Podcast: Starship Troopers and Democracy

"... authority and responsibility must be equal... to permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster."

Podcast: Starship Troopers and Democracy

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This article contains the script of Episode 6 of the Tela Network Podcast.

Note: There is some initial background noise, but this stops after a minute or so.

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Podcast Script

Welcome to the Tela Network Podcast. My name is Lawrence Piano, and I am a member of Tela Network, as well as a former U.S. Marine.

The topic of this short episode is "Starship Troopers and Democracy".

If you would like to join Tela Network and become a consultant, there will be a link to a guide in the description below.


In the field of military science fiction, all roads eventually lead to Starship Troopers, written by Robert A. Heinlein in 1959, who served in the U.S. Navy and later thought hard about exactly why he did so.

While I was at the Naval Academy in the mid-1970s, Robert Heinlein came to speak about his experience in the Navy. His books were influential and well-known among the students.

I first read Starship Troopers when I was about 12. The discussions of history, morality, and the military that it contained had a formative impact on my thinking, for my entire life. I don't agree with everything that Heinlein had to say, and he wasn't even completely consistent - in his other books he expresses some rather different opinions - but he was always able to make a good case for a position and cause me to grapple with it.

I'm going to describe the book and its influence, and then I'm going to read some excerpts from it about democracy and voting.

Title: "Starship Troopers". Image generated at imagine.art: Model = Imagine V5.2, Art Style = Futuristic, Prompt = "starship troopers by Robert Heinlein. the mobile infantry in powered armor invading and establishing a beachhead."

Starship Troopers

The story is set in a future society ruled by a human interstellar government dominated by a military elite called the Terran Federation. Under this system, only veterans of the military enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote.

The story follows Johnny Rico through his military service in the Mobile Infantry. He progresses from recruit to officer against the backdrop of an interstellar war between humans and an alien species known as "Arachnids" or "Bugs". Interspersed with the primary plot are classroom scenes in which Rico and others discuss philosophical and moral issues, including aspects of suffrage, civic virtue, juvenile delinquency, and war.

Starship Troopers became one of Heinlein's best-selling books. It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1960, and was praised by reviewers for its scenes of training and combat and its visualization of a future military. It popularized the idea of powered armor, which has become a recurring feature in science fiction books and films.

The book is dedicated to 'Sarge' Arthur George Smith - Soldier, Citizen, Scientist - and to all sergeants anywhere who have labored to make men out of boys. This is really the focus of the entire book - the personal transformation required for a boy to become a man, and the character of the men who work to make this transformation happen.

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Let's move on to the excerpts.


From Chapter 8:

"The basis of all morality is duty, a concept with the same relation to group that self-interest has to individual."


Mr. Dubois then turned to me. "I told you that ‘juvenile delinquent’ is a contradiction in terms. ‘Delinquent’ means ‘failing in duty’. But duty is an adult virtue — indeed a juvenile becomes an adult when, and only when, he acquires a knowledge of duty and embraces it as dearer than the self-love he was born with. There never was, there cannot be a ‘juvenile delinquent’. But for every juvenile criminal there are always one or more adult delinquents — people of mature years who either do not know their duty, or who, knowing it, fail."

From Chapter 10:

"Peace" is a condition in which no civilian pays any attention to military casualties which do not achieve page-one, lead-story prominence - unless that civilian is a close relative of one of the casualties. But, if there ever was a time in history when "peace" meant that there was no fighting going on, I have been unable to find out about it.

From Chapter 12:

The pursuit of science, despite its social benefits, is itself not a social virtue; its practitioners can be men so self-centered as to be lacking in social responsibility.


Major Reid smiled. "Mr. Salomon, I handed you a trick question. The practical reason for continuing our system is the same as the practical reason for continuing anything: It works satisfactorily.
"Nevertheless, it is instructive to observe the details. Throughout history men have labored to place the sovereign franchise in hands that would guard it well and use it wisely, for the benefit of all. An early attempt was absolute monarchy, passionately defended as the 'divine right of kings’.
"Sometimes attempts were made to select a wise monarch, rather than leave it up to God, as when the Swedes picked a Frenchman, General Bernadotte, to rule them. The objection to this is that the supply of Bernadottes is limited.
"Historic examples range from absolute monarch to utter anarch; mankind has tried thousands of ways and many more have been proposed, some weird in the extreme such as the antlike communism urged by Plato under the misleading title The Republic. But the intent has always been moralistic: to provide stable and benevolent government.
"All systems seek to achieve this by limiting franchise to those who are believed to have the wisdom to use it justly. I repeat ‘all systems’; even the so-called ‘unlimited democracies’ excluded from franchise not less than one quarter of their populations by age, birth, poll tax, criminal record, or other."


