home political and economic essays The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

by David Brin, Ph.D.

Under the dour but popular 'look-back' worldview, men and women yearn for a better, happier time — located firmly in their mostly-imaginary past. Just a few people dare contradict this standard dogma of nostalgia, and relocate their 'golden age' to the future, something to strive toward: a human construct that their grandchildren could achieve with craft, sweat and good will — assuming we manage to prepare them.

The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

explicit and implicit social contracts

Let's try on another highly-nonstandard view of our progress toward freedom. Once again, you've never heard it before because it requires cheerfully accepting the possibility that things aren't going straight to hell. That they may actually be getting better.

Cynics have occasionally made fun of the Libertarian Proposition by comparing it to the beliefs of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau contended that society itself was responsible for all of the evils of mankind. If only the wickedness of law and religion, of technology and intricate custom, were removed, he said, men would return to the condition for which they were meant — that of "noble savages."

This was certainly as fine an example of Look-Back nostalgic romanticism, as ever there could be! And yet it was also highly influential and revolutionary in a day when the opposing worldview was the Divine Right of Kings.

Of perhaps more Look-Forward relevance was the later proposal, by the inventor of modern democratic theory, John Locke, that societies are built upon "social contracts" between rulers and those governed. At the time he meant something quite simple; the "contract" was nothing explicitly written down and signed by all parties. Rather, it was implicit in the relationship between king and subject. The lord ruled benevolently or else, in the long run, the people would have his head.

Locke's basic idea still appears sound, as a rough metaphor. An implicit contract does make sense as a model of what we observe in primitive societies. Consider the dark millennia which lasted until a few centuries ago. During most of those years, the lives of peasants and poor craftsmen were brutal and short. Bandits were always conspiring to steal what little people had, or worse, to become aristocrats themselves, and make slaves of everyone else.

But once a line of aristocracy was established, a curious thing happened. Quite often the grandchildren of bandit lords, well-fed from birth and benefitting from what passed for education in such times, turned out to be rather well suited to rule. It wasn't that they were in any way more deserving, but that nourished brains and literacy could only be provided to a few individuals from the meager surplus available at the time. A young man who was already part of a dynasty, and not rapaciously obsessed with creating a new one, might actually, on occasion, rule wisely.

A careful look at history shows that, for all of their petty wars and brutality, this pattern seemed to work about as well as could be hoped. And when it failed, peasants often did rebel. In a sense, Locke's implicit social contract is simply a description of the obvious.

Contrast this age-old pattern with one of the dream icons held dear by Libertarians — the explicit social contract.

This is an agreement between the individual and his or her society, worked out anew with each adult, who knowledgeably signs away a carefully chosen, narrow range of action-rights in exchange for certain benefits of cooperative society. For example, some contend that under true federalism each state in the Union should experiment with its own social structure, under the very broad umbrella of national defense and the Bill of Rights. Any man or woman, at age eighteen, would have the opportunity to sign a covenant, explicitly agreeing to the codes and customs and laws of his or her home state. Or, upon disagreeing, the youth could move to another commonwealth with institutions more to his or her liking.

A competitive market for explicit social rules? People preferring paternalism might live in a cradle-to-grave welfare state (and pay for it!) in, say, New York. Others, traveling to Nevada or Alaska, might find few laws other than "Respect Life and Property" and "Don't Pollute," along with the unwritten but implied caveat emptor.

(Some might contend that the worldwide eagerness of people to immigrate to the United States represents a version of this very thing.)

Robert A. Heinlein — whose centennial we will soon celebrate, and one of the most unambiguously freedom-loving authors — portrayed such a future society in his novel Revolt in 2100. After successfully overthrowing a fanatical religious dictatorship, rebels not only restore the U.S. Constitution, but add a companion document called the "Covenant," which every adult, upon reaching legal maturity, is expected to sign of his or her own free will, even negotiating special arrangements with their neighbors, towns and states.

