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Friday, March 15, 2013

Glimpse Into a Freer Future

With apologies to Sarah Skwire, my friend and colleague here at The Freeman who reviews novels in her excellent “Book Value” column, this week I would like to recommend a novel published last year by Beth Cody.
Cody’s book, Looking Backward: 2012–2162, is about a left-wing college professor, Julian West, who falls asleep in 2012 and awakens 150 years later in a remnant of the United States—the Free States of America—that has become a minimal-government, libertarian society. 
Gradually, with the help of a new friend and many examples, he comes to understand how voluntary action alone results not in exploitation and chaos, but in effective solutions to almost all of the problems that he and others of his (our) time assumed only political action could address.
The Free States, which includes the American heartland and most of the Rocky Mountain states, has a minimal, severely constrained government (e.g., each time a new law does manage to get passed, an old law must be retired). Cody, however, does leave open the possibility of jettisoning government altogether.
If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because her story derives from the well-known 1887 novel by Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward, 2000–1887—except that Bellamy tried to show the superiority of socialism over capitalism. I confess that I haven’t really kept up with the literature on libertarian utopias, so Cody’s book is one of few of its kind that I know of.

Hazlitt, Rand, and Heinlein

As far as works of fiction go, many years ago I did read and enjoy very much Henry Hazlitt’s dystopian novel Time Will Run Back, about a sincere young man who inherits a socialist dictatorship and how he discovers that the only way he can effectively promote the general welfare is to fearlessly and relentlessly dismantle his totalitarian state. I’m also familiar of course with Ayn Rand’s depiction in Atlas Shrugged of “Galt’s Gulch,” to which the creative people of the world have retreated, and which operates on Objectivist-libertarian principles. And there is the science-fiction of Robert Heinlein, such as The Man Who Sold the Moon. But as I recall, none have Cody’s coverage and issue-by-issue explanation of how a truly free society might actually operate in the absence of government intervention, and Cody covers topics (to name only a few) such as charity, the arts, religion, the environment, and science. There are also good discussions of tolerance and the history of liberty.
From a literary point of view, that may be a drawback. Julian’s friend is always there to clearly and patiently explain how voluntary action and the market handle various social, political, and economic issues without political power. The friend even discusses rent-seeking and knowledge problems that accompany the use of political means. Their “conversations” are really mini-lectures. Rather than having someone explain how private education, voluntary taxation, private charity for the poor, and private environmental protection all work, it would perhaps be better aesthetically (though more difficult to do) to let Julian witness and discover these things for himself. That is: use more “show” and less “tell.”

Avoiding Pitfalls

But in fairness to Cody, that is not the kind of book she set out to write. Hers is deliberately more didactic than dramatic/experiential. Indeed, there is little drama, and she keeps her description of the future—and any technological wizardry in it—to a bare minimum. In doing so, I believe she mostly avoids a common mistake.
In a recent column I argued that the very nature of liberty in a free society—open-ended and creative—means that making detailed predictions about what a free society would look like is not particularly useful (although I myself have speculated about what a libertarian architecture might look like). But I also said that thinking and writing about libertarian utopias could inspire, especially the young, with a glimpse of the possible, even though the reality can’t look like the vision. 
I read Looking Backward then not as a prediction of the future but as a way to sharpen our thinking about the possible present.

Read This Book

On that score Cody does a solid job of explaining how the libertarian principles of private property, voluntary association, and limited government, when consistently applied, can work in the real world of self-interest, scarcity, and diversity. (She graciously credits, among others, some FEE writers who have influenced her thinking about libertarianism.) Her examples are thorough and well thought out.
I have a quibble or two. For instance, I think that large, densely populated cities (however unpredictably they might manifest themselves) would spontaneously emerge in any free society, and her Free States is far too rural/suburban to sustain the high level of entrepreneurial, scientific, and artistic creativity she envisions. (In fact I intended one of my recent columns as a response to some claims she makes in her book.) Similarly, the conventional idea that agriculture came before cities has been seriously challenged
On the other hand, I tend to agree with her that a libertarian utopia would probably have fewer mega-corporations, fewer billionaires (relatively speaking), and less income inequality than today because much of the wealth and poverty in 2012 is the result of cronyism and privilege (although everyone would be many times wealthier than today). I also agree, as I wrote last week and elsewhere, that the road to liberty will likely get very much rougher.
I’m sorry that space doesn’t allow me to quote extensively from her story. For that you will just have to read her book (I bought mine on Kindle for just 99 cents!), which I strongly urge you to do. Both for yourself and for friends who are open to libertarian ideas but who have trouble seeing how they could work in the real world. This book will certainly help. And that’s what good fiction can do.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.