In 1990, the science-fiction writer, Larry Niven, wrote a short story titled, “The Return of William Proxmire.” In the story, the Wisconsin senator schemes to stop billions of dollars from being spent on space research by going back in time to cure Robert A. Heinlein of tuberculosis. For Senator Proxmire, the idea is simple: If Heinlein had stayed in the Navy instead of having been medically discharged, he would never have gone on to write numerous science-fiction novels that inspired the public to want their tax dollars appropriated to NASA.
It is only a story, obviously, but even in Niven’s work of fiction, Senator Proxmire misunderstands the legacy of Robert A. Heinlein. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke would have been far more appropriate as targets in Proxmire’s scheme. While Heinlein may indeed have been a catalyst for publicly-funded space research, he was a libertarian and thus a proponent of privately-financed space travel endeavors. While there are certainly instances of publicly-funded space expeditions in Heinlein’s stories, in many of his writings he also has characters finance their own voyages to the stars. Heinlein shows in his storytelling that space travel does not need to be spearheaded by government–and therefore perhaps nothing does.
The most obvious example is The Man Who Sold the Moon and its follow-up short story, “Requiem.” In these stories, Heinlein’s main character, D.D. Harriman, is a tycoon who dreams of owning the moon and selling properties on it as a for-profit real estate venture. Harriman’s lofty ambition is to develop a space travel mission from scratch to beat his rivals to the moon. Spending only his own money and assembling the best team of scientists and engineers he can find, Harriman is not only successful at getting his team up there, but also at selling lunar property and profiting from eager colonists. It is Harriman, the financier and dreamer, who is the celebrated founder of the lunar colony, not the elite scientists or engineers.
Another example is Heinlein’s early novel, Rocketship Gallileo. In this tale, Dr. Cargraves, a physicist, modifies a rocket with the sole purpose of using it to fly to the moon. Dr. Cargraves finances his voyage out of his own pocket. While Heinlein may have put too much faith in the powers of the entrepreneurial spirit, his lessons about individual vigor are nevertheless a badly-needed alternative to the misguided framework that we need a government to facilitate innovation and advancement.
It seems that Heinlein’s early political philosophy was that of John Locke with a dose of Aristotle added. He believed that a man’s mind and labor entitles him to not only a piece of the earth, but also to the heavens beyond the earth. In stories like The Roads Must Roll, Heinlein presents a vision of a well-ordered society that bases a citizen’s socioeconomic status on the extent of his personal contributions. In books such as Beyond This Horizon and Starship Troopers, he goes further and defines the requirement of citizenship as one’s willingness to defend the state against its would-be conquerors. Although he may have exaggerated the issue in these two books, the general principle is still correct.
But that is not the only evidence of Heinlein’s Lockean tendencies. One year after William Golding published The Lord of the Flies, Heinlein answered Golding’s Hobbesian cynicism in 1955 with a far more optimistic vision of youthful virtue in The Tunnel in the Sky. Similar to Golding in his novel, Heinlein envisions young characters isolated from authority, but in Heinlein’s version, the teenagers are alone on a distant planet, not an island. Unlike Lord of the Flies, it is a story not of downfall but of triumph. In order to solve Earth’s problem of overpopulation, the youngsters are sent to the primitive, barren planet via teleportation to colonize and develop a prosperous civilization that is advanced enough to trade economically with the people back on Earth. By accident, several of them are marooned together away from the rest of the group; while conflicts emerge among them and budding tyrants threaten the peace, the young characters create their own ad hoc leadership structure. Whereas Golding’s tale assumes that young castaways would decline into primitive barbarism, Heinlein did not believe such a situation would be so nasty, brutish, and short. These boys, he insisted, would rise to the occasion with aplomb and survive together as free individuals.
Before Heinlein delved into writing about more erotic themes in his later works, he wrote The Tunnel in the Sky, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel, Starman Jones, and many other juvenile science-fiction books in the 1950s. At this time, people were far more skeptical than today about the ability of boys to act like responsible men. In his early writings he understood better than most people seem to today, in fact, that responsibility comes not by the instincts implanted by human nature but through the cultivation of certain virtues. As a prolific contributor of science-fiction adventure serials like these for young readers to magazines such as Boy’s Life, Heinlein sought to teach young boys about the virtues required for citizenship and survival: honesty, integrity, and a passion to live freely and honorably.
Nor did Heinlein insult the intelligence of the young by indulging them, as J.D. Salinger did in Catcher in the Rye, and as Jack Kerouac and the beat writers did, with discursive, half-baked blarney about “youth angst.” Heinlein insisted on respecting the pluck and perfectibility of the young.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.