Tolkien’s political views are surprisingly compatible with libertarian philosophy.
There are a number of historical figures that many want to claim for their political camp, such as Adam Smith, Thomas Aquinas, and Jesus Christ to name a few. Since his landmark literary achievements in the middle of the 20th century, J.R.R. Tolkien has also been such a contested figure. Hippies, conservatives, distributists, and libertarians have claimed the creator of the Shire as one of their own. The fractured battlefield of scholarship on Tolkien reflects that the real man is not as easily categorized as many would hope. The only “ism” that is entirely fair to place Tolkien in is Catholicism, as he was undoubtedly a devout member of the Roman Church. “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” (Letter 142) I do not plan to “claim” Tolkien as a libertarian or classical liberal, but I do hope to tease out some themes in which libertarians may find harmony with the wonderful world of Tolkien.
A passage from one of Tolkien’s letters to his son Christopher invariably arises when discussing his political opinions.
“My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) – or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!” (Letter 52)
Tolkien’s sentimental bipolarity of philosophical anarchy and unconstitutional monarchy can be found in Middle‐Earth. The idyllic Shire, the small plot of hilly land where the hairy three‐foot hobbits live, has no strict rulers. “The Shire at this time had hardly any ‘government’. Families, for the most part, managed their affairs. Growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.” While reviewing a potential movie script for the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gets angry at the portrayal of the Shire and Bree, “The landlord does not ask Frodo to ‘register’! Why should he? There are no police and no government.” (Letter 210). If the Shire is Tolkien’s expression of his anarchist sentiments, then the great kingdoms of the West, Gondor, Rohan, and Arnor, are the expression of his monarchic visions. The greatest heroes in The Lord of the Rings are destined to become kings and queens adorned with military victories, not humble farmers and traders. The philosophical congruence is not obvious.
In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, two major principles are outlined that may help us wrap our heads around Tolkien’s political temperament. The first is the principle of subsidiarity. Every social structure consists of little cells, which we call individual persons, which in turn make up families, communities, and societies. Without giving every single person their due, the joints of society will buckle. In essence, most decisions should be made as close to their locus of effect as possible. More often than not, this means letting individuals choose for themselves. This is the ‘abolition of control’ that Tolkien mentioned earlier. The second principle is solidarity. Whether we like it or not, we do live together and are dependent on one another. If we only let individuals choose for themselves with no limits, they would pillage and steal from one another. Unity under some law points the individuals in society towards some common good, under which they all thrive. This is Tolkien’s ‘unconstitutional monarchy’.
As Tolkien grew older, the seat of power grew further from those it ruled.
“If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would go a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy.” (Letter 52)
‘Theyocracy’ is Tolkien’s way of saying that the forces that rule you are not close enough to talk to, nor are they even someone like a monarch whose name you know. The state is a mass globby grey ‘They’. Personalizing the government is a much more accurate way of describing what’s going on. The government doesn’t raise your taxes, the ‘folks in Washington’ do. Tolkien expressed his frustration with ‘They’ to his son, “Don’t speak to me about ‘Income Tax’ or I shall boil over. They had all my literary earnings until I retired.” (Letter 250)
The Shire, on the other hand, follows the principle of subsidiarity as far as it goes. “There is rule of law and government in the Shire, but it is a highly limited government that begins and ends with self‐government.” (Witt and Richards 30) The only representatives of the government are the Shirrifs. “As most laws were observed to the letter, being after all based on common sense and ancient tradition, the Shirrifs’ task was easy, and the job was far more concerned with trespass and matters of property than with actual crime (which was almost unknown in the Shire).” (Tyler 580) Frodo claims that no hobbit ever killed another on purpose. There were still, however, basic rules. Hobbits respected their neighbors based on a long tradition of property and contract that the hobbits attributed to their King.
There remained, of course, the ancient tradition concerning the high king at Fornost, or Norbury as they called it, away north of the Shire But there had been no king for nearly a thousand years… Yet the Hobbits still said of the wild folk and wicked things (such as trolls) that they had not heard of the king. For they attributed to the king of old all their essential laws; and usually they kept the laws of free will, because they were The Rules (as they said), both ancient and just. (The Lord of the Rings 9)
Ironically, the internal motivation that allowed them to maintain freedom and local rule was their respect and admiration for the King of Arnor, whose line had receded into exile centuries before it separated from its brother kingdom Gondor. Freedom at the lowest level depended on security from the highest level. Given the existence of evil, the Free Peoples need to sacrifice a part of their freedom to preserve their freedom. Hayek notes in The Constitution of Liberty, “Coercion, however, cannot be altogether avoided because the only way to prevent it is by the threat of coercion.” (Hayek 1960, 71) The freedom that we secure through subsidiarity can only be maintained with solidarity.
