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The Menace of the Space Cult

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10/12/2010Murray N. Rothbard

[Libertarian Review, 1979]


After the great breakthrough events of 1978 — the victory of Proposition 13, the subsequent tax revolt, the election of the first Libertarian Party candidate in History (Dick Randolph to the Alaska State House), and Ed Clark's fantastic 375,000 votes for governor of California — the Libertarian Party stands ready to enter the mainstream of American political life. It has the glorious opportunity to turn America around, to move us swiftly and rapidly in the direction of liberty. In September, it will choose a Presidential candidate who could easily gain a million votes in 1980, and possibly a great deal more.

Yet just when the day of victory draws near, a menace from within the Party has reared its ugly head. We have had to write many times over the years of the crazies, the lumpen, the radical "decentralist" enemies of organization per se, the irrationalists and fantasts who refuse to learn or care about real world political issues but instead hold up science fiction as the true and ultimate embodiment of libertarianism. We had thought that the growth and development of the Libertarian Party had selected out the crazies, that they had all dropped out of the party into the solipsistic land of their dreams and visions. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The danger is still there, and it could wreck the best and brightest hope for liberty in over a century.

The menace suddenly surfaced when Ed Crane, chairman of the committee planning the September Libertarian Party convention, submitted its proposed program to the National Committee at Las Vegas on January 14. The program was a superb one, built around the theme of "Toward a Three Party System," with all the speeches and workshops centering around national political developments in the context of the Libertarian Party's soon becoming the third major party in the United States. The speeches and workshops would abandon the numerous unfocused irrelevancies of past conventions to concentrate on real, pressing, political concerns — on how the government, led by the Democrats and Republicans, is messing up our lives, and how and what we can do about it. It would draw important speakers from across the political spectrum — welcoming those who would share important political concerns with Libertarians. It would be a real-world program suitable for a party of liberty about to enter the mainstream of American life.

At which point, the opposition surfaced in force, and an illuminating debate ensued in the National Committee, a debate which unfortunately is not enshrined on tape. A number of critics of the proposed program began to whine: "The program is all about politics." "Politics is a downer." "Who cares if we become one of the major parties?" And most incredible of all, "None of this motivates people." I was astonished! How could an LP leader fail to become ecstatic over actually becoming a major party, over molding real-world politics in the direction of freedom? And if they are not so motivated, why in blazes are they in the Libertarian Party at all? Why haven't they openly joined the dropouts in lotus land?

Since I was scheduled to give an update of my "optimism" speech, I was puzzled over the alleged absence of optimism in the convention program. What did they want? The answer surfaced soon enough: they want science fiction, they want "futurism," they want eternal life, they want projections of visions of a technological fantasy-land. In short, they equate real world politics, indeed, the real world period, with gloom; "optimism" is only the loving contemplation of their own fancies.

"Libertarians have not come to promise human beings a technocratic utopia; we have come to bring everyone freedom, the freedom of each individual to pursue whatever his or her dreams of the future may be."

But why? Why do professed libertarians of what we may call the "spacecadet" wing equate optimism with an eternal chewing of the cud of their fantasies, of their technocratic version of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Paradise which they see in their crystal-balls? If they are really libertarians, why isn't the glorious prospect of freedom enough to motivate their actions as libertarians?

As the debate intensified, the answer to this puzzle became all too clear: these soothsayers and space cadets don't really care all that much for liberty. They don't in fact, care very much for the real world or reality. What motivates them is not the prospect of liberty but spinning phantom scenarios of the never-never land of Eden. They are interested in freedom only because they think it will help them reach their millennial paradise. As one of the space cadets admitted, when charged with promoting a religion instead of a political philosophy, "Yes, we want a religion!" The millennial religion of a thousand cults, the promise that wishing hard enough will make their vision of the Garden of Eden come true. All it lacks is a guru, a Messiah, a Moses, to lead the flock to the Promised Land.

But this is indeed a religion — it is not a political philosophy, and it sure as hell is not political action. Yet libertarians have not come to promise human beings a technocratic utopia; we have come to bring everyone freedom, the freedom of each individual to pursue whatever his or her dreams of the future may be. Or even to have no vision of the future. Libertarianism is surely not all of life; it brings the gift of political freedom to every person to pursue his own goals. His goals, not ours. To call — as a political party — for a specific vision of the future, the space-cadet vision, implies that that particular goal is going to be imposed on everyone, whether they like it or not.

