in the modern world."
Ten years later,
in his invaluable introduction to the libertarian idea, For
A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Rothbard summed
up his view of the point Robert A. Heinlein had made in that 1958
ad in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph.
wishes is entitled to make the personal decision of "better
dead than Red" or "give me liberty or give me death."
What he is not entitled to do is to make these decisions for
others, as the prowar policy of conservatism would do. What conservatives
are really saying is: "Better them dead than Red,"
and "give me liberty or give them death"
which are the battle cries not of noble heroes but of mass murderers.
It is noteworthy,
is it not, that while Heinlein boasted that he and his wife had
paid for the publication of their ad by "spending only our
own money," he simultaneously made it clear that he expected
all Americans to cheerfully pay "higher taxes" to implement
the policy of mass murder he espoused. Similarly, the man who wrote
stories depicting a successful space program funded by private enterprise
also made it clear that he expected Americans to pay taxes
that is, to tolerate government theft of their money to support
who knew Heinlein from the mid-'30s on, was convinced that his personal
political views were largely a function of the woman he was married
to at the time. In the '30s, when he was married to wife #2, Leslyn
MacDonald, whom Asimov describes as "a flaming liberal,"
Heinlein was working with Upton Sinclair and his EPIC movement.
Twenty years later, married to wife #3, Virginia Gerstenfeld, he
re-emerged as a Cold Warrior fixated on the supposed nobility of
the military and newly devoted to a "free market" for
which he had had little use during the years of the Great Depression.
If so it was,
I say, "so be it." Many men have tailored their beliefs
to match those of their wives. They have found that it helps to
preserve and promote domestic harmony. And they believe that domestic
harmony is a valuable thing, a thing worth preserving. Robert A.
Heinlein was hardly the only man, or even the first man, to venture
down this path.
What we need
to stay focused on here, I think, is that in his books, Heinlein
was his own man. He found social and political ideas ideas
about the different ways human beings might figure out to live together
peaceably in large groups endlessly fascinating. He liked
to fool around with such ideas, speculate about how they might work
out in practice. Libertarian ideas weren't the only ones he fooled
around with and speculated about in his fiction. But because of
his interaction with Robert LeFevre in Colorado in the '50s and
'60s, libertarian ideas were among those he toyed with and dramatized
in certain of his stories. Whether he was personally a libertarian
or not, all those of us who are libertarians owe him a profound
debt for writing The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. For that book
alone, Robert A. Heinlein has earned a place in the libertarian
is transcribed from the Libertarian
podcast episode "Robert Anson Heinlein (1907–1988)."
[send him mail], the
author of In
Praise of Decadence and Why
American History is Not What They Say, is a member of the
Organization of American Historians and a Senior Fellow of the
Randolph Bourne Institute. His articles and reviews have appeared
in The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles
Times, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle,
the Washington Times, Reason, Inquiry, and
Liberty, among other publications.