How Did Firefly Become Libertarian?
No spoilers lie herein (other than the premise of the show).
Firefly is a darling of libertarian economists. (Yes, really.) The series presents a brilliant vision of a dystopic (more than despotic) government.
The story takes place six years after the Rebellion loses its war against the Alliance. Our hero, Malcolm Reynolds, fought for the Rebels and became a smuggler after the war. Let’s explore some of the themes from Firefly.
Urban vs. frontier! The Alliance provides plenty of services and protection for the urban populations that make up its core. If you are an average Alliance citizen, you are probably pretty happy.
The Allaince, however, pushes out marginalized populations to the frontier to live or die without resources that the Alliance could provide but doesn’t, presumably because there would be little to be gained from helping them. Much of the work our heroes do in the show is smuggle necessary (but perhaps stolen) supplies to the frontier.
The frontier, however, only contains the aesthetic of some strains of libertarianism. Someone who favors limited government does not need to be a fierce individualist. But somehow the association exists, and I suspect that is why many libertarians like the show.
Feminism! Creator Joss Whedon integrates feminist themes into all his shows, and Firefly is no exception. If a feminist were to look for something to critique, I think they might highlight the ship’s mechanic Kaylee. Though she is proficient with machinery, she seems to have gotten her knowledge intuitively by “conversing” with the machinery rather than by serious study. She is not responsible for her capabilities. Then again, she is good at something that a male would traditionally be cast for and she isn’t forced to sacrifice her femininity for it.
An alternative view of sex workers! An extension of the feminist theme, “companions” within the world of Firefly are high-status–functioning as ambassadors. Characters behave consistent with this belief, which makes the audience wonder whether a similar transformation could be accomplished here in real life. The mechanism suggested by the show is legalizing prostitution and establishing a guild which offer strong protections of the rights of sex workers. Companions can choose their own clientele and can add bad actors to a universal black list.
Religion! This must have been an area of interest for Whedon, but the show does not progress long enough for us to discover what he wanted to communicate.
Oligarchy! Many of the episodes occur in frontier societies where everyone is poor except for an administrator or magistrate who seems to have done nothing to merit their position. These structures are established (or at least reinforced) by the Alliance government. It’s hard to say this is libertarian so much as anti-oligarchy.
“Good” governments can do bad things! As mentioned, the Alliance maintains its urban core well. People seem to have jobs, medical care, transportation, parks, access to the arts, etc. Just like in our own countries, there is nothing to overtly suggest it is not a free society. Big Brother is not watching on a screen (as near as you can tell), and children are not forced to fight to the death once per year. If you are normal, then things for you will be normal.
If you are special or unlucky though, your life will be forfeit if that is in the interest of the Alliance. If you are super-smart, you may be shuffled off for a military project. If you saw something you shouldn’t have seen, you will be killed. Of course, these sorts of things never happen to too many people at the same time, which is what makes the whole thing possible, sustainable, and terrifying.
I think Whedon’s dystopia is a worthy contrast to Huxley’s and Orwell’s for our time. The greatest threat to liberty is that an insufficient number of us will have our rights abrogated simultaneously for us to bother with revolt.
Firefly is a very good show. The DVD set is a bargain, and you are a bad person if you don’t watch it.
Edit: Here is a prior discussion about whether libertarianism exists in Whedon’s works. I think we can safely say that Whedon is equally open to interpretation as a Rorschach test.
Photo credit: allnightnoise at DeviantArt.com