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Just another brick in the tax retention barrier?

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.’

Very handy.

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.

19 comments to Just another brick in the tax retention barrier?

  • DanF

    It’s not the first time the idea of Pterry having libertarian tendancies has been floated (I think it’s been mentioned here on Samizdata before and I’ve certainly seen it mentioned elsewhere).

    When you get to the book Night Watch (which I’m currently re-reading for the third time…), look out for the bit about the Ankh-Morpork weapons laws. More or less brings Mr Pratchett out of the libertarian closet entirely.

  • Dave

    I wouldn’t always suggest people start with The Colour of Magic unless they already like fantasy, it’s a bit of a piss take of several other works. Mort or Guards! Guards! are better kicking off points. They were written as Pterry went freelance and started really working ;)

    There is the odd Libertarian comment in the books, but there are also quite a few from other points on the political compass, depending on where your own politics lie. Based on the few times I’ve met him socially, I’m not convinced that he is a Libertarian – some of the things I’ve heard him say definately are not Libertarian.

    That’s not to say that some of his characters aren’t. Sam Vimes is an interesting example of a person who thinks in a Libertarian way, but acts often quite the opposite. It’d make an interesting panel discussion at a convention though.

  • Shannon Love

    These type of walls exist for the information they provided not the physical impediment of crossing them. It’s the old, “good fences make good neighbors” philosophy.

    Neither Hadrian’s wall and the Great Wall of China served to keep people either in or out. Instead they functioned as property line marker delineating the terminal reach of the state that created them. They served the political purpose of drawing a firm geographical line in a time without reliable maps.

    For those outside the wall, they said “cross this line and we have the right to kill you” For those inside, they said “cross this wall and we have no obligation to protect you” Politically the walls served to prevent “misunderstandings” and navigation “mistakes” on the part of external populations who had a history of raiding into the interior. The externals could never claim they didn’t know they had crossed over into protected territory because they had to climber across the wall at some point. The wall destroyed their “plausible deniability.”

  • Andy Duncan

    DanF writes:

    When you get to the book Night Watch (which I’m currently re-reading for the third time…), look out for the bit about the Ankh-Morpork weapons laws.

    Consider it done! :-)

    Dave writes:

    I wouldn’t always suggest people start with The Colour of Magic unless they already like fantasy, it’s a bit of a piss take of several other works. Mort or Guards! Guards! are better kicking off points. They were written as Pterry went freelance and started really working ;)

    How does he do it? I’ve just completed 30,000 words, the first third of the first book in a planned trilogy, it’s taken me a year, and I’m completely wiped out. I know he’s full time but he’s knocking out 100,000 words every six months, mostly in wonderful dialogue, something most writers and aspiring writers find the hardest type of narrative to produce (with even Stephen King working with others to help him with his dialogue), and then there’s all the other stuff he does. Incredible.

    Maybe he’s cloned himself, and there’s ten of him! ;-)

    There is the odd Libertarian comment in the books, but there are also quite a few from other points on the political compass, depending on where your own politics lie.

    You see, libertarian again, looking after all of his customers by supplying them with what they want! $-)

    Seriously though, I suppose you’re right. I always hope everyone I like is really a closet libertarian, and the stuff which he writes which cuts closest to the bone is often about the corruption of religion, guilds, government, bureaucracy, etc, all various forms of monopolised collectivism. And of course the Patrician comes straight out of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’. I suppose the character where my assertion falls down most strongly is CMOT Dibbler, who gets the role as ‘evil capitalist’ always seeking to cheat his customers. I do find reading his parts the most difficult of all the Discworld characters, as it is so obvious that if CMOT Dibbler really does want to get rich, he should stop trying to rip his customers off and start giving them sausages they might actually like to eat, for a change. Successful capitalism is all about serving your consumers and winning happy and willing repeat business from them, not ripping them off. That’s what governments are for. They only get away with it because they force us to use and pay for their ‘services’ at the point of a gun, an option usually unavailable to CMOTD.

    Based on the few times I’ve met him socially, I’m not convinced that he is a Libertarian – some of the things I’ve heard him say definately are not Libertarian.

