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Created: May 21, 2005
Latest Update: May 21, 2005
This backup copy is to be used only if the original site on the Web is not accessible. It is meant to preserve the document for teaching purposes, when sometimes the URLS are changed when sites are updated, or sites are eliminated. Please be certain to give credit if you refer to this to the original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/21/opinion/21tierney.html. Original URL, consulted: May 21, 2005.
May 21, 2005
Darth Vader's Family Values
By JOHN TIERNEY
Wherever you are, Adam Smith, call your agent. Darth Vader is stealing your best stuff.
The new installment of "Star Wars" has set off the usual dreary red-blue squabble, with liberals using the film to attack Republicans, and some conservatives calling for a boycott. But - and I know this is hard to believe for a movie with characters named General Grievous and Count Dooku - there's actually a serious bipartisan lesson about the dark side of politics.
If you can sit through the endless light-saber duels and robotic dialogue, you finally see what turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader. He set out to become a Jedi knight who will use the Force for good, but he's traumatized, first by the murder of his mother, then by a vision that his wife will die in childbirth.
His fears are manipulated by Chancellor Palpatine, the leader of the Senate (who's being compared to Senator Bill Frist in Moveon.org commercials). When this oily politician extols the power of the dark side of the Force, Anakin at first protests that those who use it think "only of themselves," whereas the Jedi are "selfless" and "only care about others."
He says he could never betray the Jedi because they're his family, but then the chancellor puts the family question in perspective: "Learn to know the dark side of the Force, Anakin, and you will be able to save your wife from certain death." Anakin promptly recognizes the limits of altruism, just as Adam Smith did in the 18th century.
Smith knew that some people professed love for all humanity, but he realized that a man's love for "the members of his own family" is "more precise and determinate, than it can be with the greater part of other people." Hence his famous warning not to rely on the kindness of strangers outside your family: if you want bread, it's better to count on the baker's self-interest rather than his generosity.
This has never been a popular bit of advice because selfishness is not admired in human societies any more than among Jedi knights. We know it exists, but it feels wrong. We are born with an instinct for altruism because we evolved in clans of hunter-gatherers who would not have survived if they hadn't helped one another through hard times.
The result is an enduring political paradox: we no longer live in clans small enough for altruism to be practical, but we still respond to politicians who promise to make us all part of one big selfless community. We want everyone to be bound together with a shared set of values, a yearning that Daniel Klein, an economist, dubs the People's Romance in the summer issue of The Independent Review.
The People's Romance is his explanation for why so many Americans have come to love bigger government over the past century. Their specific objectives in Washington differed - liberals stressed charity and social programs for all, while conservatives promoted patriotism and spending on national security - but they both expanded the government in their quest for a national sense of shared purpose.
The result, though, has not been one happy community because America is not a clan with shared values. It is a huge group of strangers with leaders who are hardly altruists - they have their own families and needs. Tocqueville recognized the inherent problem with the People's Romance when he described citizens' contradictory impulses to be free while also wanting a government that is "unitary, protective and all-powerful."
People try to resolve this contradiction, Tocqueville wrote, by telling themselves that democracy makes them masters of politicians, but they soon find that the Force is not with them, especially if they're in the minority. Republicans used to rail helplessly at Democrats for taxing them for destructive social programs and curtailing their economic liberties; now Democrats complain about the money squandered on the Iraq war and the threat to civil liberties from the Patriot Act.
For those Democrats, the signature line in this "Star Wars" is the one spoken after the chancellor, citing security threats, consolidates his power by declaring that the republic must become an empire. Senator Padmé listens to her colleagues cheer and says, "So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause."
She's disgusted with them, but their enthusiasm is understandable. The chancellor has tapped into their primal desire to unite in one great clan with a shared purpose. They're in the throes of the People's Romance.
For further reading:
- “The People’s Romance: Why People Love Government (As Much As They Do)” by Daniel Klein, Santa Clara University (working paper).
- The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation by Matt Ridley (Penguin Books, 295 pp., 1998).
- The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith.
- The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith.