News & Politics

Is 'Star Wars' a Warning About Big Government?

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WASHINGTON, DC — The “Star Wars” saga is a warning about the dangers of big government and political ignorance, argued speakers at the Cato Institute on Monday.

The saga warns against the concentration of political power, said Michael F. Cannon, director of health policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. Cannon recalled quoting Star Wars when the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) passed: “This is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause.”

“The political foundation of Star Wars is about freedom,” declared Cass Sunstein, a Harvard professor and author of the newly released book, The World According to Star Wars. He argued that the original movie — and the series afterwards — was “bound to succeed, it’s just too good.”

Ilya Somin, a law professor at George Mason University and author of Democracy and Political Ignorance: Why Smaller Government is Smarter, argued that “Star Wars” is also a warning about political ignorance.

Somin pointed to the character of Jar Jar Binks, whom “most people hate” because “he’s annoying and obnoxious,” but who actually serves an important purpose. “He represents the forces of political ignorance,” Somin argued. The law professor noted that the buffoon Jar Jar ends up casting the deciding vote in giving Chancellor Palpatine emergency powers.

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The law professor warned that most Americans do not know the three branches of the federal government, and lack an understanding of basic economics. That may not make them the real world equivalent of Jar Jar, but it poses a danger to self-government.

“Democracy doesn’t come off particularly good in the prequels,” Somin argued. He pointed out that the heroism involved in keeping the peace in the old Republic comes from the Jedi, rather than from the largely powerless Galactic Senate, which is perpetually bogged down in bureaucracy and procedure.

While the Jedi show that heroism is most important, they also present a danger. After all, Anakin Skywalker was a Jedi before becoming Darth Vader. His transition is a cautionary tale about putting too much trust in strong men, Somin said.

Cannon also picked up on this theme. “Ideology leads people to do evil in the name of doing good,” he warned. He criticized Anakin’s transition to Darth Vader as “cartoonish,” saying that when the Jedi-turned-Sith starts to do evil, his eyes and voice change to make his intentions too obvious.

In reality, Cannon argued, anyone can be corrupted by power and ideology, and even while doing evil, that person thinks they are achieving good things.

“The lesson of Star Wars is that nations, powers, Galactic Senates should embrace a system of liberty under which people can do the least harm,” the Cato scholar declared.

Sunstein agreed, praising the “political virtue” of people “who are curious by nature,” and “actually seek out material that is inconsistent with their predilections.” He warned that “if you don’t like something you’re not likely to believe it,” and that this tendency leads to short-sightedness and the misuse of power.

While Somin praised “Star Wars” in general, he warned that the overall message of such heroic fiction can sometimes lead fans to think that the best solution to problems in the real world is one extremely competent hero. In such stories, “it’s much harder to make the hero a fully-functioning legislature.”

But the emphasis on such larger-than-life characters can lead people to think that “what we really need is a hero who will make us great again, who will make great deals and do great projects.” (Darth Vader was even a special guest on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice.”)

“Star Wars” may warn against government power, but it was always a hopeful saga. Sunstein explained the first film’s surprising success, noting that after President Jimmy Carter’s discussion of a “malaise,” America needed a new hope. “Lucas gave it on a silver spaceship.”