All right, it may just be a metaphor, but it helps show our place in the forward flow of history — where we have been and where we might go. At one end lies Locke's vision of implicit charters between ignorant peasants and semi-literate bandit kings. At the other end, we find this libertarian ideal of an explicit social contract, one negotiated afresh with and among highly educated citizens. All of whom are sufficiently formidable and knowledgable to make truly rational choices.

To those who find something to like in this particular vision, any present-day society may be judged by two simple criteria:

FIRST: By how far it has progressed, evolving from the implicit to the explicit social contract.

SECOND: By its prospects for further evolution in that direction.

By this standard, a lot of things fall into place. An implicit social contract starts becoming explicit with "Magna Carta"-style arrangements among the upper classes... then republic-style charters among the bourgeoisie. As things get more explicit, less and less is left to the whim of leaders. More and more has to be negotiated, deliberated, actually written down. The Civil Service rises to its own era of prim-but-haughty prominence. At the midway point — well, wouldn't you expect to pass through an awkward phase when the number of words seems almost overwhelming? When explicit rules and regulations seem more of an oppressive curse than a blessed relief from arbitrary authority?

Is it any wonder than many in our society yearn for simpler times, even the capricious personal rule of monarchs? At least capricious-arbitrary rulership had one advantage — it was simpler!

It also sucked. Turn away from the past, folks. To hell with kings. Remember the goal.

This is a view of bureaucracy and regulation that you've probably never seen or heard before — that the excessive rules we face today are like pimples on the face of a gangly adolescent. An awkward phase in the inexorable forward march of a civilization that may actually know what it's doing. One that is making pretty good progress along a very difficult road. Talk about optimistic!

Indeed, modern libertarianism seems already to be groping toward this concept. F.A. Hayek based his belief in the superiority of markets, not on some purported perfection of markets in a lamented past, but upon an increasing ability of diverse players to utilize imperfect but growing knowledge in their own self-interest. This view — somewhat echoing work in math by Kurt Gödel, in physics by Heisenberg and recently in the economic/information theory work of Robin Hanson — portrays markets as evolving things, growing and adapting to changing circumstances.

It is an optimistic view, perhaps, but not passive! For I am not willing to take anything for granted. Not in an age when many rule-makers are themselves would-be oppressors or corrupt cheaters. Libertarians should not stop fighting the bureaucrats and meddlers and obsessive rule-makers! It's your job to keep the pressure up. To strive always against the stifling excess that pencil-pushers and petty tyrants would force upon us, suffocating initiative if they could.

Unless opposed, they would cover the adolescent with a case of acne that's terminal.

On the other hand, I see very little justification for all the rage! It's unnecessary. It's undignified. Worse, it reduces the effectiveness of Libertarians as society's immune system against red tape.

I see us riding a powerful tide of history, past this awkward phase toward an era of explicit social contracts among free adults. But get this: Whether or not I am right about that cheerful image, we'll all be more effective if we act as if it's true.

Because the voters will listen to cheerful people. They proved, time and again, they won't listen to grouches.

three paths to utopia

Look on your questionnaire at the "Birds of a Feather" query. With whom do you ally? Who do you listen to? Person A agrees with your long-range dreams and goals, but not your program for getting there, while Person B shares your near-term program, hates the same opponents, but differs over what society we should eventually reach.

Do your political discussions ever even convey a clear image of the future society your efforts aim at achieving? Have you verified that your "allies" have the same destination in mind?

Have you ever noticed the irony that Marxism and Libertarianism each peer far ahead toward an eventual "withering away of the state"? True, these far-goal visions are very seldom mentioned in either ideology. But when they are, the similarities are eerie. Both posit that an ideal society of freedom, dignity and prosperity — without coercion — is possible, indeed likely, if only certain impediments are removed.

