The Moon is A Harsh Mistress – A Review for Anarchists

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress - A review for anarchistsRecently I started reading some of the works of Robert A. Heinlein, once known as the “Dean of Science Fiction”. As an anarchist Heinlein often questioned the manner of our civil laws, justice and legal systems. And as an author he created societies which found new “solutions” to the current state of affairs. Heinlein didn’t feel constrained by what was believed to be viable by the status quo. His thoughts on anarchy provide a wealth of possibility that modern anarchists should consider when envisioning the future of voluntary, civilized interactions.

In his novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein provides several new possibilities of self-government. The basic plot is a story of people achieving independence from their government and fighting to retain their independence without repeating the failure of past revolutions (ie creating a worse government than one against which the revolution took place). The people of Luna, aka the Moon, gain their freedom from the Earthbound Terrans through distributed organization, radical thinking and the help of a sentient supercomputer. But then they must set about the hard work of maintaining their society and hard-won freedom.

Quoted below are some excerpts from the book which highlight many exciting concepts of voluntary governance and societal organization:

On legal positivism and contracts:
“An earthman expects to find a law, a printed law, for every circumstance. Even have laws for private matters such as contracts. Really. If a man’s word isn’t any good, who would contract with him? Doesn’t he have reputation?”

“We don’t have laws. Never been allowed to. Have customs, but aren’t written and aren’t enforced — or could say they are self-enforcing because [they] are simply way things have to be, conditions being what they are. Could say our customs are natural laws because the way people have to behave to stay alive.”

On murder:
“If you eliminate a man [kill him] other than self-defense, you pay his debts and support his kids, or people won’t speak to you, buy from you, sell to you.”

On democracy and the press:
“A managed democracy is a wonderful thing… for the managers… and its greatest strength is a ‘free press’ when ‘free’ is defined as ‘responsible’ and the managers define what is ‘irresponsible’.”

What is needed most is “A news system that does not bottleneck through one channel.” “Limiting the freedom of news ‘just a little bit’ is in the same category with the classic example ‘a little bit pregnant’. We are not yet free nor will we be as long as anyone controls our news.”

On marriage structures in a society that isn’t bound by tradition:
Heinlein focused on Line Marriages, where there can be multiple husbands and wives, and when one dies, the marriage continues (i.e. the “line”). Heinlein assumes that such marriages do not often have a divorce. He writes “A line marriage increases in stability year after year, gains practice in art of getting along together, until notion of anybody leaving is unthinkable. Takes unanimous decision of all wives to divorce a husband — could never happen. Senior wife would never let it go that far.”

What Heinlein viewed as the prime advantages of Line Marriages: “financial security, fine home life it gives children, fact that death of a spouse, while tragic, could never be tragedy it was in temporary family, especially for children — children simply could not be orphaned.”

The head matriarch in this arrangement, the Senior wife is “not likely to make mistakes and if did, has other wives to steady her. Self-correcting, like a machine with proper negative feedback. A good line marriage is immortal… best part of each goes on living.”

“Line marriage is the strongest possible device for conserving capital and insuring the welfare of children — the two basic societal functions for marriages everywhere — in an environment in which there is no security, neither for capital nor for children, other than that devised by individuals.”

On Government itself:
Ultimately Heinlein considers a new government being formed, and a constitutional convention being assembled to set it all down. At this point he offers some ideas that exemplify the possibility of voluntary and stateless governance beyond the DRO idea so common in modern anarchist theory.

“Government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this [constitutional] convention sat for ten years before reporting — but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.

“Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional… for in the past mankind has not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example… a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.

“This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation… or by age… or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large — and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known to be elected; that might be the best possible thing.

“You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don’t reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous — think about it! In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.

“But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district.Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by… a minimum number of citizens. He would then represent those citizens affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would be represented by men of their choice. Or a man with twice as many petitions might have twice as many votes.” The key is to “avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels — correctly! — that it has been disenfranchised.”

Imagine if all members of Congress could only vote on the basis of the percentage of population who had voted for them in the last election? Those being elected with, say, only 5% — a typical occurrence in “off-year” elections — would have very little power. In effect, all of Congress would likely have only twenty to thirty percent of the population’s vote, and thus would not constitute a quorum! This has the effect that unless the people are interested in government doing something, then the government does not have the quorum to do anything!

“Whatever you do, do not let the past be a straightjacket
!

“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent — the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let the legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority… while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two-thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?”

“But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtue of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies… no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation… no involuntary taxation.”

“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing.”

On Taxation:
But if there is a government it will need funded, right? This is the point where coercion and theft come into play and destroy the idea of a property protecting government. But Heinlein offers ideas that could make the process compatible with voluntary ideals: “I can think of several ways. Voluntary contributions just as churches support themselves… government-sponsored lotteries to which no one need subscribe… or perhaps your Congressmen should dig down into their own pouches and pay for whatever is needed; that would be one way to keep government down in size to its indispensable functions whatever they may be. If indeed there are any. I would be satisfied to have The Golden Rule be the only law; I see no need for any other, nor for any method of enforcing it. But if you really believe that your neighbors must have laws for their own good, why shouldn’t you pay for it? I beg you — do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him.”

“You have put your finger on the dilemma of all government — and the reason I am an anarchist. The power to tax, once conceded, has no limits; it contains until it destroys. I was not joking when I told them to dig into their own pouches. It may not be possible to do away with government — sometimes I think that government is an inescapable disease of human beings. But it may be possible to keep it small and starved and inoffensive — and can you think of a better way than by requiring the governors themselves to pay the costs of their antisocial hobby?”

Finally Heinlein skewers the tendency for governments to control all through compulsion and forbiddance. “Seems to be a deep instinct in human beings for making everything compulsory that isn’t forbidden.”

I recommend that all voluntaryists and anarchists read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to stretch their thinking of possibilities for how society can organize and thrive in our stateless future. You can pick up a paperback copy at Laissez-Fare Books, PDF is available online, and ebook/audiobook versions can also be found.

3 thoughts on “The Moon is A Harsh Mistress – A Review for Anarchists

  1. Thanks for spotlighting Heinlein and this book in particular; I enjoyed your essay and the world certainly needs more discussion of civil society. I read most of his books a long time ago, in my childhood, and had forgotten just how voluntaryist many of his stories are. I’ll probably re-read this one and maybe some of his other works.

    • Thanks! I’ve found this one to be the best of what I’ve read so far. Also discovering that Frank Herbert’s Dune books seem rather anti-statist though in a less direct way. Still going through them now. Missed these works in childhood. Coming at them fresh later in life seems beneficial as many of the concepts are not lost on me as I’m sure they would have been when I was young.

  2. Hold on there, cobber! There’s huge difference between anarchism and minarchism. In TMIAHM, Heinlein points out many problems of statism, but does not give satisfactory solution. Minarchism, no matter how limited, metastasizes. After reading TMIAHM, then try his novel “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”. It shows that Luna then devolved into statist hell that Jefferson-Madison creation of 1787 did in reality (well, OUR reality, of course). RAH was so close.

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