Legal Fictions: Why Is the Alliance Evil?

SerenityI just watched Serenity again. I’m a huge Joss Whedon fan, and while I would have preferred 8 years of Firefly to a movie – I love good serial storytelling – Serenity is an excellent movie.

Unlike the recent Veronica Mars movie, it isn’t just a continuation of the show for the benefit of the fans but a real telling of the underlying story in a way that fits the constraints of the big screen.

But on this viewing I got to thinking about how the Alliance is portrayed as both monolithic and evil – so evil that we viewers root for heroes who engage in crime to keep themselves free from Alliance control and find ourselves fans of failed revolutionaries whose rhetoric bears a disturbing resemblance to the Johnny Reb from U.S. history.

Why is big government so often evil in science fiction? And don’t tell me it’s because government is always evil.

OK, so part of it is the fun of telling outsider stories. Who doesn’t want to root for the underdog, the rebel, the individual taking on the hordes of faceless bureaucrats? That’s a lot more fun that rooting for the person who always follows the rules.

I’m as capable of seeing government as evil as anyone, especially when I read about my own government’s Orwellian no fly list and other excesses promoted in the name of national security.

But the equation of government with evil has been oversold. Those who benefit the most from small and weak governments have done a lot to push this story, and not because they’re fans of lone rebels. In fact, they shut down rebels as fast as any evil government.

I’m talking about the multinational corporations, who like to play one government against another and move their business around to places that will give them the best deals. And the very rich, who don’t want to play by the same rules as us ordinary folks. Those are the people for whom one-world government – not to mention a government that encompasses the Solar System or another planetary configuration – looks like a real threat. They won’t be able to move their business elsewhere if the tax rates go up or the regulations get serious.

I’m not sure one-world government would solve the problem of over-powerful corporations, though. They might work together all too well. If I were to write a story about an evil big government, it would certainly be in thrall to corporations.

There are those who tout the value of small. There have been studies on how people work best in groups of about 150 people, for example.

And there is the slogan: “Think globally; act locally.” Though in my experience, people tend to do the second without paying enough attention to the first.

Looking at U.S. history, I can see several situations where I’ve appreciated the clout of the U.S. federal government in relationship to the smaller state and local governments. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 – the law that banned discrimination in the U.S., including employment discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin” – caused a sea change in this country. If we had left discrimination issues up to the states, I doubt that Texas – much less Mississippi – would have ever adopted such laws.

And while various states have adopted same sex marriage laws, the recognition of those marriages on the federal level is having the most powerful impact. Marriage, after all, comes with tax and other consequences that need to be the same nationwide.

Another advantage of large government is economies of scale. Some projects – national health insurance is a good example – are very affordable when spread over a large number of people, but very expensive on a local scale.

Other things just cost too much for anything but a large government to pay for: Armies, space exploration, and the kind of research and development that led to the Internet all spring to mind. Yes, private corporations are doing a lot with space and high tech these days, but they are building on work originally financed by our tax dollars.

I think most of us hate big government because we’ve all run into inflexible bureaucrats. Even though some of those are on the local level – everyone hates the Department of Motor Vehicles and the local office for pulling construction permits – the idea is that big government leads to bureaucracy. As someone who spent several hours at the local Social Security office to replace the card that I lost 30 years ago because the Texas DMV insisted on seeing it before they would give me a driver’s license, I find sympathy for this approach.

But our belief that big government leads to big bureaucracy is based in part on the assumption that a large organization has to have strict rules so that it treats everyone fairly. Maybe that’s not true. Maybe we can build some flexibility into our rules so long as fairness to all is the underlying principle.

That’s something we as writers can play with in creating our future governments. How about a multi-planet Big Government that isn’t in thrall to the corporations, bureaucratic, or evil?

That’s a Utopia for someone to write.



Legal Fictions: Why Is the Alliance Evil? — 26 Comments

  1. To a certain extent I think Julian May achieves it in the Galactic Milieu – although she still shows some people being marginalised and some people just not wanting to partake, but the vast majority do better under the benign Unity.