Marxism foresees that era coming as a natural consequence of capital accumulation and the fore-ordained group behavior of mass classes. Classical Libertarians — harking to the resentful Look-Back view — prescribe removing government shackles that currently prevent the natural flowering of markets. Simply toppling the sin of government excess will begin the era of explicit contracts and true individual liberty.

Ah, but then there's Cheerful Libertarianism. (Or perhaps it should be called Maturationalism. Under this Look-Forward zeitgeist, the future era of freedom will come about for one simple reason.

Because if we make a future world in which all children grow up healthy and well educated and free-minded, they will naturally, and of their own free will, choose a society free of coercion. Because that is what any person in his or her own right mind would want!

Mature, knowledgeable and satiable people will tend to approach the near-ideal society of our fairy tale from nearly any starting point, since almost any unafraid adult will deem it the only decent way to live. Absence of fear is key, persuading individuals to forsake ruthless predation in favor of fair competition.

In other words, the precondition necessary for creating paradise is... near-paradise. And, viewed in the context of human history, that is exactly what we've got right now.

These three outlooks demonstrate that sharing a common goal is not enough. Because they differ fundamentally over who is to "blame" for our present condition, as well as how to reach that utopia of freedom and dignity all claim to desire. Each world view depends upon unproved assumptions.

Marxism is the most easily disposed of, for while its critical analyses of nineteenth century capital-formation were incisive, none of its major predictions of events to follow ever came to fruition as prescribed. In science, that is primary disproof. Period. Today the very idea that there could be some "final stage" of industrial capitalization seems charmingly naïve as we see factory tooling becoming obsolete at accelerating rates, proving the continuing need for entrepreneurs for all foreseeable futures. In retrospect, the image of humanity as a locomotive, constrained to a sequential series of psycho-historical "stages" — like railroad ties on the way to some foretold workers' nirvana — seems pathetically silly.

Much of this essay has offered a critique of standard Libertarian assumptions — such as the unsupported notion that free market societies existed in the past, or that immature, neurotic and frightened people, freed suddenly of social restraints, will refrain from fighting, as they always have, to create aristocracies and to make their neighbors' children slaves of their own.

The third utopian view — that a coercion-free world of wealth and freedom may come about from hard work and pragmatic problem-solving among diverse people of goodwill — is also unproved. But there can be no doubt, even now, that it deserves its name. Because it sees the fundamental precondition as maturity.

May we live to see which one is right.

the allure of romance

Will you bear with me for an aside into the world of escapist fantasy? It truly is relevant to our concerns about building a better real world.

Let's turn our attention to the recent popular film, Lord of the Ring: Fellowship of the Ring. First let me start by saying that I consider Tolkien's trilogy to be one of the finest works of literary universe building, with an internal logic and consistency that's excelled only by his penchant for crafting "lost" dialects. (Long before there was a Klingon Language Institute, expert aficionados — amateurs in the classic sense of the word — were busy translating Shakespeare and the Bible into High Elvish, Dwarfish and other Tolkien-generated tongues.) And yes, LOTR opened the door to a vast popular eruption of heroic fantasy, setting up many others who followed with exacting devotion to his masterful architecture.

Indeed, the popularity of this formula is deeply thought-provoking. Millions of people who live in a time of genuine miracles — in which the grandchildren of peasants may routinely fly through the sky, roam the Internet, and elect leaders who must call them sir or ma'am — slip into delighted wonder at the notion of a wizard hitchhiking a ride from an eagle. Many even find themselves yearning for a society of towering lords and loyal, kowtowing vassals! It demonstrates how resonant such themes must be, deep within us.

Indeed, it makes sense if you remember that, for 99.44% of human existence, flight was a legendary prerogative of demigods, and a man was meaningless out of context with his king. It's only been two hundred years or so — an eyeblink — that "scientific enlightenment" began waging its rebellion against the nearly-universal feudal pattern, a hierarchic system that ruled our ancestors nearly everywhere on Earth. In every land where people acquired both metallurgy and agriculture, soon there were kings.

