'Star Wars' offers insights into the U.S.
There's no escaping the impression that the new "Star Wars" movies lack the epic feel of the original trilogy. Fans don't so much rave about "Attack of the Clones" as voice relief that it doesn't stink up the theater so badly as "The Phantom Menace." But there is one way in which the adventures of young Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi do take on heavyweight status -- that's in the profoundly timely treatment of the transformation of a sclerotic republic under pressure from internal opportunism and external threat.
Of course, George Lucas, the mastermind behind the films, first visualized his heroes and their adventures long before the events of September 11 had Americans speaking of emergency powers at home and a permanent "war against terrorism" abroad. In crafting his story, Lucas certainly drew from the experiences of past republics and empires, such as those of Rome and Britain.
Arguably, the last two Star Wars movies even make a case for free markets in contrast to the crony capitalism and corruption that beset doddering states. That message has been somewhat misunderstood by audiences who see the movies' Trade Federation and Commerce Guild cast in the role of heavies, and assume that it's a slap at business. But such guilds and federations aren't characteristics of free economies; they're artifacts of mercantilist societies in which politicians hand exclusive privileges to favored friends.
In a commentary on the last Star wars movie, Mark Thornton of the Ludwig von Mises Institute claims that:
"The tax franchise over interplanetary trade is an example of a "public-private partnership," the real "phantom menance" of the film. Throughout history this has been a very common practice when governments find it difficult to collect unpopular taxes in distant lands. ...
These public-private partnerships for the taxation and subjugation of the people are the worst of all possible worlds."
A strong case might be made that the Trade Federation of Star Wars finds its counterpart in the steel companies and agricultural interests that are now being shielded from competition by U.S. protectionism. Their profits are guaranteed at the expense of lower-cost producers and on the backs of consumers.
More obvious is the lesson that the Star Wars movies take from the American experience with secessionism. Unchallenged in the movies is the assumption that the separatist movement led by Count Dooku must be opposed -- by force of arms if necessary. Almost a century and a half after the Civil War, most Americans remain indoctrinated with the idea that secession is an unacceptable political strategy for matching people with political systems that suit their preferences. While anti-separatist sentiment remains dominant in America, it's increasingly jarring in a world that has seen relatively free and successful nations carved from the carcasses of failed states such as Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Accompanying the film republic's internal troubles is terrorism as represented by the assassination attempt made on Queen Amidala. Political violence is as current an issue as yesterday's headlines, made less chilling in the movie only by the fantasy context.
Also sounding a familiar note is the reaction of the powers-that-be in the movie to violence and unrest. The Senate is called to debate unprecedented measures, such as the formation of a standing army and the grant of emergency powers to the chancellor "for the duration of the emergency."
In fact, standing armies have historically been seen as a profound threat to republics, since they are often loyal to the government of the day rather than to the country. A key contribution to the Roman republic's downfall came from the replacement of the citizen army by professional soldiers. America's founders did their best to prevent the creation of a permanent military force to prevent such a fate. And while the American republic didn't disappear when the army was expanded during the course of the Civil War, the large military force allowed the executive branch to impose martial law, close newspapers and jail critics.
And the threat from a country's own military isn't always direct. Writing in National Review, Edward Hudgins, the Washington director of The Objectivist Center, warned that "while the American military has never directly endangered our republic, the concentration of power that results from permanent overseas conflicts has."
Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute, and author of "Crisis and Leviathan," seconds that analysis. He traces the growth of government power to a series of crises, most (though not all) of which involve military conflict overseas.
And about that expansion of power ... The U.S.A. PATRIOT act didn't hand President Bush anything quite like the unilateral powers sought by the cinematic Chancellor Palpatine, but the principle is the same. On screen, the chancellor is given a "temporary" grant of dictatorial power; in real life, phones are tapped and detainees are held behind bars indefinitely without charges. Faced with a threat to their security, people often abandon the traditional controls placed on official power. They forget that those limitations aren't accidents or luxuries, but the result of hard and often bloody experience.
Which is not to say that the current occupant of the White House is necessarily an emperor in waiting. It's sufficient to point out that, in the aftermath of September 11, the government sought, and received, vastly expanded powers to deal with the situation. We can only hope that real-life assurances that such powers will never be abused are more meaningful than their silver-screen counterparts.
In the end, the Star Wars movies are entertainment more than allegories for real-world economics and politics. The movies' value lies in their ability to hold audiences, not in the parallels of the action on screen with the world at large.
But entertainment invariably reflects the real world. It's no small matter that a movie about a troubled republic in which the government cynically accumulates power to deal with an "emergency" is drawing audiences in droves.
This column was published June 23, 2002 by The Farmington Daily Times