Interviews Science Fiction Author David Brin

David Brin is the author of science fiction novels The Postman, the Uplift series beginning with Sundiver, and others as well as the ever-popular nonfiction work, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?. He recently sat down with’s Tim Cavanaugh to discuss his recent criticisms of “dogmatic libertarians,” his hobbyhorse of government transparency, and the subject of uplifting dolphins.

I have much to say about Brin’s attacks on “dogmatic libertarians,” by which he means followers of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand who worship property too much, but watch the video first and then continue on below for my commentary.1

I’ll state right up front that I do not think of Brin as a libertarian, much less as a heretical one (as he describes himself). To the extent that he is right on anything, he’s not telling libertarians anything new. As for the rest, I’ve seen enough on his blog and various social networks to come to the conclusion that he doesn’t understand the actual positions held by principled libertarians (as opposed to the bizarre straw men he’s concocted and attributed to us) and that it’s impossible to carry on a civil, constructive conversation over the internet with him about libertarianism if you disagree with him on the subject. Although he says in the video that he doesn’t want to insult, after he’s already insulted, if you dare to challenge his views about “dogmatic libertarianism,” prepare to be mocked and insulted and misinterpreted and talked past.

Brin says, “The issue should not be government. It should not be unalloyed and unlimited idolatry of personal property,2  which is the path that the libertarian movement has gone down.”

I have no idea what he means by “unalloyed and unlimited idolatry of personal property”3 and I’ve yet to see him give a clear explanation of this magic-talisman phrase he bandies about like a Hammer of Refutation. I can’t imagine what problem he sees in upholding private property rights. He seems to think our “unalloyed and unlimited idolatry” somehow leads to oligarchy, but I’m at a loss as to how it is supposed to do so. I can only assume he thinks it means we must uphold “rights” to even unjustly acquired property, but this is simply not so.

The phrase is also code for “Hey, man, let’s be practical; sometimes one has to make compromises, break a few eggs to make an omelette.” Those who want government solutions to perceived problems hate it when libertarians stand on principle and refuse to budge. It drives them into uncivilized fits of apoplectic, frothing rage.

Brin also seems to think that so-called “dogmatic libertarians” have lost sight of the importance of competition and transparency and whatnot. Uh… No. No, we haven’t. I don’t know where he gets this stuff from. We see private property rights as making fair and creative competition possible in the first place; and we value fair and creative competition greatly, especially those of us who see intellectual property as illegitimate government grants of monopoly privilege that can only be enforced by infringing on the pre-existing rights of others to their physical property.

“Libertarians need to be reminded that, across 6,000 years, the greatest enemy of free enterprise, of market enterprise, innovation, creative competition… have always been oligarchs,” says Brin.

No… No, we don’t. But mayhaps you need to be reminded that all forms of government, not just the one labeled oligarchy, are ultimately ruled by oligarchs. It’s in the nature of the state. You know… that organization you said we shouldn’t concern ourselves with. Theory and history show us that it is through the state that oligarchs acquire and exercise their power. Without it, they are impotent. It is the state, always ruled by oligarchs, that has been the greatest enemy of free markets, free enterprise, innovation, and fair and creative competition.

The Pyramid of Oligarchy

The Pyramid of Oligarchy

In the video, Brin lays out a plan to rein in government growth, corruption, and “abuse.” Here’s a summary: Let’s draft 10,000 average Americans into a pool every year. Excuse Brin’s poor choice of words; this “draft” is one that can be refused without penalty (although an opt-out system is an unnecessary hassle for people and is frowned upon by savvy Netizens). We’ll then do background checks on this pool of candidates to winnow it down to a list 1,000 trustworthy, loyal citizens who can keep their mouths shut. Give them security clearances and arm them with a badge that let’s them get in any door in the United States of America — you read that right, any door. They are tasked with watching the watchmen. There will be penalties for revealing “anything about anything the’ve seen.” Brin suggests a mere month in jail. The idea being that spending a month in jail will be a price worth paying to patriots in order to bring truly heinous acts of government out into the light so that they can be stopped.

What was interviewer Tim Cavanaugh’s response to all this? “Huh. Okay.”

That’s it?

This didn’t immediately strike him as a terrible idea? He didn’t think or, better yet, say: “Gee, this can’t possibly go wrong.” Not a single problem with the proposed system immediately sprang to mind that he could ask Brin to address? Or did Cavanaugh just not want to ask the celebrity any tough questions?

I’ll just toss a few ideas off the top of my head into the ring for consideration:

