Peter Thiel, Star Wars, and Capitalism

Peter Thiel, a Trumpist who does libertarian impersonations, has argued that Star Trek is communist while Star Wars is capitalist. He may have a point, but his example on the latter is a seriously poor choice.

On Star Trek he repeats an often-made and valid point. According to Gene Roddenberry, the Federation doesn’t use money because replicators can make anything without limit. This ignores the fact that there are other kinds of scarcity besides goods. Starfleet needs highly trained people who are willing to spend years away from home. They can’t just run a James Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard through the transporter and then produce additional copies. If they could and did, they’d be the Borg.

The war with the Borg, by the way, shows there are some kind of limits on replicator technology. Starfleet apparently can’t just produce enough starships to overwhelm the Borg. In The Thief of Bagdad, Douglas Fairbanks magically replicated warriors, with apparently no limit, to defeat his enemies. Starfleet can’t do that. There’s some kind of limit. Limits imply economic laws and the need of a medium of exchange and store of value.

So we can consider Star Trek to be lower-c communist, shrug, and enjoy other aspects of the show. But what about the Star Wars universe? Is it capitalist? It shows more signs of private property than Star Trek does, from Owen and Beru’s farm to the Mos Eisley cantina. It doesn’t show us a lot about the lives of ordinary people; the private lives we see tend toward wretched hives of scum and villainy, simply because that what drives the plots. Can you go shopping at Darth Mall on Tatooine or Coruscant? We never find out.

Thiel’s example is bizarre. “The whole plot of ‘Star Wars’ starts with Han Solo having this debt that he owes and so the plot in ‘Star Wars’ is driven by money.” His debt, though, is to a gangster for failure to complete a smuggling job. He couldn’t deliver the lot because of Imperial interference. That suggests a controlled protectionist or prohibitionist economy. Gangsters like Jabba the Hutt thrive where there are prohibitions on things people want. Tatooine has slavery, which is the antithesis of capitalism. Where the right of self-ownership isn’t recognized, all rights are negated.

Aside from human slavery, we have the treatment of droids. We don’t know how they’re made, but they appear to have minds and personalities of their own. They aren’t just self-mobile computing devices. Yet they can be bought, sold, and reprogrammed. Everyone seems to accept this.

There’s little talk in Star Wars of issues such as rights. Indeed, little is said about what the rebels are fighting for. History has shown that without a clear philosophy, a revolution against one tyranny is apt to lead to another. Think of the French and Russian revolutions.

In The Phantom Menace, the Galactic Senate tried to grab tax revenues from what had previously been a free trade zone. For reasons that aren’t clear, this led to the Trade Federation’s invasion of Naboo. You could draw an argument out of this that tariffs hurt international peace, but it’s extremely vague.

There are more hints of free markets in Firefly than in either Star Trek or Star Wars, though again there’s a highly oppressive government and we see mostly the seamy side of life. But at least women generally don’t get arrested for selling sex for money. I suppose that’s something.

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