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.

Words to live by

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.

NEXT: VIDEO: Gangs in Control of American Prisons: "The Social Order of the Underworld"

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  1. I just started with Discworld at the end of January, when I finally decided to pick up The Color of Magic. (All I had read of his before was Good Omens) My sister’s boyfriend saw me reading it, and now I’m most of the way through his copy of Jingo. He lent me the whole Watch series.

    1. Jingo is probably my favorite. It perfectly distills the ridiculousness of war and, generally, foreign relations.

  2. There’s also an orangutan who is a librarian.

    For some reason SugarFree leaps to mind.

    Sad, but if he had Alzheimer’s, dying was a good move. Having watched two grandparents die of it, I can quite seriously say that death can’t come too soon once someone has started to really lose their mind like that.

    1. SugarFree good boy.

      1. …no you’re not.

      2. Cigarette?

    2. Having watched two grandparents die of it, I can quite seriously say that death can’t come too soon once someone has started to really lose their mind like that.

      I had one relative die of it and another has it. Two other relatives might have it.

      I agree with you. Once the mind is gone, the person is gone too.

  3. People on the side of The People always ended up disappointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so, the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.

    As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

    Found in Night Watch, and one of my favorite Pratchett observations ever.

    His fight for the right to asssisted suicide was also very libertarian.

    RIP Terry, and fuck Alzheimer’s.

  4. RIP Terry. It’s sad Discworld have come to an end.

  5. Pratchett is my all-time favorite author. I spent about 2 years reading nothing but Discworld books from first to last. Too many brilliant books to name a best, but “Small Gods” is right at the top of the heap.

    1. Off all the brilliant characters though, I do have a favorite — Gaspode.

  6. I tried one of his books once and hated his writing style. Which is a shame, it sounds like. But I can’t get over styles I hate. Philip K Dick has the same effect on me. His ideas are brilliant but his writing is stilted and offputting to me.

    1. Now you know how the rest of us feel about you.

      1. Hugh, I’ve always sensed your physical attraction to me. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and frankly, I’m flattered. But I cost a little more than you can afford, I’m afraid.

        1. I ain’t got no milk, no cookies, no nothing. I come looking for man’s butt.

    2. I you have my sympathies.

      The first two books were relatively weak compared to what came afterward. Rincewind was by far the most annoying character in any of the books. But there is utter brilliance in the later books.

      Small Gods is a totally stand-alone story. You can read it without knowing about any of the other books. You should give it a try before you give up Pratchett for ever.

    3. Which book did you try? Perhaps it will be controversial to point out, but the quality varies a great deal within the Discworld series. The early books were… lackluster. Good, but not memorable. I like to think it was a publisher battle which hamstrung him. The most recent books were… not the same writing. If the first book you read was I Shall Wear Midnight or Snuff, then I feel confident in saying you haven’t seen Pratchett on form. You have seen Pratchett ill and doing his best.

      I don’t mean to nag. He’s an inspiration to me. If you read something from the middle of the series and it just wasn’t your cuppa, that’s quite valid. We all like different things. I couldn’t stand that Sword of Shanannannaararara crap or Lumley, and the spouse thinks I’m nuts not to.

      1. You’re not nagging, I appreciate a recommendation that I might have gotten wrong the first time around. I don’t know what it was I read, I’m just very sensitive to writing style and I did NOT like his in whatever it was.

        When I finish Dark Intelligence maybe I’ll give one of his books that you recommend a shot.

        1. The Turtle Moves.

        2. Then my recommendation is officially Night Watch. One of my favorite books ever, right there with Starship Troopers.

          Maybe I should look up Darn Intelligence. I am between obsessions at the moment.

          1. I should look up how to spell while I’m at it.

        3. I read a couple Stross books because of you. And I hate you even more because of it. Talk about lousy writing that it’s hard to get past…

          1. Stross. I suffered through reading one of his books. I kept thinking that it had to get better…

        4. Moving Pictures if you just want fun–that was during his Peak Pun Period.

          Small Gods if you want a message.

          Mort or Guards! Guards! if you want characters with an arc.

    4. The only reason anyone puts up with you Epi, is cause your Mom is ‘nice’ to us.

    5. The first two (Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic) are a little difficult to get through, but from Equal Rites on they just get better and better. You can read them in publication order, but there’s actually a chart that lays out how which books are part of which story arcs, which books are one-offs, the chronological order within the larger narrative, etc. that’s worth checking out. Yeah, if I had only ever read Colour of Magic I wouldn’t think much of his writing, but it’s what he wrote after that’s made him my all-time favorite author. Really, do yourself a favor and pick up Small Gods or Mort, or Guards! Guards! and give it another shot.