Of course, the problem with uniting under a common good, is the trouble when the wrong person gets hold of the reins. On their way back from their adventure, the hobbits find that the Shire has been taken over by the wizard Saruman. The Shirrifs formerly were only responsible for basic property protection were now also responsible for “gathering and sharing” resources. Hob Hayward, the first hobbit they encounter, reports that “They do more gathering than sharing, and we never see most of the stuff again.” (LOTR 999) Coal and butter are rationed out, and Saruman has hired bandits to strike fear into the hearts of the disobedient. Tolkien was concerned with excessive taxation that was occurring during the Second World War. Tolkien’s son, who was in the RAF, reported the rough conditions of the camp. “[T]he taxpayers would like to know where are all the millions are going, if the pick of their sons are so treated.” (Letter 66) Ostensibly, the tax money was going to serve the nation, but the more distant the money got the less it served the people it came from.
Defending the whole of Britain was certainly a top priority, but the Sarumans in the system used their power to skim a little (or a lot) off the top. Saruman’s socialism provides a manufactured common good that dominates and controls the hobbits it purports to serve, rather than leaving them to govern themselves. “I look East, West, North, South, and I do not see Sauron; but I see that Saruman has many descendants. We Hobbits have against them no magic weapons. Yet, my gentlehobbits, I give you this toast: To the Hobbits. May they outlast the Sarumans and see spring again in the trees. (Carpenter, 1977, 225–226) Sauron’s intent was simple domination. Saruman thought he was doing the right thing and that his ends justified his means. When the adventuring hobbits return from faraway lands, they ignite the natural anger brewing in the Shire under Saruman’s rule. The hobbits of Tookland, Buckland, and Hobbiton all respond to the call to reclaim their right to rule themselves. With their newfound sense of courage, the hobbits lead a successful revolt against Saruman and restore liberty to the Shire. When people are subjected to a tyrannical system, they fall back on their duty to defend their rights and the rights of their neighbors.
Soon after the Shire’s liberation, the newly crowned King Elessar decrees the Shire free from the affairs of men. He also offered independence to the Druadan tribes, who had assisted him in the war against Sauron and recognized the kingdom of Rohan, who had done the same. The Rohirrim renew their pledge to protect Gondor in times of great need. He makes peace with the men of the East and the South and reclaims former territories. After three thousand years, the new king reunites the kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, beginning an age of peace. The new kingdom provides a great degree of solidarity and security, but it does not do so at the expense of liberty. “A Númenórean King was monarch, with the power of unquestioned decision in debate; but he governed the realm with the frame of ancient law, of which he was administrator (and interpreter) but not the maker.” (Letter 244) The king encompassed the executive and judicial branches, but not the legislative. The Rules which the hobbits appeal to in their disputes are the same as the ancient laws and customs that rule the monarch. The King simply enforces them. Call Tolkien a romantic about benevolent monarchy if you’d like, but when he appealed to unconstitutional monarchy, he did not mean that the will of the sovereign was divine. Far from it, in fact, given that a majority of monarchs in Middle‐Earth fall prey to temptations. King Theoden of Rohan is corrupted by the sly Grima Wormtongue, and Thorin Oakenshield is blinded by greed. Elessar is the odd man out, as he uses his power to protect the already Free People of Middle‐Earth.
What’s essentially libertarian about Tolkien is that he realizes that individuals govern themselves best, and should, for the most part, be left alone. However, we can’t get along very far in the world without others. We need a simple set of ‘Rules’ to learn how to respect one another, and the solidarity to band together to face external threats. Past the solid foundation that a uniting political body provides, the government that governs best governs least. “[H]umans being what they are, quite inevitable, and the only cure (short of universal Conversion) is not to have wars – nor planning, nor organization, nor regimentation.” (Letter 66) The creator of Middle‐earth gave us the example of a nice easy life in the Shire, but the relative peace of hobbits does not mean that they won’t fight back when they need to. His love for freedom is made most clear by the fact that the most exemplary king, for the most part, leaves his subjects at peace and liberty.