  2. Star Trek‘s United Federation of Planets comes to mind, at least as generally portrayed in the earlier television series. The Federation government has developed some institutional warts over time, particularly in some of the more recent tie-in novels, but by and large it functions as a government that enables its citizens to look outward, while the necessities of day-to-day civilization are maintained quietly and without undue complication.

    • I’ve always liked that about Star Trek and should have mentioned it. The fact that it got complicated — I’m thinking Deep Space Nine and some of the hints in Voyager — enhances it.

      I don’t think creating any government — much less a Big Government — that works well is easy, which is probably why so many writers fall back on the evil ones.

  3. There’s a reason why the Utopian genre features a lot fewer classics than the Dystopian one. Something about the difficulty of writing a story in it.

  4. I think most of these big governments are unthought out–the writer begins with the lone rider, the rebel, as you say, and works backward from there. Who are they up against? They have to be black hats, right? Nothing easier than some version of 1984’s Big Brother Evil Gov’t. Whatever gets the story moving fastest, with plenty of villains to contrast with Our Heroes.

    The world building in most sf movies is sketchy at best, which is partly why I watch so few of them, though I read a lot of sf and f.

    • I think you have the right of it. It’s the easiest default plot if you want to generate immediate conflict. Look at Star Wars, or LOTR. Nobody puts thought into how the bad regime got and maintains its power. (A galactic empire, really? How do the communications work, is there FTL radio? How does Sauron feed all those orcs?)
      I think it was Rhett Butler, in GONE WITH THE WIND, who said that there’s slow money to be made in the building of an empire, and quick money to be made in its fall. And so it is with story. If you want it fast and dirty, you write about taking the empire down. It’s harder, and slower, and there are fewer flashy battles and explosions, if you write about the building up.

  5. It’s hard to write a good government scenario as there have been so few of them historically.

    Aspects of good governance, yes, as example of the some of the Chinese dynasties, or the Augustinian, governing administration bureaucracies that continued to manage an empire while the empire’s head was incompetent or even during internecine struggles. For that matter, we in the U.S. had an excellent administered federal government until the Reagan revolution began consciously, actively (well, Nixon began it) dismantling it by various stratagems and pretexts. The Library of Congress was one of their first targets, along with deregulation of everything starting with health insurance.

    However, the more one looks into what the political conditions were really like in many of our favorite areas of history — say the Tudors — the more appalling they expose themselves as being. Henry VIII didn’t start from scratch with torture and arbitrary execution or with Dissolution and filling his privy purse — what was done under his father, Henry VII, to anyone who might possible disagree with him, or who had any money, was highly organized, targeted and conscious, and horrible in the extreme. The condition of fear and anxiety, and rightly so, of living during Henry VII’s reign, permeated the country.

    Love, C.

  6. Which may explain why so many writers who do excellent books building up what humanity should be don’t sell as well as dystopias!

    Nancy, I have a memory of reading an essay that referred to a book…and now I cannot remember the title, which is infuriating. It was about when Washington DC went to War, as WWII ramped up. The author’s contention was that this was the explosion of big government. We never “mustered out” the capitol corps after the war was over.

    • It is notoriously difficult to pare down government programs. Not only does the bureaucracy itself resist it. The people receiving the services also get immediately used to them, and insist that they continue. That’s why the GOP has been fighting Obamacare tooth and nail; they know that once it is established there will never be any going back.

      • While Brenda is right about the difficulty of getting rid of government programs that have outlived their usefulness, an argument could be made that we did the right thing by not cutting back our federal government. The government we had prior to FDR — if you include the New Deal in with WWII — was inadequate for the needs of our country. For example, there was virtually no regulation of the stock market, which is part of the reason it crashed so badly in 1929. There was no Social Security. Even our military was inadequate (something that we haven’t seen since). So I’d argue one reason we didn’t go back is that we didn’t want a society without that level of government.

        • I certainly don’t–we have much fewer seniors in poverty thanks to SS, and the school lunch program means that we only have 20% of children going to bed hungry, as opposed to universe knows how many.

          The small government types insist that the private sector can pick up without these programs, but anyone with an ounce of sense can see that the private sector charities are stretched like rubber bands. They have no more slack.

