The Hobbit: Tolkien the Economic Libertarian?31st December 2012

As thousands of us headed to the big screen this season, the top film has surely been The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey. Critics tell us much about the filming in 48 frames per second, but surely we are better focusing on the story and the real thinking behind it.

Over an excellent lunch before Christmas[1], it was suggested to me that JRR Tolkien, writer of The Hobbit and it’s masterly sequel Lord of the Rings, is considered by many to be a Libertarian. For one committed to the free market this was news indeed, and I have done some modest follow-up research to share.

So what is Libertarianism? To quote from Wikipedia, “Libertarianism is the group of political philosophies which advocate minimizing coercion and emphasize freedom, liberty and voluntary association. Libertarians generally advocate a society with significantly less government compared to most present day societies.” Cutting through the serious words, we could all benefit from a little of that.

JRR Tolkien completed The Hobbit in 1932. It was first published in 1937 and, whilst difficulties with paper rationing during and following WWII restricted the initial publications, a few different editions were published as it’s content became adjusted to align it with the Lord of the Rings. It has since been translated into over 40 languages. The writing draws on Tolkien’s knowledge as Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, to which he applied his skills in Norse mythology, Germanic language, British prose and poetry[2]. The book is also said to reflect his direct experience of WW1, when he lost all but one of his close friends; innocents plucked from pastoral scenes and thrown into scenes of war and desolation

Whilst at times he claimed that his books had no allegorical meaning, Tolkien also wrote to his son in 1943, whilst writing Lord of the Rings, stating that “… the most improper job of any man, even saints, is bossing other men; not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.” Indeed he had very direct local experience of this “bossing” with the Oxford town planners.

In another letter to his son in 1995 he wrote about planning, organization and regimentation being an “ultimately evil job”, the penalty being “to breed new Saurons, and slowly turn Men and Elves into Orcs”.

The first of the three Lord of the Rings volumes was published in 1954, it’s darker content intended for an adult readership who may have read The Hobbit as a child. The Rings of Power warped and corrupted all those who sought to use them; Gandalf the wizard stated “A mortal who keeps one of the great rings does not grow or obtain more life … every minute becomes a weariness”. This seems to follow a similar concept to that famous saying “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[3]

So could the Eye of the Dark Lord Sauron really be the all-seeing and controlling state, using corrupting power to send its unwitting public servants, the Orcs and Goblins, out in all directions to act at it’s behest, slaves to their creed, seemingly fulfilled only by an ever larger state?

Perhaps expressing his preference, Tolkien depicted The Hobbits enjoying micro government; in the Shire families generally managed their own affairs, leading a voluntary, ordered society, the only government services being the Message Service (the post) and the Watch (the police), and an unofficial border control. The hereditary position of Thain organised defence, and the Mayor, elected every 7 years, merely served as the Postmaster and head of the Watch. It all sounds rather simple and wonderful.

Tolkien’s books have been read by millions, the Lord of the Rings films have won 17 Oscars, and bands from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath to Enya have recorded material influenced or named after Lord of the Rings. In 2008 the Times listed Tolkien at sixth in the greatest British writers since 1945. Despite this enormous success, few of us stop to consider whether there is a deeper underlying message.

To quote from Stephen Carson “Tolkien … has a powerful and very relevant message for those of us who are Hobbits in a world controlled by wraiths. No matter how dark it gets, don’t give up hope. Stay true. Have courage. Help may come from unexpected places.” Quite a message for the New Year!

Tolkien wrote in 1943 that “My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy”. Don’t worry about the anarchy bit; the word has been much distorted of late, and actually refers to abolition of publicly enforced control, perhaps like the idyllic Shire.

Surely the greatest daily coercion of the state is taxation, and that is something I have found brief mention of in an online biography[4]: Tolkien is said to have resented the large portion of his book earnings eaten up by taxes, preferring to be an individual anonymous benefactor. He once scrawled across his tax return “Not a penny for Concorde”.

I will not draw any conclusion, certainly after such a brief foray into the topic. After all, we will all form our own views, and should be open to others, and there are many conflicting views on Libertartainism.[5] At the end of the day Tolkien was just a gentleman quietly finding his way through life, as we all seek to do, albeit with a remarkable legacy.

So let us end with the remarkably prescient reviewer of The Hobbit in The Times Literary Supplement, 2nd October 1937. He ended his review “… only years later … will they realize what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbit may well prove a classic.”


Principal inspiration: Lew Rockwell.com (writers: Jorn Baltzersen, Stephen Carson, Carlo Stagnar)

[1] Turbot for two at Bentleys, Swallow Street, London in the company of the excellent Dominic Frisby. Both highly recommended.

[2] For those interested in wallpaper, one of his literary influences was the famous designer William Morris, whose hand-printed paper is now much admired and copied.

[3] First quoted in this form by libertarian Lord Acton, historian & moralist 1887.

[4] Professor Ralph Wood

[5] Libertarians divide into many different camps, from Social Libertarians (such as William Morris) to Free Market Libertarians (a great start is to visit the Ludwig Von Mises Institute at www.mises.org)