Freedom and necessity

by Henry on January 30, 2006

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”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/s?kw=terry%20pratchett%20going%20postal , “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/redirect?link_code=ur2&tag=henryfarrell-20&camp=1789&creative=9325&path=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2Fgp%2Fproduct%2F0060502932%2Fsr%3D1-1%2Fqid%3D1138645666%2Fref%3Dsr_1_1%3F%255Fencoding%3DUTF8 ) which has some bearing on the perennial debate over whether or not “Pratchett”:http://www.nataliesolent.blogspot.com/2003_10_12_nataliesolent_archive.html#106651083158570151 “is”:http://www.samizdata.net/blog/archives/004798.html “a”:http://www.theadvocates.org/celebrities/terry-pratchett.html “libertarian”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarian_Futurist_Society. 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.

bq. “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”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2003/02/15/collective-action/ 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.

bq. 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.

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{ 44 comments }

1

Steve LaBonne 01.30.06 at 2:09 pm

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.
This would do equally well as a sendup of standard Bush Administration bullshit. The resemblance between Bush-speak and corporate-speak is not accidental…

2

David Weman 01.30.06 at 2:19 pm

No one’s asked him?

3

Matt Austern 01.30.06 at 2:57 pm

Does “libertarian” mean the same thing in Britain that it does in the US? Compared to the rest of the world US political culture is quite weird, and that affects the fringe US parties as well as the mainstream ones.

4

Backword Dave 01.30.06 at 3:03 pm

How can you possibly write about the politics of Pratchett and not mention the “one man, one vote” joke?

David Weman, I’m sure people have asked (Gary Farber is pretty good at keeping track of Pterry interviews), but his books speak well enough. And even if he has said something like “Well, actually I AM a libertarian, you know” there are plenty of readers likely to say that he’s wrong about that. ;-)

Henry also forgot to mention that Pterry used to be the PR officer for a nuclear power station, and every one of his books seems to contain at least one dig at circumlocution.

5

Ginger Yellow 01.30.06 at 3:15 pm

This is rather tangential, but the Discworld novels and computer game contain several references to the libertarian/anarchist spoof religion Discordianism, including a character called Malaclypse

6

Neil 01.30.06 at 3:36 pm

Going Postal is an extended polemic against libertarianism. ( Mild spoilers follow….).

It is about how regulated industry is preferable to unregulated. The case, if you want to call it that, is made on several grounds: that industry entirely driven on the profit motive will not take good care of its employees, that it will prove unsustainable (the controllers of the Grand Trunk intend to abandon it once they have milked every last drop); that it will not integrate well with other enterprises. It’s hard to see how the main lines of the plots could possibly be reconciled with the thesis that he’s a libertarian.

7

Matthew Caygill 01.30.06 at 4:17 pm

I took much of the satire around then trunk and the injuries and deaths of its operatives to be a direct reference to what has happened to the British rail system after it was privatised and fragmented and subject to some horrendous accidents – by which I mean corporate murders.

8

Kieran Healy 01.30.06 at 4:30 pm

There’s a great line in _Guards! Guards!_, which is about a dragon who terrorizes the city, where a lone protestor tries to stand up to the dragon and attempts to rally the people behind him with the excellent slogan “The people united can never be ignited.” Sadly, this sentiment is shortly afterwards proven to be mistaken.

9

Cheryl Morgan 01.30.06 at 4:34 pm

Terry used to work in the energy industry, so has seen a fair amount of the workings of deregulation. As an energy economist myself I’ve noticed that in Europe “deregulation” is taken to mean “break up state monopolies and enforce competition”, but in the US it is taken to mean “stop regulating private monopolies”. American Libertarians seem to support that sort of thing. How that amounts to an increase in freedom is completely beyond most Europeans.

10

Mark Anderson 01.30.06 at 6:26 pm

In the book, the (public) postal service is in conflict/competition with the (private) semaphore service.

In a later passage in the book, the hero concludes that running the Postal Service as a for-profit organization is missing the point. The public benefit of having the Post is diffuse and vastly exceeds whatever rent could be collected by a profit making organization. (This is from memory, so I hope I have the gist right.)

That passage makes me think that if Pratchett is a Libertarian, he takes a much broader view of externalities and the public good than most.

