Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!

The Politics of Star Wars

Ilya Somin joins us to talk about the politics behind the galaxy’s most popular epic space fantasy franchise.

Previous Episode
What Are the Risks of Terrorism?
Next Episode
Politics and Principle in New Zealand

Does Star Wars have a distinct political viewpoint that we can tease out? Would the Rebel Alliance be considered a terrorist organization? How would we know if a rebellion was justified? Is the Star Wars story libertarian?

Show Notes and Further Reading

The original trilogy of Star Wars movies and the prequel trilogy of the late 90s/early 2000s will be joined by Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the day this podcast is released.

Trevor mentions Somin’s work on political ignorance; for a more in-depth study, listeners may want to read his book on the matter: Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter (2013), or read the Cato Unbound series on democracy and political ignorance.

Listeners may also enjoy the podcast we did earlier this year with Timothy Sandefur on the politics of Star Trek.

Ilya Somin was also a guest in a KosmosOnline podcast about Star Trek.

Somin frequently mentions the animated TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels.


Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.

Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

Aaron Ross Powell: So it has been 113 episodes since we kicked off this podcast and it’s actually kind of amazing it has taken us this long to get here. But today is finally Star Wars day on Free Thoughts. Joining us to discuss the politics of Star Wars is Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University School of Law.

So a couple of episodes back, a few episodes back with the show with Tim Sandefur and the politics of Star Trek, which kind of prompted doing this show in addition to – I think this episode comes out the day the movie does.

Trevor Burrus: The greatest event in the history of mankind.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. So he argued that the original Star Trek series had a decidedly classical liberal viewpoint, that the politics that ran behind it were in line with classical liberalism but that later Star Trek turned away from that, to more of a leftist relativism. So is it possible to see – the Star Wars, do the movies say – we will stick to the movies and not to the comics and books and TV shows and other things for now. Do they have a distinct political viewpoint that we can recognize or tease out or are we in having this conversation necessarily reading in before we even get started?

Ilya Somin: I think it’s a good question. I think Tim is actually not entirely correct about the politics of Star Trek which I think had a relatively left wing sensibility even in the 60s. With respect to Star Wars, I think the original series of three movies from the late 70s and early 80s, it probably didn’t have very much of a strong ideology because it was focused on the few central characters and their personal adventures and relationships.

The prequel series clearly does have a viewpoint about the breakdown of democracy and the rise of dictatorship and it is overall somewhat left wing, albeit not nearly as sophisticated and worked out as the left wing viewpoint that Star Trek is. You said not to focus on the TV shows. I can’t help but note that the TV shows Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, which are now still canonical, have explored some of these political themes even more and then further reinforce the idea that there’s a kind of left wing viewpoint underlying the series.

Trevor Burrus: Are we just supposed to accept that the empire is bad because they are the – I mean let’s just use the word and that’s not a very good word now, imperialism and all this sort of …

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, maybe that’s scary and pseudo-Nazi iconography.

Trevor Burrus: And they had bad music …

Ilya Somin: There’s a standard joke in science fiction that when science fiction movies and books want to portray an evil empire, they call it by its true name. They call it the empire whereas if it’s a beneficial empire, they call it something like the federation, such as the federation in Star Trek.

I do think there is some real evidence in the series that the empire is evil. Obviously the destruction of Alderaan is the clearest case. But if you recall again, Star Wars Rebels, you see actually plenty of examples of atrocities by the empire including the use of slave labor, censorship, the expropriation of homes, even without compensation and much of this oppression is targeted people who are not active rebels. So it can’t be argued that the empire only oppresses if you rebel against it.

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, even just sticking to Alderaan. There’s a – so one of the novels that has come out recently is called Lost Stars by Claudia Gray, which tells the story of a young man and young woman who are lifelong friends and joined the empire shortly before A New Hope and then their relationship going through the three movies when – and the guy ends up joining the rebellion and the woman sticks with the empire until the end.

That destruction of Alderaan plays a large role in the book and even there we get – from the empire side, the argument is yes, it’s terrible to have blown up this planet and kill billions of people. But we’re on the cusp of a galactic war that would kill substantially more. Alderaan is a seat for the – it’s empowering the rebellion. There’s a lot of political power for the rebellion happening there and so by taking them out, we are – I mean obviously it failed. But we are stopping the war.

It’s a shock and awe. We’re going to shut down the rebellion. No one wants their planet blown up and so we’re saving billions more lives by taking this necessary albeit awful step. Is there – is that at all a plausible way to kind of save the empire from its evilness?

Ilya Somin: So it’s certainly not what is intended by George Lucas or for that matter by Disney, now that they’ve taken over the series from him. Nonetheless, defenders of the empire have made this very argument most famous in a notorious article by Jonathan Last in the Weekly Standard about a decade ago. I don’t think at least in the internal evidence of the series that this is at all plausible.

First of course, the destruction of Alderaan does not actually prevent the rebellion from going on or prevent this war from happening. If anything, it just angers people at the empire more. Second, it would seem to me that if you are going to make this sort of argument [Indiscernible] was made to justify things like strategic bombing of German and Japanese cities during World War Two. You at the very least need to meet a very high burden of proof that this really will have the supposed good effects and that it’s the only way of achieving them and I think there is no evidence from anything we see in the series that this burden of proof is even close to being met.