Only in the Eighteenth Century did a new social and intellectual movement finally arise capable of seriously challenging the alliance of warrior lords, priests and secretive magicians. The effects of this revolution have been momentous, utterly transforming our levels of education, health, liberation and confident diversity.

The very shape of society changed, from pyramidal, with a narrow elite atop a vast and ignorant peasantry, toward a diamond configuration, wherein a comfortable middle class actually outnumbers the poor. For the very first time, let me emphasize. We can argue endlessly about the detailed accuracy and implications of this analogy, but not over the fact that a profound shift has occurred, driven by a genuine scientific-technical-educational revolution.

Hold the image of a diamond-shaped society in your minds. Consider how the kings and nobles and wizards and priests fought against it coming into being. Contemplate how the markets that you so admire are compatible with this shape, but never thrived where pyramidal structures prevailed. Notice that you — Libertarians — have only appeared in any measurable numbers amid the diamondlike society that the Enlightenment built.

And yet, almost from its birth, the enlightenment movement was confronted by an ironic counter-revolution, rejecting the very notion of progress. The Romantic Movement (of which fellow Oxfordites C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were proud members) burst forth as a rebellion against the rebellion! Calling the scientific worldview "soulless," they joined Keats and Shelley and most European-trained philosophers — plus a multitude of poets — in spurning the modern emphasis on pragmatic experimentation, production, universal literacy, cooperative enterprise and flattened social orders.

In contrast to these "sterile" pursuits, Romantics extolled the traditional, the personal, the particular, the subjective and metaphorical.

Consider how this fits with the very plot of Lord of the Rings, in which the good guys strive to win re-establishment of an older, graceful and "natural" hierarchy against the disturbing, quasi-industrial and vaguely technological ambience of Mordor, with its smokestack imagery and manufactured power-rings that can be used by anybody, not just an elite few. Those man-made wonders are deemed cursed, damning anyone who dares to wear them, usurping the rightful powers of their betters. (The high elves.)

The anti-modern imperative has strong resonance, all right. Indeed, some of its criticisms have validity! Without romance, we'd be sorry creatures, indeed.

Still, scientific/progressive society has at least been known to listen to its critics, now and then. Name one feudal society whose leaders did that. Were any orcs or "dark men" offered coalition cabinet positions in King Aragorn's postwar cabinet, at the end of the Ring War? Did Mordor get a Marshall Plan? I think not.

Which brings us to another of the really cool things about fantasy — you can identify with a side that's 100% pure, distilled good and revel as they utterly annihilate foes who deserve to be exterminated because they are 100% evil! This may not be politically correct. But then, political correctness is really a bastard offspring of egalitarian scientific enlightenment.

Romanticism never made any pretense at equality. It is hyper-discriminatory, by nature. The urge to crush some demonized enemy resonates deeply within us, dating from ages far earlier than feudalism.

alas, we are all romantics at heart

Whoosh! All very interesting. But what does all that have to do with ideology or libertarianism?

My core point is that many people who see themselves as scientific, modern folks seem often to fall for assumptions and inner trips that hearken to a much older tradition, the romantic pattern of thinking that ruled the tribes and nations of nearly all our ancestors:

An underlying belief in hierarchies in which an elect — of mind, if not birth — are fundamentally and qualitatively more savvy than the sheeplike masses.

A belief in fundamental essences — simplified, perfect models of human nature — and that pragmatism is a betrayal of "principle." Being virtuously right amid failure is better than achieving a victory that's diluted by compromise.

Contempt for those with differing opinions.

A need to blame others for the world's imperfection.

A penchant for emotional indignation.

This list of traits does not automatically indict anyone of being a romantic traitor to democracy or science or other enlightenment values! Indeed, we all dabble in such viewpoint sets, from time to time. (I admit indulging freely, in my role as a successful tale-spinner/writer.) Clearly we are all still Cro-Magnons at some level, drifting back and forth — from older romantic ways of thinking (and their faux-rationalist cousins) over to egalitarian-scientific progressive-accountability ways of looking at the world.