11

Brett Bellmore 01.30.06 at 7:38 pm

As a general rule, monopolists can only be tyrants, too, so long as they’ve got the real tyrants, the ones with the army, on their side. Without the resort to force, the only way for a monopolist to maintain his monopoly is to supply such good service, so cheaply, that competitors can’t get any traction. As soon as they try to exploit their monopoly position to do otherwise, they open up room for competitors.

So long as the threat of competition remains plausible, the actuality of it isn’t necessary.

12

hellblazer 01.30.06 at 7:56 pm

Seeing as one of the tropes of Pratchett’s Discworld is the Thieves Guild, which licenses, regulates and centralises the rather personal business of robbing people, and bearing in mind the circumstances of Sourcery (deregulated, *entrepeneurial* power-crazed wizards almost cause the end of the world), and observing the lack of anti-monarchical revolution in Lancre so far…

… oh, and given that lovely footnote in Guards! Guards! about taxing the rat farms…

… and given the repeated evident respect for the policeman’s vocation…

…libertarian? y’what?

OK, there is a case that Pratchett is an innate sceptic about bureaucracy and prescriptive morality. Why that’s supposed to make him a libertarian, I really can’t see. Could someone explain to me what the term is supposed to mean?

13

Ronald Brak 01.30.06 at 9:34 pm

I also have trouble understanding what the term libertarian means, despite having read internet sites that purport to explain it. I’ve even chatted with people who said they were libertarians. The ones who were willing to communicate with me seemed quite enthusiastic but didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. For example I doubt that abolishing speed limits would increase my freedom. I think that would be more likely to curtail my freedom via my becoming crippled in a car wreck. I see similar problems with quite a few other libertarian ideas.

14

Jim S 01.30.06 at 9:36 pm

Actually, Brett, private armies do quite nicely as long as you can keep the real ones off your back. It’s happened before.

15

still working it out 01.30.06 at 10:19 pm

I concluded that Going Postal was a satire of Enron and the whole tech bubble thing. I look forward to a Discworld novel satiring the GWOT. Although, its going to be difficult for Pratchett to take it to a sufficiently fantastic and farcical level to clearly distinguish the novel from reality.

Anyone who thinks that Pratchett is a libertarian is clearly delusional.

The more I read Discworld novels the more I think that studying Discworld and the rise Ankh-Morpork should be mandatory for anyone aspiring to public office. I am sure you could fit more wisdom on how to create an effective and funtioning state in one page of carefully selected quotes from Lord Vetinari than you would find in the entire published record of “Foreign Affairs”.

16

Tracy W 01.30.06 at 11:54 pm

Of course Ankh-Morpork in the Discworld has a major advantage in that Terry Pratchett has written the Patrician as a ruler motivated almost entirely by the desire to make Ankh-Morpork run efficiently.

Political science in a world where one cannot simply write the leaders you’d like is a bit more complicated. “Install Vetinari as dictator” is simply not a viable answer to ensuring real world government. Also regualation as a solution to market power is less attractive when the government is incompetent and/or corrupt. There are plenty of cases of government regulating to give monopolies and create market power. And government accounts are on the whole so untruthful as to make Enron’s guys look like amateurs.

And one could make the argument that the reason that Reacher Gilt’s world fell apart was not because of government regulation but because they acquired a competitor – whose name I can’t remember, but was the hero of the book – who was as sneaky and manipulative as Gilt was. Yay competition!

Nor do I see how Pratchett makes it “abundantly clear” that “choices can be forestalled just as easily by unscrupulous market actors as by politicians.” It’s Vetinari who wanders around giving people the choice between running the post office (or Royal Mint) and death. Would Henry really support George Bush if he took up recruiting convicted criminals to run government departments by offering them that or death?

(Of course Reacher Gilt tries to kill various people too. I think even the strongest libertarians, of which I am not one (I just think restraining government is at least as important as restraining markets) think there is a case for prohibiting murder as an outcome of the market).

17

Matt McIrvin 01.31.06 at 2:35 am

Pratchett’s Discworld novels have gotten increasingly politically sophisticated over time, and I’ve long thought that he’ll eventually have to answer the question “What happens when Vetinari dies?” This being, of course, one of the big problems with benevolent dictators. I’ve seen no sign that the Patrician has made any plans for the eventuality, but that seems unlike him.