          I do think the military industrial complex is out of control (Eisenhower was right) but we need an army that is worth something in the unfortunate event that it is needed. There is a better balance to be found.

  7. In common usage, “big government” refers to the level of government intrusion in the everyday lives of it’s citizens. The term is also generally used to reflect the way checks against government power usually diminish as that government’s range of authority over issues increases. The thing most people (Excepting serious anarchist or purist libertarians) find distasteful about “big government” isn’t the number and varieties of functions the government performs; rather it is about the things said government forces citizens to do or what it takes from them. Particularly when it comes to imposing a set of social or moral values upon the citizenry.

    If the society maintains sufficient checks and balances that the citizenry can change the government’s course or rein it in as needed, that’s one thing. (As the Federation generally did.) But the bigger and more powerful that government becomes, the harder it is for the citizenry to spot, much less rein in any abuse or overreach. So at the end of the day, the bigger the government, the greater it’s power… the greater the risk of it shifting to a monolithic entity that compels obedience from it’s subjects rather than making possible cooperation.

    Historically, when people get the power to do something, they usually use it. More power equals more opportunity for abuse.

      • That’s kind of the rub. Power gets things done, but it also attracts the folks least fit to yield it. Each administration improves on the abuses and excesses of it’s predecessor.

        Personally, when one is considering enacting some legal precedent or granting a power to government, one should look in a mirror and say “would I hand this power to the political faction I don’t like?” Consider the recent changes to the fillibuster. The folks who were for it were against it before they were for it. Will they still be for it when the pendulum swings the other way?

        • In terms of worldbuilding, perhaps it’s more realistic to explore how a society could build an expansive, multi-system government while preventing it from becoming monolithic or oppressive. How to construct a government that can do what needs to be done by inspiring cooperation rather than wielding compulsion or coercion, all while keeping human nature in mind. And all while keeping that political body under the control of the citizenry rather than the other way around.

          • I really like your approach to worldbuilding here and hope people will take it up. It sounds like a certain amount of work, though possibly easier than making it happen in real life. I’d certainly like to live in a world with that sort of governance, though!

            • And then there’s the problem that in history, and not distant history either, when things are quite good and getting better for so many, there are still so many deliberately left out — as with African Americans in that post WWII prosperity.

              Love, C.

              • Yep. Interesting to note that the post WWII prosperity definitely included government policy decisions — high taxes on the wealthy and corporations, GI bill opportunities for those who served in the military, etc. But those policies did not extend to addressing the racism in our society. An African American vet might be able to qualify for a VA-insured home loan in the 1950s, but restrictive covenants and other policies would keep him or her from buying in a lot of neighborhoods — and particularly in neighborhoods where property values were likely to rise over time. And job discrimination would have limited that vet’s employment opportunities and income.
                The Civil Rights laws of the 1960s opened up a lot of opportunities for African Americans, but those laws are under heavy attack right now. And the wealth disparity continues.

  8. I believe the suggestion that somehow big government serves as a foil for corporate interests — as opposed to being co-opted by corporate interests — is, at least based on many eras in US history, a debatable point.

    Recent history shows how easily governments can be manipulated by cozy relations with industry, whether it is corporate lobbying and campaign donations, powerful interest groups using propaganda to manipulate public opinion, or bold-faced corruption. The fact that BP basically got away with the Gulf disaster and that the banking industry got bailed out from a collapse of its own making while millions of ordinary Americans were allowed to lose their homes with no relief demonstrates this.

    Concentrations of power tend to breed bureaucracies whose primary interest is protecting that power and resisting changes to the status quo. They also unfortunately tend to attract those who have ambitions to benefit themselves at the expense of others…and the noble and well-meaning end up exerting a great deal of effort in derailing the corrupt.

    • You make a very valid point. I think it might be possible to develop a government structure that was more immune (I won’t say completely immune) to corporate control, but I don’t think it would be easy. And in this reality where the US Supreme Court has decided that money = speech, it’s even more difficult.

      Your observation about bureaucracies protecting the status quo is also dead on. In my experience, this is true in both corporations and government agencies. Part of it is that people don’t want to change the way they do their job, because that involves more work. And if improved systems would affect their power within their organization, people really get upset.