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Freedom and Liberty

An awful lot of the sci-fi fans are also libertarians, so they naturally enough are eager to smoke out the awesomely libertarian themes in Firefly and Serenity. The movie unquestionably makes an anti-paternalist point. On the other hand, the specific act of government-sponsored paternalism is question is so grandiose that I don't really think it does a great deal to cut against people who favor, say, a paternalistic tax on junk food. SPOILERS.

I mean, obviously, "avoid paternalistic schemes that feature massive downside risk unless you're really, really certain your scheme will work" is a sound principle of political action, but to term it a specifically libertarian principle is to cast a rather wide net. On the other hand, I think the Firefly theme song lyrics capture something important about the general theme of the show:

Take my love, take my land
Take me where I cannot stand
I don't care, I'm still free
You can't take the sky from me
Take me out to the black
Tell them I ain't comin' back
Burn the land and boil the sea
You can't take the sky from me
There's no place I can be
Since I found Serenity
But you can't take the sky from me...
This is unquestionably a show (and a song) about freedom but I don't think it has a huge connection to political liberty. What's the distinction? Well, there's a clear sense in which I enjoy more freedom in my life than does a typical married-with-kids middle aged bank assistant manager living in Concord, New Hampshire. But that sort of freedom doesn't follow from the notion that I enjoy more political liberties than does said bank manager. Indeed, I probably have somewhat less in light of the District of Columbia's relatively strict tax-and-regulatory environment vis-a-vis New Hampshire. I'm just not particularly tied down by anything, my job offers me a like of flexibility in terms of hours, my boss is quite relaxed about demeanor, etc., etc. The crew of Serenity -- and Mal Reynolds in particular -- are clearly people who value the kind of freedom I enjoy. Reynolds has a lot of autonomy. He gets to "do his own thing" and make his own rules. He's got an anti-authoritarian personality. But that's not the same as saying he places an especially high value on basic political liberties, especially not the sort of controversial political liberties that divide libertarians from other people in the American political context.

September 27, 2005 | Permalink


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Well I suppose it is libertarian in the sense that there's a sense that libertarian politics are conductive to creating personalities like Malcolm Reynolds. I mean, it's hard to imagine a DC journalist or a NH banker singing(in earnest, at least) about how you can't take the sky from them, but it's more plausible with a space smuggler. Something along the lines of John Holbo's review of Dead Right

Anyway, I'm not so sure about the advocacy of libertarian policies either. To the extent you can draw this kind of conclusions from made up stories, "Hear of Gold(briefly: the local thug and his heavily armed militia try to take away a prostitute's and the thug's baby from the prostitute, Malcolm helps the prostitute, but lots of people, including good guys, are killed in the process) should make ou very skeptical about law enforcement by an armed citizenry.

Posted by: WhichFerdinand | Sep 27, 2005 10:57:07 PM

Yeah, but who built his fucking spaceship? Did the workers who bolted it together have a safe working environment? Did they get paid as they were promised? Who enforced their rights?

I think SF is a great place for libertarian fantasies -- because that's all they'll ever be, just fantasies. If you want a stateless paradise, just move to Baghdad.

Posted by: c. | Sep 27, 2005 11:22:19 PM

I don't see any spoilers here, unless the distinction between freedom and liberty is hashed out in the final scenes of the movie.

Posted by: djw | Sep 28, 2005 12:07:52 AM

In defense of libertarians, Baghdad has lots of statist violence, courtesy of [future] U.S. taxpayers. Somalia is a more reasonable libertarian paradise (interestingly, things are bad in Somalia, but arguably they're better than they were under Barre.)

Matt, have you read Nomy Arpaly's _Unprincipled Virtue_? She has a section on "varieties of autonomy" that I think is rather interesting. I think that well informed libertarians are already privy to the distinctions between normative autonomy, agent autonomy, personal efficacy, heroic autonomy, and psychological independence (even if they don't use Arpaly's language), but it's still a good book.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Sep 28, 2005 12:37:56 AM

Note: I don't mean to imply Baghdad would be peaceful without the U.S. (though it WOULD be peaceful -- if hideously repressive and brutal -- if we hadn't gone in in the first place). I just mean that STATE violence, as opposed to violence by various non-state actors, is common (you can make the case that it is necessary, though it seems, over the course of our 2.5 year experience there, that we've done more harm than good). If we withdrew and cut of the Iraqi government from aid, then maybe it'd be more of an anarcho-libertarian's dream.