Like the Queen in Through the Looking Glass, it is possible for each of us to believe six impossible — or contradictory — things before breakfast, without ever acknowledging that such liberation of the mind is terribly recent and precious, a luxury almost none of our ancestors could ever afford.

I suppose it is this lack of historical perspective that bugs me most about the ideological approach to politics. I have urgent needs for the present and dreams about tomorrow. I want those needs satisfied and those dreams fulfilled. Moreover, the last century has proved that ideologies just aren't especially helpful at achieving practical goals.

Despite a million utopian promises, each dogmatic prescription failed us, just as badly as all the kings and priests failed us in prior eras.

Moreover, recent advances in anthropology, neuroscience, and complexity theory converge toward one conclusion; even the most compelling ideological description can never encompass the range of emergent and often contradictory qualities contained in a single human being, let alone whole societies. As models, they are at best crude trend-indicators. At worst, they are hypnotic lies.

an aside: a matter of goals

What do I need right now?

Because I'm a brash eccentric, I need a society that is open, tolerant and welcoming of eccentricity! One whose institutions are accountable enough to minimize the inevitable capricious power abuses that fester in every human culture. One where competition takes place under conditions that maximize fair comparison of quality (in goods, services, and ideas) while minimizing the destructive effects of our most loathsome human trait — an ingenious talent for rationalizing, predation, cheating and oppression.

What do I want for tomorrow?

A world where coercion is minimized and individuals are free to achieve the maximum they can by making fair and open deals with each other, leveraging off others' talents, and benefiting from the mutual criticism that only true freedom engenders.

Now I concede — heck, I avow! — that these desiderata sound awfully libertarian. And yet, I part company with many of those waving the banner. Beyond the differences described above, there is a basic clash between the notions of evolution and revolution.

the difference of an "R": the role of science fiction in revolution

Revolution is far more gut-satisfying and yes, romantic. It also tends to be violent, disruptive and rather a bit rude. In order to justify revolution — as opposed to gradual progress through amicable persuasion — you almost have to assume the worst. And that's exactly what many of us do. Listen to some of today's true believers rail against society. You'd think we lived in a wretched Orwellian dictatorship filled with bovine Democrats, porcine Republicans, and sheeplike voters, all of them too stupid to perceive The Truth.

Alas, nothing causes these delightfully articulate firebrands to go tongue-locked more efficiently than asking the following question: "Can you name one human civilization, past or present, that was even half as close to what you desire as contemporary America is today?"

Like their spiritual cousins, radical feminists, these fellows enjoy the indignant rush of knowing they are right. And like radical feminists, they find it galling to be reminded how far freedom has already come.

For a moment let's continue talking about literature... especially my own field of science fiction. I contend that most libertarian novels and stories are similar, at heart, to radical-feminist SF, sharing roots that run far deeper than their superficially disparate political prescriptions. Both perceive a desperate need to tear out a pervasively oppressive evil — root and branch — replacing it with something far more uncomplicated and, in the author's view, more inherently "natural."

It's all part of a grand tradition of polemical, rather than exploratory science fiction. Instead of suggesting realistic but tedious possibilities for gradual reform or evolution, both libertarian and feminist SF often focus on wish fantasies portraying one paramount dream — simplification through revolution.

Take a glance at the most popular works in both sub-genres. Plot scenarios nearly always revolve around chopping away society's complex institutional structures, replacing them with a thumbnail prescription simple enough to fit on a few pages, to be imposed by a few super-competent protagonists — heroes who can dispense with accountability because their inherent virtues make it unnecessary. Only instead of kindly matriarchs who take over after some devastating war or disease (a chief cliché in feminist novels), the hackneyed archetype in libertarian SF features rebellious space colonies cutting their ties to decadent Earth and proclaiming some trimmed-down utopia in orbit, setting themselves proudly aloof from the irredeemable masses festering below.