Aaron Ross Powell: I should know just to – for nerdy purposes, because we’re going to – it sometimes is hard to really talk about these questions without looking at the secondary evidence outside of the six canonical films. But – so this Lost Stars book is as canonical as the films now because it was published by Disney. So we can – I guess we’re kind of forced to use the evidence from it to some extent.

Trevor Burrus: To some extent. According to – I guess it’s not Michael Eisner or the guy who runs the canon for Disney now.

Ilya Somin: So I don’t think it would necessarily force you to do anything. We don’t have to obey Disney scriptures if we don’t want to and sadly, I’m not that familiar with this book. But I do take your point that it has some sort of official canonical status and perhaps I should go and study it more carefully.

Trevor Burrus: The iron fist of the hand of Mickey Mouse is the thing we – we have to understand they control it.

Ilya Somin: That’s the true …

Aaron Ross Powell: But it is – I mean the empire does see the rebellion as – at least in the beginning, a terrorist operation.

Trevor Burrus: And that was my question too because Ilya mentioned it that it’s blowback. I mean the reaction to Alderaan could be directly related to blowback and their strategies of trying to deal with the rebellion, when they’re decentralized and hard to find – like the Viet Cong for example – is to blow up large things when you can actually find the people and that creates blowbacks. So they do seem very – like terrorists.

Ilya Somin: Yes, although I think here as elsewhere the term “terrorist” is often abused in that the actually morally objectionable terrorism is the kind that either targets civilians which we never see the rebels do, at least in the TV series and movies, or alternatively is fighting in an unjust cause. The unjust cause point is a bit more controversial here. Clearly I think the producers of the movies want us to believe that the cause is just. Even if you’re not willing to take that at face value, it’s still far from clear that the regime that the rebels want to set up is as bad or worse than the one that currently exists under the empire.

The strong implication of the series is that it’s supposed to be better, though perhaps the movie that’s about to come out will cast them down on that.

Trevor Burrus: What is the moral status of justified rebellions? How do we know that it’s justified or not?

Ilya Somin: In real life or in the …

Trevor Burrus: In both.

Ilya Somin: So obviously, there is a vast amount of literature devoted to this, people like John Locke and all the way back to – some extent to Plato and Aristotle have written about this. I would say that a justified rebellion is one that revolts against an oppressive regime and has a realistic chance of establishing a better regime at a morally acceptable cost.

Obviously we could probably spend all day trying to unpack exactly how to operationalize each of those requirements. But notice that the worse the status quo regime, the more leeway there is for justified rebellions because in those cases, if the status quo is really awful, then setting up even a mediocre, moderately oppressive regime might still be a huge improvement. So for example with – you consider the regimes that replace communism after it fell. Some of them were worse than others but every single one of them was substantially better than the communist regime that replaced because communism was so completely horrible.

Trevor Burrus: It seems like they also use the fact – and this is very modern in a very broad sense. But just that we know the empire is evil because at least we see in the prequels that they have gotten rid of democracy or some sort of thing that – and I think we don’t learn until the beginning of episode four that they dissolve the Imperial Senate but the Imperial Senate is supposed to still exist even in the 30 years after the fall of the republic, correct?

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, no.

Trevor Burrus: Aaron, you’re the …

Aaron Ross Powell: We’re looking at 18 years.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah, 18 years, sorry. Yeah.

Ilya Somin: This is modeled I think on the actual history of the senate in the Roman republic where the emperors never actually shut down to senate. It continued to exist up until the fall of the Roman empire itself or even just [Indiscernible] beyond. But over time, the senate was drained of much of its power and of course the actual senate of the Roman republic was not at all democratic. It was in fact the kind of aristocratic weak club. How democratic the senate in the old republic before the empire in Star Wars is actually debatable. It’s probably more democratic than the Roman senate was. But it’s far from clear that they were actually chosen by truly competitive popular elections.

Aaron Ross Powell: What evidence do we have of the level of democracy? I mean we know that it’s a weird senate because it seems to be made up of like say the chief executives of various planets. So Queen Amidala is the ruler of her planet and then she’s also the senator who gets sent.

Ilya Somin: My understanding and I could be remembering the second – episode two incorrectly – is that she becomes a senator after her term as queen is over. She is an elected queen, which actually doesn’t make a lot of sense.


Ilya Somin: Yeah, that’s right. So it’s like when a governor finishes his term and is elected to the senate. What we don’t know is exactly how the senators are chosen and given what seems like the very decentralized nature of the republic, it may well be that each planetary government has its own criteria for choosing the senators. So perhaps some are popularly elected whereas some are just chosen by the rulers of the planet, which of course is not dissimilar from the way that the US senate was chosen before the 17th Amendment when it used to be chosen by state legislators.

Aaron Ross Powell: But then we’ve got this weird mixing into this of the Jedi and the Jedi counsel which is not entirely clear what kind of power they hold within the old republic government. I mean they clearly have military power because in the Clone Wars, there are all the generals, which never made a huge amount of sense to me why you take these random people to be leading the armies instead of people who rose up to the ranks.

But they – I mean they’re – clearly the Jedi are not elected. They are sought out by their own kind through this very opaque process and – but they do seem to have a fair amount of power. So is that an anti-democratic element in here or do we not have enough information to make that call?

