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’Freedom in an Unfree World’ - a ’Verse essay

Saturday 6 August 2011, by Webmaster

Yeah, I’m a stow-away. Proud of it, too. I wouldn’t have been so happy if I’d gotten aboard a different ship, but I was tipped off to the one captained by Malcolm Reynolds, and it’s led to amazing things. I boarded in New Hampshire, and got to travel the ’verse with the wildest, and in some cases the most principled, crew in existence. My passage would not have been arranged if it hadn’t been for people who had already recognized Mal’s great heart, and seen in him something they cherished themselves: the unquenchable thirst for freedom. I am a libertarian, and due to my work, I come into contact with many members of the expanding “Free State Project.” The members of the FSP have been relocating to New Hampshire, and in addition to their devotion to things like first editions of Ayn Rand novels and the collected works of Lysander Spooner, they all seem to have one characteristic in common: they cherish the television series Firefly and its main character, Malcolm Reynolds, as much as they adore John Locke’s “Second Treatise on Government.”

The compelling question is why, and in order to provide an answer, one must understand the principles that drive libertarians in their political and social associations.

Most libertarians believe in, and adhere to, the Lockean Natural Rights tenet of “negative reciprocity,” the idea that you have a right to be left alone by me, and I have a right to be left alone by you. I make my own decisions about my own life, and you do the same. Neither of us has a positive right to anything the other has or could peacefully acquire, and as long as we don’t mess with each other, we’ll be fine. According to Locke, we establish “the state” to stop such predation, and when a government does that which we formed it to stop, it becomes illegitimate. All consensual activities are supposed to be free from state interference, and if we are to form a government, it should be small, limited, and addressable to the people who gave it power.

The ideal libertarian hoping to live in such a system not only embraces those principles intellectually, but also practices them on a consistent basis, regardless of the hardship he or she endures. In his social and political activities, he endeavors to leave others alone, and merely asks for the same in return.

Malcolm Reynolds is one such man. He embodies those values, and practices them every day. And because he never waivers, he, like only a handful of fictional characters before him, can be appropriately identified as a libertarian archetype, fighting in a system that is inimical to freedom.

Our first encounter with Mal served as an introduction to this tyrannical universe, or “’verse,” in which he would soon live. It was a world begat by violence, where the political structure would, in most respects, soon mirror that of the United States after the Civil War.1

In 1787, the United States of America represented the best hope for freedom in the world, and the Founders knew it. But the Constitution they wrote to replace the Articles of Confederation had within it the seeds of its own demise: the seeds of an all-powerful (and inefficient)

bureaucracy under one centralized authority. As the Anti-Federalists argued, the U.S. Constitution gave too much power to the central government. Year after year, politicians like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay worked to build the strength of the federal government and shower favors onto their politically connected friends, and, as a result, States, businesses, and individuals are now at the mercy of arbitrary federal whim. There is little one can do today, no commercial transaction in which one can engage, that is not overseen or regulated by government agents and politicians with agendas quite different from one’s own.

In Firefly, this is precisely the system in which Malcolm Reynolds tries to survive. The Alliance, like the U.S. government during and after the Civil War, is trying to enforce control over the planets of the ’verse, and it is not lost on the viewer that the planets are much like the States are today-the victims of majority sanctioned regulation and theft.

The opening scene of the first episode, “Serenity,” introduced us to the violent birth of this world, and as Mal might say, “it ain’t pretty.” Serenity Valley was the place where liberty made its last stand, amidst explosions and gunfire, lasers and death. It was a fight for freedom, a fight Mal and Zoe would lose. The oppressive Alliance forces were working toward “Unification,” an ironic term when one considers the questionable justification for any union that is created or sustained (as it was by Abraham Lincoln, the Soviets, and the Chinese) by force of arms.

Six years passed, and the Alliance had become hegemonic. But this power had not created a better galaxy. The centralized authority that controlled the outer planets of the ’verse had brought about death, sorrow, theft, torture, favoritism, corruption, biological experimentation, and stifling inefficiency in its operations. Indentured servitude was encouraged on Canton, and government schooling invited torture and brain surgery for “gifted” children like River Tam. The government health care system neglected the unconnected in “The Train Job” and showered favors on the elite in “Ariel.” Unionized prostitutes wielded incredible influence while nonmembers struggled to survive. In most regards, the ’verse was a cesspool of moral ambiguity and perverted ideals. It was not, as the Operative claims in Serenity, a “better world” by any stretch of the imagination.

Shepherd Book understood the nature of the Alliance, and warned Simon Tam about the true danger of vesting any trust in those who would seize the reigns of politics. “A government,” he said, “is a body of people, usually, notably, ungoverned.”