Posted by: Julian Elson | Sep 28, 2005 1:00:14 AM

I disagree that Mal is interested in the type of autonomy you are describing. Consider the following two choices:

1. A 9-5 Monday-Friday job on a central planet

2. Scraping together a living as a farmer on a desolate world. The world is so harsh and unforgiving that one MUST wake up at 5am 7 days a week, work until 9pm, or DIE of starvation.

I think Mal would prefer option 2; he'd have less "free time" and day-to-day options once there, but he'd be on his own - making his own destiny - not a pawn of the system."...never have to be under the heel of nobody ever again." -Out of Gas

In a sense he HAS chosen a hard, hand-to-mouth existence scraping by as a smuggler, rather than apply his talents to becoming a normal citizen of the Alliance, where he could live a comfortable, but controlled, life.

Also, if Mal chose the smuggler's life to be about to, as you put it, "do his own thing," then he's clearly irrational. Mal is oftentimes forced BY CIRCUMSTANCES to follow one narrow course of action (take any job available, no matter how shady; try to sell stolen cargo to a person who shot him.) The key thing is that being forced by circumstances to do something is regretable. But being forced to do something because of the whims of other people is unacceptable to Mal.

Posted by: wml | Sep 28, 2005 1:09:34 AM

Some people find libertarian themes in everything from Bad Boys II to Batman Begins, which can be irritating. But I think those themes are pretty hard to miss in Serenity. There's the "Virtual Public School" scene right at the beginning with River, where the kids and the teacher have a little colloquy about "why would anyone want independence. We give them technology and health care," and River says something about "we've meddled too much" with their lives.

Then in the rally-the-troops scene before the trip to Miranda, Mal gives his reason for going to war with the Alliance, and they're hilariously, obviously libertarian. The reason the Alliance is evil, per Mal? "They believe you can make people better."

Posted by: Gene | Sep 28, 2005 7:59:40 AM

Matt is obviously more adept at the philospohy behind this stuff, but it seems to me that their are too diametrically opposed libertarian arguments for samller goverment.
1) Government is inefficient (consequentialist)
2) Any taking of rights is wrong (deontological)

The implications of the first are that, if it could be shown that the government intervetion was more efficient than viable alternatives, it would be preferrable. Otherwise the argument means nothing.
The second, should be wholly unconcerned with whether or not it is more or less efficient.

The first, or any relative weighting of 2) [freedom is an important principle and we must give it weight when considering the efficiency of government interaction) is just a variant of liberalism with more emphasis on the relative importance of political freedom or the baseline assumptions of how efficient government can be (this is what I think most libertarians actually are, but sometimes confuse themselves into thinking 1))

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 28, 2005 10:51:41 AM

The spoiler would be that the movie hinges on a large government project gone horribly wrong. Which eh, I have friends who would bitch me out for saying that.

I think Matt understands there's a lot of work already in the distinction, and that Mal may even be a true libertarian. But the only message the movie manages to send to the audience is that personal freedom is good, and doesn't succeed too much in saying taxes are bad. Ie, if this movie got widespread cultural following, it would be more likely to make more cowboys than it would be to elect pro-choice anti-tax politicians.

Which is hardly surprising. One of the reasons that libertarianism is one of the political doctrines you can safely endorse in entertainment is because no one takes it seriously. Everyone thinks they're libertarian - until it comes up against a policy they want to implement. A lot of righteous Democrats will watch the movie without thinking about what it says about gas-taxes, or righteous Republicans will watch it without thinking what it says about Baghdad.

Posted by: Tony Vila | Sep 28, 2005 11:51:29 AM

There is a utilitarian way of looking at freedom that somehow confuses freedom with the "freedom" to have pleasure or happiness, but that doesn't seem to get at the point. It seems that the freedom that Mal and his crew are seeking, and the freedom the independents were fighting for, is the freedom to determine their lives in anyway that they saw fit. This is different fromt he "freedom" to have a easy job, or the "freedom" to have good working conditions or whatever. This freedom is not about ends but about process.
Also, The most Libertarian theme in Serenity seems to be the critique of the "improvers of mankind", the characters that are represented by the alliance. This is what should strike at the heart of any leftist project, becasue almost all of those projects are some attempt to remake humanity or the world into their image of heaven. This led to the settlers on Miranda being remade (for their own benefit) so that they would not be violent and this is the motivation of the cruelly amoral operative who could be quoting from Mao's little red book at certain points. It is the desire, in bizzare language, to "Immanentize the Eschaton" or bring heaven down to earth. This is what created the problems in the movie and this is the desire that has created the mass graves in China, Russia, and other places throughout the twentieth century. So, maybe it is not a libertarian movie, but it is certainly an anti-leftist movie.