Ilya Somin: I think it’s pretty clear that they’re an anti-democratic or at least an undemocratic element. It seems like they’re self-selected from the population of people [Indiscernible] if that’s the way to pronounce it, to use …


Ilya Somin: And also up until the Clone Wars, it seems like the republic did not actually have its own centralized armed forces other than the Jedi. The Jedi were the only armed forces that answered to the republic as a whole or were part of the republic as a whole as opposed to individual planets. So it seems like they’re a kind of state within a state. They’re the only central armed force. They have tremendous autonomy. Much of what they do is operating in secret and indeed they even began the project of raising the clone army in secret without getting the approval of the senate or any other government officials above them.

So a lot of more recent critical commentary in the Star Wars series actually does focus on the role of the Jedi and their undemocratic nature, their elitism, the way in which they’re responsible in many ways for the atrocities of the Clone Wars and the breakdown of the republic.

On the other hand, there’s the economist Tyler Cowen who pointed out a few years ago. If you take the series timeframes seriously, it seems like the Jedi have successfully maintained the piece for something like a thousand years, knowing later it breaks down. So you might say this is actually a really good system, but even a really good system will break down at some points in a thousand years. It’s actually not a bad run.

Trevor Burrus: But it seems like the good analogy for the Jedi would be something like the clerical class which doesn’t really exist in many countries, Western countries today. But it was a huge part of Christendom during the Middle Ages where you actually had a separation of the – because they’re a religion and I mean here they would violate the establishment cause I would say.

But if you think about something like the Investiture Crisis, which Harold Berman’s great book Law and Revolution discusses, which is a crisis between the pope and various things, but particularly [Indiscernible] Europe about who control different parts of life. The clergy and archbishop in England control different parts of life, which was [Indiscernible]. So you wonder what parts the Jedi actually control through their religious order.

Aaron Ross Powell: I want to push back possibly and I’m not sure this is a good argument. But I will try making it on the notion of them as – to think about them as a religion and so therefore to think about it as like an establishment clause, which clearly doesn’t exist in the Star Wars unit, but we will pretend. Violation in that the force is real in the Star Wars universe. It’s not – so it’s not like – one of the problems with religions having control now is that …

Trevor Burrus: Hokey religions …

Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, but there are lots of people today who think that like science is hokey religion and that they have better ways of getting at the true reality. But we don’t think therefore science is a hokey religion. So the force is real. Manipulating is real. These are – seem to be the only people who maybe don’t – they’re not the only people who have access to the force, but the only ones who seem to be really proficient in its use. It’s an important and powerful thing that gives them all of these abilities. So they look less like a religion and more like say, let’s be really charitable, technocrats.

Trevor Burrus: I don’t know. Ilya?

Ilya Somin: I mean both those analogies have some purchase. I think if you take the internal viewpoint of the Star Wars universe, it’s clear that the force is real and it has a kind of scientific or pseudoscientific basis. The Jedi of course also have a whole philosophy of life built around their use of the force and various precepts such as controlling your emotions, not giving into anger, living a life of celibacy or at least not having a family and so forth. But it’s not clear that that’s a religion in the sense of worshipping any kind of supernatural power.

It’s also I think the analogy to the medieval church doesn’t full work and that the medieval church tried to impose its religion on all of European society, not just on the clerics whereas there’s not much evidence that the Jedi tried to get anybody who isn’t the Jedi themselves to worship the force or to follow the Jedi philosophy or anything like that.

I do think it is clear that the Jedi are a kind of elite warrior class within the state. There’s a lot of autonomy from the official state. In that respect, it may be more analogous to something like the Knights Templar or the other …

Trevor Burrus: The Shaolin monks.

Ilya Somin: Yeah, or the other military religious orders of late medieval Europe which were eventually suppressed by European governments because they were seen as competitors with the state. So whether you view this as a positive or a negative phenomenon depends partly on your own ideology and partly also on how you interpret some fairly ambiguous evidence in the movies and TV series.

Trevor Burrus: I wanted to go back to some of the governing structure too because it kind of reminds me of your work on democracy and political ignorance because when we’re talking about the makeup of the senate which – if we’re talking about a really big galaxy, which we are, we have a real –

Aaron Ross Powell: Or at least a large chunk of it.

Trevor Burrus: A large chunk of it. We have a real small government. So if these planets themselves are sending representatives to the senate, it’s kind of like the UN. The internally decide how they’re going to choose people and then send them to this organization, which it’s unclear how much power they have over the planets themselves, like the UN. But how much could they have given a galaxy? I mean don’t we want small government in these situations? Shouldn’t the determination of whether – how democratic this world is – on an individual planet level because Queen Amidala is a queen. I don’t know what things are like on Corellia …

Aaron Ross Powell: Which is an elected queen.

Ilya Somin: Elected at the age of I think 14 or something. So …

Trevor Burrus: Well, there’s a problem by itself. This is a bad government structure.

Ilya Somin: Yes. It’s an interesting system. So it seems like – well, this is not spelled out very well in the movies or most of the tale. It seems like we start out actually with a galactic republic where the central government is actually pretty weak. The senate doesn’t have its own army. It does have the Jedi order but it’s not clear that they really control the Jedi that well and also the Jedi order is fairly small. We’re talking about at most maybe a few thousand Jedi perhaps.

Trevor Burrus: So maybe they’re kind of like the UN blue-helmet wearing army.

