Written by Nicholas Woode-Smith, ASFL Regional Director, Southern Africa.
Theory inspires action, action leads to change. It is taken for granted by many that philosophy and political theory is integral to any movement. Movements, to inspire change, need an ideology to determine what form that change should take. Libertarianism is no different. We have a broad range of academic theorists who have written and lectured on an expansive array of Libertarian theory and principles. These principles allow us not only to shape what change we want to see in the world, but keep them consistent so that we do not stray from that set path.
Theory is integral to any movement, but is often inaccessible to the majority of people. It tends to be boring for most, or too complicated. It is true that the vast majority of people have not and will never read Road to Serfdom or The Law, but many people have and will read The Hunger Games, 1984, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Fahrenheit 451 and other popular works of fiction.
Fiction is fun. It allows us to escape from the dreariness of reality and imagine new, more vibrant worlds. It also can teach us, and sometimes more effectively than non-fiction. Mark Twain famously said, “the truth is stranger than fiction.” The reason for this is that while non-fiction has to present real life concepts as observed, overloaded with complexity, fiction allows us to focus in and present ideas in a more digestible and less complicated fashion. It strips non-fiction of its abstractness and ambiguity and allows the writer to construct a world where the content makes sense.
1984 tells the story of a totalitarian surveillance society. It is a great read. It is easy to understand and sticks with the reader for years afterwards. Many have cited 1984 as their inspiration for fighting overwhelming surveillance by the state. The book also presents philosophical ideas in such a way that you don’t need to be a scholar to understand. One such idea is how governments use fear to control the populace. Many other non-fiction books have been written on such a topic, but few as eloquently as Orwell’s fiction.
Science fiction, especially, has an important role to play in advancing the Libertarian movement. What is science fiction? While it goes by many definitions and views, sci-fi fundamentally has two types, what I call the scientific and the speculative.
Science fiction is academia made into fiction. It sets forth a question, a thesis, and then examines it. 1984 asked what life would be like under a totalitarian government, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress asked questions about AI, political relations in space and life on the moon. All genuine science fiction asks some sort of question. It doesn’t need to be traditionally scientific in nature. Often, the question is philosophical, political or sociological.
The work itself is the test tube and the report. It allows writers to present what they believe the answer to be, the question to be, or just to pose the question alone. Good science fiction is fundamentally thought-provoking.
The other branch of sci-fi is speculative. It also asks a question: What if? What if America declared war on China? What if rabies evolved and turned people into flesh eating zombies? Speculative fiction can range from the serious to the goofy, but it is essentially making a prediction.
What does this mean for Libertarianism?
While science fiction can be fun and goofy, it can also be valuable in presenting a world view or in attacking another’s. 1984 has been used constantly to attack views that people see could lead to a totalitarian society.
Libertarianism can use science fiction, both types, to present its world view of what a Libertarian society could look like, and what an unlibertarian society looks like. This can be used as a thought experiment, but also as a marketing tool to gain new followers.
Atlas Shrugged inspired an entire ideology and still continues to shift the way people think. This is because it is easier to relate to fiction than typically dry non-fiction. It is one thing to read a book that explains a theory, than to read the theory applied to a world.
The strength of science fiction can inspire, as we have seen with Atlas Shrugged and 1984. It does not only accomplish the teaching of theory by demonstrating it, it also inspires the adoption of these theories. Since many of us were children, we probably took the lessons of fiction to heart. I, for one, learnt much of my distrust of government from 1984. My distrust was reinforced by my reading of history and non-fiction only after 1984 inspired me to take the path.
Science fiction is, thus, a gateway to theory, one that can inspire a generation of readers to adopt a world vision. As Libertarians, we must embrace science fiction and fiction so to present our world view more appealingly and thoughtfully. Who knows? Maybe my book, or some other Libertarian book will be the new Atlas Shrugged or 1984, and inspire a generation of liberty-lovers.