Rational Anarchy
An Analysis of the theme given by Professor Bernard De La Paz
In Robert A. Heinlein's 'The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress'

In his 1966 novel, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress(1), science-fiction Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein relates how the inhabitants of a colony on the moon carry out a revolution with the aid of a self-aware computer.. During a discussion leading up to the start of the revolution, one of the characters, Professor De La Paz, describes his political philosophy to fellow conspirators, Manuel O' Kelly and Wyoming Knott.

De La Paz states that he is a rational anarchist:

“A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else.  But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world . . . aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”

Mannie: “Hear, hear!” I said. “‘Less than perfect.’ What I’ve been aiming for all my life.”

“You’ve achieved it,” said Wyoh. “Professor, your words sound good but there is something slippery about them. Too much power in the hands of individuals—surely you would not want . . well, H-missiles for example—to be controlled by one irresponsible person?”
Prof: “My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist—and they do—some man controls them. In terms of morals there is no such thing as a ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

This concept, like many others of Heinlein is very controversial. Some people like Wyoh in the discussion preceding the above quotation look at this primarily from the 'anarchy' point of view (see Definitions), that is, that without 'government', it is assumed that there are no restraints on the action of the individual. This was carried even further by one extreme view of this philosophy which was stated by L.N. Collier on the alt.fan.heinlein newsgroup on 12-03-2000.

"Then, he's not an anarchist at all. He's not even a revolutionary. He's a self-appointed societal superego, a sublime moralist, a judge without a bench other than the one he erects for himself and looks down his nose at the rest of the world. He's old Bob: lotsa words that look pretty but don't always hold water."

It is the purpose of this article to attempt to provide a basis for a different interpretation of the concept. An interpretation which says that De La Paz was speaking literally, describing reality and not some theoretical, and utopian ideal, and especially, not the twisted concept described here.

Wyoh's reaction and Collier's extreme reaction to De La Paz's statements assumes that all individuals, without 'government and the laws created and enforced by government'  would act only at the level of purely individual self-interest, or that at the very least, some individuals would behave so that without the protection of the 'government' the remainder of society would be at their mercy.. Should such an assumption be made? I would suggest that such an assumption would be valid only if we make the further assumption that there exists no other mechanism by which those individuals who do, in fact, act only in their own self-interest could be constrained to protect the majority. I will grant that many, if not most, people because of these assumptions, would probably have the same or similar reaction when presented with the term anarchy. That is, 'no government means no laws and no law enforcement which implies that everyone is on their own in a dog-eat-dog world'. This seems to be the most usual connotation of the term(8). Is this what De La Paz is suggesting? I think not. He is not discussing anarchy in its usual connotation, but instead is defining a new term, rational anarchy. But, the use of the phrases,"...self-responsible individuals" and "Each responsible for his own acts." implies that a rational anarchist recognizes some degree of constraints on his actions beyond that of pure self-interest. The Germanic derived form answerable provides, I think, a clearer connotation than does the Romance-derived form responsible.

Where do these constraints come from?

Let us examine another passage from Heinlein's perhaps most controversial book, Starship Troopers(2). Colonel Dubois, teaching Juan Rico's class in History and Moral Philosophy said:

What is ‘moral sense’? It is an elaboration of the instinct to survive. The instinct to survive is human nature itself, and every aspect of our personalities derives from it. Anything that conflicts with the survival instinct acts sooner or later to eliminate the individual and thereby fails to show up in future generations. This truth is mathematically demonstrable, every-where verifiable; it is the single eternal imperative controlling everything we do.

“But the instinct to survive,” he had gone on, “can be cultivated into motivations more subtle and much more complex than the blind, brute urge of the individual to stay alive. Young lady, what you miscalled your ‘moral instinct’ was the instilling in you by your elders of the truth that survival can have stronger imperatives than that of your own personal survival. Survival of your family, for example. Of your children, when you have them. Of your nation, if you struggle that high up the scale. And so on up. A scientifically verifiable theory of morals must be rooted in the individual’s instinct to survive—and nowhere else!— and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts.

“We have such a theory now; we can solve any moral problem, on any level. Self-interest, love of family, duty to country, responsibility toward the human race—we are even developing an exact ethic for extra-human relationships But all moral problems can be illustrated by one misquotation tation: ‘Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.’ Once you understand the problem facing that cat and how she solved it, you will then be ready to examine yourself and learn how high up the moral ladder you are capable of climbing.

“These juvenile criminals hit a low level. Born with only the instinct for survival, the highest morality they achieve was a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang. But the do-gooders attempted to ‘appeal to their better natures,’ to ‘reach them,’ to ‘spark their moral sense.’ Tosh! They had no ‘better natures’; experience taught them that what they were doing was the way to survive. The puppy never got his spanking; therefore what he did with pleasure and suc-cess must be ‘moral..

“The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to the individual.

