In the year 2076, the inhabitants of a prison colony on the moon rebel and demand their freedom, sparking a war for independence against all of Earth.

This is the story of Robert Heinlein’s classic novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. My message to you today is simple: don’t miss this book. Not only is it a gripping story, it is also an intriguing examination of government, governance, and politics. There is a lot to be learned about liberty here.

The book explores anarchism deeply throughout. Because the “Loonies” (the moon is known as “Luna”) are convicts or the descendants of convicts, and because they cannot escape Luna without boarding one of the government’s ships, the official government — the Lunar Authority, set up by the rulers on Earth — does not do much at all.

But in such a hostile physical environment, order is essential, and the Loonies have worked out for themselves a functioning system of governance without government, of rules without legislation.

The details are intriguing. Their courts, for example, are ad hoc. There is a very memorable trial for a tourist from Earth who violated a Lunar sexual custom.

And the revolutionaries debate anarchism among themselves, as in the following exchange from early in the story:

“I’m a rational anarchist.”

“I don’t know that brand. Anarchist individualist, anarchist Communist, Christian anarchist, philosophical anarchist, syndicalist, libertarian — those I know. But what’s this? Randite?”

“I can get along with a Randite. A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world … aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”

“Hear, hear!” I said. “‘Less than perfect.’ What I’ve been aiming for all my life.”

“You’ve achieved it,” said Wyoh. “Professor, your words sound good but there is something slippery about them. Too much power in the hands of individuals — surely you would not want … well, H-missiles, for example — to be controlled by one irresponsible person?”

“My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist, and they do, some man controls them. In terms of morals, there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”

“Anybody need a refill?” I asked.

Nothing uses up alcohol faster than political argument. I sent for another bottle.

The book is sprinkled delightfully with allusions to history, political philosophy, and even the Bible, particularly in the words of the leader of the revolutionaries, old Professor Bernardo de la Paz (the “rational anarchist” in the exchange above). Here are a few I noticed (how many have I missed?). I leave it to the reader (with the help of Google) to attempt to identify the particular originals alluded to:

“We shall fight them on the surface, we shall fight them in the tubes, we shall fight them in the corridors! If die we must, we shall die free!”

Yes! Ja-da! Tell ’em, tell ’em!”

“And if we die, let history write: This was Luna’s finest hour! Give us liberty … or give us death!

Some of that sounded familiar. But his words came out fresh and new. I joined in the roars.

[Winston Churchill (twice); Patrick Henry (once)]

“Comrade members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. You are now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant.

[George Washington and Benjamin Franklin]

He took me up on that high mountain and offered me the kingdoms of Earth. Or of Luna. Take job of “Protector Pro Tem” with [the] understanding [it] was mine permanently if I could deliver. Convince Loonies they could not win. Convince them that this new setup was to their advantage — emphasize benefits, free schools, free hospitals, free this and that — details later but an everywhere government just like on Terra.

[Matthew]

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966, when the despots in and apologists for the Soviet Union were still claiming the productive superiority of Marxist “scientific” central planning, five year plans, conscript labor, indoctrination, and collectivization. Heinlein scorned it all.

This passage comes during the negotiations between the Federated Nations of Earth and Luna’s ambassadors, before war breaks out:

“Hearing” was one-sided; we listened while chairman talked. Talked an hour; I’ll summarize:

Our preposterous claims were rejected. Lunar Authority’s sacred trust could not be abandoned. Disorders on Earth’s Moon could not be tolerated. Moreover, recent disorders showed that Authority had been too lenient. Omission was now to be corrected by an activist program, a five-year plan in which all phases of life in Authority’s trusteeship would be overhauled. A code of laws was being drafted; civil and criminal courts would be instituted for benefit of “client-employees” — which meant all persons in trust area, not just consignees with uncompleted sentences. Public schools would be established, plus indoctrinal adult schools for client-employees in need of same.…

Was ready to burn his ears off. “Client-employees!” What a fancy way to say “slaves.”

In my favorite passage, which provoked a lot of thinking in me when I first read it some 30 years ago, Professor de la Paz advises the Constitutional Convention drafting a plan for Luna’s government.

“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent. The more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.…

But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies … no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation … no involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.

“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.”

There is a lot more great stuff in this speech and throughout The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Don’t miss it.