Over the last few weeks, I’ve been catching up on my Terry Pratchett in the wee hours and came across a passage in Going Postal (Powells , Amazon ) which has some bearing on the perennial debate over whether or not Pratchett is a libertarian. The villain of the book, an unscrupulous pirate of finance capital who has dubbed himself Reacher Gilt, is defending himself before the autarchical ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari.
“Don’t patronize me, my lord,” said Gilt. “We own the Trunk. It is our property. You understand that? Property is the foundation of freedom. Oh, customers complain about the service and the cost, but customers always complain about such things. We have no shortage of customers at whatever cost. Before the semaphore, news from Genua took months to get here, now it takes less than a day. It is affordable magic. We are answerable to our shareholders, my lord. Not, with respect, to you. It is not your business. It is our business and we will run it according to the market.”
Gilt is of course less worried about defending the freedom inherent in property than he is concerned to forestall the authorities from examining his affairs too closely. He eventually comes to a richly deserved sticky end. As in many of Pratchett’s books, there are some keen sociological observations beneath the comedy. The underlying question in Going Postal is whether the abstract freedom to choose has any meaning in a context where only one viable choice is actually available. As Pratchett makes abundantly clear, it doesn’t – and choices can be forestalled just as easily by unscrupulous market actors as by politicians. Monopolists can be tyrants too, with no need to listen to their customers. Pratchett’s discussion of the way in which corporate press releases spin events while declining all responsibility is particularly delicious.
You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency, and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although “synergistically” had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk’s problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance, and willful stupidity. Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes – oops, “well-intentioned judgements which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error” – but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting “fundamental systemic errors” committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything, because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and “were to be regretted” (another bastard phrase that’d sell itself to any weasel in a tight corner).
In short, if Pratchett is a libertarian, he’s a libertarian with a keen eye for corporate bullshit, and a jaundiced take on rhetoric about the self-regulating market. Which is to say, my kind of libertarian.