While the "scientifically verifible" part of the phrase, "A scientifically verifiable theory of morals" is, to the best of my knowledge, a fictional device of Heinlein's(3), I believe that it does constitute a valid "theory of morals" and one which underlies my thesis. One might also question that this theory is based on the individual's "instinct to survive", but this aspect is really unimportant. What is important is that the basis of morality as outlined here begins with the individual and the self-interest of the individual, even if it is not strictly based on the individual's survival instinct.

This passage is suggesting that an individual who has gone beyond simple self-interest is enmeshed in some hierarchy of levels where the welfare of  people and groups of people beyond that purely of the individual himself is important to the self-interest of the individual. Such a hierarchy might be shown as follows:

Ethnic Group
Professional Group
Altruistic (and not so altruistic) Causes
the 'State' or government
Society in general

This is only one possible hierarchy, one which is suggested by my own experience and does not necessarily apply to Heinlein's characters, Heinlein himself, or anyone else. Nor is it a necessity that the ranking of such a hierarchy be inflexible. In some matters in given situations, any one of the categories might well be shifted ahead of others. In fact, individual self-interest often manifests itself above all others for relatively minor matters.

In the quoted section above from Starship Troopers Heinlein's characters suggest that some only rise to the level of "a shaky loyalty to a peer group, a street gang." The main concept of the book itself was that a person who believed in the value of the state and society would be willing to protect and serve the state and society. I am suggesting here that such a person would see  the state as an instrument of society which functions for all the levels below it, not as an end in itself which is why I placed society in general above that of state or government.

In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it seems clear that at least three of the levels of such a hierarchy were present and that they placed severe constraints on the colonists.

Loonie Society

The individual, obviously, is always present. Mannie's devotion to his family and willingness to protect them and defend them is clearly and unambigously shown. The constraint's placed on them by their society are also demonstrated, but perhaps not so obviously. More on this later.

But, you say, there was a government in the form of the Lunar Authority. Actually, a careful reading of TMIAH shows that the Lunar Authority was not a government with respect to the colonists themselves as the following quotations show:

1) But passport system was not “illegal” as Warden’s regulations were only written law. Was announced in papers, we were given week to get passports, and at eight hundred one morning was put in effect. Some Loonies hardly ever traveled; some traveled on business; some commuted from outlying warrens or even from Luna City to Novylen or other way.

2) “Believe me, sir, I do not think it was a joke. I just have trouble grasping that your local laws permit a man to be put to death so casually . . . and for so trivial an offense.”
I sighed. Where do you start explaining when a man’s words show there isn’t anything he understands about subject, instead is loaded with preconceptions that don’t fit facts and doesn’t even know he has?
“Stu,” I said, “let’s take that piece at a time. Are no ‘local laws’ so you couldn’t be ‘put to death’ under them.

3)"We don’t have laws,” I said. “Never been allowed to. Have customs, but 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. 

and most importantly:

4)“Oh, not at all! But eliminating isn’t against some law; are no laws—except Warden’s regulations—and Warden doesn’t care what one Loonie does to another

And it is very clear that 'law enforcement' forces, what there were, were not there for the protection of the colonists, but were bodyguards to protect the Authority officials and to insure that grain continued to arrive on Earth.

In light of these quotations, it is ridiculous to assume that De La Paz, with the help of others, was trying to create any form of anarchy as we normally think of it, because they already lived in such a state. They had 'No Government'. The result of their revolution was to form a government with laws. De La Paz attempted, (and failed),  to mold its form and to keep it minimal.

As I said above, people normally fear the thought of anarchy because of the assumption that such would produce a situation in which some large part of the majority of people would be at the mercy of others. But as I also said, "... such an assumption would be valid only if we make the further assumption that there exists no other mechanism by which those individuals who do, in fact, act only in their own self-interest could be constrained to protect the majority." The society of TMIAH certainly contained such mechanisms:

1) "Stu, is no rape in Luna. None. Men won’t permit. If rape had been involved, they wouldn’t have bothered to find a judge and all men in earshot would have scrambled to help." 

2) “All our customs work that way. If you’re out in field and a cobber needs air, you lend him a bottle and don’t ask cash. But when you’re both back in pressure again, if he won’t pay up, nobody would criticize if you eliminated him without a judge. But he would pay; air is almost as sacred as women. If you take a new chum in a poker game, you give him air money. Not eating money; can work or starve. If you eliminate a man other than self-defense, you pay his debts and support his kids, or people won’t speak to you, buy from you, sell to you.”

3) But we figure this way: If a man is killed, either he had it coming and everybody knows it
—usual case—or his friends will take care of it by eliminating man who did it. Either way, no problem. Nor many eliminations. Even set duels aren’t common.”
“‘His friends will take care of it.’ Mannie, suppose those young people had gone ahead? I have no friends here.”
“Was reason I agreed to judge. While I doubt if those kids could have egged each other into it, didn’t want to, take chance. Eliminating a tourist could give our city a bad name.”
“Does it happen often?”
“Can’t recall has ever happened. Of course may have been made to look like accident. A new chum is accident-prone; Luna is that sort of place.

To put it simply, the society of TMIAH certainly contained mechanisms which placed constraints on the actions of individuals. To state it more clearly, there were no laws which protected the population from anti-social individuals, but there were definite customs which did so.

