Bryan Caplan  

Battlestar Libertopia

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Last week I had a few days on my own, so I decided to try Season 1 of Battlestar Galactica. I'm probably the last geek on earth to take the plunge, and I wasn't disappointed.

My verdict: It's a great show, but awfully depressing for a libertarian. BSG gives new meaning to Rothbard's laments against the "welfare-warfare state." In this dystopian future, the former secretary of education and the military commander of the last battleship share near-absolute power. At least in the early episodes, civilian and military government is about the only social structure you see; the market - and civil society - are out of the picture.

Now of course the authorities rationalize this system as a response to the Cylon threat. But even if the Cylons disappeared, it's hard to picture either the civilian or military authorities relinquishing much of their power. So, libertarian fans of BSG, tell me: What's the right path from the statist world of Battlestar Galactica to the free world of Battlestar Libertopia?

The first step is easy: Recognize the property rights of the owners of the civilian spacecraft. The technological units are well-defined, the owners are probably still alive, and the property titles are clear. It won't be perfect competition in a world with less than 50,000 people, but liberty can hardly wait for perfect competition, can it?

The next step is harder: Privatizing the public property. In the world of BSG, this means spacecraft, plus the contents of the spacecraft. Auctions are the simplest mechanism, but are they the best? And what do you do with the revenue? Perhaps the best answer is to do what the former Soviet bloc should have done: Pay off the pensioners with privatization earnings, so you get government out of two areas at the same time.

The last step is hardest of all: Privatizing the Galactica itself. Even without the Cylon threat, wouldn't you be worried that whoever gets his hands on the Galactica will use it to become a malevolent dictator? Well, maybe not - without the Cylon menace, a power grab might just provoke an exodus into deep space.

For all I know, the show has long since addressed these issues - after all, I've only seen the first three discs. But I don't really want to know what happens on the show - I want to know how libertarians would handle this hypothetical. Any takers?


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Daniel Klein writes:

I think BSG puts us into a world not unlike the evolutionary environment, where libertarianism has little purchase. By and large, I don't disagree particularly with Adama's or Roslin's decisions, even when they effectively kill or sacrifice thousands of innocent people. (I have seen thru season 2.5.) If I were Admiral Adama or President Roslin, I would certainly freely consider squashing liberty, rigging elections, murdering innocent people, and other things that might be necessary to enhance the likelihood of survival of the human race. As for privatizing the fleet, etc., I would only pursue that if I thought it would enhance strategic efforts at preserving the human race, and I doubt I would. Any denial on principle would be libertarian fanaticism/foolishness/selfishness.

Maniakes writes:

The Galactica is very much a Ring of Fnarl. For it to exist in a libertopia, it must be either torn up for scrap or held by a benevolent overlord who uses it only to displace would-be tyrants.

Since it presumably needs a large crew (I have yet to watch the new series), I'd leave the Galactica in public hands, and provide for it to be crewed by a militia selected periodically by lot from citizens in good standing who volunteer for the duty.

Flynn writes:

A libertarian tack on BSG would be to negotiate with the Cylons. Wouldn't you first attempt to secure the fleet by finding out why you were subject to this relentless attack by your enemies?

moose writes:

That's funny.

I always thought somewhat the opposite with regard to BSG and libertarianism, though less about the market and more about other libertarian fundamentals:

It is puzzling given the apocalyptic, fragile state of the last 50,000 odd humans, on the run for their lives, and the fragile state of their
military/social/economic apparatus that so many of them still like to
pretend that they still live in a decadent anglospheric democracy. Indeed,
much of the trouble that damn near kills them stems from a free
press (cylon infiltrated), free elections, human rights principles and envy-based class warfare.

The market issue was itself addressed in an interesting way, in an episode Apollo had to
deal with black marketeers. In the end he let them live, because the black market was the one and only efficient market that maintained self-organised order and supply within the fleet. Like the Nazis, the BSG leadership considered the free market a necessary evil to be largely ignored.

In BSG we see an ongoing , overwhelming existential threat to a highly
militarised, tiny population hopelessly infliltrated and influenced by
enemies bent on its total annihilation. Despite all this, they still
like to pretend that they are a normal democracy, to their ongoing peril.

BSG is Israel.

Daublin writes:

Yes, actually I came away thinking it is fine for them to take full control. It's more complicated than that, though.

- They make you really glad it's not just the military guy in charge. This begs the question: why not a third or fourth?

- The black market episode is great. You see people struggling with the tension between high prices and available. Perhaps this is the best angle to transition to libertopia: focus on those products that are lacking, and privatize them. The leader that does so can become the next dictator!

- There is a believable moral movement that comes off looking fine to me: the race-wide mission to save the race. Mass moral movements are dangerous, but this one seems good.

- The religious folks come off as real cooks, but they are always portrayed positively nonetheless.

- The leaders toy with propaganda. In the pilot, they flat out LIE so that the public will do the "right" thing.

- There are elections, so the president is only dictator for a term. You just way!!

If I were to summarize, the show has a non-libertarian government and economy, but a libertarian view on how societies work. Unlike on the starship Enterprise, you do not get the feel that a fearless leader calls the shots and everyone else leaps into action to make it so. Instead, there are constant power struggles of various kinds, and constant compromises to those struggles. You get this image that even the possible extinction of the race does not completely unify the Galactica crew; instead, the ship seeths with its own internal conflicts even as it takes on a mission as important as any imaginable.

mjh writes:

I'm sorry that I don't have any suggestions for a path from BSG to BSL. My comment is that in later seasons, it gets much worse for libertarians. There's one episode in which unions are basically praised as the bastions of society. I wrote about my frustration with that particular episode here.

Then there's another episode in which Baltar starts writing his own communist manifesto. Throughout the series, there appears to be little concept of private property, nor payment for employment, nor any type of market other than a black market.

This show does not appear to be inspired by libertarianism at all... but I still love watching it.

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