    Well, if I can’t get the man himself putting me right, I’ll take a man who’s met him socially a few times. I have hope though. He must be pretty close to us, to be able to write the things he does, in the way he does, even if it’s just ‘in character’. Perhaps he’s just too darn busy to get across to Mises.org regularly enough to complete his Austrian education program? ;-)

    Either way, if he helps bring out our views and publicize them, such as the attitudes of Cohen the Barbarian, and the people of Lancre, and the hundreds of background comments making a mockery of the centralized government edifice, I’ll take that, if that’s all that’s on offer.

    That’s not to say that some of his characters aren’t. Sam Vimes is an interesting example of a person who thinks in a Libertarian way, but acts often quite the opposite. It’d make an interesting panel discussion at a convention though.

    As an officer of the Patrician, and an employee of a security monopoly, thinking one thing and doing another, is almost a qualification for the job. A former Soho beat policeman once told me that all the officers he knew were essentially anarchists. ‘Why do they work for the police then?’ I asked, quite innocently. ‘Because working for the police is the only place you can go in this country where laws don’t apply because you’re the ones enforcing them on everyone else.’ Who should guard the guards, indeed!

    Shannon Love writes:

    Instead they functioned as property line marker delineating the terminal reach of the state that created them.

    Bit expensive for property line markers, with manned watchtowers every mile, in Hadrian’s wall’s case, and major forts every twenty miles, or so. I don’t even want to think about the cost in taxation and oppression it took to build and maintain the Great Wall of China. If you’re short of a major river, or desert, or mountain range, to create your ancient border, I would’ve thought something a little less ostentatious would’ve done the trick, if all you were doing was marking a border.

    In imperial India, the British even managed with just a hedge.

    Typically British, a nation of hedge trimmers! :-)

  • Shirley Knott

    Um, Sam isn’t really an employee of a security monopoly — witness the oft-made point about what happens to ‘free lance thieves’. it isn’t Sam and company who nail their knees to their ears.
    I find especially admirable Sam’s attitude towards humanity — words to the effect that something went wrong since people who have the ability to bend at the knee tend to have an unfortunate desire to do so in the direction of a ‘leader’.
    Terry is perhaps our greatest humanitarian (not in the sense Angua anguishes over, which would the derivation used in ‘vegetarian’) author.
    More, Terry, more! I need a Pratchett fix more often than the new books come out.

    regards,
    Shirley

  • Andy Duncan

    Shirley Knott writes:

    Um, Sam isn’t really an employee of a security monopoly — witness the oft-made point about what happens to ‘free lance thieves’.

    Well, even Soho beat police officers sometimes let London nightclub bouncers ‘sort people out’, before getting involved, if they do at all, while still retaining pre-eminent domain over the City of London, as Vimes also does for Ankh-Morpork, in Men at Arms, when he ignores, at the Patrician’s delicate connivance, the supposed jurisdiction of the Assassins and Fools in their own guilds when he feels they’ve overstepped the mark of their Patrician-delegated and franchised security authority. But, point taken.

    More, Terry, more! I need a Pratchett fix more often than the new books come out.

    Yes, I’m wondering what I’ll do when I reach the last book. Oh no, it’ll be that Austrian Study Guide again! ;-)

  • Thon Brocket

    The idea I get is that Pterry has made something of a journey. I’ve been reading his stuff pretty much since he started publishing. At the start, I had the impression (if I thought about it at all – I was reading it for the giggles) of a liberal-ish almost-Guardian-reader. More and more, the libertarian theme has come to the fore.

    I just wonder how much of this has to do with his dealings with the Revenooers since he hit the jackpot.

  • Quentin

    Ook! Give that man a banana!

  • Shirley Knott

    What you’ll do when you read the last one?
    What the rest of us do, dear, start re-reading your favorites ;-)
    But until that day when you’ve caught up with his output, you do indeed have much left to savor! Don’t overlook his other works; the Johnny and the * series has some priceless moments. While I do tend to agree with the other commenters regarding the evolution of his outlook (in multiple dimensions, not just political I think), still the Johnny series shows he was surprisingly mature in his humanism very early on.
    One might even faintly hope that it is the humanism as much as anything that’s driving the libertarian outlook? He does have a city to run, after all, and with people that I can’t help but believe that not-very-deep down he quite likes.
    Even Vetinari could be read as a figurehead in place not so much because he is a monarch or ruler in the statist sense but because people still think they *need* somebody in that kind of role. They’re still integrating species through the miracles of unfettered commerce (well, modulo the guilds), and the memory of kings lingers.
    We’ll have to see as he evolves the world, but on that, if so little else, I remain hopeful.