(Unless he just becomes a zombie or other undead being to forestall the deluge indefinitely, but even if it is possible in Pratchett’s world, that seems like cheating.)

18

soru 01.31.06 at 3:38 am

I look forward to a Discworld novel satiring the GWOT.

There are definite elements of that in Monstrous Regiment and Thud.

Discworld does have a structural problem for producing that kind of satire, because while it has direct analogues of London, Scotland, Italy, China, Australia, and so on, it doesn’t have any equivalent of America.

soru

19

Ross Smith 01.31.06 at 4:34 am

jim s: Actually, Brett, private armies do quite nicely as long as you can keep the real ones off your back. It’s happened before.

Quite true. Histrically, private armies often have done very well for themselves in the absence of the real thing. The civilians around them, on the other hand, tend to do considerably less well.

Except for the ones who can afford the private armies, that is. At least, up until it occurs to said armies that men with guns have easier options than working for a living.

20

Brett Bellmore 01.31.06 at 6:57 am

“Actually, Brett, private armies do quite nicely as long as you can keep the real ones off your back. It’s happened before.”

Yup, and that constitutes having the government in your pocket, as their nominal job is protecting people from that sort of thing, instead of protecting that sort of thing from people.

21

Tim Worstall 01.31.06 at 7:47 am

“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.”

Sounds about right. I rather take it as the very essence of libertarianism that one should be just as suspicious of big business as one is of any other group attempting to amass power. Labour, government, etc.

22

abb1 01.31.06 at 8:21 am

Brett:
…As soon as they try to exploit their monopoly position to do otherwise, they open up room for competitors.

So long as the threat of competition remains plausible, the actuality of it isn’t necessary.

That is simply (and obviously) not true. Monopoly easily crushes potential competitors long before they get a real chance to compete.

23

Ginger Yellow 01.31.06 at 8:22 am

As far as I can make out in the US at least a libertarian is essentially an anarchist who doesn’t like other people.

24

Matt 01.31.06 at 8:25 am

I guess I’ll add the missing discordant note. I’ve read most of TP’s books, and I’ve gotten somewhat tired of them. OD’d maybe. I should say, I do like his more recent books– the continuing characters have developed some depth.

As for the question at hand, IMO, Pratchett’s political views are not terribly interesting or unusual (or consistent)– it’s mostly the usual bien pensant stuff. Not that I disagree much with that, but I get an uneasy feeling that my prejudices are sometimes being reinforced and massaged at the expense of the story.

I do like his female charaters. Much more interesting and diverse than the small army 20-year old males with identity crises that star in too many of the novels.

25

Peter 01.31.06 at 8:42 am

My experience with American Libertarians is that they spout republican talking points while denying that they’re republicans, and admiring politicians who are indistinguishable from republicans. They sure act like sockpuppets.

Part of the plot of Going Postal is that the inventors of the “clacks” were forced out by tricky contracts. Sort of like the way that many start ups get squeezed by vulture capitalists.

26

Seth Finkelstein 01.31.06 at 8:48 am

I have an old essay Libertarianism Makes You Stupid which (despite the harsh title) might explain some of the concepts, from a critic’s point of view, of the American version.

Anyway, Pratchett’s writing often has many points in common with a certain Libertarian mindset, notably a tendency to beat the reader over the head with the view that people act out of self-interest, and a stock take that social reformers are deluded lunatics who are at best harmless dreamers and at worst destructive ideologues.

But it’s comic adventure, not Atlas Shrugged, so he doesn’t go in for the Libertarian part about the heroic businessmen as the philosopher-kings of society. And he’s not writing thinly disguised rants, so he’s completely willing to have a near-perfect benevolent dictator (per comment #17) if it makes the books work more smoothy.

It’d say he’s drawing from some of same wells, but not exclusively, and not fanatically.

27

abb1 01.31.06 at 9:02 am

My experience with American Libertarians is that they spout republican talking points while denying that they’re republicans, and admiring politicians who are indistinguishable from republicans.

