A criticism of Heinlein’s meritocratic aristocracy

This summary of the politics in Starship Troopers doesn’t do it justice, but it should refresh your memory of the key points if you’ve already read it. And if you haven’t read it…well, it’s got tons of action and insight porn, and it’s not very long.


Starship Troopers seems to have been meant as a political essay as well as a novel. Large portions of the book take place in classrooms, with Rico and other characters engaged in debates with their History and Moral Philosophy teacher, who is often thought[19] to represent Heinlein’s opinion.[19]

The overall theme of the book is that social responsibility requires individual sacrifice. Heinlein’s Terran Federation is a limited democracy, with aspects of a meritocracy in regard to full citizenship. Suffrage can only be earned by at least two years of volunteer Federal Service [“the franchise is today limited to discharged veterans”, (ch. XII)], instead of, as Heinlein would later note, anyone “…who is 18 years old and has a body temperature near 37 °C”[20] The Federation is required to find a place for anyone who desires to serve, regardless of skill or aptitude (this also includes service ranging from teaching to dangerous non-military work such as serving as experimental medical test subjects to military service).

There is an explicit contrast to the “democracies of the 20th century”, which according to the novel, collapsed because “people had been led to believe that they could simply vote for whatever they wanted… and get it, without toil, without sweat, without tears.”[21] Indeed, Colonel Dubois criticizes the famous U.S. Declaration of Independence line concerning “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as unrealistic.

Wiki [Ed: Paragraphs added for readability]

Overall, I think this is not a bad system for the population scale we’re working at these days, which something like loose confederations of nation states. The military folks seem pretty well taken with it. The problem is that it provides strong incentives for a specific parasitical behavior to which humans are already well-disposed.

Naturally, I’m speaking of the dissonance between the sentiment that “the noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and war’s desolation,” and the fact that no one who actually does this survives to vote. Sure, we want to give political power to the guy whose virtuous character would lead him to jump on a grenade to save his buddies and protect his nations. But the fact remains that if he actually does jump on a grenade, his vote ceases to matter. It’s the ones who didn’t jump on the grenade who call the shots later.

For example, see the story of Pat Tillman. From what I can tell, he was the third-best person to have ever lived, after Jesus and John the Baptist. I would happily elect him dictator for life and strap him down to the throne so he couldn’t get out of it. But he wouldn’t get the vote, because he put himself in harm’s way one time too many. The guys sitting behind desks in Colorado, clicking in drone strikes and cross-referencing citizen profiles in NSA Access still get to vote.

You might think I’m being too cynical…child, remember we’re talking about politics here. What we’re looking at is a systemic mismatch between intentions and incentives.

A leader says “follow me”

That is the slogan of 2MARDIV, the 2nd Marine Division. One of my prize possessions is the division history my grandfather gave me. One thing it mentions in explaining the slogan is that there is an inverse relationship between high casualty rates for commissioned officers and low casualty rates for enlisted men.

Vox Day
Comment: Well done, Dread Ilk

Ah, now you’re starting to understand where I’m going with this.

As I mentioned above, the fact of the matter is that there are always going to be people joining up who are not made of the right stuff. Such people tend to be pretty shy about real, actual danger, although they turn are very interested in uniforms, medals, and bullet points. (This turns out to be such a great rule of thumb that it scales up: The side with the fanciest uniforms loses..) Combine this with the tradition of aristocratic classes buying commissions as a last-ditch prestige play for sons who are overexcitable or unpromising or both. (Sure, there are aristocrats and there are aristocrats, and every military needs some of the latter, but we’re talking about a known predisposition here.)

Now, add this political incentive and we’re looking at a very predictable, very nasty feedback loop. The political elite will use their power to secure safe commissions for the sons of their class, while severely raising the risks of death for the enlisted. Thus the politically powerful will survive at higher rates, and accrue more political power, which they will use to make military life even cushier for their sons. (The names and justifications may change, but it will always be true that the officer-enlisted divide is fundamentally a class distinction.)

This tendency to prefer cowardly soldiers is not necessarily going to produce the reasonable national attitude toward war that Heinlein was going for- although perhaps not exactly the opposite. Do you believe that the average military person who has never seen combat is going to have a less idealistic disposition to it than a civilian? I figure it comes out about the same, all things considered.

Not saying the problem couldn’t be fixed. Probably could be with a small modification or two. Ah well, it’s unlikely this is going to matter. Could pull a decent short story out of it though, I’ll warrant.