    Shirley

  • Dave

    DanF is right, Sam Vime’s makes some wonderful comments on the Ankh Morpork weapon’s laws.

    How does he do it? I’ve just completed 30,000 words, the first third of the first book in a planned trilogy, it’s taken me a year, and I’m completely wiped out.

    Ah, there lies the rub. Pterry is/was a journo, like Michael Morcock.

    He told me that on the first morning of his freelance career, he sat down at the PC and thought, “300 a day, and in a few months I have a novel.”

    An hour later he had his 300 words.

    A friend of mine who is a serious TV writer watched Pterry at an SF Con once and said that after a night drinking he was writing finished prose into his laptop at a fantastic rate. The man is a pro.

    He has some opinions I’m not ok with, but he’s a bloody marvellous author and a success.

    Good on him!

  • RJM

    As a note of random history geekery, the main function of the Great Wall of China was not so much to keep Mongols from entering as it was to stop Mongols from leaving with loot in hand (if I recall correctly). That or it was just some kind of paleo-Keynesian effort to stimulate the economy through gigantic public works projects – either way, it seems to have done equally as much good.

  • RJM – that was my understanding – climbing the wall forced the Mongols to leave their horses behind, and therefore limited the range of looting expeditions past the wall, and the amount of loot they could carry away.

  • Scott

    Actually, the Great Wall wasn’t originally that great, and it wasn’t aimed at the Mongols. The oldest sections were built by small kingdoms during China’s Warring States period (5th-3rd centuries BC). China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, linked many of these sections during his reign that began in 221 BC. This was about 1,400 years before the Mongols showed up.

    The Wall was expanded considerably by the Ming Dynasty, which began in the late 14th century after the collapse of the Mongolian empire.

    It was indeed intended as a defensive structure to guard the heart of the Chinese empire. Invaders didn’t have to bring ladders or go around it — all they did was bribe the gatekeepers to let them through. At least, that’s how the Manchus got in as part of their campaign that overthrew the Ming and established the Qing.

  • Andy Duncan

    Latest quote discovered five minutes ago, from Interesting Times, as Rincewind discovers Twoflower in the imperial dungeon:

    ‘Everyone seems to have a copy of your book,’ he said. ‘It’s a revolutionary document. And I do mean copy. It looks as though they make their own copy and pass it on.’

    ‘Yes, it’s called samizdat.’

    ‘What does that mean?’

    ‘It means each one must be the same as the one before…’

    It’s called samizdat? Is either serendipity or a man in a hat with a time machine behind this coincidence? ;-)

    Or is it an orangutan dressed as a Spaniard? 8-)

  • Kit Taylor

    Well, artists are famously emotionally attuned people.

    He might well have a strong averse emotional reaction to the dead hand of bureaucracy, just as he might to the greedy meaneess of the odd businessman and the plight of improverished and suchlike.

  • ed

    Another point to be made is that the Great Wall is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not “Great” and it’s not one “Wall”. It’s actually something like 45+ walls each of which was built in a different time period. Most of them are made out of mud brick, not stone. And huge portions are simply out in the middle of nowhere, crumbling into dust.

    At least those sections that haven’t been stolen for home building.

  • Ric Locke

    Heh, heh. You’ve already met the Libertarian in Pratchett’s books, and overlooked him. He does, of course, have a rather un-Libertarian job.

    Regards,
    Ric

  • Um, how do we break this to you gently …. This author is addictive. Yup, once read, nothing is ever the same again. Once you have read all the discworlds, and I agree with the comment that Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic (which is where you first meet Cohen) and possibly Sourcery, are not the best place to start, Equal Rites, Mort and Pyramids are hard to put down.

    I’m pretty sure Terry is reading these – he is a net chat user and replies to e-mails – if you can find his address.

  • Um, how do we break this to you gently …. This author is addictive. Yup, once read, nothing is ever the same again. Once you have read all the discworlds, and I agree with the comment that Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic (which is where you first meet Cohen) and possibly Sourcery, are not the best place to start, (Equal Rites, Mort and Pyramids are hard to put down) you might want to try Good Omens.

    I’m pretty sure Terry is reading these – he is a net chat user and replies to e-mails – if you can find his address.