Ilya Somin: Perhaps. They are somewhat more potent and effective but certainly they’re small relative to the size of the problems that they could potentially tackle. With the crisis at Naboo, it seems like the central government starts gaining more power and of course with the Clone Wars, it gains more and more to the point where it becomes an oppressive empire at the end of it. So you could interpret this as saying that we should avoid giving power to a strong central government, particularly in a highly diverse society with many complex factions and the like.

I do not think this is the lesson that George Lucas needs us to take away from it. What he I think wants us to believe is that we do need a strong central government, just one that isn’t dysfunctional and one that isn’t captured by bad people and in fact George Lucas even at one point famously said that the best form of government would be a benevolent dictatorship. So I think what he wants us to feel is that it would be great if there was a strong centralized government which could prevent bad stuff like the invasion of Naboo in episode one but yet also didn’t degenerate into tyranny and oppression itself.

Trevor Burrus: But maybe we should take lessons also from Alex Jones who warns us about the UN becoming a despotic force setting up FEMA camps or maybe that’s kind of what the emperor did. He led a very silent coup to impose centralized force …

Ilya Somin: Yeah. So this raises the question of world government which is not likely to happen in the near future in the real world but certainly is being seriously advocated as a long term solution to various problems by many people. One of the issues that you see in the Star Wars universe again, not the message the Lucas intends, but one that you can certainly take in if you want to, is that once you have a strong centralized government, if it falls under the control of bad people, for whatever reason, there is no exit from it other than perhaps by war and even the war might be problematic if that’s the only government around, who controls most of the military force.

Whereas in the real world that we – if you have a terribly oppressive system like say ISIS or the Soviet Union or what not, there are some alternative governments elsewhere and the opportunity to flee into like – so one serious concern I would have about the world government is that even if it started out democratic and benevolent, then all those good things that people like George Lucas might want, there’s no guarantee that it would stay that way. If over time it degenerated into an empire or an oppressive state of any kind, it would be much harder to get out from under that problem than with an oppressive government that’s just limited to one part of the world.

Of course in the Star Wars universe, you can say the galaxy is essentially equivalent to the world because with faster and light speed travel, essentially traveling around the galaxy is somewhat like traveling around the world with our current technology.

Aaron Ross Powell: Although we do see in the movies and in the shows a lot of the action takes place in planets in the outer rim and other frontier worlds that do seem to be pretty well-removed from the empire’s control. They don’t control everything, right? So there does seem to be some degree of exit and there do seem to be a lot of people who basically have opted out of that system. So when we meet Hans Solo, he’s not – he doesn’t come off as a subject to the empire’s whim much. He’s just flying from planet to planet. There are quite a lot of people like him.

Ilya Somin: So it’s hard because we don’t have a comprehensive survey at least in the movies of what’s going on in all the outer rim planets. But both in the first three movies and even more so in Star Wars Rebels, we do actually see a substantial imperial presence in the outer rim oppressing people. We see what happens to Cloud City in the Empire Strikes Back. We see the imperial presence in Tatooine and so forth.

So while the outer rim planets are seemingly less under the imperial control than the inner planets, it’s clear that the imperial control does exist to a substantial degree and may well be increasing, especially since we remember that the empire only came to power I think about 15 years or 20 years before the events of episode four, the original Star Wars movie.

So it seems like it’s well on its way towards greater tyranny even in these outer planets.

Aaron Ross Powell: I mean the timeline is one of the things that seems oddest about all of this because we are talking about the – from the collapse of the old republic to the rise of the empire, to the empire’s domination of most of space. We are looking at probably less than two decades and to the eventual collapse, less than three decades. During this time, like if the Jedi were the primary peacekeeping force of the old republic and everyone has forgotten about them, by – like that they’re just – they’re basically a myth a handful of years later. Is this timeline of governmental change and rise of new regimes and their fall and their replacement by other regimes within such a short period of time plausible at all?

Ilya Somin: Well, setting aside what I think is just a plotting consistency of people not remembering about the Jedi which occurred – it was of course at the time they produced the Star Wars movie in 1977. Lucas hadn’t yet envisioned the whole previous history of the Jedi. A set of rapid transitions and conquests is far from unprecedented in history.

If you think about how Napoleon, Hitler, Alexander the Great and other conquerors took over very large parts of what was then the known world or world around them, within even a shorter period, then we see with the empire. So I think that’s not at all unprecedented. You can also see the rapid rise and fall of different regimes and countries like 19th century France who are Germany and Russia in the early 20th century.

So, none of that is all that historically unprecedented. I think you can argue about whether the empire has the military power and technology to take over the galaxy as quickly as it does. But remember in many cases, it doesn’t actually have to take it over because they simply are the successor to the previous regime and therefore a lot of people simply just obey the empire because they view it as the new instantiation of what they already viewed as the legitimate government.

Just as when Augustus became the first emperor, many people ended up just recognizing his authority without a fight, particularly since he portrayed himself as continuing the traditions of the republic rather than making a sharp break with them.

If anything, one of my beefs with the way this is portrayed in the Star Wars series is that if Palpatine is a smart politician which elsewhere it seems like he is, he probably would not announce, well now, there’s an empire and no republic anymore. It would be more reasonable and more intelligent if we do what Augustus did, which was to say, “I’m just the first among equals. I’m saving the republic and continuing it and I’m maintaining all the forms and the like.” A few years later, Augustus even officially resigned all of his offices and just maintained his power more or less informally behind the scenes. So it would seem to me that Palpatine would do better to remain chancellor by just continuing various emergency powers that he had gathered to himself during the Clone Wars.

