The moon is a harsh mistress – review

Tyler Cowen has a review of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.  That reminded me that I wrote a review of that excellent book some years ago for the 100 Great Books of Liberty.


Science fiction has an unfortunate reputation.  While much of this reputation is well deserved, there are many authors and books well worth reading.  Good authors are able to explore issues of society and civilisation unconstrained by our own unique history and preconceptions.  There is so much more to science fiction than just “Boys Own” tales.  Good science fiction allows the author to go beyond the comfortable and known and explore all aspects of the human condition.  For example, Robert Heinlein has explored both libertarianism and militarianism in his novels.

Heinlein’s 1966 novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress contains a simple story.  Facing an ecological disaster, the Luna colonists rise up against the Luna Authority and establish a libertarian society.  In many respects the story is a replay of the American Revolution.  Indeed, the characters in the novel acknowledge the similarities.  This classic contains many of the features of early science fiction – talking computers and beautiful girls.  Yet, Harsh Mistress is not just a pulp sci-fi novel.

Many of the principles and themes of classical liberalism are highlighted in the novel.  We’re told “like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master”.  In the book, Heinlein invented the acronym TANSTAAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Further, Heinlein illustrates many economic issues, especially those associated with the public choice school.  Revolution has public good characteristics – society at large shares the benefits, if any, of revolution while the revolutionaries bear all the costs.  In other words, there is far less revolution than what is economically efficient.  Yet we never hear of government wanting to subsidise revolutionary activity – not in their own country.  Mannie – the narrator – is the effective leader of the revolution.  He has to be cajoled into being leader.

Mannie, the reluctant revolutionary, is a product one-armed computer technician who has stumbled across the key to the revolution.  The Luna Authority computer – Mike – has become sentient and is bored.  Of course, jaded readers may be sceptical of this plot device, yet it is an important feature of the whole story.  Mike solves the coordination problem that all revolutionaries face.  Maintaining secrecy and a coherent structure is a key problem faced by all revolutionaries.  Having the Authority’s own computer system sentient and on-side allows the revolution to proceed.  It also solves other problems – for example, Mannie and his colleagues are able to use Mike to finance the revolution through financial fraud.  Nothing quite as vulgar as blackmail or armed robbery.

The major contribution, however, is the exploration of classical liberal themes.  The opening line tells of the outrageous development whereby the Luna City Council would be taxing public food vendors.  After the revolution, Prof – the major libertarian character – opines “do not resort to compulsory taxation. There is no worse tyranny than to force a man to pay for what he does not want merely because you think it would be good for him”.  When asked how the revolutionaries would pay for the revolution, he answers, “At least, in stealing, we have not created the villainous precedent of taxation”.

Prof also poses the question, “under what circumstances may the State justly place its welfare above that of a citizen?”  Mannie replies, “[there] are no circumstances under which [the] State is justified in placing its welfare ahead of mine”.  As another character points out that is a very self-centred approach.  Some might argue that if we were all so selfish, society would break down and anarchy would prevail.  Well, no.  Heinlein describes a society where people are very selfish, yet self-interest leads to cooperation and trade.  This occurs spontaneously even before the revolution.

The key to this cooperation is the maxim “mind own business”.  The characters follow that maxim.  Justice on Luna is privatised and judgement summary.  Individuals contract with each other to form courts and juries.  Some specialise in being private judges.  Our narrator finds himself being a judge when he visits an absent friend – a judge – who has waiting customers.  Minor crimes are dealt with via fines, major crimes result in the perpetrator being shoved out an airlock.  Overall, Heinlein describes a society that works well.

Women are in short-supply on Luna.  This results in unusual marriage customs – polyandry and clan marriages.  Mannie, on a visit to Earth, is arrested and charged with bigamy, polygamy, and incitement.  Heinlein’s original audience may not have realised the significance of this part of the novel.  Mannie’s extended family does provide a source of in-the-know background characters.  Marriage is described as the best social institution for preserving capital and providing for the welfare of children.  Heinlein also, correctly, argues that social institutions adapt to the economic necessities of the environment.  Divorce while easy is uncommon.  The Luna Authority does not regulate marriage.  Contrast that with the current situation where any manner of cohabitation is legal, but the State maintains a very strong hold on marriage licenses.

One issue that Heinlein does bring up but doesn’t explore is the notion of monarchy.  An Australian character, Stuart Rene Lajoie, is a monarchist classical liberal.  This notion isn’t as outlandish as it might seem, yet it is unfortunate that Heinlein doesn’t explore the issue at any length.  Science fiction author David Weber in his 2003 novel Crown of Slaves does explore monarchy as a viable system of government from a classical liberal perspective.  Friedrich von Hayek has warned against Cartesian rationalism – the notion that all aspects of human experience can be understood.  This form of rationalism leads people to reject anything they cannot understand.  Classical liberals often fall into this trap.  Prof tells the post-revolution congress to “Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional …”.  Good advice, to be sure, yet there is much good to be learnt from the traditional.

To sum up, this is fine book.  Many of the important classical liberal ideas and ideals are expressed in an entertaining way.  Some readers might find the prose difficult – there are no articles of speech, but young readers should enjoy it.

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8 Responses to The moon is a harsh mistress – review

  1. eb

    I enjoyed it, and I’m no longer young. One of the things I’m doing, as many on this blog in retirement phase seem to be doing as well, is catch up on the reading I’ve been wanting to do for years. My main focus being sci-fi.

  2. anonandon

    Thanks Sinc. Makes a refreshing change to arguing over personalities and politics. Some of the greatest books ever written are science fiction.

  3. Roger

    Yet we never hear of government wanting to subsidise revolutionary activity – not in their own country.

    What do you think subsidies for renewables are?

    And that’s just one of many examples of how public money is used to fund the Prog-Left’s subversive agenda.

    The revolution is being subsidised…with our taxes!

  4. Senile Old Guy

    It is an excellent book and one which I reread at intervals. Another, by him, addressing similar themes, but with a different focus, is Methuselah’s Children, which I also recommend.

  5. Ainsley H

    Thanks for the post, it’s a great book by a fantastic free thinker.

    I read Farnham’s Freehold earlier this year. It’s set in a very nasty dystopian future and as usual reveals Heinlein’s pre-occupation with how men and women grok each other. Or not as it were.
    I loved Podkayne of Mars as a kid and so years ago I simply liberated all of my brother’s sci fi permanently. As sci fi wandered off into fantasy, I decamped for a few years but came back around by reading the brilliant ones like Bob again. Heinlein is really useful for keeping your sanity intact.

  6. DM OF WA

    Heinlein also wrote science fiction aimed at younger readers, which is how I discovered him.
    I instantly became a fan after reading Star Beast and Tunnel in the Sky borrowed from the junior fiction section of my local library.

    I enjoyed reading everything he wrote until I read Time Enough for Love and Stranger in a Strange Land; both disappointed me to sufficiently to stop reading Heinlein for a long time.

    More recently, after despairing of present day science fiction, I have gone back to re-reading old favourites. (Even found Time Enough for Love much more readable second time around.)

  7. DM OF WA

    I forgot to say: I do feel that that Heinlein’s political and philosophical views as expressed in his books probably influenced me as a young person.

  8. Eyrie

    Mrs Eyrie once said to me “Robert and Virginia didn’t have kids, did they?”
    I replied that they had a lot of children, really.
    For later Heinlein read “Friday”.

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