NEWS | Interviews David Brin Image

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 time4 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?


  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? 

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About the Author

Geoffrey Allan Plauché Executive Editor

Geoffrey is an Aristotelian-Liberal political philosopher, an adjunct instructor for Buena Vista University, the founder and executive editor of Prometheus Unbound, and the webmaster of The Libertarian Standard. His work has appeared in Libertarian Papers, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, the Journal of Value Inquiry, and Transformers and Philosophy. He lives in Edgewood, KY with his wife and two children.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Andy Cleary May 1, 2012 @ 1:59 pm | Link

    When I engaged with David about this stuff on his blog, the only thing I could get him to concretely say that he would do to combat this “oligarchy”stuff was to have much higher inheritance taxes… how is that libertarian again? And what evidence does he give to suggest that this will halt the “6,000 years of oligarchy propped up by worship of property” or whatever the hell he calls it? He offers none.

    It’s too bad, because my sense is that “transparency” would have a large role to play in AnCapistan: there would be strong incentives and rewards for players in certain industries to choose to be very transparent, much more transparent than they currently are, since “trust” would play such a large economic role sans the force of the state particularly for providers of what are currently “core” government services like regulation, justice/arbitration, legislation, and protection. So in this sense I’m slightly drawn to his work on transparency. But given his completely garbled thought processes on libertarianism, I find myself unable to pick up his works of fiction…

    • Matthew Alexander May 2, 2012 @ 9:50 pm | Link

      I think you’re right about transparency, Andy.

      I form a definite opinion about people who won’t be precise in their terms or clear in their meaning, especially when they use them again and again over a period of time.

  • Dean Wilson May 26, 2012 @ 4:19 pm | Link

    This is somehow unsurprising from the author of The Postman, in which what post-apocalyptic citizens of Oregon needed was the illusion of a Federal government mail system to rally their spirits and overcome rogue super-veterans.


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