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Darth Vader and Altruism

I haven't seen "Revenge of the Sith" just yet, but I enjoyed today's column by John Tierney in the New York Times: "Darth Vader's Family Values." I especially like the fact that he cites my pal and colleague Dan Klein on "The People's Romance." Tierney writes:

The People's Romance is [Klein's] 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.

I'm looking forward to seeing the concluding episode of George Lucas's myth.

Cross-posted to L&P.

Comments welcome.