There is little in life as popular as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld book series, about the adventures of Rincewind the Wizzard and all the other assorted folk of Discworld, including of course The Librarian, and The Luggage.
I am currently working my way through the Discworld canon, having started with The Colour of Magic a few months ago. At first, as I came across the odd libertarian-leaning comment, I thought it might be interesting to record them, as I found them, and publish them all on Samizdata once I had reached the last page of the last book. But there are just far too many for that. Once you have your eyes peeled, these covert anarchistic swipes pop up all over the place like magic mushrooms in a damp autumn wood.
But some still stand out as giant white-spotted red caps, just begging for hallucinogenic consumption. I am compelled, for instance, to broadcast this following comment from Cohen the Barbarian, which I discovered this morning in the book Interesting Times. Cohen is speaking about the subject of slaughtering in the Agatean Empire, a Discworld continent bearing an astonishing resemblance to both modern China and its bureaucratic dynastic past:
‘Oh, yeah. Slaughtering,’ said Cohen. ‘Like, supposing the population is being a bit behind with its taxes. You pick some city where people are being troublesome and kill everyone and set fire to it and pull down the walls and plough up the ashes. That way you get rid of the trouble and all the other cities are suddenly really well behaved and polite and all your back taxes turn up in a big rush, which is handy for governments, I understand.’
Cohen also has little time for the tax-paying population of the Agatean Empire:
‘People think that’s how a country is supposed to run. They do what they’re told. The people here are treated like slaves.’
Cohen scowled. ‘Now, I’ve got nothing against slaves, you know, as slaves. Owned a few in my time. Been a slave once or twice. But where there’s slaves, what’ll you expect to find?’
Rincewind thought about this. ‘Whips?’ he said at last.
‘Yeah. Got it in one. Whips. There’s something honest about slaves and whips. Well…they ain’t got whips here. They got something worse than whips.’
‘What?’ said Rincewind, looking slightly panicky.
‘You’ll find out.’
One presumes Cohen is talking about a culture of governmental acceptance, perhaps driven by a successful government-worshipping ideology. No doubt Mr Pratchett will let me know, once I push on further into the book. However, just as a clue, Cohen fills in Rincewind with a little more detail:
‘Strange bloody country,’ he said. ‘Did you know there’s a wall all round the Empire?’
‘That’s to keep…barbarian invaders…out…’ [said Rincewind]
‘Oh, yes, very defensive,’ said Cohen sarcastically. ‘Like, oh my goodness, there’s a twenty foot wall , dear me, I suppose we’d better just ride off back over a thousand miles of steppe and not, e.g., take a look at the ladder possibilities inherent in that pine wood over there. Nah. It’s to keep people in. And rules? They’ve got rules for everything. No-one even goes to the privy without a piece of paper.’
Sounds like a day in your average modern NHS canteen, then.
Alas, that is as far as I have reached. But just like all his other books, so far, Mr Pratchett has got me hooked. Now we could discuss whether Mr Pratchett is a closet libertarian. But unless the man himself is reading this, and would like to put me right, I think there is very little doubt about that, especially if we draw a veil over the co-written Science of Discworld books. I am personally far more struck by Cohen’s observation about the Great Wall of Agatea.
Now for the whole of my life, up to precisely seven point four seconds ago, I had accepted the usual notion that both Hadrian’s Wall, in the north of England, and the Great Wall of China, in …err… China, were about keeping out my ancestors, the barbarian Picts, and my more distant ancestors from my Ukrainian links, the barbarian Mongols.
But were both, instead, about keeping in the tax-paying populations of Imperial Rome and Imperial China? It has nagged my unconscious mind for years that the Great Wall of China just peters out, admittedly in a barren desert up against a deep ravine, rather than going down south to the Himalayas. As Cohen implies, would a horde of real barbarians really be unable to ride around its western edge or find a lightly-manned spot in the centre and simply climb over it? And the same goes for the Picts in ancient Scotland. For anyone who has been up on Hadrian’s Wall, on a cold winter’s night, it cannot be beaten for bleakness. And while those Roman legionaries from Aswan, in Egypt, kept themselves warm in the watchtowers, perhaps quite a contingent of hairy-armed Picts could have swarmed over a remote part of the wall, in the dark, and then made their way south to rape and pillage, just as they do in modern-day Carlisle, today.
But for ancient farmers and peasants, in both northern England and northern China, perhaps the thought of breaking past these stone barriers to find a non-taxed Mel Gibson-like anarchistic freedom north of the walls, or trying to encourage this freedom to come south, was a tad more challenging and the real reason behind the construction of these large and expensive border defences?
Was the imperial bureaucratic thinking, in both empires, along the lines of No Wall, No Taxes? We have the more modern creation of the Berlin wall to show us how the mind of the bureaucratic parasite can work when it is stressed by its slaves escaping. Were ancient parasitical minds any different?
In the meantime, while some of us may cogitate on that before rejecting the idea and re-accepting the orthodox position on walls keeping out barbarians, my advice is, get yourself a copy of The Colour of Magic and see how you get on. You will never see foot lockers in the same light again. Or librarians. Especially librarians.