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Saturday, June 1, 2002

Trust No One Including The X-Files?

Is The X-Files a Show Libertarians Can Get Behind?

I have two favorite moments from The X-Files.

In one of the television episodes (“Arcadia,” which aired in 1999), FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) go undercover in a planned residential community. Posing as the Petries—that’s right, same names as Rob and Laura from the old Dick Van Dyke Show—they are investigating the mysterious disappearances of several couples.

The community has strict regulations, and those who challenge the rules meet their doom at the hands of a thought-created monster conjured up by the strict homeowners’ president. Mulder fleshes out the creature by threatening to put up a portable basketball hoop and by knocking his mailbox out of alignment.

Rather than an attack on private communities, as might be expected from Hollywood, this comes across much more as a wonderful indictment of busybodies in local government and civic groups who try to impose their own views and tastes on their neighbors.

My other favorite moment took place in the 1998 film The X-Files: Fight the Future. This movie was fully immersed in X-Files lore, featuring a web of alien invasion and complex conspiracy. At one point, a shadowy figure tells Mulder that at the heart of the conspiracy is the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mulder is warned, “FEMA, the secret government.”

With The X-Files’ nine-year pursuit of UFOs, conspiracies, and the paranormal now over (though additional films are distinct possibilities), it’s time to ask if this is a TV show that libertarians (or conservatives) could embrace.

The X-Files certainly had many moments—like those previously mentioned—that generate agreement or chuckles from libertarians. However, a compatible, broad philosophy is not to be found there.

Oh sure, there were various government schemes and conspiracies that regularly popped up, and the show’s message of “trust no one” very much applies to government. This held obvious appeal for freedom-loving folks.

However, at its core, The X-Files should have appealed most to two other camps. The first, most assuredly, are those who believe that the government carries out massive conspiracies of a wide-ranging nature. In contrast, most libertarians understand that not only is government too inept to successfully pull off vast conspiracies, but also that people have incentives—including monetary rewards—to reveal the truth about such skullduggery. In X-Files lingo, one might say that the truth is out there—for a price. It is similar to so-called price fixing or collusion in the market, in that someone always has an incentive to break with the conspirators to gain market share, revenues, and profits.

The second group that should have embraced The X-Files is liberals (in the modern-day, big-government sense). They regularly acknowledge that corruption and even inefficiencies exist in government. However, they believe that if the right people—particularly, smart people—are in office, government will work just fine.

At its core, one would have to say that The X-Files was guilty of the same conceit. After all, Mulder and Scully themselves are smart government agents hard at work trying, in part, to fix government gone awry. They are goo-goos—good-government reformers—for the UFO set.

To the contrary, libertarians generally understand that corruption and waste in government exist because of perverse incentives intrinsic to government. That’s why they recognize that the best—indeed, the only—way to clean up government is to limit its size.

While fun to watch, Scully and Mulder over the years have not been working to cut government spending. Instead, whenever the FBI closed down the X-Files office, the two were always looking to get their program reinstated.

Hmmm, a taxpayer-funded government program in the basement of the FBI building pursuing tales of UFOs and the paranormal. In the real world, that would be a boondoggle worthy of investigation by libertarians.

  • Raymond J. Keating is an author and serves as Chief Economist with the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council.