  7. It amazes me how many of my uber-liberal friends LOVE things like Pratchett, Firefly, and Mike Rowe.

    Never read Pratchett, but once there was a guy on Metro LOLing and when I looked, he was reading a Pratchett. I’ll download one when I’m done with the fan-fucking-tastic Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.

    1. A lot of left-liberals imagine that they are the rebellious outsiders fighting for the little guy.

    2. What’s funny is Joss Whedon is a pretty far-left SJW type. I don’t know if he meant Reynolds to be the villain of Firefly, or what.

      (Actually I think it’s just that he’s a good writer and is able to pass the “ideological Turing Test” more or less. Still find it amusing though when I read his political thoughts.)

      1. It’s my understanding that if Firefly had continued, we would have learned that The Alliance wasn’t the giant evil Mal & the gang had conjured them up to be.

        1. Explain Serenity then.

        2. I explain it by the fact that Firefly came out during the Bush administration, when government was a bad guy and it was wrong for so-called ‘civilized’ people to try to impose their values on everyone, like we were trying to do in Iraq.

          If Firefly was being made today, Mal and the crew of Serenity would be loyal members of the Alliance, bringing the blessings of culture to every benighted corner of the ‘Verse. And the people on the frontier would be reactionary bitter-clingers.

          Of course, I’m still trying to get ‘Avengers’: two blonde-haired blue eyed white men (one of them a world war 2 veteran and the other a literal Nordic deity) team up with a billionaire arms dealer to save the world?

      2. Joss has mentioned that all his protagonists end up being libertarian and it annoys him.

        1. Then he needs a therapist to help him get in touch with his inner libertarian.

    3. “when I’m done with the fan-fucking-tastic Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes.”
      Ya gotta read “Dark Sun”.

  8. Personally, I have long felt that Pratchett is one of the all-time great humanist authors. He might have mocked the notion as ‘speciesist’, but no one showed deeper insight into and greater love for the potential of human beings, of all species.
    Interesting Times has a rather extended meditation on “people’s committees” and those who claim to be working for the benefit of others.
    I can’t pick a favorite Pratchett work, they’re all golden. Yes, some perhaps more so than others, but ranking them would be egregious nonsense.
    He will be deeply, deeply missed. I can’t think of anyone who’s passing has more deeply affected me.
    His final post-mortem tweet would make a fine epitaph.

  9. Damn. Just, damn.

    I’ve read or listened (mostly listened) to all or nearly all of the Discworld books. His writing makes for excellent audiobooks, and Audible has, I believe, the complete set for download.

    1. If I were to recommend a starting place, it would be the Night Watch subseries.

      How can you not love a story that starts with a cop passed out drunk in a gutter?

      Go here to see how the various subseries line up:…..der-fanart

      1. thanks for that

    2. How do they handle all the hilarious footnotes in the audio version?

      1. Oh, there are footnotes that are integral to the story? That won’t work on Kindle, then. I’ve tried to read Dave Barry on Kindle, and it’s impossible because all the footnotes are at the end, and not on the page they belong to.

        1. They work fine on kindle. You get to the highlight for the footnote, click it and it jumps to the note. LAughter ensues, and then you click back.

  10. sigh. whose

  11. Great article Scott. One other book the HR crowd will love is Feet of Clay. Roy Batty as a Golem if that makes sense…

  12. Alright, one more:

    I use one of the tyrant’s (Vetinari’s) lines periodically: This is a paraphrase, I’m sure:

    “This is a democracy. One man, one vote. I’m the man, and I have the vote.”

    1. Vetinari/Vimes — 2016

      1. I’d vote that ticket.

    2. I’ve always liked, “Don’t let me detain you.”

  13. Note to Ayn Rand from Terry Pratchett: Show Don’t Tell

    1. Pratchett completely mic dropped Rand.

  14. Pratchett was huge in England long before Harry Potter came around and was knighted in 2009.

    Harry Potter was knighted?

    1. That is Sir Harry Potter to you, friend!

      1. I blow my nose at you, so-called “Hairy Potter,” you and all your silly English K-nig-hts.

  15. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start… This is where to start……===========

  16. Small Gods is by far his most profound novel. I have most of his books and have read them to tatters over the years. He never disappoints for a good laugh and some astute philosophy. I’m sad that future trips to the bookstore will not contain the joy of spotting a new Prachett paperback to buy. I hope that “What happens next?” (often what his recently departed characters ask Death) is a grand adventure for him. RIP

  17. I’ve always meant to read Pratchett but nobody ever seems to agree where I should start.

    1. There are four major threads in Discworld: the Wizards, the Witches, the Nightwatch, and Death. In my opinion, the Wizards are much weaker than the other three. The other three threads cover three fundamentally different aspects of social commentary. The Nightwatch is probably the most “political” of the three threads and probably the most relatable as well.

