Friday, March 01, 2013

Looking Backwards, then down. Deep down.

It started as a poorly-focused libertarian project built around promoting the work of a single individual, but became something much worse. Naming any of the players involved would be unprofessional, but for the sake of simplicity, I call the entire fiasco "The Freepublican Job."

Part of the reading materials for the job was Looking Backward: 2012-2162. It was based on another book, Looking Backward: 2000-1887, apparently a seminal liberal work I wasn't familiar with. Both books are centered around characters who find themselves thrown forward in time to see a world improved by the writer's ideology, with the latter being a libertarian ideology.

It would be easy to call it a bad book; the story is sparse, there's no conflict, the ending is inevitable, and it's not very original. There's a conversation to be had about writing stories that aren't supposed to be good stories, but now isn't the time.

Looking Backward: 2012-2162 is the story of a textbook liberal college professor who's locked in a time capsule and wakes up in a libertarian wonderland occupies thirteen of the fractured states of america. He tours his new world, learns about the foibles of the old one, and raises faint arguments that the ultimate, liberated people of the future bat aside with condescension.

There are good ideas put forward, but they're not unique to the philosophy. Common sense immigration, art divested of golden calves, and a lack of warfare aren't concepts that people are going to rail against.

The rest of the world works, as written. That's not an endorsement of Looking Backward's message; it presumes that the actors within this society are incredibly moral, endowed with amazing technologies, and perfectly informed. While I can get behind the creation of suspended animation as an accident, more than a throwaway line about the internet is required to address how people are informed in this world. Neglecting the discussion of the role of media is unthinkable in 2012.

Any society works well if people have integrity, which seems to have escaped Beth Cody's notice. That's not entirely a fair criticism because demonstrating a model of your philosophy in action is undermined by tearing open its conceptual faults. Looking Backwards addresses some of those flaws, but without any critical depth that indicates a deeper understanding of why it fails or even succeeds.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than when it covers the issue of the tendency for the market to fail to address non-immediate, existential threats like global warming. If a people collectively believe a threat is real, they can chip in together and fund the endeavor they personally feel will best address the threat. The rub is that most people who have temporal power don't sacrifice it because one day there might be a problem for someone else. They'll cling to any doubt about it's reality for as long as they can, sometimes even after its too late. Looking Backward could say that global warming was solved when people looked at hard data, cinched their belts, and developed a vaguely-defined technology to solve the problem without governments.

It could say that, but it doesn't. Instead, the vision presented for how libertarianism addresses these non-immediate threats is to say that global warming doesn't exist because it was part of a massive conspiracy by scientists and the government. It's gratifying to have the problems with the universe presented in the form of the author acting them out on a meta-level, but it's ultimately depressing. I wanted a tour of a libertarian utopia without going "full Rand," and I was sorely disappointed.

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