« Reading List: Sir, The Private Don't Know! | Main | Reading List: Time Reborn »

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reading List: Looking Backward: 2162-2012

Cody, Beth. Looking Backward: 2162–2012. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-7895-1.
Julian West was a professor of history at Fielding College, a midwestern U.S. liberal arts institution, where he shared the assumptions of his peers: big government was good; individual initiative was suspect; and the collective outweighed the individual. At the inauguration of a time capsule on the campus, he found himself immured within it and, after inhaling a concoction consigned to the future by the chemistry department, wakes up 150 years later, when the capsule is opened, to discover himself in a very different world.

The United States, which was the foundation of his reference frame, have collapsed due to unsustainable debt and entitlement commitments. North America has fragmented into a variety of territories, including the Free States of America, which include the present-day states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. The rest of the former U.S. has separated into autonomous jurisdictions with very different approaches to governance. The Republic of Texas has become entirely Texan, while New Hampshire has chosen to go it alone, in keeping with their porky-spine tradition. A rump USA, composed of failed states, continues to pursue the policies which caused the collapse of their railroad-era, continental-scale empire.

West returns to life in the Free States, which have become a classical libertarian republic as imagined by Rothbard. The federal government is supported only by voluntary contributions, and state and local governments are constrained by the will of their constituents. West, disoriented by all of this, is taken under the wing of David Seeton, a history professor at Fielding in the 22nd century, who welcomes West into his home and serves a guide to the new world in which West finds himself.

West and Seeton explore this world, so strange to West, and it slowly dawns on West (amidst flashbacks to his past life), that this might really be a better way of organising society. There is a great amount of preaching and didactic conversation here; while it's instructive if you're really interested in how a libertarian society might work, many may find it tedious.

Finally, West, who was never really sure his experience of the future mightn't have been a dream, has a dream experience which forces him to confront the conflict of his past and future.

This is a book I found both tiresome and enlightening. I would highly recommend it to anybody who has contemplated a libertarian society but dismissed it as “That couldn't ever work”. The author is clear that no solution is perfect, and that any society will reflect the flaws of the imperfect humans who compose it. The libertarian society is presented as the “least bad discovered so far”, with the expectation that free people will eventually discover even better ways to organise themselves. Reading this book is much like slogging through Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)—it takes some effort, but it's worth doing so. It is obviously derivative of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward which presented a socialist utopia, but I'd rather live in Cody's future than Bellamy's.

Posted at June 20, 2013 23:47