Introduction to L. Neil Smith's Down with Power (2011), by Sean Gabb
I discovered L. Neil Smith on the second Thursday in March 1985. I was on a railway train somewhere between King's Cross in London and York, and I found a copy of his novel The Probability Broach in one of the luggage racks.
This is a great novel. It has a main plot that both grips the reader and is seamlessly integrated with the alternative history background. Under any circumstances, the book would have been a lucky find. But if it depends mainly on inherent quality, the appreciation of any text depends also on the mood of the reader. And I was in just the right mood for Neil.
I was depressed. I was very depressed, and for various reasons. I was depressed that the Thatcher Government, in which I had placed so much faith, was turning England into a police state. I was depressed that none of my libertarian friends was able to see what I could, and were even muttering behind my back that I was "rather unsound." I was depressed because I had no money. I was depressed that, after such heroic efforts in 1981 and 1982, I was fat again, and that I had none of the willpower needed to stop being fat. I was depressed because, perhaps for associated reasons, it was hard to find anyone I actually fancied who wanted to sleep with me.
Now, I will not say that reading The Probability Broach helped me lose four stone of ugly fat and make my first million. But it did let me see the world more clearly and my own place within it as a libertarian. Back in those days, I must explain, the British free market movement was not really that libertarian. Alone, we used to read great slabs of Hayek and von Mises, or commentaries on them, or imitations of them. If we gathered in public, it was usually to listen to some Tory MP or businessman on the make, talking about the need to stuff the trade unions or see off the Russians. Chris Tame was always the great exception to the rule. But it was to be years before I became his closest friend. Otherwise, our movement was remarkably parasitic on the success—whatever that might amount to—of the Thatcher Government. Unless Chris was in the room, when I did start talking about civil liberties, the best I usually got was a brief silence, followed by an impatient "Oh yes, we believe in all that as well."
What I got from The Probability Broach was my clearest perception yet of what libertarianism should be about. Yes, we believe in free markets, and in enterprise, and, so long as there must be a government, in certain constitutional safeguards. But this is all supportive of the true argument for liberty—which is that it allows us to have a really good time for a very long time. The alternative America that Neil shows us is a place where people say and do whatever they please. They smoke. They drink. They fly about in rockets. They have the bodies they want. I seem to recall that they sometimes change sex. They certainly control what age they appear.
If I have just said anything that seems disparaging of Hayek and von Mises, I do apologise. But it was only by reading Neil that I was fully able to understand the world that their flat and colourless sentences had been written to help bring into being. It no longer mattered what everyone else thought about me; and, though we were still eight years away from my discovery of the Internet, I felt inspired to start writing up what I thought was so awful about the world and how it might be made a better place.
Having mentioned the Internet, I suppose I should remind everyone born since about 1975 how difficult it was in the olden days to find anything at all outside the mainstream. I had found Neil by accident. It was days before I could hunt down any of his other fiction in the big London bookshops. It was a waste of time even to try looking for any of his political writings. When everything was on paper—and often put there by a duplicator, or at best by a photocopier—laying hands on fringe material was a hit or miss business. And it was that even when published in your own country. Nowadays, whatever you want—bizarre and possibly illegal porn, the alleged utterances of Osama bin Laden, tomorrow's weather forecast for Provo in Utah—is never more than a few clicks away. Back in 1985, it would not have been absolutely impossible in London to get access to the newsletters Neil was writing in America. But it was far beyond my abilities.
Eventually, though, I did get myself on-line; and there, on libernet, Neil was waiting. If it was still several years before I found the courage to send him fan mail, Neil was, from 1993, part of my favourite regular on-line reading. His essays were models of lucidity and contempt. We were living in different countries. Many of the things he was writing about had little relevance for me in England. But I could admire the lucidity of his style. And I could admire the depths and force of his contempt.
This was not contempt, mind you, of what is most conveniently, though perhaps misleadingly, called "the left." That was easily found in our movement on both sides of the Atlantic. No, what I admired was his contempt for our supposed allies. In England and in America, libertarians had been listening for decades, at least, to promises that such-and-such a "conservative" politician was on our side, and that, when he spoke vaguely to the masses about free markets and constitutional limits on the State, he was not saying the tenth of what he really meant. Well, we had listened to these rogues and liars—Nixon and Heath and Thatcher and Reagan, and John Redwood and Newt Gingrich, and all the others—and it was time for those of us who had now finally got ourselves a big audience on-line to say exactly what we thought of them, of them and of the lesser rogues and liars who were still crying them up as closet libertarians.