Libertarians are super-Republicans, they are pure Republicans, they are The Republican Guard among the Republicans.

To condition a garden-variety Republican to voluntarily support interests of the super-rich you typically need a heavy dose of religious crap; the Libertarians don’t need that, they are pure natural-born houseboys.

28

Ronald Brak 01.31.06 at 9:15 am

That was an interesting essay you had there seth. So libertarians really do want to repeal speed limits. And here I was hoping that I was merely confused.

29

Scott Martens 01.31.06 at 9:20 am

Today’s assignment for the techno-libertarian who reads too much SF:

Compare and contrast the attitude Pratchett takes in Going Postal to the Grand Truck as a technological monopoly with that taken by Heinlein in Friday towards the Shipstone company. Take into consideration the role of government in both novels. How does each treat the problem of market failure, particularly with respect to the market valuation of labour and tacit knowledge? What public policy prescriptions might each envision? Do you think Heinlein might have felt differently if he had lived through the dot-com boom of the decade after his death? Would Pratchett have felt differently writing before that same boom?

Do not exceed 5 pages and please turn the assignment in by next Thursday. :^)

30

chris y 01.31.06 at 10:12 am

Pratchett writes comic fantasy, so I doubt he’d accept that he owed the world a duty of intellectual consistency. Nor would I. It’s easy enough to find libertarian ideas in the 30 odd Discworld novels if you want to, such as the pro-gun (well, pro-sword) rant in Night Watch. You can find socialist ideas as well. Or feudalist.

I think the libertarian right would be on a loser if they tried to claim him as one of theirs. If you had to sum his outlook in a single word, I’d suggest Chestertonian. But only roughly.

31

Dave 01.31.06 at 1:42 pm

To be honest, I didn’t see Going Postal as being so much an argument for or against any mainstream political philosophy as much as it was a a parody of Ayn Rand that also spoofed modern corporate culture.

Pratchett’s approach to government seems to be almost entirely pragmatic. He’ll poke fun at anything but the message in the end is typically “whatever benefits everyone is best”.

32

engels 01.31.06 at 5:38 pm

I have an old essay Libertarianism Makes You Stupid

The correlation is undeniable but I´m not sure you have the direction of causation right…

33

clew 01.31.06 at 5:39 pm

There are certainly hints that Vetinari is a vampire who has sworn off blood in favor of power.

34

Jim S 01.31.06 at 9:07 pm

The government doesn’t have to be in the pocket of the people with the private armies. It only has to be weakened enough to where they really don’t have the power to enforce anything. In spite of their loud protests to the contrary the classical American libertarian wants a government that is so limited that it would inevitably spiral into helplessness when compared to the power of the hyperwealthy. I call them and the Republicans who share much of that attitude the First Church of Free Market. They haven’t met a single problem that they think Free Market can’t solve.

35

still working it out 01.31.06 at 10:48 pm

The best counter-argument to Libertarianism is to point to the state of the world’s already existing Libertarian countries. Countries such as Afghanistan and a large part of sub-saharan Africa already have weak to non-existent states. These natural Libertarian experiments are pretty convincing proof that it does not work.

36

Cheryl Morgan 02.01.06 at 5:34 am

Why that’s supposed to make him a libertarian, I really can’t see. Could someone explain to me what the term is supposed to mean?

As far as I can make out, the philosophy of American Libertarians can be neatly summed up as, “I have the right to do whatever I want and to Hell with the rest of you.”

37

Backword Dave 02.01.06 at 8:37 am

34. Clew, I may have to read “Nightwatch” again then. Vetinari didn’t seem to be a vampire even before he attained power. And he kills people with weapons — most unvampire like.

On Vetinari and power and Pterry’s attitude to same, “Guards! Guards!” seems to me to be the key text. If I understand the “moral”, Vetinari has run down the night watch to a crew of three — two corrupt and incompetent with a captain whose natural pessimism has been reduced to alcoholic depression. This state of affairs very nearly does for both Vetinari and Ankh-Morpork. In the later books a sober Vimes expands the Watch to include trolls, dwarves, zombies, werewolves, etc (“Men at Arms”) and starts a secret police service (“Maskerade”). It’s clearly implied that Ankh-Morpork is richer and safer for these innovations.