  1. Who is going to administer this new system of citizen-watchmen — the lottery for the draft, the background checks, security clearance decisions, and so on? Oh, that’s right — the government. Despite Brin’s talk about non-governmental, or market, solutions to problems, his proposal is a government solution to a government problem (government failure).  What? You need me to flesh the implications out for you? Okay…
  2. It means the creation of a new bureaucracy or ratcheting up an exsiting one. Either way, a WIN for big government and more spending! That’s what we libertarians are fighting for!
  3. Who’s to say the penalty won’t be ratcheted up over time like the income tax? Thus decreasing the risk to government officials that their secrets will get out?
  4. The selection process couldn’t possibly be rigged or gamed, could it?
  5. No citizen-watchman would ever take a bribe to keep quiet,  surely.
  6. Or stay mum in the face of threats to himself or his family… right?
  7. Brin’s proposed system entails acclimating Americans to increased government surveillance of and deep-probing into their public and private lives. Oh, and revisit #4-6 in light of this. Worse, it might come to be seen as a patriotic duty to accept such scrutiny from the government.
  8. Brin says there will be penalties for revealing “anything about anything the’ve seen.” I hope he’s only referring to classified or top secret, not unclassified, information here. Let’s take him charitably and assume he is; how much do you want to bet that this will lead to more and more aspects of government becoming classified so as to have the threat of the penalty for revealing what is seen hanging over the citizen-watchmen’s heads for matters of less and less importance to the “national interest”?
  9. The system Brin proposes is likely to make people more complacent about government in the same way and for the same reasons that democracy fools them into believing they’re ultimately in charge and that regulations encourage them to abdicate responsibility for the quality of the goods and services they buy, for their own safety and security and that of their families, and so on. “Hey, man, there’s a system in place to make sure our representives and public servants do what they’re tasked with doing and to weed out corruption and bad secret policies and stuff. They have enough volunteers. I don’t need to waste my valuable  Celebrity Apprentice–watching time 4 worrying about it. Did you see what happened last night? Aubrey O’Day is soooo right. She’s the only one with any talent on her team. Nobody else every has a creative.”5
  10. Brin doesn’t  mention monetary compensation for being a citizen-watchman. Is it likely that as many as 1 in 10 draftees will not only accept being drafted but pass the background checks to qualify for a security clearance? A much larger pool than 10,000 might be needed. And might there not be a selection bias in who chooses to accept the responsibility after being drafted? No potential for abuse there?
  11. What if the citizen-watchmen are generally okay with things libertarians would deem heinous? In light of the direction this country has been headed lo the past couple centuries, this isn’t much of a stretch, is it?
  12. Brin says that citizen-watchmen will be able to get into any door in the United States. Any door. I hope he means any government door, not really any door.
  13. Let’s face it, Brin’s proposal is a pipe dream. The Powers That Be will never let it happen and the American people are not really interested in that level of transparency in their government — not enough to make Brin’s plan a reality, at least. And Brin has the gall to mock and blame “dogmatic libertarians,” the lapel-grabbing (lolwut?) Rothbardian and Randian wing of the movement, for the Libertarian Party failing to make headway (more than 1%) at the polls in presidential elections.
  14. Brin’s citizen-watchman program will be funded by taxes, and taxation is theft. Oh, sorry, did I grab your lapels too hard?6

I could go on, but what’s the point of continuing to kick a dead horse?

[Prometheus Unbound]

  1. It’s heartening to see that the video on YouTube has more dislikes than likes at the moment. 

  2. The transcript has the words “unalloyed” and “unlimited” in the wrong order. 

  3. What do “unalloyed” and “unlimited” even mean in this context? Can there be alloyed and limited idolatry of personal property? 

  4. Bread and circuses! Bread and circuses! 

  5. My wife subjects me to Trump’s insipid Celebrity Apprentice show on Sundays. We both can’t stand that obnoxious, narcissistic, conniving, overhyped “reality”-pop-star twit. Fire her already! And WTF is “a creative.” The word is an adjective, not a noun! 

  6. I would have placed this item in the #2 position but wanted to make a joke about the lapel thing and it needed context. Again, lolwut? 

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • I agree. He’s a pontificating muddled thinker with his own utopian visions.

  • It is really a shame that this gentleman obviously hasn’t read Rothbard or understood Rand. It’s also a shame that he doesn’t understand reality. I’m surprised no one noticed the reasoning he believes this is possible in the long run though. He thinks we can simply pick up ‘God’s’ tools and become co-creators. I guess only people with such enlightened understanding and vision, such as Brin, can comprehend the possibilities of this though.

    My favorite part is how much he loved speaking in latin, it gave him such pleasure to bask in himself. The only reason he wants watchmen is so that some one will watch him and the only reason he would advocate for private property in the slightest is to keep his mirror.

    I am really, really, ticked that reason was up his butt and not lighting a fire under it. One less site to view.

    • Almost left out;

      If you get to say, 25, without ever having to compete. What makes you think you will be able to do so? That isn’t fair, it’s regressive.

  • I am no libertarian (that’s a discussion for another time) but I agree that arguing with him is an exercise in frustration. Disagree on him on anything and before you know it, you are either a fool or a wicked feudalist (and he knows zero history about the Middle Ages and what Feudalism was, but that does not stop him from pontificating. Offer him data that does not agree with his theories, and you are ranting and a sicko.

    Much worse, in my foolishness I once quoted Alexander Solzhenytsin to him. Because Solzhenytsin did not agree with him about Democracy then he was a Wicked Feudalist and deserved no respect. The idea that the Gulag was NOT the best place to learn Political Science did not penetrate him, and the realization that the only experience Russia had with democracy had proved very fragile and run over by the bolsheviqs – and the might prefer a more robust system did not count. Solzhentysin did not worship Brin’s idols so he must be anathema.

    Boy, I am glad that he cannot found a religion, or we’d all find ourselves at the stake..