Henry Hazlitt’s Time Will Run Back, Robert Heinlein’s Methuselah’s Children, and Zoltan Istvan’s The Transhumanist Wager each portray a different path by which business enterprises can dramatically improve the human condition, catalyzing paradigm shifts in the societies around them. (Follow the hyperlinks above to read my detailed analyses of each novel.) Far from being concerned solely with immediate profits or meeting quarterly earnings goals, the entrepreneurs depicted in these novels endeavor to thrive despite political persecution and manage to escape and overcome outright dystopias.
Among these three novels, Methuselah’s Children shows the tamest business-based route to reform. For centuries the Howard Foundation aims not to transform the broader society, but rather to protect its own beneficiaries and encourage incrementally greater longevity with each subsequent selectively bred generation. The Howard Families adapt to existing legal and cultural climates and prefer keeping a low profile to instigating a revolution. But even their mild outreach to the general public – motivated by the hope for acceptance and the desire to share their knowledge with the world – brings upon them the full force of the supposedly enlightened and rights-respecting society of The Covenant. Rather than fight, the Howard Families choose to escape and pursue their vision of the good life apart from the rest of humanity. Yet the very existence of this remarkable group and its members’ extraordinary lifespans fuels major changes for humanity during the 75 years of the Howard Families’ voyage. By remaining steadfast to its purpose of protecting its members, the Howard Foundation shows humankind that radical life extension is possible, and Ira Howard’s goal is attained for the remainder of humanity, whose pursuit of extended longevity cannot be stopped once society is confronted with its reality.
The path of incremental and experimental – but principled – reform through the use of business is illustrated in Time Will Run Back. Even though Peter Uldanov does not intend to embark on a capitalist world revolution, he nonetheless achieves this outcome over the course of eight years due to his intellectual honesty, lack of indoctrination, and willingness to consistently follow valid insights to their logical conclusions. Peter discovers the universality of the human drive to start small and, later, large enterprises and produce goods and services that sustain and enhance human well-being. Once Peter begins to undo Wonworld’s climate of perpetual terror and micro-regimentation, his citizens use every iota of freedom to engage in mutually beneficial commerce that allows scarce resources to be devoted to their most highly valued uses. Peter, too, must escape political persecution at the hands of Bolshekov, but, unlike the Howard Families, he does not have the luxury of completely distancing himself from his nemesis. Instead, he must form a competing bulwark against Wonworld’s tyranny and, through the superiority in production that free enterprise makes possible, overthrow the socialist dystopia completely. Where Wonworld experienced a century of technological stagnation, Peter’s Freeworld is able to quickly regain lost ground and experience an acceleration of advancement similar to the one that occurred in the Post-World War II period during which Hazlitt wrote Time Will Run Back. Because human creativity and initiative were liberated through free-market reforms, the novel ends with a promise of open-ended progress and a future of ever-expanding human flourishing.
The most explicitly revolutionary use of business as a transformative tool is found in The Transhumanist Wager. Jethro Knights conceives Transhumania specifically as a haven for technological innovation that would lead to the attainment of indefinite lifespans and rapid, unprecedented progress in every field of science and technology. Transhumania is an incubator for Jethro’s vision of a united transhumanist Earth, ruled by a meritocratic elite and completely guided by the philosophy of Teleological Egocentric Functionalism. Like Lazarus Long and the Howard Families, Jethro finds it necessary to escape wider human society because of political persecution, and, like them, he plans an eventual return. He returns, however, without the intent to re-integrate into human society and pursue what Lazarus Long considers to be a universal human striving for ceaseless improvement. Rather, Jethro considers unaltered humanity to be essentially lost to the reactionary influences of Neo-Luddism, religious fundamentalism, and entrenched political and cronyist special interests. Jethro’s goal in returning to the broader world is a swift occupation and transformation of both the Earth and humankind in Jethro’s image.
Jethro’s path is, in many respects, the opposite of Peter Uldanov’s. Peter begins as an inadvertent world dictator and sequentially relinquishes political power in a well-intentioned, pragmatic desire to foster his subjects’ prosperity. Along the way, Peter discovers the moral principles of the free market and becomes a consistent, rights-respecting minarchist libertarian – a transformation that impels him to relinquish absolute power and seek validation through a free and fair election. Jethro, on the other hand, begins as a private citizen and brilliant entrepreneurial businessman who deliberately implements many free-market incentives but, all along, strives to become the omnipotender – and ends up in the role of world dictator where Peter began. The two men are at polar opposites when it comes to militancy. Peter hesitates even to wage defensive war against Bolshekov and questions the propriety of bringing about the deaths of even those who carry out repeated, failed assassination attempts against him and Adams. Jethro does not hesitate to sweep aside his opposition using massive force – as he does when he obliterates the world’s religious and political monuments in an effort to erase the lingering influence of traditional mindsets and compel all humankind to enter the transhumanist age. Jethro’s war against the world is intended to “shock and awe” governments and populations into unconditional and largely bloodless surrender – but this approach cannot avoid some innocent casualties. Jethro will probably not create Wonworld, because he still understands the role of economic incentives and individual initiative in enabling radical technological progress to come about. However, the benefits of the progress Jethro seeks to cultivate will still be disseminated in a controlled fashion – only to those whom Jethro considers useful to his overall goal of becoming as powerful and advanced as possible. Therefore, Jethro’s global Transhumania will not be Freeworld, either.
All three novels raise important questions for us, as human society in the early 21st century stands on the cusp of major advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, space travel, and hopefully radical life extension. However, reactionary political and cultural forces continue to inflict massive suffering worldwide through brutal warfare, sweeping surveillance and humiliation of innocent people, policies that instill terror in the name of fighting terror, and labyrinthine obstacles to progress established by protectionist lobbying on behalf of politically connected special interests. Indeed, our status quo resembles the long, tense stagnation against which Jethro revolts to a greater extent than either the largely rights-respecting society of The Covenant or the totalitarian regimentation of Wonworld. But can the way toward a brighter future – paved by the next generation of life-improving technologies – be devised through an approach that does not exhibit Jethro’s militancy or precipitate massive conflict? Time will tell whether humankind will successfully pursue such a peaceful, principled path of radical but universally benevolent advancement. But whatever this path might entail, it is doubtless that the trailblazers on it will be the innovative businessmen and entrepreneurs of the future, without whom the development, preservation, and dissemination of new technologies would not be possible.
Hazlitt, Henry. [1966.] 2007. Time Will Run Back. New York: Arlington House. Ludwig von Mises Institute. Available at http://library.freecapitalists.org/books/Henry%20Hazlitt/Time%20Will%20Run%20Back.pdf. Accessed December 13, 2014.
Heinlein, Robert A.  2005. Revolt in 2100 & Methuselah’s Children. New York: Baen.
Istvan, Zoltan. 2013. The Transhumanist Wager. San Bernardino: Futurity Imagine Media LLC.