So, The Sad Puppies, Then: 3 of 4 — “Libertarian” Authoritarians And Pulp

So, before we get to the actual point of this — the uproar in science fiction fandom about a number of books nominated for the Hugo Awards — let’s have a look at the list of libertarian policy positions supported by libertarian SF fandom I talked about last time :

  • Government is the only enemy of liberty, or the only one worth bothering with
  • “An armed society is a polite society” — guns make people behave
  • Securing the borders is one of only two legitimate functions of government
  • “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” — economics is a zero-sum game, and if you’re giving someone government welfare handouts, you must be taking them from someone else, who actually earned them.

Now, the interesting thing about that list is that it’s not the list of policy positions you would come up with if you looked at any of the attempts by Libertarians to get their ideas into mainstream discourse. If you were to, say, read Reason magazine for a year, or watch every episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, or any of the other venues in which Libertarian ideas are presented to the public, these would not be the ideas that would be harped on.

The reason for this is that Libertarianism is, like all political ideologies, a coalition, and self-described Libertarians fall into two very different groups.

The first group, the people who actually vote for the Libertarian Party, were discovered by the researcher Jonathan Haidt to be essentially small-l liberals who don’t care much about other people. That’s not an oversimplification — Haidt found that people’s moral and political views can be described by six factors: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. On all of them except “care”, the Libertarians were much closer to liberals than to conservatives, but on “care” they cared far less than conservatives, who cared less than liberals.

(That’s not necessarily a value judgement, by the way — it could be argued, though I think wrongly, that liberals let sentimentality get in the way of actually thinking with a clear head).

So the people who promote Libertarianism are, for the most part, promoting ideas that sound sensible to liberals, until they get to the occasional economic idea that just sounds wrong to non-Libertarians.

But most of the self-described Libertarians in SF fandom don’t vote for the Libertarian Party. Rather they’re independents who lean Republican, or they are actual Republicans, who use “Libertarian” as a label for the wing of the party they support, rather in the same way that Ken Clarke might describe himself as “on the liberal wing of the Conservative Party”.  And those people are rather different.

They are, for the most part, people who fit into the group identified by Robert Altermeyer in his research (summarised in his book The Authoritarians, which everyone should read). Altermeyer, like Haidt, found that people can be grouped into predictable clusters based on their answers to a relatively small number of questions, and one large group he called Right-Wing Authoritarians (yes, I know that the idea of a Libertarian Authoritarian sounds like an oxymoron…).

These people are, according to Altermeyer, those with three personality traits that they have in much higher degree than anyone else — authoritarian submission (following leaders, and believing that it’s right to follow leaders), authoritarian aggression (a dislike of the unlike, an aggression towards members of groups designated “other” by the leaders), and conventionalism (adhering to rigid norms and belief that others should follow those norms).

Now, at first glance, that sounds like the opposite of Libertarianism. Rigid conformity? Following leaders? That’s hardly the stuff of freedom-lovers, is it?

But look again at that list of policies. For a group of people whose main motivators are wanting to stick with the in-group and keep out the out-group, “securing the borders” and “an armed society is a polite society” sound very, very good.

So the RWAs in SF fandom for the most part gravitated towards Libertarianism.  But there are two other things that attracted them into specific areas.

The first was subject matter. RWAs are, as you might expect, big fans of the military, and so they quickly turned Heinlein’s libertarian-tinged stories about space militaries (notably Starship Troopers) into a whole genre, imaginatively known as “military science fiction”, about Space Marines In Space Doing Space Marine Stuff.  There are whole publishers (Baen Books is the most prominent) who publish almost nothing but “military science fiction”, usually along with a bit of military fantasy (the same stories but with orcs instead of aliens).

Not all military SF writers are RWAs, of course (John Scalzi, for example, whose Old Man’s War series is a conscious pastiche of Heinlein at his most militaristic, is a slightly-left-of-centre moderate liberal), and almost every SF writer has tried writing one or two military SF stories, but a huge number of them are. (Also, for some reason, a lot of military SF writers seem to be Mormon).

The other thing they gravitate to, again unsurprisingly, is the traditional pulp mode of storytelling. Not only is “conventional” an entirely good thing for RWAs, but the traditional pulp storyline (a baddy enters a community of good but weak people, and a goody who is stronger than those people defeats the baddy, where the baddy can be anything from an alien invasion fleet to the bandits raiding the village) dramatises perfectly the RWA view — there are people like us, good people, and there are bad forces out there that want to destroy the good people, and the good people need a strong man to protect them.

So in SF fandom there is a large group of people who are self-described Libertarians, but very much on the conservative end of that spectrum. Those people — or the in-group with which they identify — have been part of SF fandom since there’s been such a thing. They’ve never been the main group, but they’ve been a large and respected contingent within it. And both as writers and readers, they prefer pulpy fiction about tough men overcoming overwhelming odds to get the girl and save the planet.

But this contingent are now angry…

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