“Star Wars” isn’t just a science fiction action series about warrior monks with lightsabers combating the forces of darkness, according to a libertarian health care scholar. The series is also an epic narrative that teaches the importance of limited government in light of a depraved human nature.
“The lesson of Star Wars,” says Cato Institute Director of Health Policy Michael F. Cannon, “is that nations, planets, systems galaxies should adopt a regime of liberty, whose main benefit … is that it is a system under which bad men can do the least harm.”
Cannon’s reasoning for the assertion begins with “Star Wars” creator George Lucas’ explanation of the series’ most infamous antagonist’s descent into evil.
According to a past interview with Lucas, Cannon recalled, Darth Vader did not consciously choose to be evil, explains Cannon, but rather became evil by pursuing what he thought to be good. In this respect, Vader joins the host of other political villains who thought they were about the business making the world a better place, while actually doing the exact opposite.
“People doing evil in the name of good is how most of the evil in the world happens,” explained Cannon, citing quotes by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, C.S. Lewis, and Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies on the subject.
“The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated,” reads one quote by Lewis. “But those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”
This insight, “that evil comes dressed as good, and that the clash between good and evil is a clash between two different conceptions of the good,” Cannon said Monday, “is Star Wars’ most important insight in to human nature in politics. It tells us that Star Wars is keenly aware of our potential for self-deception and the consequent danger when too much power falls into anyone’s hands.”
This self-deception on the macro and micro level is clearest during the scene in “Revenge of the Sith” in which the Republic becomes an Empire as Anakin transitions to Vader. Neither occurred without the belief that what was happening was for a more noble cause. Whether for the ability to preserve the lives of loved ones through the power of the Force, or the simple desire to preserve stability through a moment of crisis, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The remarks were made at a Cato Institute event titled “The World According to Star Wars,” and based on Harvard professor Cass R. Sunstein’s book of the same name, in which Cannon also asserted the prequels actually obscure Vader’s initial desire for good, due to the overtly visage given to Chancellor-turned-Emperor Palpatine.
Despite George Lucas’ obvious attempts to try to make the shift believable, says Cannon, the film presents to the audience “a villain so cartoonish that he signals that he’s doing evil by changing his voice” and by his changing eye-color, instead of a believable tempter.
“That’s not how evil works and that’s not going to convince a do-gooder with a temper to turn genocidal,” says Cannon. But that’s Lucas’ intention, and it fits into one of the most commonplace totalitarian narratives in political history.
However, this self-deception doesn’t merely apply to grand-scale totalitarian regimes like the Galactic Empire or the fascist and communist states of the 20th century. One such lesser example of the abuse of power in the name of good was the increase in cigarette taxes under the ethos of improving public health through state coercion.
Higher cigarette taxes, Cannon explained, merely “nudged” people in the direction of not smoking while creating a black market for cheaper cigarettes obtained at lower tax levels.
This, in turn, increases the number of violent reactions between citizens and police over enforcement of the tax, like the one that led to the death of Eric Garner in New York in 2014, who died while resisting arrest under suspicion of illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.
However, this did not initiate a nationwide discussion about higher cigarette taxes, Cannon said, “because of an ideology that says it’s okay for the government to use violence as the police did here to discourage smoking and to make people pay for healthcare for others.”
Once again, under the guise of doing something “good” through the power of the state, a black market was created and at least one life was lost.
In light of these human tendency towards self-deception, Cannon offered a few takeaways from the Star Wars saga as a whole.
First, he says everyone should recognize that no human being is immune to self-deception, and that we should strive to govern accordingly.
“Since we’re all potential evildoers,” he says, the narrative instructs each of us to approach public policy “with a monkish humility.”
Second, it isn’t a good idea to give the government too much to do in the first place.
“The more choices we empower politicians to make for us, the more squabbling, corruption, and abuse of power we will find in the Galactic Senate,” he explained. “And if our ideology tells us that there shouldn’t be so much squabbling … then there will be calls to give someone the power to end the squabbling and to make people agree.”
Finally, Cannon concludes, “It’s probably best if we use the course of power solely to restrain people from harming each other, not as a tool to achieve other potential goods,” and that the best way to check these tendencies is with a written constitution which “pits self-deception against self-deception” and “checks ambition with ambition.”