Like Lord Acton, who observed that “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” Book knew that the psychology and base desires of men did not change when they were given positions in the Alliance. These men were simply granted more numerous and more dangerous opportunities to do ill unto others. The most recognizable philosopher aboard Serenity, Book knew that there is a difference between “government” and “society.” Society is that which we create through our own volition, through private exchange and interaction, through free enterprise and commerce. The larger a government grows, the more society is put at risk, and the more the commercial interactions and moral decisions between consenting adults are threatened, thus diminishing prosperity for all.

It was out of this oppressive system that Malcolm Reynolds emerged as its most dangerous enemy-a seemingly powerless, sometimes cocky, typically soft-spoken and honest man whose broader dreams of fighting tyranny have been crushed, and whose sole goal is merely to survive. Mal may not be able to express as eloquently as Book the philosophy driving his actions, but in his heart, Mal holds the principles that fuel freedom, and even when he seeks only to “get by,” his nature is such that he cannot help but skirt around the illegitimate Alliance law. Mal cannot help but do the right thing, and he ends up fighting the Alliance with the most simple and most powerful weapons tyranny can face: peaceful commercial exchange and unflinching personal integrity.

In the ’verse of Whedon’s creation, commerce is monitored, manipulated, and tapped by the government, making it very difficult for peace-loving, honest people to survive. Of course, as Mal told Simon early in the pilot episode, “That’s what governments are for, getting in your way.”

Using flowery rhetoric, politicians often proclaim that employing force to “make a better world” is fine, is laudable—that it is, in fact, the very raison d’etre of government. But giving a legal patina to coercive acts and plunder merely allows those in charge to accrue more power and excuse their own coercive behavior.

Instead of siding with this pernicious and illegitimate authority to further his own ends, instead of collapsing under its oppressive weight, Malcolm Reynolds retains his principles. He goes “underground,” engaging in blackmarket—i.e., free-market—exchange, in a supposedly lawless realm.

In this outlaw sphere, Mal is given choices, and presented with dilemmas brought about by the corruption of a society which itself has been perverted by an oppressive political system. Yet Mal always comes out in favor of individual liberty and personal integrity, and by doing so, he not only displays the attributes of a dramatic hero, he exhibits the personal inclinations and codes of honor that libertarians recognize are requisite for a market system to flourish.

This is an important point to stress. Many observers might glibly comment that under a corrupt legal system, those who break the law are the ones who are truly heroic. But, of course, that depends on how one breaks the law.

In the pilot episode, Badger, Mal’s bowler-wearing, cockney acquaintance, described the captain of Serenity as a “man of honor in a den of thieves,” to which Mal replied in a matter-of-fact tone, “I do business. We’re here for business.”

Though it might seem simple to Mal, his point of view regarding honor and integrity is profound. As libertarians know, even in a world devoid of government laws, in order to do business properly, one does have to be a man of honor, and this is how Mal distinguishes himself from people like the desultory Badger and even more unsavory characters.

Take the story “The Train Job,” for example. At the outset, when the despicable underworld kingpin Niska offered Mal work robbing a train on a border world, he observed Mal’s reputation as a man willing to steal from the Alliance. But this futuristic Robin Hood will not do so if it harms the innocent, especially those who might already have been hurt by the government.

When Mal discovered that he had stolen a shipment of the vitally important medicine Pascaline D, and learned that the Alliance troops were going to leave the citizens to fend for themselves, he wryly said to the Sheriff, “That sounds like the Alliance. Unite all the planets under one rule, so everyone can be interfered with or ignored equally.” And in short notice, when he realized how much harm he was doing to the poor people living under Alliance tyranny who were dependent on the drug to survive, Mal actually chose to give up his booty in favor of what was right. Because of this, the Sheriff of Paradiso let Mal and Zoe go, revealing that he, too, was more concerned with honor and sustaining his local community than in upholding some form of abstract Alliance law. Here, both Mal and the Sheriff displayed in fictional form an understanding of what libertarian political philosophers call the principle of “spheres of control.” The Sheriff knew better than the distant Alliance authorities how to deal with local problems; he was closer to the issues, knew the people, and truly cared about them. It was a powerful moment, when two neglected and forgotten men acknowledged their respect for one another, their devotion to their friends and principles, and their rancor for the central government that had placed them in this position.

In this tale of train heists and desperately needed medicine, Whedon perfectly illustrates what Nobel Prize winning economist F. A. Hayek and thinkers like the nineteenth-century writer Claude Frédéric Bastiat understood: large governments are bureaucratic, unresponsive, slow, and, often, threats to individual liberty. They alienate the people being affected by their laws, and generally retard the pace of progress for everyone. On the other hand, small spheres of control are more efficient and allow for greater freedom, responsiveness, and experimentation. They require people to deal with one another face to face, and with integrity, as Mal and the Sheriff did in the cold, tense darkness of Paradiso.