However, some will recoil in horror at the thought of such vigilante actions(see Definitions). I would suggest that vigilante actions in the context of societies which do have laws would indeed be illegal behavior and would be subject to legal constraints and consequences. It must be emphasized, however, from the quotations given here, that Loonie Society was not a society based on law, and therefore such behavior in the context of Luna's society was just as appropriate as would be that carried out by law enforcement agencies in a society based on law.

As I said in the beginning, it is clear that De La Paz recognizes that constraints exist and that a person will be answerable to these constraints. It is obvious that because of the hierarchy of constraints that there will be areas where the demands of one level come into conflict with the demands of some other. This is shown most clearly  in the quotation from Starship Troopers:

"....and must correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts"

This, I suggest, is where the notion of rational anarchy is grounded. It is anarchy because it is the individual, not the state or government, who must and does decide. In order to decide morally, the individual must attempt to "correctly describe the hierarchy of survival, note the motivations at each level, and resolve all conflicts". The resolution of the conflicts requires that the demands of some levels are subjugated to the demands of higher levels, a very simple case being when a mother or father gives up his life to protect the children. In a lawful society, desires for justice or revenge are given over to the state rather than being performed by the individual(4)(7).   Note, however, that should an individual make the choice to fulfill that desire personally, then he is answerable to the state and its laws(6). In Luna, he would be answerable to custom.

Now, most emphatically and categorically , I am stating that this is not to say that all decisions are made rationally in the sense of being objective and carefully thought out as to the consequences. Many decisions can be and are made irrationally, that is, without thinking or without  a realization that the person is responsible for the consequences. The main point is that every individual does, indeed, make all decisions, rationally or irrationally,  in the context of the constraints surrounding him. Rational anarchy is simply the recognition of this reality. As De La Paz said:

 “My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist—and they do—some man controls them. In terms of morals there is no such thing as a ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

To me it is obvious that such a truth applies not only to a truly anarchic society such as that of Luna, but to any society, any time and any place; in feudal societies, monarchies, democracies, or dictatorships. We are all individuals, and we all constantly make individual choices about our actions, but we are constrained by those principles and rules which are a part of our existence and which we have individually chosen to accept. Yes, even in an totally oppressed society, the choice is made to accept the oppression or fight against it, knowing what the consequences will be. Accept the oppression and all conflicts at lower levels are automatically resolved; you don't fight City Hall. Fight against it and you may pay the ultimate; "Give me liberty or give me Death"

Aside from the fact that this theme appears in many other works, there is some indication that Heinlein actually believed personally in the concept that all decisions are made by the individual. In This I Believe(5), he said:

I believe in the honest craft of workmen. Take a look around you. There never were enough bosses to check up on all that work. From Independence Hall to the Grand Coulee Dam, these things were built level and square by craftsmen who were honest in their bones.

This is the essence of the "anarchy" in which all men live.



alt.fan.heinlein selected postings

© 1966 by Robert A. Heinlein
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 66-15582

An Ace Book / published by arrangement with G. P. Putnam’s Sons
G. P. Putnam’s Sons hardcover edition published 1959
Berkeley edition / May 1968
Ace edition / May 1987
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1959 by Robert A. Heinlein.

(3) It is my opinion, that Heinlein believed, or at least hoped,  that such a theory might be possible even it had not yet been achieved. I suggest that Heinlein may have thought that such a mathematically verifible theory might be based on Korzybski's theories, outlined in his book

Author: Korzybski, Alfred, 1879-1950.
Title: Science and sanity; an introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics.
Edition:  Hardcover 5th edition (January 1995)
Published by:  Inst of General Semantics; ISBN: 0937298018

(4) In this context, it is useful to note that De La Paz implies that the individual still shares the responsibility, and blame, for such actions carried out in his name by legal authorities.

"He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame . . . as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else."

A concept not given much weight in our contemporary society.

(5)Originally recorded for the Edward R. Murray television show, This I Believe,  in 1952 and reprinted in:
Copyright © 1992 by Yoji Kondo
Cover art by Pat Morrissey
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, N.Y. 10010
Tor is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
ISBN: 0-812-51391-6
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 91-38909
First edition: February 1992
First mass market printing August 1994
Printed in the United States of America
See Also:http://heinleinsociety.org/rah/thisibelieve.html

(6) It is interesting to note that our language implies the place of society in general with respect to that of state, as we use the phrase "pay one's debt to society", not "pay one's debt to the government", the latter being reserved for taxes.

(7)Our legal system will accept self-defense as valid, but how often does it accept a personal defense of family or other group as valid? I don't know, but suspect that it is much less often than that of self-defense.

(8) People also react negatively to the concept of anarchy, because of the lack of the benefits other than protection which are to be gained when efforts and resources are directed and controlled by a higher level of authority than the individual. I accept that this is a valid and desirable situation. But I do not think that such an argument is appropriate to this discussion as I do not believe that De La Paz was actually trying to create or believed in anarchy in its classical definition.

©Copyright 2000 by David Wright Sr.