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Friday, February 10, 2023

33 of the Best Robert Heinlein Quotes on Liberty, Politics, and Culture

Heinlein’s piercing remarks are as relevant today as ever.

Image Credit: Encyclopædia Britannica | CC BY-SA 3.0

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) was one of the twentieth century’s most popular science fiction writers. He wrote 32 novels over the course of his life including Stranger in a Strange Land, Starship Troopers, and The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress.

His books explore a wide range of themes from race and sex to politics and religion. He is known in particular for promoting an individualist life philosophy and pushing back on conformity.

This individualist streak has not gone unnoticed by modern libertarians. Indeed, many freedom advocates to this day draw on Heinlein’s piercing remarks and aphorisms in their rhetoric. As with many quotable authors, it’s not that Heinlein’s ideas are particularly new. It’s more that he articulates certain timeless ideas in such a way that they just hit differently.

What follows are some of his best quotes on liberty, politics, and culture.

Liberty

  1. “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.”
  2. “The correct way to punctuate a sentence that states: ‘Of course it is none of my business, but—’ is to place a period after the word ‘but.’”
  3. “Do this. Don’t do that. Stay back in line. Where’s tax receipt? Fill out form. Let’s see license. Submit six copies. Exit only. No left turn. No right turn. Queue up and pay fine. Take back and get stamped. Drop dead—but first get permit.”
  4. “Must be a yearning deep in [the] human heart to stop other people from doing as they please.”
  5. “The first principle of freedom is the right to go to hell in your own handbasket.”
  6. “A desire not to butt into other people’s business is at least eighty percent of all human wisdom…and the other twenty percent isn’t very important.”
  7. “I also think there are prices too high to pay to save the United States. Conscription is one of them. Conscription is slavery, and I don’t think that any people or nation has a right to save itself at the price of slavery for anyone, no matter what name it is called. We have had the draft for twenty years now; I think this is shameful. If a country can’t save itself through the volunteer service of its own free people, then I say: Let the damned thing go down the drain!”
  8. “That we were slaves I had known all my life—and nothing could be done about it. True, we weren’t bought and sold—but as long as Authority held monopoly over what we had to have and what we could sell to buy it, we were slaves.”

Politics

  1. “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’.”
  2. “He’s an honest politician—he stays bought.”
  3. “Political tags — such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth — are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.”
  4. “Does history record any case in which the majority was right?”
  5. “It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so, and will follow it by suppressing opposition, subverting all education to seize early the minds of the young, and by killing, locking up, or driving underground all heretics.”
  6. “Government! Three fourths parasitic and the other fourth stupid fumbling.”
  7. “I began to sense faintly that secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny. Not force, but secrecy . . . censorship. When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything—you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.”
  8. “Taxes are not levied for the benefit of the taxed.”
  9. “Under what circumstances is it moral for a group to do that which is not moral for a member of that group to do alone?”
  10. “There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to the public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back.”
  11. “In terms of morals there is no such thing as ‘state’. Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

Culture

  1. “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.”
  2. “An armed society is a polite society. Manners are good when one may have to back up his acts with his life.”
  3. “Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty. This is known as ‘bad luck.’”
  4. “Take sides! Always take sides! You will sometimes be wrong – but the man who refuses to take sides must always be wrong.”
  5. “Progress isn’t made by early risers. It’s made by lazy men trying to find easier ways to do something.”
  6. “I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.”
  7. “Being right too soon is socially unacceptable.”
  8. “A prude is a person who thinks that his own rules of propriety are natural laws.”
  9. “The whole principle (censorship) is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.”
  10. “There are no dangerous weapons; there are only dangerous men.”
  11. “It is impossible for anyone to be responsible for another person’s behavior. The most you or any leader can do is to encourage each one to be responsible for himself.”
  12. “Some people insist that ‘mediocre’ is better than ‘best.’ They delight in clipping wings because they themselves can’t fly. They despise brains because they have none.”
  13. “Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named…but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”
  14. “Remember though, your best weapon is between your ears and under your scalp—provided it’s loaded.”

A Timeless Tradition

If you’re a misfit, a maverick, or a non-conformist, life can feel pretty lonely at times. The whole world seems to be against you, and in many ways it is. But never forget that amidst the politicians and busybodies there are also the Robert Heinleins of the world, people who value individuality, freedom, and critical thinking just as much as you do.

We may not have numbers on our side—yet. But if we can find one another and pass on the ideas and quotes of those who came before us, the spirit of liberty will be far from defeated.

This article was adapted from an issue of the FEE Daily email newsletter. Click here to sign up and get free-market news and analysis like this in your inbox every weekday.


  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.