In the lead up to the last Star Wars movie, Weekly Standard online editor Jonathan Last took his magazine over to the dark side.
The Empire may be a dictatorship, Last wrote, but it's "a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime...The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen."
Last went on to explain that imperial ruler Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine "is a dictator — but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet." Last's column was written tongue-in-cheek — I think. But, in post-Patriot Act America, I hope his ideas stay far, far away from Capitol Hill.
No cultural icon can exist without someone trying to stuff it into a political ideology. The Star Wars saga, the greatest pop culture icon of the last three decades, is no exception. Fan Web sites have buzzed for years over whether Sith patsies Nute Gunray and Lott Dodd symbolize Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. Palpatine's dissolution of the Senate in favor of imperial rule has been compared to Julius Caesar's marginalization of the Roman Senate, Hitler's power-grab as chancellor, and FDR's court-packing scheme and creation of the imperial presidency.
Creator George Lucas admits that his tale of a republic succumbing to dictatorship is colored by his observations of the Nixon administration and, more recently, the post-9/11 Bush administration. Fear, his Jedi often say, leads to the Dark Side; public fears, Episodes I–III suggest, can lead to the concentration of power in the hands of politicians and the erosion of democracy into authoritarianism.
Some observers of the politics of Star Wars sharply criticize parts of Lucas's tale. Following the release of "Episode II: Attack of the Clones," the Objectivist Center's Ed Hudgins fired off an op-ed criticizing the film for showing Palpatine and the Sith forming an alliance of convenience with traders (the Trade Federation), bankers (the Banking Clan), unions (the Commerce Guilds), and corporations (the Corporate Alliance).
"That's about as obvious a slap at business as you'll get," Hudgins bristled. "Lucas the liberal sees economic power as a danger, and fails to realize that it is political power, even in the hands of a republican government, that corrupts commerce and society."
But classical liberals can just as easily argue the Force is on the side of free markets and limited government. What characterizes an empire is a central government's expansion of its control over social, political and economic institutions. With due respect to Hudgins, no student of public choice theory can look agreeably on a politician-orchestrated cartelization of unions, investors and firms. Nationalized industries, mercantilism, restricted trade — all are the work of the Galactic Empire of Episodes IV–VI (not to mention many empires in this corner of our galaxy).
And just think about the taxes necessary to keep the Empire functioning, the storm troopers fed and the star destroyers and Death Star flying. In a scene later cut from Episode IV, Rebel pilot Biggs uses the tax angle to encourage Luke to leave his Uncle Owen's farm and join the Alliance: "What good is all your uncle's work if it's taken over by the Empire?" Biggs asks. "It won't be long before your uncle is merely a tenant, slaving for the greater glory of the Empire."
By and large, the rebellion's supporters were ordinary people who wanted self-determination, republican government, and free enterprise in place of the Galactic Empire's oppression, economic controls, and high taxes. They called it the Dark Side for a reason.
Thomas A. Firey is managing editor of the Cato Institute’s Regulation magazine.