|Javelin Press: Ignacio, Colorado, 2004|
|456 + xiii pages||March 2005|
Freedom in a free state?
Recently, some libertarians have adopted the strategic idea of a "free state movement". This is a proposal to have large numbers of libertarians move to a state with a small population and take control of its government by democratic means. The first novel by "Boston T. Party", author of several books on firearms and on general libertarian theory, is an exploration of this idea in fictional form, envisioning a libertarian takeover of Wyoming over the next few decades. Unfortunately, both its approach to fiction and its understanding of libertarianism are flawed.
Molôn Labé, the title of this book, is stated to be the reply of King Leonidas of Sparta to a Persian emissary who asked the Spartans at Thermopylae to lay down their weapons; Party translates molon labe as, come and take them! That's a rather free translation; the actual Greek phrase means literally, seize struggle! An idiomatic rendering might be seize [them] [by] struggle!
So far as its fictional form is concerned, this book is less a novel than a thinly disguised tract. To start with, out of 456 pages of main text, 148 are essays, speeches, or other statements of fact or opinion, including two simulated Playboy interviews — that is, over 30% of the text is not fiction of any kind, not even description of a fictional setting.
In the remaining 308 pages, Party repeatedly violates one of fiction's longest-established rules: Show, don't tell. Repeatedly, and at crucial points, the reader is presented, not with actual descriptions of what characters say or do, but with conclusions about them — the sort that, in a better written novel, the reader would reach from their words and actions — or even with moral judgments presented as facts. For example, in a key passage on page 107, he presents two men whom the reader is apparently meant to classify as intolerably evil; but the only biographical facts he presents are that the first man worked in Hollywood, ran for the United States Senate, and had presidential ambitions; and that the second man was an advocate of world government. Everything else the reader is told about them is moral judgments of their wickedness — made by the man who assassinated them.
Beyond that, Molôn Labé has one other critical weakness as a novel: it contains no conflict. It certainly has no dramatic conflict; the libertarian figures are never in doubt, or afraid, or regretful about their actions. They seem simply to be taking calculated risks, mostly dispassionately. And those risks don't even carry much real danger. The novel shows neither a classical martyrdom to the cause of freedom, on the model of Thermopylae, nor the heroic victory of militiamen against the United States Army. Instead, the freedom of the state of Wyoming is obtained through nuclear blackmail of the United States government. Whatever the ethics of this strategy, it undercuts any sense of the heroism of the novel's protagonists — and it fails to fulfill the dramatic promise of the title.
Given these weaknesses, Molôn Labé is best judged as a work of nonfiction, in which the function of the narrative and dialogue is simply to liven up an argument. How good is it as an argument for libertarianism?
I've mentioned that the climax of the book involves nuclear blackmail of the United States government. On the eve of an armed invasion of Wyoming, the federal government learns that three atomic bombs, each rated in the hundreds of kilotons, have been stolen. Rather than risk having them used, the President orders the army to cancel the invasion.
Now, there are three ways a bomb could be used in such a conflict. It could be used on troops moving into Wyoming; but that seems unlikely, given that the resulting explosion and fallout would do more damage to Wyoming than the army would. It could be used on military bases in adjacent states; inevitably, that would kill large numbers of innocent people. Or it could be used directly to threaten innocent people with death, making them hostages for the conduct of their government. Either of these last two courses would amount to terrorism on a massive scale. Perhaps Party thinks that the mass of the American people are statists who deserve death; but mass murder is a poor way to serve freedom.
Party also shows advocates of freedom resorting to murder on a smaller scale, in the form of political assassination. This starts out with the two killings described on page 107, committed by an elderly widower named Krassny, who becomes the inspiration for a movement devoted to political murder. Indeed, Krassny's letter explaining his actions appears to play somewhat the same role in Molôn Labé that John Galt's speech does in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged; and, just as John Galt's name is invoked through Rand's novel, Krassny's name turns up throughout this one, as the assassins inspired by his example become known as "Krassnyites". But killing by stealth is another poor way to serve liberty. One of the great triumphs of the English struggle for liberty was the abolition of the Star Chamber, a court that met in secret, trying and condemning accused men by its own rules, without public oversight. But this book's Krassnyites are an anarchistic equivalent of the Star Chamber, imposing death sentences by their own judgment, according to their own laws, and with no appeal. This kind of unchecked power to kill is not a safe tool for the defense of freedom.
