10 July 2007

Libertarian smackdown, 20th century fiction version: Galt v. Frodo

Two of my favorite things, together at last! Via Reason Hit & Run, Juliusz Jablecki contrasts the respective masterpieces of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ayn Rand, and wonders which novel presents the truer libertarian vision. The essay focuses in on one major difference: the answer to the question of how to fight the system. Rand, of course, disliked statism and went after communism with a vengeance every chance she got, but Jablecki correctly notes that "in Atlas Shrugged [...] it is hard not to notice that somebody drives the world, maintains the reality in order, and without him everything would plunge into chaos." In Middle-Earth, on the other hand, there's no big plan for the world, no one running things, no unified political consciousness, no system. Rand, despite her big talk about statism, seems determined to have her characters implement a top-down solution, a solution based on crashing and then rebooting society around the most productive, creative members. Tolkien's solutions to Middle-Earth problems are much smaller, more individualistic, bottom-up.

I'm on board with this analysis as far as it goes, but it seems to overlook some important questions about motivation. Hobbits, presented by Jablecki as the ideal small-libertarians, content to cultivate their gardens, can only be moved to action by powerful wizards, who themselves have some decidedly unlibertarian tendencies -- plans for everyone, and the willingness to intimidate others into following along. It's worth remembering that Tolkien frequently described the hobbits as child-like, not just in stature but in moral character: simple, generous, fun-loving, innocent, ignorant of the great evils afoot in the world. The part of the world where hobbits live is protected by the aforementioned powerful wizards, for the purpose of preserving this child-like nature. This seems to be not a great model for libertarians in the 21st century, or any century, really.

Jablecki also criticizes Rand's tendency to anoint 'supermen' among her characters, people who are just more productive, more creative, more intelligent. I think this is a reasonable criticism, especially since for many of Rand's characters (especially women), philosophy seems to be more or less replaced by hero worship. But Tolkien's world, too, is populated by those who seem to motivate others by virtue of their power or personal charisma, rather than by reasoned persuasion. Mostly these are wizards and elves, endowed with extraordinary gifts, but sometimes they are humans endowed with extraordinary destinies. Interestingly, these more-than-humans always have ancestry tracing back to elves somewhere along the line. There's a strong element of hereditary destiny and elitism running through Tolkien, which for me has always overpowered the more parochial, small-libertarian hobbit lifestyle.