Robert Heinlein Muses on Anarcho-Capitalism in 1962 Letter to Ted Sturgeon


Fascinating bit of science fiction and libertarian history unearthed by the great "Letters of Note" site. Context: Science fiction legend Robert Heinlein is kindly providing a list of amazing story ideas to the writer's-blocked other science fiction great Theodore Sturgeon (and also giving him an unasked for 100 bucks).

Heinlein rightly notes that being asked for ideas by Sturgeon is "like having the Pacific Ocean ask one to pee in it," and goes on to muse on some very early anarcho-capitalist ideas, influenced by the unnamed but described early libertarian movement mover and shaker Robert LeFevre, who edited a "Freedom Newspaper" in Colorado Springs for R.C. Hoiles and who ran the Freedom School, which was the first real libertarian education for the Koch brothers. Heinlein kept thinking about LeFevre and these ideas, which fed into his 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in which LeFevre pretty much appears as "Bernardo de La Paz."

Here's Heinlein the early anarcho-capitalist, to Sturgeon:

a society where there are no criminal offences, just civil offences, i.e., there is a price on everything, you can look it up in the catalog and pay the price. You want to shoot your neighbor? Go ahead and shoot the bastard. He has a definite economic rating; deposit the money with the local clearing house within 24 hrs.; they will pay the widow. Morality would consist in not trying to get away with anything without paying for it. Good manners would consist in so behaving that no one would be willing to pay your listed price to kill you. Of course if your valuation is low and your manners are crude, your survival probabilities are low, too. Down in Paraguay murder is a private matter, the government figuring that either his friends and relatives will avenge the deceased, or he was a nogoodnick and who cares? There is another culture in which if a man kills another man, accidentally or on purpose, he must replace the other man, even to taking his wife and his name. Obviously our own pattern is not the only way of looking at crime; maybe we are prejudiced….

Here is another [Analog magazine editor John] Campbell-type culture: why should government enforce private contracts at all? At present you can go into court and sue—and (sometimes) force another man to conform to his contract or wrest damages from him. Is there good reason for this to be a function of government? Should it not be a case of let the contractor beware? Why should society as a whole give a hoot whether or not the private, civil promises between two men are kept?

What are the minimum, indispensable functions of government? What functions are present in all human societies? Is it possible to name anything which obtains in one society which is not differently just the reverse in another? Or not done at all? Has there ever been a truly anarchistic society? The Eskimos, perhaps? We have an anarchist running a newspaper in this town [Heinlein is speaking of Robert LeFevre, though he doesn't name him], who is opposed to public roads, public schools, public anything—he maintains that it is not ethical for a majority to do anything collectively which each individual did not already have the right to do as an individual. This is an explosive notion; a corollary is that all taxation is wrong, all zoning laws are wrong, all compulsory education is wrong, all punishment by courts is wrong. In the mean time he lives in a well-policed society, his own considerable wealth protected by all these things he deplores. But one thing is sure: many of the things we take for granted are not necessary to a stable society, but we take them for granted. 

I wrote of Heinlein, LeFevre, and the history of libertarian ideas in my 2007 book Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

I celebrated Heinlein's influence on his centenary in a 2007 Reason feature, and reviewed volume one of William Patterson's massive Heinlein bio for Reason in 2011, in which I discussed his slow evolution toward libertarianism.