How Terry Pratchett Made Me a Libertarian

The fantasy author whose Discworld novels talked up liberty and self-ownership has died at 66.


I hope he brought a carrot for Binky.
Credit: Nightscream

It may difficult to explain how remarkable Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel series is in the way it expressed concepts of liberty and self-determination to a libertarian who has never read him. Two of the protagonists in his fantasy universe were a police officer and a self-described "tyrant" ruling the city of Ankh-Morpork, an imaginary analogue of a Renaissance-era big city like London. That doesn't sound like the kind of people a libertarian would want to follow around through book after book. There's also an orangutan who is a librarian.

And yet, that was Pratchett's genius. He never used the word "libertarian" in any of his books. Though his characters could work up a good rant or two when somebody had done something breathtakingly stupid, there were no Ayn Rand-style multi-page screeds about how people should live or behave. That's because he made it all live and breathe as a writer. He used the fantasy setting and familiar fantasy concepts like dragons and magic to explore themes of power, corruption, authoritarianism, and the problem with thinking you know what's best for everybody else. And he was funny. He was hilarious. And very humane.

Today, Pratchett's publishers announced that the writer has died at the age of 66 following a struggle with early onset Alzheimer's disease.

Pratchett was huge in England long before Harry Potter came around and was knighted in 2009. He's sold more than 85 million books worldwide. He may not have been as famous in America, but I don't believe I've met anybody in the states who enjoyed fantasy genre fiction who had not read at least a couple of his works.

I discovered Pratchett in the mid-1990s. At the time I would not have described myself as a libertarian. I saw myself as a liberal, albeit one who had very little interest or love for the Democratic establishment. My exposure to libertarian views ultimately came not through the works of scholars, but with actual real-world experiences and frustrations with leaders and elites (all of which were exacerbated when I found myself later "in charge" of a small newspaper in California. Trying to run a small business in California would turn even the most hard-core socialist into a libertarian). I found my frustrations echoed and responded to in Pratchett's books. His heroes, like the witch Granny Weatherwax and even police captain Sam Vimes, were not dreamers with big ideas about how the world should be run. They were rather crotchety preservationists who were just trying to keep their communities from falling apart. Sometimes they saved the world, but mostly because they were there at the time and it needed to be done. That description almost makes them sound like conservatives.

It was actually the villains who helped define the libertarian streak of Pratchett's books. The villains were the ones with the big ideas and schemes. Of course, fantasy novels are known for evil wizards and warlords trying to conquer the known lands for greedy goals. Pratchett took these villains and gave them a twist: Many of the antagonists in these books were insistent that their authoritarian goals of conquest were serving to improve the lives of others. Books like Small Gods (one of Pratchett's best—I encourage everybody to read it) tackled how mass religious movements can be captured from within to serve the aims of just a few, taking it to a place that even its own god never intended and destroying so much. Jingo took on the privileged rich who beat the drums of war to bolster the state. Night Watch took on police corruption and abuse in the service of authority. It even had a side plot about the use of its own version of waterboarding. The book was published in 2002, before we even knew what was going on in our name overseas. He won a Prometheus Award from the Libertarian Futurist Society for that book, and the previous year for The Truth, which tracked the development of Discworld's first printing press, and subsequently the idea of what a "free press" actually is (the villains in that novel obviously thought dimly of the concept). Pratchett's ultimate villains were "the auditors," shapeless cosmic beings who craved nothing so much as order and complete stasis in the universe. They hated humanity for how uncontrollable they were and how much everything people did changed the nature of the world around them in completely unpredictable ways. He turned Death into a character, not actually as a villain, but as an omnipresent reminder of the fleetness of life and how it drives behavior. Unlike the auditors, Death grew to love the creatures he had to escort to whatever came afterward.

Some of his books, like Men at Arms, Unseen Academicals, and Snuff, involved storylines about expanding the ideas of personhood, and therefore liberty, to races that had been dismissed by the dominant human species as animals, or even property in the case of golems. He used dwarves to explore gender identity issues in interesting ways that avoided getting too caught up in modern talking points. His response to the popularity of J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter was to introduce a series of young adult books in the Discworld setting starring Tiffany Aching. Aching was a young witch who learned her trade not by being stuffed into a magic school and separated from the rest of the world, but by going out into the world itself and learning to deal with the dangers there just like everybody else who learns to become an adult.

There is so much more to say about Pratchett's writing and its casual intersections with libertarian philosophy than just this but it's better to experience his works than to just read about them. He wasn't just a sharp observer of human nature, but a delightful humorist and deeply humane person, and it makes all of his works easy reads. As he struggled with his disease, he became involved with activism in favor of assisted suicide. He produced a television documentary called Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die on the subject.

He was a brilliant man and my favorite living writer. He was a modern day Mark Twain. He will be truly missed.