38

mythago 02.01.06 at 4:38 pm

He eventually comes to a richly deserved sticky end.

Way to warn about a spoiler.

I admit to being a bit amused at all the philosophical forehead-wrinkling over what Going Postal is “about”. Pratchett’s books–especially the newer ones–go after BS in all kinds of philosopies, not just conservative ones.

Gilt isn’t Libertarianism personified; he’s a con man and a thief, and he’s a threat to Vetinari. (The idea of Vetinari as a benevolent dictator is a little, er, odd….one with Ankh-Morpork’s best interests in mind, okay, but benevolent?) His goal isn’t to run the clacks in an efficient manner that just happens to threaten the creaky, barely-existing Post Office. von Lipwick’s dream of learning “three-card monte with banks” from Gilt is pretty clear about any actual political philosophy Gilt may have–which is to say, none.

39

Simon Jester 02.02.06 at 8:48 am

A few observations from a libertarian:

Pterry almost certainly isn’t a libertarian. Although, given that Vetinari tends to use relatively light state intervention, he may have classical liberal tendencies.

10. Cheryl, Pterry left the nuclear power industry before privatisation / deregulation. Nationalised industry has always had its own form of corporate bullshit.

14/29. Ronald, had you tried asking one?

23. Abb1 – obviously wrong; ever heard of BT? (A good riposte to the central thrust of Going Postal, by the way.)

24. Ginger – sounds like an excellent descripiton of some libertarians!

25. Matt – I like his female characters, too. I think comparatively few of his protagonists fit the “the small army 20-year old males with identity crises” description – none of the ones that make it into series form.

26. Peter – “spout republican talking points” – is dKos down? (Ditto 28. Abb1 – “natural-born houseboys”)

27. Seth – your essay seems to consist of 80% inability to distinguish between “use” and “initiate”, and 20% inability to believe that Libertarians mean what they say.

30. Scott – no market failure in Friday. See response to 23. Abb1 for appraisal of Going Postal.

34. Clew – doesn’t Vetinari go out in the daylight? (Mind you, don’t the trolls get around that problem by copious use of sun oil?)

35. Jim – some libertarians simply think that however bad the market’s response to a given problem is, the government’s response is likely to be worse.

36. Still – most such states have strong warlords – which are a form of government themselves.

38. Cheryl – add “as long as it doesn’t directly hurt other people” and I’d agree.

I bought Thud a couple of days ago, but haven’t read it yet.

40

abb1 02.03.06 at 3:05 am

Hi Simon,
what’s BT and what does dKos have to do with it? I never read it.

41

Simon Jester 02.03.06 at 8:44 am

BT = British Telecom; a monopoly provider of telecom services in the UK when privatised in the early 1980s, now one of several UK telcos.

DKos is full of people who automatically dismiss anyone who disagrees with them as “spouting Republican talking points” and being the Republican’s “natural born houseboys”.

42

Simon Jester 02.03.06 at 8:47 am

…Republicans’… (sigh.)

43

Gary Farber 02.03.06 at 1:50 pm

“…I’ve been catching up on my Terry Pratchett in the wee hours….

On the off chance you or anyone is interested, a post with long excerpts from an interview with Terry, and a link to the yet far longer interview, here. (Post also has long excerpts from a yet longer interview with Ursula Le Guin, plus a bit of Joss Whedon, plus several other sf-related links, some folk music history links, and some words by me; it was a potpourri of sf bloggy goodness!)

One of various other Pterry-related posts, with more from him, here.

No Steve Brust posts, sorry. But the post about Pam Noles and Le Guin and the whitewashing of the Earthsea movie I just gave in another thread here does also have links to Emma Bull’s LiveJournal post on why she hated the Battlestar Galactica mini-series, and rebuttals from many people.

Thanks for the plug, Dave Weeden. The check isn’t in the mail.

44

abb1 02.04.06 at 2:23 pm

Simon, I don’t know what the British Telecom is supposed to prove or demonstrate here. There’s one thing I do know: if I am a monopoly and you’re a little business trying to compete with me – you won’t last long. If necessary, I’ll be selling below the cost or giving the product/service away for free until you go bust. It’s very simple and has been done millions of times.

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