To bring the story full circle, and to stress Mal’s strong moral stand, he then handed his payment for the job back to Niska’s agents, saying: “We’re not thieves. . . . Well, we are thieves, but. . . . The point is, we’re not takin’ what’s his.”

Though this comment was lost on the despicable Niska, whose dangerous, aggressive attitude would dampen the potential growth of any free-market system, it is one that has resonance with lovers of freedom. It indicates that Mal is a different kind of outlaw. By employing his morals, and keeping them in mind, he distinguishes himself from those who break the government ordinances and the Lockean law of negative reciprocity.

This is wonderful to see, because it is a form of morality that is at the heart of libertarian philosophy. Contrary to popular belief, libertarians are not libertines. We really do care about virtue and “the good.” Yes, we believe that it should be legal to do anything one wants as long as it does not bring direct harm to the life or property of another. Yes, we believe that people should even have the ability to employ their right to do something harmful to themselves. But in our personal lives we recognize the difference between license and licentiousness. Just because libertarians extol the freedom to do whatever is consensual, it does not mean that we all engage in the panoply of activities that entails. We recognize the havoc that licentiousness and pleasure-seeking can play in our own personal lives and with our own emotions.

Mal’s relationship with Inara is a perfect example of this. While the legality of prostitution may not be in question, the morality, or at least the emotional purity, of it is, at least for Mal. Even if the government grants legal status to Inara’s line of work, it does not mean that Mal approves of Inara doing it. His own heart gets in the way. One sensed early on that Mal was in love with Inara, and Inara with Mal, but that their positions, and their natures, made expressing that love difficult. Inara’s work made this doubly problematic for Mal, who had to see her meeting clients with whom she would engage in sexual activity but for whom she felt no true love. The problem built and built, becoming so intense that in one heated scene Mal told her, “What I do may be illegal, but at least it’s honest!”

This was an interesting twist in the series, and contributed to the romantic tension between these two fascinating characters. Given the libertarian themes in Firefly, one might think its creator and writers would imply that the legality of prostitution meant it was also universally morally acceptable. But sex is a much more complicated interpersonal relationship than a mere transaction, for it involves one of the most intimate activities in which two people can engage. While it may be acceptable to some, all the training and respectability Inara can garner through her Guild schools do not help her with Mal. He may be fine with other prostitutes plying their craft, but he cannot help but feel upset by Inara’s retail intimacy. He may search for any way in which he can be free from Alliance oppression, but he is still bound by his heart.

It is this heart that truly distinguishes Mal from others who operate outside the bounds of Alliance law. Like Rance Burgess, the local leader who tyrannized prostitutes in “Heart of Gold,” Mal recognizes a distinction between that which is legal and that which is moral. But unlike the religious hypocrite Burgess, he would never go so far as to make his own law, or to claim a property right to the child he fathered with a prostitute at a brothel.

The outlaw Malcolm Reynolds adheres to the principles of peaceful exchange and respect for Natural Rights, while the outlaw Rance Burgess adhered to whatever furthered his own ends.

In the struggle between Burgess and the girls in the brothel over possession of a baby Burgess called his “property,” Nandi pointed a shotgun at him and warned, “You don’t get gone, we’ll be well within our rights to drop you.”

Burgess’s reply was revealing: “Only rights you got,” he said, “are the ones I give you!”

It’s an attitude that stands in remarkably stark contrast with Mal’s. Mal—a man who only steals from those who have not rightfully earned their possessions, a man who avoids killing people unless they are threats to his life or the life of another innocent, a man who avoids shooting unarmed men until he finally decides to take on the Alliance once and for all—was faced with an individual who flouted the unjust government law, but was actually lawless in his heart.

At first glance, one could believe that they were kindred spirits. When they met, Burgess’s wife told Mal, “My husband makes a distinction between legality and morality, Mr. Reynolds.”

Mal agreed, and replied, “I’ve said that myself.”

But his mood was clear. He could see how Burgess operated, and he didn’t like it.

When Burgess observed, “Bending one unjust law is a small thing when it comes to protecting one’s family,” Mal nodded. “I think I understand you,” he said, with sarcasm lacing every word.

The distinction was clear. Burgess was, in fact, Mal’s dark alter-ego. Mal favors peaceful relationships, even in societies with no written laws, while Burgess favored force, intimidation, and oppression. Mal will bend the rules to be left alone. Burgess would bend the rules, and make up his own, to get what he wanted or thought belonged to him.