"The sovereign franchise has been bestowed by all sorts of rules — place of birth, family of birth, race, sex, property, education, age, religion, et cetera. All these systems worked and none of them well. All were regarded as tyrannical by many, all eventually collapsed or were overthrown.
"Now here are we with still another system... and our system works quite well. Many complain but none rebel; personal freedom for all is greatest in history, laws are few, taxes are low, living standards are as high as productivity permits, crime is at its lowest ebb. Why? Not because our voters are smarter than other people; we’ve disposed of that argument. Mr. Tammany, can you tell us why our system works better than any used by our ancestors?"
He answered, "Uh, I’d venture to guess that it’s because the electors are a small group who know that the decisions are up to them... so they study the issues."
"No guessing, please; this is exact science. And your guess is wrong. The ruling nobles of many another system were a small group fully aware of their grave power. Furthermore, our franchised citizens are not everywhere a small fraction; you know or should know that the percentage of citizens among adults ranges from over eighty per cent on Iskander to less than three per cent in some Terran nations yet government is much the same everywhere. Nor are the voters picked men; they bring no special wisdom, talent, or training to their sovereign tasks. So what difference is there between our voters and wielders of franchise in the past? We have had enough guesses; I’ll state the obvious: Under our system every voter and officeholder is a man who has demonstrated through voluntary and difficult service that he places the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage.
"And that is the one practical difference.
"He may fail in wisdom, he may lapse in civic virtue. But his average performance is enormously better than that of any other class of rulers in history.
Major Reid paused to touch the face of an old-fashioned watch, "reading" its hands. "The period is almost over and we have yet to determine the moral reason for our success in governing ourselves. Now continued success is never a matter of chance. Bear in mind that this is science, not wishful thinking; the universe is what it is, not what we want it to be. To vote is to wield authority; it is the supreme authority from which all other authority derives — such as mine to make your lives miserable once a day. Force, if you will! — the franchise is force, naked and raw, the Power of the Rods and the Ax. Whether it is exerted by ten men or by ten billion, political authority is force.
"But this universe consists of paired dualities. What is the converse of authority? Mr. Rico."
He had picked one I could answer. "Responsibility, sir."
"Applause. Both for practical reasons and for mathematically verifiable moral reasons, authority and responsibility must be equal — else a balancing takes place as surely as current ‘flows between points of unequal potential’. To permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster; to hold a man responsible for anything he does not control is to behave with blind idiocy. The unlimited democracies were unstable because their citizens were not responsible for the fashion in which they exerted their sovereign authority... other than through the tragic logic of history. The unique ‘poll tax’ that we must pay was unheard of. No attempt was made to determine whether a voter was socially responsible to the extent of his literally unlimited authority. If he voted the impossible, the disastrous possible happened instead.
"Superficially, our system is only slightly different; we have democracy unlimited by race, color, creed, birth, wealth, sex, or conviction, and anyone may win sovereign power by a usually short and not too arduous term of service — nothing more than a light workout to our cave-man ancestors. But that slight difference is one between a system that works, since it is constructed to match the facts, and one that is inherently unstable. Since sovereign franchise is the ultimate in human authority, we insure that all who wield it accept the ultimate in social responsibility — we require each person who wishes to exert control over the state to wager his own life — and lose it, if need be — to save the life of the state. The maximum responsibility a human can accept is thus equated to the ultimate authority a human can exert. Yin and yang, perfect and equal."

That's the end of this episode. I hope you enjoyed it. Thank you for listening.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, you can contact me on Tela. My contact link will be in the description below.

Thank you.

Podcast Description

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"... authority and responsibility must be equal... to permit irresponsible authority is to sow disaster."

This is Episode 6 of the Tela Network Podcast, hosted by Lawrence Piano.

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