Of course, now that Earthers have been warned in advance by such novels, citizens will act to prevent rebellion by ungrateful astronauts. They'll accomplish this by the simple means of choosing adults to crew space stations, instead of boys obsessed with hotwiring mobile homes in space. And they will make colonists leave their children down here. Sorry guys.

Why do simplification-fantasies have such a powerful draw, no matter how repetitiously or even preposterously they are told?

Cheerful Libertarianism takes a diametrically opposite view — that the natural human condition for thousands of years has been either gruesomely oppressive feudalism or Lord-of-the-Flies chaos. Only now, after a near-uniform litany of worldwide repression and woe, things seem to be changing at last, in important ways.

Our present levels of freedom, tolerance, wealth, individual eccentricity, and general rambunctiousness are unprecedented and growing at incredible rates. While millions do suffer needlessly, the percentage of children who lead safe and healthy lives, with countless opportunities to better themselves, has never been higher, even in poor countries. And while millions of our fellow citizens are sheeplike couch potatoes, at least an equal number are engaged in a myriad fantastic hobbies and pastimes, jumping out of airplanes with surfboards or deeply engaged in their communities, reading more books than any other generation and deeply thoughtful about the age they live in.

Instead of being fallen creatures, we seem to be rising toward incredible levels of self-actualization, individual achievement and liberty, at a rate that — taken in perspective against six thousand grinding years — seems very nearly vertical.

Moreover, the society that got us this far — though fraught with troubles and occasional outrages — is also demonstrably better than anything that came before. If progress can be maintained and grievous errors avoided, it may serve as an excellent platform for evolution toward better things.

Despite vast amounts of evidence supporting this view, it comes under attack whenever even the slightest note of optimism gets raised. One underlying reason — I believe — is the addiction-to-indignation referred to earlier. But another rationale is — "If you're cheerful and optimistic, you won't fight very hard," a true-believer told me one day. "You see a better world coming, so why lift a hand to bring it about?"

I answer that my own optimism is rooted in an understanding of how bloody awful life was for our ancestors. I know how narrowly a renaissance balances on the edge of a knife, and how easily dominion by self-justified oppressive elites may someday return. I've dedicated my life to fighting, every day, against the possibility of that happening.

No, it's the pessimists and nihilists who find excuses for grumbling inaction. We optimists are a feisty lot. Just watch!

conclusion: a movement that can get elected

Here's a thought that might help freedom-loving men and women win office and gain influence over society's future course: Perhaps our fellow citizens aren't fools after all!

Isn't that the central basis for the libertarian creed? The notion that educated free adults can be trusted with matches... not to mention their bank accounts and votes? If the masses are intrinsically stupid — sheep — then the paternalists are right and no future society of maximized freedom will ever be possible.

The fundamental premise of libertarianism is an assumption that people are basically rational and wise. Yet this flies right in the face of the most common libertarian lament — that those idiots out there keep electing statists and every resulting policy has been just plain awful.

One of these two deeply held beliefs is just gonna have to go!

My advice? Distrust the one that feels too good to be true — contempt. It's a delusional addictive drug, fellas and gals. Let it go.

Consider instead the possibility that your fellow citizens have been doing pretty damned well with the crude tools at hand. Rising up out of the Cro-Magnon ooze, then shrugging off the tyranny of chiefs and kings and priests and magicians and clerks and robbers of all kinds, they have somehow managed to build the first civilization that raised millions of... libertarians!

You, yourself, are proof that there's something right about society. No?

So grit your teeth and then chew on this: Your fellow citizens have been doing the best they can.

Maybe the bulky government they've repeatedly voted for isn't intrinsically vile, but instead an awkward, intermediate necessity — one that's come a long the way from feudalism toward the world of open opportunity that we hope our brainy, hyper-educated grandchildren will take for granted. From the old implicit social contract toward one that each sovereign individual is fully capable — and empowered — to negotiate afresh for herself or himself.