Aaron Ross Powell: I mean he does seem to go out of his way to announce that his regime is evil. Just dressing the way he does and the way that we named their ships, like Star Destroyers and the Death Star. These aren’t the kinds of names that you give to the good guys.

Ilya Somin: Although remember it’s not clear that the iconography of Nazi-like uniforms has the same connotations in that universe as it would for the audience …

Trevor Burrus: Sure, sure.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yes. But the names of the ships are scary and the individual names of the Star Destroyers are all like bad, mean things. They’re not protector or they’re like vengeance.

Ilya Somin: So the British Navy has ships called Vengeance and the like. They even had a ship called the Devastation at some point. So – and we often have scary names for our own weapon systems. So if you’re an imperial patriot, so to speak, you might view Star Destroyer as just not a name that’s supposed to scare us, the good guys, but rather to scare the enemy that the imperial fleet is fighting.

Trevor Burrus: I wanted to go back to Aaron’s question about the frontier because this is something that I’ve written about and spoken about in terms of the interestingness of frontiers from a political theory standpoint when you think about things like Firefly, which is about the frontiers of the space, which are the outer planets, which are very Old-West-like. The idea of the Old West is the frontier. The frontier has usually been synonymous with where the government – where people go before the government, where the government sort of stops trying to move as fast as the people and where its power kind of ebbs.

So a lot of people who try and live free lives end up trying to live them in the frontier where it’s less hospitable or on places like Hoth where you can bring a rebellion because sometimes the power of government is just – it’s coexisting with technology and whether or not it wants to deal with people living on the frontier. You see some of this in The Hunger Games too because when you see centralized cities in these sci-fi stories, you see them very metallic, very glassy like the Capitol in The Hunger Games, like the [Indiscernible] in Star Wars whereas on the outer rims, people are more living closer to the earth.

You also see the work of people like James C. Scott who wrote about The Art of Not Being Governed, which are the hill people of Southeast Asia who move away from government with technology, to try and stay out of their way. So in the frontier, do we know much about the use of the frontier in Star Wars and whether or not it’s the kind of – it’s a similar kind of thing as Firefly or other series?

Ilya Somin: I think it’s definitely true what Aaron suggested earlier where in Star Wars, you do see somewhat less imperial control in places like Hoth and Tatooine and the like. At the same time, it also seems much more clear in Star Wars than in a series like Firefly that the empire can easily assert great control over these planets whenever it wants to.

So as soon as it deploys its forces to Hoth, the rebels are defeated pretty quickly and the empire can work its will. Same with Cloud City and Empire Strikes Back and other episodes we can name, whereas in Firefly, it seems like the oppressive central government has much greater difficulty asserting meaningful control over core planets.

So I think when you look at frontiers, there can be variation both in science fiction and in real history about the extent to which the imperial metropole can actually assert control when it wants to.

I think also the frontier argument is a little bit pessimistic in some ways. If you take it seriously, it implies either you can live in poverty, in fear, but relative freedom on the frontier or you can live in greater technological luxury and with less crime, but with political oppression at the center and obviously hopefully what we would want to achieve is a free society that also has urban spaces and high technology and the like.

Trevor Burrus: Well maybe that’s the way to interpret the Death Star, that it’s basically trying to deal with frontier in the control that’s needed when – with a government to be able to exact its will. It needs to have technology to be able to do that.

Ilya Somin: Certainly the Death Star seems like an effort by the empire to assert control over recalcitrant planets. Obviously as we discussed before, there’s a question of whether it turns out to be overkill in that many people who might otherwise have been willing to tolerate the rule of the empire or even actively support it, feel like if they can do this to Alderaan, maybe the same thing will happen to us and therefore we need to revolt even though previously we thought that it wasn’t so bad.

Trevor Burrus: But you’ve written before that it may be the case that the empire should have built more Death Stars, that they had a problem with building only one or two.

Ilya Somin: Yes. So there is also a subgenre of literature criticizing the empire’s military strategy and if you take seriously some back of the envelope calculations that economists and literary critics have done, it seems like the empire has sufficient resources to build a substantial fleet of Death Stars and then they could almost certainly crush the rebellion because even if one or two are destroyed by lucky shots or [Indiscernible] whole fleet of them left just like they have a large fleet of Star Destroyers.

So it’s a little bit like instead of having just one or two nuclear bombs which are vulnerable to a preemptive first strike, you can have an entire nuclear arsenal, in which case you’re much more secure potentially.

Trevor Burrus: But we can’t have a Death Star gap. That would be the worst problems.

Aaron Ross Powell: How would having multiple Death Stars have defeated the rebellion differently than the way they went about it with just the one and then later the half of one? Because their problem doesn’t seem to be that they can’t – they lack the military might to take out all of the various worlds. Their problem through – at least the original films – is that they can’t find the rebellion a lot of the time. The rebellion has bases set up on places like Hoth, which is just – you know, it’s not like that’s hidden among the normal population. That’s just the planet that had nothing on it and then they hit a base there.

Once they find it, they have no trouble taking it out with their conventional means and similarly the bases at like Yavin, I mean they threatened that with the Death Star but they could have taken that out quite quickly from orbit …

Trevor Burrus: Which one is Yavin? Oh, Yavin is the first Death Star. OK.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yes, yes. That’s when it’s coming around …

Trevor Burrus: One of my jobs here. We’re going to make sure we don’t use jargon.

Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah. But so like having lots of Death Stars would allow them to do what? To blow up lots of planets. But if they’re blowing up lots of planets, aren’t they doing significant damage to their own resources and causing more problems than it’s worth?

Ilya Somin: So this gets into the question of the relationship between Star Wars and counterinsurgency and the viewpoint that the series takes on it. In the real world, there’s a lot of literature on this, but it seems like there are two possible approaches to counterinsurgency that might work. One is the sort of nice approach, relatively nice approach, advocated by people like David Petraeus [Indiscernible] population. You provide them security. It’s a slow, gradual process.

You exercise great restraint in your use of force [Indiscernible] you antagonize civilians and there’s some evidence that that can work in some cases like the surge in Iraq in 2007. On the other hand, there is the mean, nasty approach to counterinsurgency which also has a history of working where you wipe out any areas that seem to support the rebels where you’re willing to engage in overkill and where you make clear that you’re not going to be deterred by any – you’re not going to be deterred by losses and the like.

That approach also in quite a number of cases is successful. It worked pretty well for the Soviets for example in suppressing the various insurgencies, trying to resist the communist after they first took over and also in the 1940s after they recaptured the Baltic states in Ukraine and the like.

So it seems like if the empire had a whole fleet of Death Stars, they could quite easily adopt the nasty approach among other things. They wouldn’t have had to attack Hoth with their conventional forces. As soon as they found out that there’s a rebel base on Hoth, they could have just sent a Death Star to vaporize it and most of the leadership rebellion might well have been wiped out.

If a number of planets that seem to be harboring rebels are wiped out by Death Stars, other planets will get the message. They would be less likely to be willing to host rebels. They would be more willing to turn them over. You might not be able to suppress all rebel activity completely. Such a vast galaxy probably never could but you might well get it to the point where it’s just a minor nuisance and certainly has no real chance of overthrowing the empire.

So I’m not saying such a policy would be just or desirable. But from the standpoint of the rulers, the empire might be workable. Yes, it destroys some resources but if even 10 or 20 percent of the planets ruled by the empire get wiped out in this way, then it probably wouldn’t require that much destruction. You still rule 80 percent and that’s more than enough to assure a comfortable lifestyle for the imperial elite.

Aaron Ross Powell: Although arguably, they’re – the strategy they had of first build one and then build just the second Death Star was working just fine. I mean they were – all the evidence points to they were winning the struggle against the rebellion, right? I mean we don’t see them losing massive numbers of ships and fleet engagements. We don’t see their power sliding. It’s rising in – all the way up until they make the mistake of putting their top guy on something that then gets blown up. But that could happen no matter how many Death Stars you have. So outside of that rather stupid error, their strategy seemed to be working pretty well.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah. You don’t see any diminution in their power after episode four.

Ilya Somin: It’s complicated in that you see two things. First you see the fact that the rebels actualy have a larger and larger fleet themselves. So it seems like more and more resources are coming under their control. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have the industrial base to build a big fleet.

Secondly, you see the – one of the emperor’s finest legions as he calls it himself defeated by an army of Stone Age teddy bears with a small number of rebels supporting them. So this suggests a significant diminution in the power and efficiency of the imperial military.

Trevor Burrus: I guess the teddy bears would be – they’re a bigger fighting force than people I guess have expected out of them. I think Aaron’s question too about the – building the second Death Star because I always wondered if there’s just this empire military industrial complex that it just wants to build these things. I mean they’re not highly maneuverable and they have all the problems of the military industrial complex because they also build them quite poorly like the F-35 with an exhaust port. They can blow up the entire thing. So maybe the Death Star is like the military complex of the empire and the F-35 is just a huge cash sink job – maybe they’re unionized. Maybe they all vote and this is a huge problem.

Aaron Ross Powell: To cite that Lost Stars book again because it just got a terrific line about this. There’s the question of why have we – why are we building another one of these things when the first one blew up so easily? The argument that gets given there by people is, look, we have this big thing that had lots of people in it and the rebels flew some planes into it and blew it up. If we don’t rebuild it, then the terrorists have won.

Ilya Somin: There might be other evidence for a dysfunctional military industrial complex under the empire. I don’t think the Death Star really counts because it’s pretty clear that the Death Star project is not being pushed by some shadowy contractor somewhere. It’s clearly the emperor himself and Darth Vader that really want it to be built and they repeatedly say that. So unless you want to go back to the sort of old communist explanation rise of Hitler which says that Hitler was just a tool of German capitalists and you want to argue that Palpatine is really just a front man for military contractors or something, it seems like he personally is the one who’s pushing the Death Star.

There might be other military industrial complex type problems that you see as in the fact that the members of the imperial military seem not to be able to shoot straight. They can’t hit anything. Plus they’re all wearing body armor. It doesn’t seem to actually keep out blast or fire or any kind of damage. So it seems like that armor, the purchase of many hundreds of thousands of suits of it seem to just be benefiting whoever is building it. But it doesn’t actually benefit the imperial military and there might be other examples like that, but the Death Star seems to be primarily Palpatine’s baby. To some extent perhaps also that of Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin.

Aaron Ross Powell: And outside of the – I mean we don’t get a lot about the economic system in …


Aaron Ross Powell: There’s no much about commerce or how the economy functions.

