Patrick McCray, author of the great book on the origins of modern space colony and nanotech thinking, The Visioneers (which I reviewed for Reason in our June issue) dug through the Robert Heinlein archives and came up with some interesting stuff about the nexus between his sometimes militaristic politics and his vision of human future in space, and contains some sneering at certain other types of libertarians:

Heinlein supported Reagan’s SDI program unlike “the Sagans, the Asimovs, the Garvins, the Arthur Clarkes” and other “soft-minded fools who fantasize about a world that does not exist.” .....Heinlein goes on to note that the debate over SDI had science fiction writers “more bitterly divided that it was over the war in Vietnam.” 

Like many people intrigued with the idea of settlements in space, Heinlein gave a lot of thought as to what off-world politics might be like. In this matter, he said he remained “both a pessimist and a lower-case libertarian.” When it came to “our race’s future in space,” Heinlein predicted that those “who do not go into space will find, rather quickly, that they can neither control nor tax those who do.”

Heinlein goes on to make it clear that his political position was rested entirely on an unsentimental pragmatism and was “not based on our Bill of Rights” or “libertarian theory.” A key test for the sci-fi writer was a person’s proposed solution to what he called the Lifeboat Problem – what rights should an individual be accorded in a place where food, water, air, safety, etc. are in tenuous supply i.e. a submarine or a space colony? 5 In fact, he demanded a solution to this question before “any avowed libertarian” should be allowed “to open his big mouth on the subject of “natural rights” in space.”

He framed the scenario thus: “You are boat officer in a lifeboat, rated capacity 50 persons and it is filled to capacity, a mixture of men, women, and children. In the water are others…The sea is Beaufort scale four or higher; the water is freezing cold. You are armed with a loaded pistol. So far as you know no one else is armed…but you may be mistaken.” What do you do? Rotate people in and out of the life boat every 20 minutes and try to save everyone? Noble but impractical. Maybe someone would suggest taking a vote  to which Heinlein said “I would shoot that bastard just for drill.”

So far as libertarians enamored with theory and posturing – “Any libertarian so doctrinaire that he cannot find a pragmatic solution to this problem deserves no tolerance from others…Unfortunately a large percentage of those who describe themselves as “libertarians”…would be a a mortal danger to their shipmates.”

So, libertarians and far-out space nuts alike: what do you do on the lifeboat? And does the answer to that question say much about how human ethical and political rules should apply when you are not in a lifeboat? And is space for humans essentially always this sort of lifeboat?

Some thoughts on Ayn Rand's thought on this sort of "lifeboat ethics" and why normal human ethical principles don't necessarily apply there.

I wrote on Heinlein's libertarian legacy for Reason in a 2007 feature, and on his musing on anarcho-capitalism.