Diary

Heinlein, the failure of socialist economics and the dangers of an imbalance of authority to responsibility

He had been droning along about “value,” comparing the Marxist theory with the orthodox “use” theory. Mr. Dubois had said, “Of course, the Marxian definition of value is ridiculous. All the work one cares to add will not turn a mud pie into an apple tart; it remains a mud pie, value zero. By corollary, unskillful work can easily subtract value; an untalented cook can turn wholesome dough and fresh green apples, valuable already, into an inedible mess, value zero. Conversely, a great chef can fashion of tho sesame materials a confection of greater value than a commonplace apple tart,with no more effort than an ordinary cook uses to prepare an ordinary sweet.

“These kitchen illustrations demolish the Marxian theory of value –the fallacy from which the entire magnificent fraud of communism derives –and to illustrate the truth of the common-sense definition as measured interms of use.”

Dubois had waved his stump at us. “Nevertheless — wake up, back there!– nevertheless the disheveled old mystic of Das Kapital, turgid, tortured, confused, and neurotic, unscientific, illogical, this pompous fraud Karl Marx, nevertheless had a glimmering of a very important truth. If he had possessed an analytical mind, he might have formulated the first adequate definition of value . . . and this planet might have been saved endless grief.

“Or might not,” he added. “You!”

I had sat up with a jerk.

“If you can’t listen, perhaps you can tell the class whether `value’ is a relative, or an absolute?”

I had been listening; I just didn’t see any reason not to listen with eyes closed and spine relaxed. But his question caught me out; I hadn’t read that day’s assignment. “An absolute,” I answered, guessing.

“Wrong,” he said coldly. ” `Value’ has no meaning other than in relation to living beings. The value of a thing is always relative to a particular person, is completely personal and different in quantity for each living human — `market value’ is a fiction, merely a rough guess at the average of personal values, all of which must be quantitatively different or trade would be impossible.” (I had wondered what Father would have said if he had heard “market value” called a “fiction” — snort in disgust, probably.)

“This very personal relationship, `value,’ has two factors for a human being: first, what he can do with a thing, its use to him . . . and second, what he must do to get it, its cost to him. There is an old song which asserts that `the best things in life are free.’ Not true! Utterly false! This was the tragic fallacy which brought on the decadence and collapse ofthe democracies of the twentieth century; those noble experiments failed because the people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted . . . and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.

“Nothing of value is free. Even the breath of life is purchased at birth only through gasping effort and pain.” He had been still looking at me and added, “If you boys and girls had to sweat for your toys the way a newly born baby has to struggle to live you would be happier . . . and much richer. As it is, with some of you, I pity the poverty of your wealth. You!I’ve just awarded you the prize for the hundred-meter dash. Does it make you happy?”

“Uh, I suppose it would.”

“No dodging, please. You have the prize — here, I’ll write it out:`Grand prize for the championship, one hundred-meter sprint.’ ” He had actually come back to my seat and pinned it on my chest. “There! Are you happy? You value it — or don’t you?”

I was sore. First that dirty crack about rich kids — a typical sneer of those who haven’t got it — and now this farce. I ripped it off and chucked it at him.

Mr. Dubois had looked surprised. “It doesn’t make you happy?”

“You know darn well I placed fourth!”

“Exactly! The prize for first place is worthless to you . . . because you haven’t earned it. But you enjoy a modest satisfaction in placing fourth; you earned it. I trust that some of the somnambulists here understood this little morality play. I fancy that the poet who wrote that song meant to imply that the best things in life must be purchased other than with money — which is true — just as the literal meaning of his words is false. The best things in life are beyond money; their price is agony and sweat and devotion . . . and the price demanded for the most precious of all things in life is life itself — ultimate cost for perfect value.”

Robert A Heinlein, Starship Troopers

Allow me to add one other quote from later in the book:

Major Reid paused to touch the face of an old-fashioned watch, “reading” its hands. “The period is almost over and we have yet to determine the moral reason for our success in governing ourselves. Now continued success is never a matter of chance. Bear in mind that this is science, not wishful thinking; the universe is what it is, not what we want it to be. To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives — such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! — the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or by ten billion, political authority is force.”

“But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico.”

He had picked one I could answer. “Responsibility, sir.”

“Applause. Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal — else a balancing takes place as surely as current flows between points of unequal potential. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority . . . other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique`poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead — and responsibility was then forced on him willy-nilly and destroyed both him and his foundationless temple.”

“Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service — nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility — we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life — and lose it, if need be — to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert. Yin and yang, perfect and equal.”

Robert A Heinlein, Starship Troopers

After the election results of last year, I find myself more and more agreeing with both my father and Mr Heinlein that Universal Suffrage may have been a bad idea. Would limited franchise solve the issue of ignorant, apathetic wielders of the ultimate in authority? Or is this yet another step in the direction of tyranny, simply from another angle?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that this next year’s elections will determine for me whether I have any faith left in my fellow Americans. That faith has been so hard-shaken by what I’ve seen in the last year that it is in tatters. I am allowing myself to hope one last time in the freedom-loving nature of the American spirit, and that this spirit will turn up at the ballot box in 2010 to resoundingly put to death the idea that Americans want to be ruled. If that hope turns out to be in vain, I really don’t know what I’ll do.

I have a suspicion what my neighbors here in south Mississippi will do, though, and the word “uprising” doesn’t seem quite sufficient.