I thought I knew my friend, L. Neil Smith.
I've read many of his novels, I've read lots of his essays, I've contributed to his publication, The Libertarian Enterprise, and I've visited him in his home several times.
I thought I knew him... but, as it turns out, I'm glad I didn't know him as well as I'd thought. Otherwise, his recent book Lever Action: Essays on Liberty wouldn't have been the delightful surprise it turned out to be for me.
Let me back up a bit...
I said that L. Neil Smith is a friend of mine. Indeed he is, a friend of the highest caliber (pun intended): introduced by a mutual friend, it was L. Neil and the other friend who took me, a rather confused woman at the time, and helped me become the activist and writer I am today. I had just been introduced to libertarianism, after having read Ayn Rand's two epic novels, and was facing the fairly daunting realization that I might be an anarchist, to boot. L. Neil and my other friend (whom many of you might know also--'twas none other than Don L. Tiggre) showed me that was an "ism" to be proud of.
Over the years, as I've read and explored and learned more, L. Neil's and my thinking has diverged very little, but it has in some areas. And in doing my own writing, I've had less and less time to read than I'd like, including L. Neil's voluminous output. So, when I learned that a collection of essays was forthcoming, I anticipated the book with more than usual interest. I was hoping to get a feel for my friend's thinking over a span of years, and to catch up with the things that have been uppermost on his mind between novels recently. Lever Action delivered handsomely on both accounts.
For those of you who might not have grokked this from L. Neil's fiction, he is not just a writer, but a thinker--he studies people and issues and ideas, and the results stream forth in both his novels and his nonfiction. That they mesh well is not particularly surprising, but the fact could have gone unnoticed, as the differences between the two types of writing and their media (print and online, respectively) do not make comparisons easy. Lever Action is a well-balanced presentation of L. Neil Smith's essays, good reading for either the confirmed Smith fan or for one relatively new to the freedom philosophy.
Lever Action: Essays on Liberty is organized into six subsections, such as "Libertarian Philosophy", "Republicrat Politics", and "A Rant for All Seasons". Intending no disrespect for the hard work of the author and editor, the lines distinguishing these subsections are rather blurry in this reader's eyes, primarily because everything in this book exudes Neil's love of and striving for freedom. After all, how can Neil write something like Feeding the Ducks, showing the idiocy of government regulations, without making it clear that it's their stranglehold on individual liberty that makes the "pasty-pale troglodytes" so dangerous? Each section contains little gems from L. Neil's wonderfully active mind, which sparkle with fresh vigor for the familiar reader when one sees them lined up so prettily here. My favorite is from the "Libertarian Philosophy" section, and is the essay A New Approach to Social Darwinism. Originally a speech presented in 1987, it offers up an evolutionary and revolutionary approach to thinking about freedom that is elegantly simple, yet deep with implications that have yet to be explored.
Original ideas like that one, coupled with L. Neil's clarity of purpose, make Lever Action a strong outreach book as well. For individuals who are familiar with libertarianism but have problems with the philosophy, many of his ideas are likely to encourage them to think about it differently--not to muddle or hide its core, but to see the scope of freedom and why it's the natural state of human beings--and may serve to prod their intellectual integrity. They may become libertarians, or they may not--but either way, they'll be unable to avoid an accurate identification of their position. The essays resonate with his "Bill of Rights Enforcement" meme, one that didn't particularly appeal to me--after all, I am an anarchist--until I realized that it is a distillation of the Non-Aggression Principle targeted toward conservatives and patriots. Another sparkly gem is his "Pay as You Like" plan for funding government programs (from Advice to Flat Taxers: Go Jump Off the Edge). Each of these is purely pro-freedom, without soft-pedaling the philosophy or compromising its principles. As L. Neil would put it, "How about it, Libertarian Party?"
I do have some quibbles with the book. First, my favorite L. Neil essay didn't make the cut (it's a speech he gave to a Colorado LP meeting some years back, titled Where No Libertarian Has Gone Before), a quibble I'll wager several L. Neil fans will have. Many classics, such as The American Lenin, Why Did it Have to be Guns?, and Suppose You Were Fond of Books... are present, which more than make up for the absence of a favored few, though. More substantively, the lack of a detailed table of contents makes finding specific essays within the sections challenging.
However, if you're like me, while trying to find that specific essay to share a gem with a friend or statist, you'll find yourself re-reading bits of essays again, and enjoying them anew, whether in appreciation for his ideas or the clever labels he thinks up for his enemies (none of the really vitriolic ones seem to have found their way into the book, something I consider a good thing). L. Neil has described himself as "the most prolific libertarian novelist alive", and while that may be accurate, it sells him short: he may be the most creative libertarian writer alive. Lever Action is a lever worth pulling--share it with your libertarian friends, and especially with your nearly-libertarian friends. It just may be what they need to get them off the fence.Lever Action: Essays on Liberty by L. Neil Smith, published 2001 by Mountain Media. Trade paperback, 462 pages. Available by phone, 800-244-2224, or by mail (send check, money order, cash, or silver) from Mountain Media, 1475 Terminal Way, Suite E, Reno, NV 89502. The price schedule is: 1-4 books: $21.95 each; 5-8 books: $17.50 each; 9 or more books: $13.00 each.
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