This is not freedom: it is totalitarianism. Primitivists, after all, have rights too. They too should have the freedom, if they wish, to live unmolested on their own. Thus, neither primitivists nor space cultists should be given a forum within the Libertarian Party to promote and impose their own favorite level of technology.

To put it succinctly: the goal of libertarianism is freedom, period. No more and no less. Anything less is a betrayal; but anything more is equally a betrayal of liberty, because it implies imposing our own goals on others. To be a libertarian must mean that one upholds liberty as the highest political end not necessarily one's highest personal end. To confuse the issue, to mix in any sort of vision — technocratic or futuristic or any other — with politics, is to abandon liberty as that highest political goal, and at the very least to destroy the very meaning of a political movement or organization.

Oddly enough, space and the space program — which the great revisionist historian Harry Elmer Barnes aptly termed the "moondoggle" and "astrobaloney'! — is precisely the area where the government has exercised total domination. Such futurist heroes of our "libertarian" space cultists as Dr. Gerard K. O'Neill are government-financed scientists and researchers whose projected "space colonies" will not be the "free space colonies" of our space cultists' dreams but projects totally planned and operated by the federal government. Yet instead of engaging in sober critiques of the governmental space program, our space cadets embrace these state futurists as virtually their own.

Let us recall how the great libertarian Ludwig von Mises heaped well-deserved scorn on the "futurist" fantasies of previous millennial movements. Mises wrote in his great work Socialism that

Socialist writers depict the socialist community as a land of heart's desire. Fourier's sickly fantasies go farthest in this direction. In Fourier's state of the future all harmful beasts will have disappeared, and in their places will be animals which will assist man in his labors — or even do his work for him. An anti-beaver will see to the fishing; an anti-whale will move sailing ships in a calm; an anti-hippopotamus will tow the riverboats. Instead of the lion there will be an anti-lion, a steed of wonderful swiftness, upon whose back the rider will sit as comfortably as in a well-sprung carriage … Godwin even thought that men might be immortal after property had been abolished. Kautsky tells us that under the socialist society "a new type of man will arise … a superman … an exalted man." Trotsky provides even more detailed information [as befits a "futurist"!]: "Man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His voice more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical. The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights, new peaks will arise."

The English free-market economist P.T. Bauer points out in his work Economic Analysis and Policy in Underdeveloped Countries that

the demand for these forecasts often stems from deep-seated psychological motives, and it is frequently unrelated to the accuracy of the forecasts. A great upsurge of interest in forecasting is usually evidence of an unhealthy panacea. I believe also that the great increase in the demand for these forecasts even by educated people, and the great prestige of their purveyors, are symptoms and harbingers of very deep-seated social and political transformations. A sudden resurgence in the activities and prestige of oracles and soothsayers in the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries testified to the decline in critical outlook and to the emergence of credulity, which prepared the way both for the acceptance of a new faith from the East and for the collapse of order, civilization, and even material well-being.

Bauer continues with an illuminating passage about this epoch from the historian W.E.H. Lecky:

The oracles that had been silenced were heard again; the astrologers swarmed in every city; the philosophers were surrounded with an atmosphere of legend; the Pythagorean school had raised credulity into a system. On all sides, and to a degree unparalelled in history, we find men … thirsting for belief, passionately and restlessly seeking a new faith.

So there we have it: two irreconcilable groups within the Libertarian Party: the Realists and the Necromancers, the "Earthlings" and the Space Cadets. Right now, the convention program seems safe, but with so much at stake we must tremble for the future. So let this canker from within the party be gone. Let the fantasts fly off to the outer space of their dreams. We shall be glad to give them all of outer space, if they will only let us have the earth.

But if they lack the full courage of their convictions, let them at least expend their energies at their science-fiction and futurist conventions trying to influence their denizens to become libertarians. It won't matter much, but it certainly won't hurt. Let them only, for liberty's sake, stop crippling the finest hope for real freedom in the real world that we have seen in generations. Let this incubus be gone.


Murray N. Rothbard

Murray N. Rothbard made major contributions to economics, history, political philosophy, and legal theory. He combined Austrian economics with a fervent commitment to individual liberty.