About Aeoli Pera

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15 Responses to A criticism of Heinlein’s meritocratic aristocracy

  1. Edenist whackjob says:

    The casualty rate in modern war is not high enough to serve as a meaningful filter, I think. Even if the desirable group is more impacted by it. The problem is more that the desirable group is much smaller than the nondesirable group to begin with. I guess the “solution” is to artificially jump up danger so it satisfies filtering demand. Paging Koanic…

  2. Nottuh says:

    Kudos for mentioning Pat Tillman. I’ve been inspired by him as an inspiration since I first read about him.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      “Kudos” is a way of saying “good job”, whereas what you mean particularly is that you *appreciate* that I’ve recognized him. So “thanks” or “I appreciate” would have been more appropriate here.

      Just trying to help, and you’re welcome for the mention, etc.

  3. Nottuh says:

    Oops, should’ve read: I’ve seen him as an inspiration.

  4. Jdc says:

    I’ve never read Heinlein but you’ve piqued my interest. I’ve heard the moon is a harsh mistress is good too.

  5. Eikos says:

    Nuts. Well it was a nice idea. How about the annual death lottery one? You know, where one or more participant in government is chosen at random every year to be ritually killed. I’m finding that one harder to fault even though Heinlein’s system appeals more strongly to my sense of… something or other.

    • Aeoli Pera says:

      Tom Kratman fills in this blank for you: http://www.everyjoe.com/2015/11/02/politics/service-guarantees-citizenship/

      “Why the appeal? The very short version, for those who haven’t read the book, is that Starship Troopers proposes – or proposes by description – a political system not too different in structure from what we have, but with one huge policy change. The change is that nobody votes or is allowed to hold public office by virtue of having a body around 98.6, an age over XY or the absence of a criminal record. Instead, the vote and the right to run for and hold public office comes from demonstrating, through honorable completion of a period of arduous, ill paid and dangerous service, that one cares about society enough that we can be relatively more confident that one will vote the common good, rather than the personal. That, at least, is the theoretical appeal. I suspect the practical appeal is that most military types utterly detest the progressive politicians who are usually their masters, and would prefer to see them hanged, even as they’d prefer serving a population and system that understood and cared for them, because it sprang from them, and vice versa.”

      • Heaviside says:

        If American soldiers were really against progressivism they wouldn’t be in the military.

      • Eikos says:

        Well, ye. Mostly though it’s due to me wanting this:

        Ever been on an airbase at night and just watched? It’s something else. Seems absurd somehow that it shouldn’t serve as some sort of model going into the future.

        Techno-Sparta was always a better idea than Starship Troopers, I suppose. Considering that the Helot role would be filled by machines that won’t ever revolt (Skynet not withstanding) it *should* last, no?

        • Aeoli Pera says:

          I don’t know. As I get older, I become more and more convinced that there really aren’t any choices between Christianity and the “way of the world”, i.e. slavery, caste, inquisitions, empire-building, endless wars, etc. There really is no harnessing the evil heart to produce good ends, no matter how clever the system.

          Here’s how I figure: Jesus gave us a comprehensive political program for Christian communities within larger communities, which will always be at odds with everything else because the program is universalist and prescriptive, though nonviolent. We generally ignore this because it’s considered impractical. It’s the way of the world to persecute the church, but this only strengthens and spreads it.

          In the eschaton, John prophesied that the way of the world will win this struggle and completely dominate the church under a perfectly designed program of containment, under Satan’s personal oversight. At this point, Jesus will return to destroy this perfect system and set up his own, again under his personal oversight.

          So that’s how I figure nowadays.

        • “Ever been on an airbase at night and just watched?”

          I haven’t. What’s it like?

  6. Daniel Bowman says:

    I like the Heinlein’s idea, therefore I seek some good criticism of it. Yours did not shake my “faith” for reasons:
    1. Service by Heinlein is not meant as war time service only nor as front-line troops only. Actually with veterans in power i.e. only ones with voting rights, likelihood of war would go down imo. Service means sacrificing your time and energy and maybe risk of health and life for the benefit of society. It can mean cleaning dirty dishes or jumping on grenade. Mostly the former.

    2. Corruption is possible, sure but much less likely than in current system. Cowards are on the top thanks to nepotism most of the time these days I suspect. Serving does not mean titles and benefits other than the right to vote. All it takes to discredit a coward reaching for office would be a testimony of his serving comrades.

    3. Government in Heinlein’s system is very limited in it’s powers. It does not meddle in business. Referee which is not allowed to change goal posts is much less likely to be corrupted. Thus politics would not be desired destination for people seeking personal favours.

    4. The whole premise of the system is that people who demonstrate that they are OK to sacrifice for society have higher probability not to be an azzh0l3. They will be most likely more responsible even in terms of common good.

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