Star Wars will likely be remembered for its vast influence in film-making and culture, and its cutting edge action sequences and special effects. However, at its core, it is a tale of political failure. It is a saga of the dangers inherent in government, and the ease in which a nation (or a galaxy) can slip into serfdom.
The Star Wars saga is one of the biggest media empires in the world today. Through a slew of tie-ins, comic books, video games, movies, action figures, they’ve captured the imaginations of millions. Its prevalence is likely to continue to grow, since the franchise’s acquisition by Disney in 2012.
A large part of the success of Star Wars comes from its deep and involved world-building, such as in its portrayal of galactic politics. The franchise is simultaneously a sci-fi epic, an introduction to public choice theory, and a trip down Hayek’s road to serfdom.
The Hyperdrive to Serfdom
Totalitarian governments rarely form in a day. Rather, they’re merely the end result of a long process, what F.A. Hayek called “The Road to Serfdom.” According to Hayek, Leviathan grows as strongmen gradually accumulate power through manipulating the normal political process. They seize strength on the backs of crisis, sow discord and chaos, and slowly rise to the top, all the while eroding liberties.
One of the best modern illustrations of this process comes through the Star Wars saga. The ultimate villain of the series, Emperor Palpatine, spends years manipulating the Galactic Senate, with the ultimate quest of controlling it and the Galactic Republic, to be replaced by an Empire with himself at the head.
This seemingly odd plot for a blockbuster film was carefully chosen. George Lucas, largely inspired by the turbulent politics of the 1970s, said the situation “...got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren't overthrown; they're given away."
Serfdom came to the galaxy gradually, in the guise of safety and stability, and was accepted with open arms.
Lucas was, perhaps inadvertently, coloring his films in Hayekian paint. Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom, writes “...it is the general demand for quick and determined government action that is the dominating element in the situation, dissatisfaction with the slow and cumbersome course of democratic procedure which makes action for action’s sake the goal.”
In Attack of the Clones, Palpatine takes advantage of another crisis to expand his “emergency” powers. Urged on by a Senate eager for quick action, he proclaims, “It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling. I love democracy. I love the Republic. Once this crisis has abated, I will lay down the powers you have given me!”
An urgent appeal for action, any action, tends to lead to less liberty and a greater exercise of oppressive state power. Of course, proponents claim the changes are temporary, but there’s always another crisis that warrants further and continued intervention.
Over the course of thirteen years of this process, Palpatine successfully anoints himself Emperor during the events of The Revenge of the Sith. In the packed Galactic Senate chamber, he declares the end of the Republic, saying, "In order to ensure our security and continuing stability, the Republic will be reorganized into the first Galactic Empire, for a safe and secure society which I assure you will last for ten thousand years."
As he finishes his proclamation, the Senate erupts in cheers. Padme Amidala, a disappointed Senator, bitterly remarks "This is how liberty dies. With thunderous applause." Serfdom came to the galaxy gradually, in the guise of safety and stability, and was accepted with open arms. The Republic, as George Lucas puts it, was given away.
Galactic Public Choice
The political insights of the Star Wars films run even deeper. They also take a decidedly public choice view on the entire political process. Far from presenting a saccharine, rosy-eyed view on the glories of democracy, George Lucas confronts the viewer with a flawed, more realistic perspective on the practice of politics.
"It is my experience that Senators focus only on pleasing those who fund their campaigns, and they’re in no means scared of forgetting the niceties of democracy in order to get those funds." This is not plucked from the pages of public choice primer, but uttered by Obi-Wan Kenobi, as he lectures Anakin Skywalker on the inherent untrustworthiness of politicians.
No longer content with pure political control, the Emperor expands police power to rule his empire through fear.
James Buchanan once defined public choice theory as “politics without romance.” The school of thought holds that politicians aren’t incentivized to act for the public good, but instead respond to personal incentives to maximize their private gain. One of these incentives is acting to please their financial backers, who can help them stay in power.
In Star Wars, the Senate is portrayed as a corrupt, ineffective, and overly bureaucratic mess. Like Obi-Wan says, they “focus only on pleasing those who fund their campaigns,” not on serving the needs of the Republic.
Obi-Wan further notes that Palpatine “is very clever at following the passions and prejudices of the Senators." One of the great skills of wannabe despots is the ability to manipulate popular sentiment to their advantage. Palpatine is certainly a political genius, but he was only able to rise to power due to the self-interested, short-sighted Senators and their perverse incentives.
The End of the Road
In 30 years, the Republic was disrupted, usurped, and swept away entirely.
Even as the ancient Roman Republic was supplanted by the new Roman Empire, the trappings of a republic were retained. The famed Roman Senate still held some nominal esteem, even if the true power was in the figure of the Emperor.
Palpatine followed the same blueprint. Keeping the trappings of the old way (a “revolution within the form,” as Garet Garrett called it), like the newly dubbed Imperial Senate, makes the transition easier, and the populace less likely to rebel. By allowing some nominal participation in the political process, Palpatine assuages the sting of totalitarianism.
Nearly twenty years after his rise to power, in the film A New Hope, the Death Star is completed: a massive superweapon capable of wiping out entire planets. No longer content to rely purely on political control, the Emperor expands the military and police power to rule his empire through fear.
One of his chief lieutenants, Grand Moff Tarkin, elaborates, saying that with the completion of the Death Star,
The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away forever… Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.
In a little over thirty years, a galaxy-wide representative Republic was disrupted, usurped, and swept away entirely.
Millions of Americans are devoted to the Star Wars movie franchise, how many of them will heed the warnings that are so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the story?