And here, eighteen years later, we still are. Much has changed since then. I can now boast that, while we have never met in the physical sense, Neil is now a dear and valued friend. But he is still writing, still turning the literary equivalent of a flame thrower on enemies of our civilisation. And it is a very great honour that he has now asked me to introduce this latest volume of his writings.
I could stop here. It is, after all, the job of an introduction writer to say something nice about the main contents, and then to shut up. But I do have in mind one further observation about Neil that I might not otherwise find the opportunity to make, or to make in one place. This is that, once you leave aside his inspirational fiction, he is a very angry man.
You will find, for example, that every essay in this book is, in one way or another, a masterpiece of denunciatory rhetoric, and you will not take from it very much that is positive. Oh, you will, every so often, read about his cure for the toilet that America has become—which is a strict enforcement of the Bill of Rights. But how do you assemble the coalition needed to get the right sort of President elected? How do you scale back not only the claims of a kleptocratic elite, but also the expectations of ordinary people that may not be entirely legitimate, but are not unreasonable when you bear in mind that the free market solutions to which they ought to be looking have been regulated out of existence, or simply crowded out? What about old age pensions? What about healthcare subsidies—subsidies that even Ayn Rand was in the end not to proud to claim?
But this is not a criticism. You do not go to Neil for these things. There are policy institutes all over America with millions of dollars to spend on long and worthy, and sometimes honest and disinterested, prescriptions. You go to Neil for the anger of righteousness.
Have you ever seen a friend or a loved one die? Have you ever lain awake at night, wondering how long before it will be you lying unconscious in that hospital bed, with tubes sticking out of you? You might tell yourself that these are the inevitable misfortunes of life, and that we are lucky to be alive now, in an age where we and our friends and loved ones have some chance of getting near to the end of our normal life spans, or even somewhat beyond. We could say that. We do say that. But we are now living in the fifth century of an exponential growth of human control over nature. Why is it that we have so many bombs that, if we let them all off at once, we might turn out planet into a ball of rock as dead as all the others in our solar system—and why is it that making it to ninety is very nearly as remarkable for us as it was to the Ancient Greeks?
The answer is because every step in the progress of our knowledge has been impeded or perverted or at least largely to the advantage of a parasitic ruling class. Every English child—and perhaps every American child too—learns the mediaeval rhyme:
Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.
One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane
That is how—the century before last partially excepted—it has always been. Everything created by the people has been shared with the military and propagandistic wings of the ruling class. In mediaeval times, it was a third of the wool to the King and a third to the Church, and a third left to us. The only difference today is that, as we have become more productive, the third left to us has shrivelled to a sixth or a tenth or a fiftieth. The rest is taken by men with guns, or to feed armies of smiling and utterly malign intellectuals.
Just imagine a world in which those two big wars of the last century had not been fought, and in which the ruling class had been kept under the same semi-limitation as it was until 1914. Or let us write off the millions shot or blown apart or gassed or starved in those meaningless slaughters. We doubtless lost a few Newtons and Mozarts, but these wars were a long time ago, and mentioning their utter worthlessness upsets too many people who ought to know better but do not.
Suppose only that America and England and Western Europe had, after 1945, been taxed and regulated half as much as they were. We might not by now have indefinite life extension and prospecting colonies in the Asteroid Belt. But do you really think we would still be facing our pathetically short life spans, and a last few months or years rotten with cancer and taking mostly ineffective pills from which the commercial wing of our ruling class does very nicely?
No, forget a scaling back of the ruling class after 1945. Instead, let us only suppose that "victory" against Soviet Russia had really been followed by the "peace dividend" we were promised. Even then, things could so easily have been better than they are. Even twenty years of reduced parasitism would have left us richer, and therefore healthier, and therefore happier.
But, in place of these very pale approximations to a free society, we are now where we are now. In England and America, we struggle to pay our taxes. We are sprayed with lies about villainous foreigners in funny clothes whose only wish is to kill us. We worry that our children will say something out of place, and bring social workers knocking on our doors. We are left with just enough of what we produce to divert ourselves—with flat screen television sets and industrialised holidays—from the knowledge that we are serfs.
That is what I find in the non-fiction of L. Neil Smith— denunciations of the current order of things, and the burning and clearly-expressed conviction that it could so easily be different.
If you are leafing through this introduction and wondering whether to buy the book—do buy it. If you have bought it already and have started with my introduction - you are in for a treat. If you want some pious explanation of what a good idea it might be to privatise the cracks between the paving stones, you have not been a perfectly rational consumer. If, on the other hand, you want chapter and verse on how your country is owned by pigs and run by wolves, and on how glorious it would be if we stopped being sheep—in this case, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your belts and enjoy the ride!