      You can’t go wrong with starting with Guards! Guards! (the first Nightwatch novel).

      1. Guards! Guards! was my introduction to Pratchett, and I enjoyed it.

        1. My first Pratchett was Good Omens with Gaiman. Then I read Thud!. Then I found out I needed to go back about 25 books and start over. It was well worth it.

      2. The Industrial Revolution subseries is my second favorite after the Night Watch subseries. Moving Pictures, The Truth, Going Postal, Making Money.

        1. Also excellent. Four brilliant books.

          1. Making Money was my first Discworld book that I read and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s an interesting commentary on the idea of value and the nature of money. Plus really effing funny.

  18. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start… This is where to start……

  19. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start… This is where to start……===========


    Pratchett’s death was also announced on his Twitter account, with a series of tweets that began: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

    It continued: “Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

    “The End.”


  21. RIP.

    I haven’t read much of Pratchett’s work. I need to change that.

    Choosing to Die is a great and moving documentary. I hope Pratchett got to go out the way he wanted to.

    1. Going Postal. Moist is a very well developed later Pratchett character

  22. Which one (if any) would you start a 13yo boy with?

    1. If he’s a good reader, Guards!

      Just like a real person. đŸ˜‰

    2. Try the Johnny Maxwell books first– Only YOU Can Save Mankind, Johnny and The Bomb, and Johnny and the Dead

      Then set him into the Wizards series.

    3. There isn’t a bad book in the bunch.

      The Color of Magic and the Light Fantastic are really weak and not representative of where Terry would go with the Discworld. But I read all the books in the order published. And there enough Easter Eggs in all the books to make it worthwhile.

      But if you have to pick one single series to work with. Go with the Nightwatch (starting with Guards! Guards!) and then get into the Industrial Revolution series.

      1. I would toss out Mort as a slow starter as well. It’s good, but i tried it as my first discworld and it didn’t work.

        Going postal is what got me into discworld in my mod to late teens, and is a great intro for the series

        1. Mine was Thud!. I was hooked immediately.

    4. I started reading them around when I was 11 and read them in publishing order. I recommend it.

      1. I discovered Pratchett very late. He had 30+ books in print when I discovered him. So it was very easy to get and read the books in published order. And doing one right after the other is was easy to find all the connections between the books.

  23. Six months ago I lost my job and after that I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a great website which literally saved me. I started working for them online and in a short time after I’ve started averaging 15k a month… The best thing was that cause I am not that computer savvy all I needed was some basic typing skills and internet access to start… This is where to start……

  24. I read ‘The Sea and Little Fishes’, then I read ‘Hogfather’. Then I read everything. Again and again. I just read ‘Dragons at Crumbling Castle’, an horrific collection of very early work(read it if you’re a compleatist only)

    I found the cartoons, and watched them, I enjoyed the tv shows(and am still hoping for that proposed Vimes series)

    I’ve played the videogames.

    I’ve decorated for Hogswatch, drank scumble, and laughed at a strawberry wobbler.

    I’ve wondered why he thought ‘Nation’ was his best work.

    And now, I hope he went well.

    1. British people tend to love the worst of their culture?

      I don’t think Orwell ever realized how much his nonfiction shitkicked his fiction either

      1. Was not aware that Orwell wrote any fiction.

  25. I love his work, but it isn’t libertarian just really good fiction.

    1. Given Terrys background, i woulf guess he was an ardent labot supporter, but his work does end up having libertarian themed or moments.

      Yes, his ideal ruler is a philosopher tryant, but his greatest villians are metaphysical beings who want to stop time (amongst other plans ) and therefore destroy human messiness ie freedom (and imagination ).

      Look at the quote from Nigh Watch I posted above. The book is full of those moments. One of the big themes of that is how stupid laws against owning or carrying weapons is, and how by doing that only criminals have weapons.

      From the same guy who portrayed his world’s one gun as inherently having evil, mind warping powers.

      I think, like Wheedon, libertarian themes popped up, but sometimes quite unintentionally

    2. “‘I’m sure we can pull together, sir.’
      Lord Vetinari raised his eyebrows. ‘Oh, I do hope not, I really do hope not. Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.’ He smiled. ‘It’s the only way to make progress.” – from The Truth

  26. How would you say Pratchett compares to Douglas Adams? Not politically, but sense of humor, plot construction, etc.? I’m a big Hitchhiker’s fan. Never really got into Dirk Gently, but Long Dark Teatime of the Soul is OK.

    1. Much better. Hitchhiker’s stayed good, arguably improved through the third book, but the fourth was just bad and the fifth marginally better. I haven’t read a bad Pratchett book from the mainline Discworld, but some have just been OK.