Trevor Burrus: I assume they get their money through taxation, but I’m not sure.

Aaron Ross Powell: But in some of the other – in some of the novels and in some of the TV shows, you do get – there are instances, plenty of instances of – either call it crony capitalism or corporatism or at least deep connections between politically-connected businessmen and the empire who – these businessmen are able to use the empire to drive out competitors or take over areas or prop themselves up. So it does feel that there’s a fair amount of that going on behind the scenes.

Ilya Somin: Yeah. Certainly in the Clone Wars TV series, you see a good deal of it where it’s implied that both military contractors and banking interests are in many ways at least in part behind the Clone Wars and trying to perpetuate the war. Moreover, it’s even implied that – or even stated at one point that insufficient regulation of banks has caused a financial crisis like the 2008 financial crisis.

In our world, this is obviously intended as part of the left wing mesh of the series. So while you certainly do see corporate and business interests having this impact in the Clone Wars and a little bit in the prequel movies as well, I think the message that is being conveyed is more a left wing message and a libertarian one. The idea being that what you want is real representatives of the people to take control of these interests rather than to get the government out of intervening in the economy.

Aaron Ross Powell: So if that’s true, I mean Star Wars shows up a lot on – you see lists of libertarian movies. It’s not uncommon to see Star Wars listed often just because it’s showing people fighting back again an oppressive regime. But is it – is there any reason to think that Star Wars is at least non-libertarian, maybe just a little bit or is that just completely misguided just to get on those lists?

Ilya Somin: So I think the original three movies are at least compatible with libertarianism in the sense that they’re fighting against a clearly non-libertarian oppressive government and very little was said about what it is that they’re fighting for, except some vague restoration of a republic. When you see the prequel movies, even more so the Clone Wars series, I think it’s pretty clear that the ideology animating it is non-libertarian.

In Star Wars Rebels, there is some greater evidence perhaps of some insipient libertarianism that remain to be seen whether Disney has a more libertarian or at least a less non-libertarian sensibility than George Lucas did. But I think it would be a mistake to say that any series where the good guys are fighting against something that libertarians would also oppose necessarily means that that movie or series is libertarian in nature.

You would also want to ask what it is that they’re fighting for. Otherwise you could say, well, Stalin during World War Two was libertarian because he was fighting against Hitler and libertarians oppose Hitler as well. Obviously that’s an extreme case but I think it’s highlight to a more general point that – as libertarians, we’re welcome to enjoy and like non-libertarian works. But we should be a bit more discriminate about saying what really is a libertarian.

Aaron Ross Powell: Well, this brings up the opportunity then to talk about one of the truly moral and troubling aspects of Star Wars and one that seems to go directly against libertarianism, which is the status of Droids because everything we – so everything we see about Droids in the Star Wars universe – and they’re everywhere in that universe – probably not all of them but certainly a lot of them are sapient, rational thinking beings who are effectively enslaved, are – I mean they’re – at the very least, they’re an oppressed class. But we’re not – the movies don’t portray it that way. The movies that don’t seem to raise any questions about whether it’s OK for Anakin to own C-3PO or for the Droids to be bought and sold as salvage effectively, like we’re just supposed to accept that, but it seems rather troubling.

Ilya Somin: Yes, and I think it’s troubling even if you’re not a libertarian. A number of non-libertarian commentators have focused on this such as the famous left wing science fiction writer Robert G. Sawyer. I think this actually represents a moral blindness not just in the part of the characters in the Star Wars universe but on the part of the producers, the movies as well in that there’s a sense that if something is mechanical and it’s not a biological being, then we can use it purely as a means to an end. We can do what we want. We do not worry too much about the morality of treating it the way that we do.

This is certainly true of the computers and robots that exist in their own world, which are not sentient and don’t really have a will of their own. But it seems not to be true of at least many of the Droids in the Star Wars universe who are effectively enslaved and it’s not just the bad guys who enslave Droids in this world in this way. But the good guys, people like Luke Skywalker and others as well, and none of them seem to be troubled by it. I think this moral blindness on the part of the characters and the producers and also I think much of the audience, there’s an obvious historical analogy to the moral blindness about slavery in the real world for many centuries.

So in the world of ancient Greece and Rome, even great and insightful thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, took the justice of slavery largely for granted and they thought that it was just a part of the nature of society that we’re going to have a situation where there’s this enslaved class, and even more recent, if you watch a movie like Gone with the Wind, it seems like not just the characters but also the audience has intended to take for granted the idea that the enslavement of blacks was if not necessarily right and just, at least not all that bad or just part of the natural way that things were.

Trevor Burrus: Now this has struck me as we were talking about this because it goes back to our discussion of the political alignment and realities of the republic, which is that – if I remember correctly, Anakin and his mother at the beginning of the movie – the first movie [Indiscernible] and it’s unclear – it seems fairly open that they’re slaved.

I mean there are still slaves in the world today. But it’s unclear whether slavery is simply legal. I mean my guess would be that slavery is legal on Tatooine. It’s a member of the republic. I mean this is [Indiscernible] of the republic. So one thing we might be able to conclude from that is that the republic has sort of a pre- Civil War kind of political system where they don’t get inside of planets and overturn oppressive laws like slavery if we can conclude that slavery is legal on Tatooine at the beginning of the first movie, episode one.