Instead of railing how stupid our fellow citizens have been, Cheerful Libertarianism congratulates them on how far they managed to come using such gross and inefficient tools! During a century when communists and fascists and religious fanatics waved vicious-hypnotic ideological romanticisms around, Americans chose instead to follow Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Hey, they were statists, but we got the roads and dams and universities, managed to end Jim Crow and got cleaner air... all without crushing entrepeneurialism to death.

That's worth some grudging respect. No others who wielded that kind of state power ever showed such restraint, or came close to striking a balance — striving pragmatically to get both the left and right hand to do their stuff, without falling (entirely) for the old traps of blanket confiscature, cronyism or state micromanagement. No other statists achieved so much while leaving so many entrepreneurs running around loose to do their own thing. Compared to other statists... well... they sure stunk less.

Admitting this might give you some badly needed credibility.

"Only now" (libertarians should cleverly add!) "it's time to outgrow those complicated and coercive, bureaucracy-heavy tools!"

For example, instead of railing against public education in principle, how about using the following argument:

"Universal education in state schools helped uplift prior generations out of illiterate class systems — we admit it!

"Only now our higher standards and needs and wants have far outstripped the ability of those old-fashioned public schools to deliver. Yes, we have these higher standards because public education helped get us this high. We admit the irony! Nevertheless, it's obvious that the old model of public education is now dragging at the ankles of our rising ambitions. It won't get us any higher! Lack of choice is preventing further progress by stifling educational innovations that might arise out of competition.

"As a general principle, we argue that — with rising sophistication — people can move on to simpler and more mature synergies that make progressively less use of coercive state power, leveraging against individual effort more and more as time goes on.

"And yes, this will benefit the poor as well. We are absolutely counting on that.

"Give us a chance to try some experiments and prove it!"

People might actually vote for such a message. A message that congratulates them for their past success with crude tools, while insisting that the future should be different. A message filled with ideas that are pragmatic, incremental, even accepting of compromise, yet always applying pressure in the direction of less coercion, less bureaucracy and more reliance on the creativity of autonomous human beings.

One thing is certain — the present default stance of contemptuously railing at voters isn't working. They do not — and won't ever — cast ballots for candidates who call them fools, repeating the standard, self-righteous rant. A product that consumers have repeatedly rejected in the open market of politics.

A rant yammering that this gentle, prosperous, tolerant, improving civilization is actually a cesspit of brutality and despair. Oh please.

Yes, the rant feels good. But really, isn't it time to choose between the indignant drug-high of old-fashioned romanticism and the can-do spirit of getting things done?

I want to see freedom-loving candidates actually gain some power. If that means recruiting and nominating moderate libertarians, who will engage in practical politics, rather than purists who crash virtuously with 2% of the vote, fine!

Call me a heretic if you like. Deny me the capital "L" (I don't deserve it, anyway). Still, here's an idea, on the table, where it's going to stay, continuing to irk the ideologues and virtue-junkies.

Let's replace the failed harangue with a message offering our fellow citizens both our congratulations for all they have accomplished and a wave of fresh ideas. Ideas offering hope that we can rise even faster toward a future of freedom and opportunity for all.


The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism

about this article

Copyright © 2007 by David Brin. All rights reserved.

"The Case for a Cheerful Libertarianism" (published in full here) emerged from a series of speeches David Brin presented to various nongovernmental and advocacy groups ranging from environmental organizations to technical and industrial associations to the World Federalist Society. In each case, people were interested in his specialty — the questioning of deep-seated assumptions.

Sometimes, instead of the usual fare — "the future" in general — the topic swings over to politics and the way we run society. This transcription — of a keynote address delivered to the Libertarian Party National Convention in Indianapolis on July 5, 2002 — is the best-edited of more than a dozen of these unconventional consultations. The first version that's been tidied up enough to offer here.

about this series

This article is part of a series of economic and political essays that offer cantankerously tilted perspectives on the United States. The fight to restore and re-invigorate a confident nation requires that we speak up against every sort of dogmatism — even those toward which we feel kinship.