Mal recognizes that no one has a property right to another person, even if he makes a law that says so. Each individual is unique—including a child with DNA distinct from his father and mother—and it is implied that because Burgess was already married, and had engaged in the commercial act of soliciting a prostitute, the living fruit of that sexual encounter was not his to raise, it was the mother’s. Avoiding the tricky issue of abortion in this tale of feminist power and rights, something remarkable emerged as Mal fought to protect the ladies of the brothel and the mother of the baby Burgess had fathered: we saw an implicit acknowledgement of the sanctity of contract. It was understood that this religious maniac, this man of low moral character who imposed his law where Alliance law was pushed aside, had already paid for sex, and had given up his right to be a partner in the upbringing of the child. It was also clear that Burgess did not acknowledge that fact, and Mal was right to oppose him.

Burgess showed us the path Mal could have followed. Both men are individualists of a sort. Mal simply allows others to be individualists as well. It is because of Mal’s strong moral character, and the effort he expends to keep it, that he walks this path.

In fact, it is this undeniable trait of the individualist-hero that leads to the weakening of Alliance authority at the triumphant conclusion of the film Serenity.

Though his decision to accept River and Simon Tam on his ship is often questioned by many in his crew, though the Alliance authorities hound them at every turn, Mal adheres to his principles-and his sense of obligation-and keeps them aboard. He grows to accept them, and to eventually realize in the film Serenity that River herself holds the key to the destruction of the Alliance rule.

We discover that River’s great mental acuity was manipulated by the Alliance in terrible experiments, conducted at what was supposed to be a school for gifted students off her home world (a remarkable indictment of government education). But they did not count on River escaping with her brother, and carrying with her not only the scars of that state-sponsored torture, but the secret that no government official wants revealed.

With heroic strength of character, Mal and his company risk everything they have, including their own lives, to tear the façade off the government utopia and show what hides beneath: experimentation, mass murder, and the creation of horrific human monsters. The man-eating Reavers, infamous in every sector of the ’verse, are the product of Alliance attempts to create a better world on the planet Miranda, to placate subjects and make more efficient workers for the totalitarian utopia. Most of the subjects affected by the Alliance creation called the Pax simply lay down, and died—a horrific metaphor for the diminution of man’s ambition under the corrosive influence of socialism. But for a small cohort of the Mirandans, the drug had the opposite effect. Instead of losing the will to live, they acquired the desire to kill: they became the ultimate incarnation of the deadly side of government force, the final infringement of the Lockean rule. The madness, the horror, and the bloody slaughter of the Reavers is the responsibility of those who wished to force their will on others, just like Rance Burgess, and just like so many Alliance cronies from whom Mal and company fled throughout the series Firefly.

In a powerful speech, Mal tells his crew that they are done running. It is time to take a stand, and time to fight.

“A year from now,” he begins, “maybe ten, they’ll swing back to the belief that they can make . . . people . . . better. . . . And I do not hold to that.”

For those who died at the hands of the government, for those who suffered due to their policies, for those who may be hurt in the future, the Serenity crew pit their wills and bodies against the forces of the Alliance in the “free-speech” broadcast facility of Mr. Universe. Following in the footsteps of Shepherd Book, Wash, the beloved pilot, dies; Kaylee, Simon, and Zoe are critically wounded as Reavers attack; Alliance troops invade; Mal nearly dies in one-on-one combat. But they succeed. They persevere in telling the horrible truth that lies behind the pristine mask the Alliance has worn for far too long.

After all the travails and adventures we’ve seen them endure, the remainder of the Serenity crew return to their ship to rebuild, fueled by new hope and optimistic resolution. River, the haunted girl who held the government’s terrible secret, helps steer the ship up into the sky. She sits beside Malcolm Reynolds, the outlaw who adhered to a higher law from centuries past, and smiles at him as they dart into the black.

It is a remarkable conclusion to a story that began by chronicling the death throes of freedom at a place called Serenity Valley, and it is an amazing story of triumph for Mal.

We’ve taken a long and exciting journey with him, on a ship called Serenity, a ship that was its owner’s only hope of finding a measure of freedom in this new, unkind world.

But really, the hope for freedom always existed within the heart of Malcolm Reynolds. He was a man willing to skirt the law to do what was right, willing to engage in private commerce even when it was verboten, and whose beliefs in loyalty, honor, and integrity will always represent the core human virtues that freedom requires to survive and prosper.

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.

At its heart, freedom is an intangible thing. It is a concept. It is an ideal. Malcolm Reynolds may have looked to the sky and seen his hopes for freedom embodied in his beloved ship, Serenity, but, in fact, the freedom was embodied in him, and his decision to live as freely as possible.

The same is true for each of us.