When Heinlein Was A Liberal


I have to admit, the book For Us, The Living by Robert Heinlein is a real puzzle.  As a piece of science fiction literature it is an obvious failure from the standpoint of story telling.  It is more of a lecture with a story to fill in the blank spots.  The lecture however is even more disappointing because of the fact it is loaded with liberal tones and to be honest seems very anti-libertarian because of the government being the source of all prosperity.

The economic system proposed is one where each person gets a check from the government and then spends it on their needs.  The system that Heinlein proposes is even backed by a game that the characters not only play in the book but the system is given as an appendix so the reader can try it out themselves.  I did try it once and it does indeed work but it has some fatal flaws; the greatest of which is rampant government spending.  It also has the flaw of thinking that economics is a closed system.  You really cannot create wealth in the system when you look at it nor does it take the creation of wealth into account.

The greatest flaw of the whole book is not the discussion of economics so much as a belief in human nature.  The book seems to say if people did not have to worry about their financial needs, they would naturally want to work and produce for enjoyment sake alone.  With our current welfare state, this does not work out to well.  If we have learned anything about just giving money to non-producers, it is that it encourages more non-production.  Need; like it or not, is what propels people to act and work.

The other part of human nature I don’t buy in this book is that how someday psychology will rid the world of jealousy, greed, strife, etc.  So far, this is still a fantasy.  All these emotions may simply be a part of human makeup because of the needs of humans to survive.  While I respect Heinlein’s belief that man if left to himself can do great things, I reject the idea of some sort of psychological utopia.  That better belongs to the unrealistic Star Trek fantasy.  Great entertainment but not a possible reality.

The book was originally rejected and Heinlein did not resubmit it in his lifetime.  It was eventually published posthumously.  I often wonder if an older, wiser Robert Heinlein decided it was a failure on a lot of levels for himself.  I wonder if he looked at it and said: “Oh My God!  What an idiot I was!”  I personally think it did do his writing some good.  Stop lecturing and start storytelling was a lesson I believe he learned there.  Sift the philosophy in subtlety and tell a damn good story instead.  In the end this played out very well over a great and wonderful career.

It seems in the final analysis, that For Us, The Living was the failure that Heinlein needed to learn from to ultimately be successful.  It moved him from trying to hit the home run right out the gate to the simple success of building his craft over time.  The home runs came later but they were far more significant and it was probably because of this failure. Utopia is nice, but in the end it never happens.  Heinlein learned this lesson in this book from a lot of standpoints and it in many ways became a turning point of sorts for him.  A good turning point, I might add.

7 thoughts on “When Heinlein Was A Liberal

  1. Heinlein did not embrace his conservative and libertarian values until after he met Virginia. She helped him grow out of the socialist fantasy of his youth. As Churchill once said, “Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains.”

    1. Based on the Churchill quote then I have always been a heartless bastard. Liberalism never appealed to me even as young man. It seemed so vacant of common sense.

    1. All fiction writers lecture to a point, it is how they do it that matters. In For Us, The Living they are parts of conversations and the thoughts of the main character and they are long. In Harsh Mistress, they are much the same but much shorter and actually deal with the plot many times. This demonstrates growth in Heinlein the writer. Learning to say some of the same stuff quickly with more creativity in how you do it is the mark of a maturing writer.

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