Posted by: John | Sep 28, 2005 1:26:25 PM

I'm mostly serious when I say that we shouldn't pick on libertarians for embracing the virtual constructs of fiction (and yeah, a lot of it's sci fi) as proof that their ideas could work. For one thing, it makes for some great fiction. For another, it's better than the other places they get their ideas. Although now that I think about it, most of the best-run governments in fiction are monarchies. You know--Gondor, post-Wizard Oz, Naboo....

Scratch a libertarian, and he'll sue you in branches of government you didn't know existed.

Posted by: a different Matt | Sep 29, 2005 2:24:17 AM

You lost out by not going to that obscure tech school near Harvard, Matt. Every engineering campus I've ever been around has a coven of Heinlein-reading, Rush (the band) listening Randroids. In 2000, I got an evening's yux out of reading Libertarian political candidate webpages and seeing how many referred to Kirk at some point. I'm not joking.

I think the major reason for this (in particular because Rand's work is a how-to guide for bad engineering) is because libertarianism is currently highly technophilic, and SF tends to adopt the political trends of the most techophilic viewpoint. In the 30's-50's, that started out with a more or less communist POV, and then shifted more right wing as time passed.

That said, there are some modern authors who explicitly right in rejection of that. Ian Banks has stated that his Culture books are at least partly a reaction to the highly libertopian mindset of a lot of space opera.

Posted by: Mike Collins | Sep 29, 2005 10:04:19 AM

TheCoach, your first libertarian argument for smaller government is incomplete. The belief isn't just that government is inefficient. If that were the case, then you'd be correct, a libertarian couldn't object to the size of a government that is efficient.

The belief of libertarians is that government not only is inefficient, but that it simply can't be more efficient at its current size. Government provides services that it doesn't need to provide, and those services come at a cost to the efficient provision of legitimate government services.

It's simply a recognition that the more roles government takes on, the less well it is able to perform each one.

Posted by: Brooke | Sep 29, 2005 4:10:10 PM

FYI, Max Barry's "Jennifer Government" is a very entertaining send-up of libertarian utopias. I highly recommend it.

Posted by: Mike | Sep 30, 2005 10:32:36 AM

It is still an empiricle question, rather than a moral one. They can have the consequentialist reasoning, but then are bound by the evidence, or they can assert beliefs about the nature of government based on rights or freedom, in which case efficiency is irrelevent.
They can also confuse the issue by conflating the arguments, and use which ever one is more convenient (this is something liberals, Democrats, conservatives, etc. do a lot, of course).

Beyond that, it should be clear that efficiency is a relative term.

Posted by: theCoach | Sep 30, 2005 11:50:22 AM

FWIW, Joss Whedon has said in interviews that he thinks of Mal as "if not a Republican, then certainly a libertarian, a smaller-government kind of guy."

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Sep 30, 2005 7:33:57 PM

I don't think we know enough of Mal's backstory to know what his beliefs are or why.

There's a lovely subtle bit in the pilot: In the Serenity Battle scenes, Mal kisses the crucifix hanging around his neck and says something about God smiling on them. Then, on the ship Serenity, when Book offers to say grace, Mal says "[I won't mind] only if you say it out loud." Mal used to have faith; he lost it in the war. Maybe he lost a lot of things in the war, or in the process of deciding to fight the war.

I can see Mal thinking, once upon a time, that there wasn't anything particularly wrong with the Alliance - as the engine of commerce, of technology, medicine, etc. that keeps the 'verse running - as long as being part of the Alliance was a choice, and a person or a planet could choose non-affiliation; could choose, as Mal presumably did, to live outside of it. Once that choice was no longer possible, then he made the decision to rebel, and take up arms in that rebellion.

I loved the movie. I have a few minor quibbles here and there, but that's all. The one thing I kind of regret is that the plot involved such a momentous confrontation, with a hint of more momentous confrontations to come. And that's only because I don't see how it can go back now to some of the sweet silliness the TV series could indulge, like the dizzy-fun capers with shady women :)

Posted by: CaseyL | Oct 1, 2005 1:33:09 AM

For what it's worth, here's a relevant comment of Whedon's from an NYT interview done when Firefly first aired:

"''Mal's politics are very reactionary and 'Big government is bad' and 'Don't interfere with my life,''' Whedon explains. ''And sometimes he's wrong -- because sometimes the Alliance is America, this beautiful shining light of democracy. But sometimes the Alliance is America in Vietnam: we have a lot of petty politics, we are way out of our league and we have no right to control these people. And yet! Sometimes the Alliance is America in Nazi Germany. And Mal can't see that, because he was a Vietnamese.''

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