The violence, wholesale and retail, that Party finds acceptable violates the libertarian principles of noninitiation of force. It vitiates his claim to be a patriotic American; someone who loved his country would not hold his countrymen's lives so cheap. And it makes his book a poor sales pitch for libertarianism; not many people are going to find assassination or terrorism heroic, and those who do will make dubious recruits. Historically, freedom has done best in societies that valued the resolution of disputes through law, made and enforced in public; violence, and especially secret violence, has been too ready a tool for oppression.
Party's willingness to envision the use of such methods to fight for freedom seems to grow out of a sense of his entire society as corrupt. And there is a lot of corruption in American society. But his definition of it seems to be a bit one-sided. Repeatedly, in this book, he portrays libertarians as naturally allied to Republicans, to conservatives, and to Christians (which seems to mean "fundamentalist and evangelical Protestants"). But this alliance isn't as obvious or as natural as he supposed.
Certainly Christians can be libertarians, just as atheists can be. All that's needed is for either side to be willing to leave the other in peace. But one of the risks in current American politics is that Christians will not necessarily be willing to leave non-Christians in peace; that they will want to weaken the Constitution's protection against established religion and to use the law to force non-Christians to live by Christian ethical ideals. In showing Wyoming going over to libertarianism with the agreement of its largely conservative and Christian population, Party underestimates the difficulty of selling that population on the repeal of antidrug laws and other victimless crime laws. In particular, his novel's protagonist, the libertarian governor of Wyoming, condemns abortion but rejects criminal penalties for it, on the ground that they could only be implemented through totalitarian methods (p. 423); but the most widely advocated change of policy is a "right to life" amendment legally defining fetuses as human, under which abortion would legally be criminal homicide.
Part of the thesis of this book is that freedom is naturally to be found in rural areas, in small communities. A lot of people have felt otherwise, for a long time — back to the Middle Ages with their slogan of "city air makes free". Black people, starting early in the 20th Century, fled the rural, agrarian South to live and work in the cities of the North. Homosexuals have long been migrating to big cities — especially New York and San Francisco — where they could find shelter in anonymity, and come together in large enough numbers to form a community. Country life may mean freedom for people who agree with the local values and customs; but city life offers liberation to minorities and dissidents, even without formal legal rights, and even when city governments are corrupt. The support of political machines and many urban voters for antilibertarian trends in American political culture does not negate the increased freedom of city life — nor are rural voters, or those in small cities, innocent of antilibertarian values; all of American political culture has been degraded.
Party's ruralism shows up, notably, in his idealization of country people as self-sufficient, able to live on their own resources, without becoming dependent on welfare. Perhaps he hasn't noticed that farmers buy their seed grain from large agribusiness companies, get fuel for their tractors from the petroleum industry, and even get weather reports from satellites — all products of the big cities, without which farming would be far less viable. And perhaps it hasn't occurred to him that farm price supports are just one more form of welfare, and one far more politically untouchable than Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), so long as much of the United States Senate is elected by farm states. The food commodities program, which gave away products such as cheese to the poor, was largely a method of disposing of food stores accumulated under farm price support laws. Any political analysis that ignores the role of the federal government in giving handouts to farmers is failing to come to grips with reality.
Possibly related to this theme is the book's strangest passage, on pages 246-253. In this, the Attorney General and the Secretary of State, with the approval of the President, explain that the United States actually has two Constitutions: the one revealed to the public, and a secret document that actually rules federal policy, to which the President actually takes his oath. And the goal of this document is to transform human beings, or at least an elite within humanity, into gods, in accord with Gnostic theology, overthrowing the Christian God in the process. Nothing further is done with this theme, and it's hard to make sense of why it's in the book at all; it's as if a story by Sinclair Lewis or Robert Heinlein suddenly acquired C. S. Lewis or Charles Williams as a co-author. The one thing it does seem to accomplish is to suggest that, whatever atheistic libertarians may think, the real struggle is between freedom and Christian faith on one hand, and statism, Gnosticism, and magic on the other — and thus perhaps to justify the book's implied threats of apocalyptic violence toward the enemies of freedom.
The root of this book's problems is that its author simply isn't skilled enough as a writer to be in control of his material. He doesn't know how to turn his theses into a story; and he doesn't realize, or doesn't care, how his theses will sound to anyone who doesn't already agree with him — or even to some readers who do agree with him on many points. As a result, he's written a book that is likely to do more harm than good to libertarianism. It doesn't address the public as people who might respond to a reasoned argument; it writes them off as capable of being reached only by overt and covert war. And perhaps things really are that bad. But if they are, we can't count on libertarianism to come out on top. It's only in states that have, or want to have, a civil society where policy is based on reasoned debate that there is any hope of a freer political order. Molôn Labé offers no such hope.
© 2005 William H. Stoddard