Ilya Somin: It’s a good question. It’s hard to say whether slavery is legal on Tatooine or whether Tatooine is simply a government or a planet that doesn’t have much in the way of a functional central government. So it may be that the central government does not recognize slavery but local rulers of various kinds don’t care and still continue to practice it.

It also does seem to be the case that at least pre Clone Wars, the republic has very little ability to intervene in the governance of the member planets and therefore things like slavery could go on particularly in these frontier planets, even if your average citizen of course probably wouldn’t approve it, would think that it’s a bad thing.

Trevor Burrus: We also have the Hutts which is interesting – maybe that says something about – the fact that Tatooine is a little bit like say Somalia or maybe the Hutts are kind of like – I mean like a political machine, like Tammany Hall or Louisiana in the …

Aaron Ross Powell: We do have evidence that slavery is – slavery of biological beings is rather looked down upon. I mean one of the – you don’t see it in the movies so much, but it shows up in like the second episode of Star Wars Rebels. Maybe the first. I can’t remember which one with Wookie slaves.

The empire has – after the empire defeated the Wookies and took over Kashyyyk, it enslaved the Wookies and that is presented as a horrible thing. There are other instances throughout comics and books and other things where they encounter – people encounter slavers and it’s not clear – it often comes off – it may be legal in certain areas. It certainly isn’t legal in others, but nobody likes them.

Ilya Somin: Yeah. So it seems like the empire is a large and relatively diverse universe and there are certainly some entities that regard slavery as permissible like perhaps the Hutts and some people in Tatooine and the like.

But it also seems likely that your average more cosmopolitan citizen of Coruscant or other such planets would be horrified by that. Just like in our world, ISIS believes that slavery at least of non-Muslims is morally permissible and just fine. But most people even including many other Muslims are horrified by ISIS and regard them as beyond the pale of legitimate civilization because they have such practices, but just as we can’t always easily suppress ISIS because they control these sort of lawless unstable regions.

So similarly the central government of the republic may not have been in the position to suppress the Hutts or stamp out slavery in Tatooine and the like.

Aaron Ross Powell: But the shifts that moral blindness is not about slavery per se, because it …

Ilya Somin: It’s a moral blindness about Droids.

Aaron Ross Powell: Right.


Ilya Somin: Yeah, just as the average American in 1850 would have been horrified by the enslavement of white, but many people thought it was perfectly fine to enslave blacks or at least a necessary evil to do so. So similarly, your average citizen of the Star Wars universe – and by the way, your average producer of the Star Wars movies, they think it’s horrible to enslave humans or other intelligent, biological beings. But the enslavement of Droids, which they would not even call enslavement perhaps is seen as perfectly fine.

Aaron Ross Powell: So shifting gears a bit, one of the issues that we have a handful of pieces about on that has caused a fair amount of controversy and like so many others, we can see versions of it in the Star Wars universe is secession. We have articles about whether the South was justified into ceding, whether the North was justified in preventing them from doing so. In the Star Wars universe, this issue comes up. The Clone Wars are all about the question of secession.

Ilya Somin: Yeah. So in one sense, the secession movement is a kind of fraud because it’s manipulated by Palpatine and Count Dooku and others for the purpose of starting a war. But in the Clone Wars series, we do see that there are a lot of people who have genuine grievances that may lead them to want to secede. The question arises of maybe the republic, both the secessionist and the – those who stay in would have been better off if they had simply let the secessionist go.

Indeed in the real world, there is some evidence from political science research that multiethnic, diverse societies, which have provisions for secession actually experience less ethnic conflict and perhaps even less actual secession than those which simply say unity at all costs and will suppress secession efforts by force.

Now I don’t think this means that libertarians or anybody should say all secession movements are justifiable. If you have a secession movement that’s launched for the purpose of perpetuating institution like for example slavery, then I think that’s a different case. But that’s not necessarily all secession movements and in the case of the Star Wars universe, it is far from clear that the secession is – most of them at least were trying to set up governments any worse than those that existed before.

So on balance, it seems like the republic could have saved an enormous number of lives, an enormous amount of treasure and also prevented the rise of the empire, if they had simply let many of the secessionists go when they said they wanted to. This might have actually to some degree diminished incentives for further secession by others because people would have known. If I get to a point where I have really serious grievances, I can secede in the future, so there’s no reason necessarily to roll the dice now.

Trevor Burrus: So what are your hopes and expectations for the new movie, which – this will – is being published on the day of the release …

Aaron Ross Powell: It comes out simultaneously.

Trevor Burrus: It comes out the same day. This is the most important release on 12/18.

Aaron Ross Powell: So this is the part of the episode that becomes dated almost immediately. We all risk it and strive ahead.

Trevor Burrus: Yeah.

Ilya Somin: So I hope at the very least it’s fun to watch and it’s better made than the prequel movies. If it does address political issues, which it’s hard to say for sure whether it will or not based on the trailers that I’ve seen, I hope it tries to do so in a more sophisticated way than it was done in the prequel movies. That it takes more seriously these questions of, “If you do want to have a strong central government, how do you ensure that it doesn’t itself become oppressive?” and perhaps it will have a less moral blindness in regard to things like the Droids as well. You see a little bit of diminution of that blindness in the Star Wars Rebels TV series which takes the Droid situation at least slightly more seriously than the previous movies and TV series.

Aaron Ross Powell: Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more about libertarianism and the ideas that influence it, visit us on the web at