Tanstaafl

What do a libertarian society and its laws look like? Thoughts on Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

I have recently ― and, needless to say, very belatedly, for a self-proclaimed science-fiction fan ― read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I had been put off of Heinlein by Isaac Asimov’s somewhat harsh take on him in his memoir, I. Asimov, just as I’ve been forever put off Sartre by Boris Vian’s portrayal of him as Jean-Sol Partre. No regrets so far as Sartre is concerned, but I am glad I got over my aversion to Heinlein. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an interesting book. Interesting enough, from a legal perspective, that I think it deserves a post here.

In a nutshell, the story is a retelling of the American Revolution, but set on the Moon, a.k.a. Luna, in 2075-76. The lunar population is oppressed by the Authority that supposedly runs the place on behalf of the Earth’s governing “Federated Nations”, but is mostly content to just plunder it by banning free trade and underpaying for the sole export ― grain (hydroponically grown) ― and overcharging for imports. Otherwise, the “Loonies”, most of whom are either transported convicts ― some actual criminals, others political undesirables ― or descendants of convicts, are largely left to their own devices, and become resentful of the Authority’s interference and exploitation. When the Authority tries to put an end to low-level grumbling, things quickly get out of control. Thanks to their courage, self-reliance, and the good fortune of having a fearsomely brilliant self-aware computer (I suppose we would now say AI) on their side, the rebels prevail, though not without considerable loss in the end.

The interest of such a book is, of course, primarily in its representation of a society very different from ours. (I am deliberately echoing the title of David Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, to which I will return.) The difference has little to do with technology ― indeed, on that front, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is just one of the many examples of science fiction Golden Age’s writers’ utter failure to anticipate the advances in computing and telecommunications that have occurred in the last 35 or so years. Heinlein’s Luna is a place of fixed (should one say moonline?) phones! What does make it different from 1960s and 2020s, Earth is its having had to adapt to an unforgiving environment, the virtual impossibility for its inhabitants to return “Earthside” where they are crushed by gravity, their lack and suspicion of organized government, and the sex imbalance that one might expect in a penal colony.

Heinlein’s lunar society is a libertarian one, and it is very odd, and unsettling in some ways ― seemingly high prevalence of illiteracy and very early marriages among others. In other ways, though, it is far ahead not only of the time of the book’s publication (1966) but even of ours, especially in its absolute intolerance of what we today might refer to as #MeToo abuses ― touching a woman without her consent, in however minor a fashion, might get a male Loonie “eliminated” at the nearest airlock. (The ready acceptance of the death penalty is another unsettling aspect of the place.) And while Heinlein’s vocabulary sometimes is antiquated, and he does fall into some annoying tropes more in tune with his times than ours, there is no question that his Loonies also have no time for, and indeed no concept of, racial bigotry ― though I suspect that they’d have no time for latter-day progressive identity politics too.

One might wonder, of course, whether Heinlein’s social prognostication is any more lucid than the technological sort. Perhaps a more or less anarchical society with a sex ratio severely out of whack will actually be a hell hole, not the creative and resilient if also deeply weird kind of place The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress depicts. But you know what? People with more conventional views get their fairy tales told to them by gaggles of politicians at every election campaign. If that has a value, then so does libertarian science-fiction. At least, we’re not about to get a Prime Minister Heinlein imposing his views on the rest of us just because we hated him a little less than the other guy. And the fundamental maxim of lunar libertarianism ― there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, or tanstaafl for short ― is something that we would all do we well to keep in mind.

Still, I do want to pick a fight with Heinlein on one thing: his views of law and perhaps adjudication. The latter, like most everything else in Luna, is done privately, and often as a matter of improvisation. A citizen is simply asked to “go judge” and accepts, for a fee of course ― tanstaafl ― paid equally by both parties to the dispute. A few make this something like a part-time occupation, but there is no professional judiciary, just as there are no lawyers. And there are no laws. The protagonist speaks derisively of

an earthowrm [who] 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?

He adds that, instead of “printed laws”, Loonies

[h]ave customs [that] aren’t written and aren’t enforced ― or could say they are self-enforcing because are simply way things have to be, conditions being what they are. Could say our customs are natural laws because are way people have to behave to stay alive.

(Note that the lack of articles and pronouns in the quotations isn’t a typo or an accident: the Loonies’ English has a bit of a Russian accent. I wonder if non-Russian speakers will find it annoying, but it is mostly well done and I was rather impressed.)

Heinlein’s protagonist has a good understanding of natural law: see, for example, Randy Barnett’s explanation of natural law as a set of principles such that “[i]f we want persons to be able to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then they had best adopt and respect a social structure that reflects these principles”. (657; emphasis removed) But he doesn’t seem to understand something that actual natural lawyers have always recognized: the natural law principles aren’t enough. To be useful, at least in a large-scale society, they need to be implemented and given relatively specific shape, which is what “printed”, or at least positive, laws are for. Natural law principles might lead us to the conclusion that we must make up for the losses we negligently cause, but not necessarily tell us what counts as negligent, or how to assess the compensation. Reputation can work to secure the performance of contracts among people who know one another, but it is of less help when we deal with strangers, nor does it necessarily assist us in figuring out what to do about a bargain that has been upended by a change of circumstances.

All that is not to say that the laws must necessarily be the work of a legislature or some other centralized, governmental institution. Perhaps, but that case must be made separately. As Bastiat pointed out in The Law, it is wrong to think that if something is not provided by the state it will not be provided at all, and this may well be as much of a mistake in relation to laws themselves as to other things. Perhaps laws can be efficiently supplied by institutions involved in a competitive marketplace ― indeed, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that the early development of the common law by royal courts competing with other kinds of courts looked a bit like that, though to be sure it wasn’t exactly a free market.

Conversely, though, thinking that there ought to be no state, or a minimal state, or a state that doesn’t seek to monopolize the law, doesn’t mean that one can do without laws ― or without lawyers and professional judges. Even among those of the “legal systems very different from ours” Professor Friedman describes that are not state-based, many rely on professionals for adjudication and sometimes legal representation. It is tempting to think, as Heinlein’s protagonist seems to think, that lawyers and professional judges are only a drain on society, but they ― like all other specialists ― are only a manifestation of the division of labour. If laws are necessary, and they are, and complicated, and they are too, then it is more efficient to let them be handled by people who specialize in this. On this point, Heinlein, or at least his character, fails to apply their own cardinal rule: one cannot have the benefits of a sophisticated legal system without some inconvenience: tanstaafl.

This critique notwithstanding, I do think that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an interesting and worthwhile attempt to think through the working of a libertarian society and its (inevitable?) conflict with a statist neighbour. It might come short in dealing with any number of specific aspects of these problems, but the attempt is hardly less valuable despite this. So let me conclude by quoting the appeal of another of the principal characters to the lunar constitutional convention ― it is one that we would do well to take seriously in our own thinking about constitutions:

[I]n writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues 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.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Tanstaafl”

  1. I have never read Moon, but did read a bunch of Heinlein when I was younger including Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s politics are all over the place of varying strands of California Utopianism, all of which have had a big impact on the world, for better or for worse.

    It is easy to imagine a system of law without a state and where all adjudicators are arbitrators. That is probably most systems of law that have ever existed. It is harder to imagine that the content of these laws would be libertarian or even liberal. Ultimately the system has to be enforced by the community deciding who goes into the airlock. I am not seeing the mechanism whereby that process leads to more liberal outcomes than periodic elections between competing party-coalitions.

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