I do not intend to compare the relative merits of liberal or conservative worldviews. Rather, the matter that now concerns me is the profound differences in political methodologies that have been employed by left and right, during the last two decades of political struggle. While I make no effort to conceal my preference for one side over another, any one person's political preferences should not be the issue.

For too long dogmatists have oversimplified and poisoned our political and social discourse. Discourse should be about solving complex problems, not preening and shouting that "My ideology is better than your ideology!"

Elsewhere, I go into detail about the problems facing the Republicans and Democrats, but this series is one where I unabashedly take sides. There is no doubt that the fate of American democracy demands a major change in our political and economic strategies and tactics. Our ancestors fought down attempted tyrannies in order to keep their miracle alive. They demand no less from us, when faced by a pack of proto-tyrants and monsters. Allowing this to happen has been a terrible mistake.

articles, films & books cited here

David Brin, "Addicted to Self-Righteousness?"

David Brin, My Questionnaire on Ideology

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (book)

Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (book)

Robert Heinlein, Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah's Children (book)

The Lord of the Rings: The Motion Picture Trilogy (film boxed set)

Virginia Postrel, The Future and its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise, and Progress (book)

Plato, Phaedrus (book)

Reason TV's video interview of David Brin

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings (book boxed set)

Wikipedia entries for:

  • John Perry Barlow
  • Milton Friedman
  • Kurt Gödel
  • Robin Hanson
  • Friedrich A. Hayek
  • Robert Heinlein
  • Werner Heisenberg
  • John Keats
  • C.S. Lewis
  • John Locke
  • Karl Popper
  • Ayn Rand
  • Murray Rothbard
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley
  • J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Ludwig von Mises

  • to engage these issues

    David Brin blogs at Contrary Brin and comments on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Quora specifically to discuss the political and scientific issues he raises in these articles. If you come to argue rationally, you're voting, implicitly, for a civilization that values open minds and discussions among equals.

    also worth a look

    a brief intro to author David Brin

    DAVID BRIN scientist


    David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
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    shorter fiction

    Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
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    Contrary Brin blog

    Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
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    social media influencer

    Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
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    David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
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    transparency expert

    Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
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    speaker & consultant

    Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
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    future/tech advisor

    Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was cited as one of the top 10 writers the AI elite follow. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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    Contacting BRIN

    All the Ways in the World to Reach David Brin

    an ornery, contrary BLOG, and other insightful wormholes!

    Do not enter if you want a standard "Party" line! Contrary Brin's incendiary posts on science, sci-fi and politics and its engaged, opinionated community poke at too-rigid orthodoxies, proposing ideas and topics that fascinate — and infuriate. See for yourself, and if you like — subscribe for more.

    Questions? Concerns? Email DAVID BRIN

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    pages about DAVID BRIN

  • latest news and activities
  • information about DAVID BRIN
  • public speaking and consulting & popular topics
  • speaking/consulting references and testimonials & a list of past appearances
  • print and podcast interviews
  • video interviews and talks
  • Brin's presskit and complete biography
  • traditional media and social media
  • Brin quotes and frequently asked questions
  • pages about BRIN's science fiction

  • Brin's novels and books
  • Brin's short stories and novellas
  • all about Brin's uplift universe
  • a selection of book reviews
  • Brin's special-order books for sale
  • Brin's advice for new writers
  • Brin reviews sci fi films — including The Postman
  • a compilation of great sf books to read
  • recommended sf films
  • science fiction that teaches
  • BRIN's nonfiction explorations

  • privacy, security, accountability and transparency
  • designing and crafting our amazing 21st Century
  • predicting and projecting our near and far future
  • leading and following our politics and economy
  • keeping track of changes in science and technology
  • scanning our sky for habitable (inhabited?) worlds