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Aug 18, 2016

Jedi Libertarianism: Lessons on the Nature of Evil from Star Wars

The greatest evils are typically perpetrated by ideologues committed to false conceptions of the good.

I arrived on Earth at probably the perfect time to turn a kid into a Star Wars geek. Age five when the first film hit the theaters—thanks for taking me, Mom—I was spellbound. Waiting years for each new episode seemed eternity. On the plus side, it gave a kid time to practice his telekinesis. And to think.

One of the early lessons I drew from Star Wars—one that holds up to this day, and that has implications for politics, government, and even the role of judges in a republic—is what the saga has to say about the nature of evil. A long time ago, as a kid, I saw George Lucas explain in an interview that Darth Vader did not consciously choose to be evil. He became evil like most evil people do: while pursuing what he thought he was good. I haven’t been able to locate that interview. In a 2005 interview with Rolling Stone, Lucas revisits the theme. The idea of evil coopting good always had a hold on him: “John Wayne films had a lot of bad guys, but I can’t remember any of them. Most of the movies I liked didn’t really have strong bad guys. In films like Bridge on the River Kwai and Citizen Kane, the bad guy’s the good guy.” Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, who resembles a middle-aged Obi-Wan Kenobi, cared deeply for his men. He was just trying to protect them. That’s how Lucas saw Vader: “the story is not about a guy who was born a monster – it’s about a good boy who was loving and had exceptional powers, but how that eventually corrupted him.”

People doing evil in the name of good is how most of the evil in the world happens. The greater the goodness of their aims, the more evil people are able to accomplish in pursuit of those aims. Solzhenitsyn writes:

Macbeth’s self-justifications were feeble – and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb, too. The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology – that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others’ eyes.

C.S. Lewis struck a similar note:

The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; 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.

As did Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis (1928):

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.

The dynamic where ideology leads people to do evil in the name of good is not exclusive to the Solzhenitsyn-level, totalitarian ideologies of the Nazis, the communists, and the Sith. Inspector Javert was an instrument of God and the Law.

It also appears in banal, C.S. Lewis-level ideologies and policies. Like cigarette taxes.

In 2009, the Obama administration increased the federal cigarette tax to finance expanded health insurance for children. States tax cigarettes at varying rates to pay for health-insurance subsidies and other programs. Higher cigarette taxes are a way for government to nudge people in the direction of not smoking. And if people still choose to smoke, the cigarette tax revenue goes toward a good cause. If people feel like paying the tax, that is. Cigarette taxes create profit opportunities for people who buy them in low-tax states like Virginia and sell them illegally in high-tax states like New York. Cigarette taxes require enforcement, which means they increase the number of violent interactions between citizens and police, which in turn increases the likelihood that someone is going to get hurt.

In 2014, New York police were arresting Eric Garner on suspicion of evading cigarette taxes when they accidentally killed him. There were many contributing factors. But it is no exaggeration to say cigarette taxes killed Eric Garner. Did Garner’s senseless death spark a nationwide reconsideration of cigarette taxes? Not at all. Why not? Because of an ideology that says it’s okay for government to use such violence as the police did here to discourage smoking and to make smokers pay for other people’s health care.

Lest you think I’m picking on the Left, there is an ideology popular on the Right that holds it is good and proper for government to prohibit other drugs. The body count attributable to that ideology is probably much higher. Innocent or not, none of the victims of the illegal drug trade had to die. Evil, done in the name of good.

For me, the worst part of the Star Wars prequels was the implausibility of Vader’s seduction by the Dark Side of the Force. Lucas tried to make it believable. But where the role of Vader’s seducer called for a politician, a glad-handler, who himself believes he is doing good, Lucas gave us a villain so cartoonish he literally signals to the audience when he’s being evil by changing his voice. (Lucas also let us know who the bad guys are by giving them yellow eyes.) That’s not how evil works, and that is not going to convince a kid with a good heart to turn genocidal.

Regardless, Lucas explains Vader’s fall as evil done in the name of good. We can see Lucas at least tried to make Vader’s choice appear plausible. And certainly by Episode VI, Vader himself agrees that’s what happened to him.

The insight that evil comes dressed as good—that the clash between good and evil is actually a contest between two competing conceptions of the good—is Star Wars’s most important insight into human nature. Star Wars warns us of our potential for self-deception, and the consequent danger when too much power falls into anyone’s hands.

Star Wars’s most important insight implies four things for politics and government.

First, it requires each of us to recognize that this self-deception thing applies to us, too. You and I are all capable of the sort of self-delusion that leads people to do evil in the name of good. You—yes, you—may be doing evil, even when you think you’re doing good. Since we are all potential evildoers, Star Wars counsels us all to be suspicious of our own intentions and to approach politics with monkish humility.

Second, it implies maybe we shouldn’t let government do too many things. The more responsibility we give government, the more interactions we will see between citizens and police like the interaction that killed Eric Garner. As Dallas police chief David Brown said recently, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country…Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.” The more choices we empower politicians to make for us, the more squabbling and corruption and abuse of power we will find in the Galactic Senate. The more evildoing we will see. And if our ideology tells us there shouldn’t be so much squabbling, that people should just agree, there will be calls to give someone power to end the squabbling and to make people agree. So it’s probably best if we use the coercive power of the state solely to restrain people from harming each other, not as a tool achieve other potential goods. Put another way, use government only for defense, never for attack.

Third, while Star Wars doesn’t have a James Madison-like figure—Jimmy Smits was too tall—its recognition of the potential for self-deception counsels against the concentration of power within government. Whatever powers government may have, a good way to prevent too much power from concentrating in the hands of one person or group of people is with a written constitution that checks ambition with ambition, self-delusion with self-delusion.

Of course, constitutions and laws are not self-enforcing.

So, finally, Star Wars argues against treating the interpretation of the law as some sort of creative process and in favor of interpreting and applying the law in a manner that curbs men of zeal who lack understanding. If all law is a peace treaty, where we surrender a measure of our liberty in order to give government powers to restrain people from harming each other, then treating the interpretation of the law—judging—as a creative process where judges can expand existing government powers or discover new powers will erode liberty and strain the peace. This is particularly true since, while you may like a particular expansive interpretation of government power when your political party’s self-delusions are ascendant, you will not like it so much when the other party’s self-delusions rise to the throne.

“Textualist” or “originalist” judges, whose creed is to limit government power by holding government to the original meaning of the text of constitutions and statutes, can (and sometimes do) still treat law as a power-expanding creative process, even as they decry the practice. The fact that those judges have at least signaled that they want to limit the evil that men do by interpreting government power narrowly constrains them more than they would be if they had not.

In sum, Star Wars instructs nations, planets, systems, and galaxies to adopt a regime of liberty, the main benefit of which, Friedrich Hayek has written, is that it “is a system under which bad men can do least harm.”

Or perhaps I’m just deluding myself. But in a regime of liberty, my delusions can’t hurt you. And isn’t that the whole point?