    2. Same kind of pythonesque humor (humour?) but I think DW has more to say about things.

      I probably laughed harder at particular moments in Hitchhikers than I ever did for DW, but there are some genuine touching moments in DW that don’t exist in any of Adams’ work.

  27. I haven’t read any Discworld books because I , mistakenly perhaps, think of them in the same genre as Anthony’s Xanth or Asprin’s Myth books, both of which I enjoyed as a teen but not so much when I re-read a few of them later. Anyone familiar with these works? If so am I off base here, are the Discworld books geared to an older reader than those others?

    1. Never read any Xanth but read some other Anthony. Read all the Myths (I think). Discworld is better, funnier, and different. Myth is more pure fantasy with a little comedy. You can start reading mainline DW books at least in your teens and still get most of it. Pratchett definitely got preachier in his middle/old age, but he was still fun and worth reading. Give one a try.

    2. Discworld is more sophisticated than Xanth, but in a similar vein maybe? Pratchett’s characters are much more human, and his plots are much less fairy-tale feeling. They’re probably closer to the Myth books. Actually, while we’re on Asprin, they’re probably closest to Thieves’ World in feeling and setting. Imagine a slightly dark comedy version of Thieves’ World and you’re pretty close.

    3. Discworld is a satirical fantasy version of Everyworld – generic enough that you can make connections to any real place if you think about it. The constant petty war that went on between backwater countries Borogravia and Moldavia until there were no men left. Genua and New Orleans. Quirm and France. I think the Ramtops was meant to be rural northern England and the fight for who gets to be Anhk-Morpork is wide open. Pratchett examined all sorts of issues; jingoism, journalistic integrity, diversity and a PC world, tyranny and The People, faith. And he set them in a nice safe fantasy world where he got to play with these issues. Grown-up shenanigans to be had by all.

      There are superficial resembleances to Xanth, and I only skimmed Asprin’s (couldn’t get into it). I know what you mean about Xanth. I grew out of my enjoyment of that series. But the last time I read the entire Discworld series was last October, and I’m 36. Clearly still a ToysRUs kid though.

  28. Sam Vimes is one of my favorite characters in fiction. This is what you’d like your cops to be: someone who ignores the small crimes because, as he points out repeatedly, every body is guilty of something. Instead he tries to keep the world from going hell, and just focusing on the big ones. Here’s a good quote to get a feel on his character:
    “Cheery was aware that Commander Vimes didn’t like the phrase ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’, believing the innocent had everything to fear, mostly from the guilty but in the longer term even more from those who say things like ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’.”

  29. How on Earth could you get libertarianism out of his novels? He had a novel basically about how wonderful it was to use paper fiat money, and his books were increasingly fascist (that government is wonderful if you have the right men in charge),

    I like his stuff, but libertarian it is not….

    1. He has a captain of the guard come out and say that banning weapons is stupid because all that happens is law-abiding citizens can’t protect themselves. Every example of government he gives either shows it as incompetent, corrupt, or outright evil; even Vetinari, who is the exception that proves the rule, is capricious and harsh. The overriding themes of many of his stories are the ultimate worth of the individual and the inherent goodness of individual liberty.

      Yeah, he wrote a book about fiat currency, but there’s nothing about fiat currency that runs against libertarianism. Not every libertarian is an Austrian; look at Milton Friedman. And, no offense, but I’ve read every one of the Discworld books and I fail to find anything in them that would be consider remotely fascist, nor do I think that they overly glorify government. If anything, their plots show the government being saved from disaster through the fortune of having the right person at the right place and right time. In other words, showing powerful government as precarious and always needing someone to save it.

    2. Always thought that the point of Making Money was that money(gold) isn’t wealth.

  30. I started reading his books from the very first until Wyrd Sisters and I just couldn’t get into that one very much. I remember a painfully forced recurring reference to Macbeth. I lost interest after that but I might get back into it based on the advice here.

  31. In one of the tribute columns put out yesterday it was mentioned that Terry had said that the Discworld was safe in his daughter’s hands.

    And I started to wonder if the Moist and Tiffany books might be examples of this.

    Anyone know?

  32. Registered just to say this:

    We are th Nac Mac Feegle! The Wee Free Men! Nae king! Nae quin! Nae laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled again


  33. pratchett really had a gift for summing up the human condition.

    ” The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it “

  34. He didn’t make me one, Lord knows I was already there, but he certainly reinforced why libertarianism made sense in a sea of lame ‘ism’s’ (thanks Ferris)

    I’ve never like Rand, but Pratchett SPEAKS to me.

    The Wambaugh (no higher praise) of libertarian tinged fiction was he

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