Wednesday, September 20, 2017

An Apology for Adelai: Why Malcolm Reynolds Should Have Stolen the Medicine

(Recently, I have been taking part in an online discussion group devoted to Firefly and Libertarianism, which served to inspire this piece.)

Part of the charm of Firefly for Libertarians is its rather nuanced take on the Alliance government. As the central villain of the series, it would have been easy for Joss Whedon to have turned the Alliance into something sinister akin to the Empire of Star Wars. Yet, throughout the series, we are never really given a reason to question the fact that the Alliance is competent and, in general, improves the lives of its citizens. Yes, they kidnap children and operate on them. Yes, they employ secretive and spooky agents. That being said, it is only with the discovery of Miranda at the end of the Serenity movie that we are given an example where it can be said that the Alliance messed up. Everything else is easy to defend on utilitarian grounds that the galaxy is left a better place. And even Miranda is hardly something to delegitimize the Alliance (even as it does convert the Operative). Sure the Alliance exposed people to chemicals that turned them into the zombie space barbarian Reavers. But they meant well and is this really worse than all the times the United States has armed different groups with unexpected consequences. The fact that the Alliance is a pretty good government, forces Malcolm Reynolds and his friends to fall back on principles to defend their refusal to bow to the Alliance. Having no empirical grounds for claiming that they have a plan for a better galaxy (or any plan at all), all they can demand is their right to go their own way regardless of the consequences.

One of the chief examples on the show where the Alliance comes across in a positive light is the "Train Job" episode. Here, Mal is hired by the brutal crime boss Adelai Niska to steal a crate of goods from an Alliance train. When it turns out that the crate contains needed medicine for the local townspeople of Paradiso, Mal returns the goods, giving up a valuable payday and making himself a dangerous enemy. In keeping with the theme of valuing libertarian principles over pragmatic utilitarianism, I wish to offer a defense of Niska stealing the medicine and an argument as to why Mal should not have given it back.

I assume most viewers support Mal's decision to take the job in the first place when the crate was simply some unnamed goods (perhaps the newest iPhone to be sold to the town's wealthy). As an enemy of the Alliance and a soldier in a war against them, Mal has no social contract with the Alliance that would prohibit him from robbing them. It is irrelevant that the Alliance won the war and now possesses a very real monopoly on violence throughout known space. On the contrary, the Alliance's possession of such power simply demonstrates that they are the aggressors and not Mal. Mal is justified in stealing from the Alliance despite the fact that, from a galactic utilitarian view, Mal's theft is harmful. He is not producing any goods. Once he has finished with his theft, the galactic economy will be left with the same goods minus the cost of the crew of Serenity's time and effort along with the damage done to the train and injuries to soldiers.

If you are willing to support Mal when we assumed it was just luxury goods for the rich being stolen, you should logically be willing to follow this position when it is a little less favorable to Mal. What if the crate contained aid for the poor people not immediately threatened with death? Here we have the literary example of Ragnar Danneskjold, the anti-Robin Hood privateer of Atlas Shrugged. Ragnar makes a point of only attacking government aid ships. His reasoning is that the goods have been stolen from hard working capitalists and are being used to prop up socialist regimes that will further oppress people. By robbing aid ships he is helping to bring down socialism and repay capitalists like Hank Rearden what the government stole from him in taxes. The fact that there are people who need these goods far more than Rearden does is irrelevant to Rand's philosophy.

The Alliance has stolen the goods from hard working productive individuals like Niska. We can assume that Niska is productive as people clearly want to do business with him so badly that they are willing to step outside the law and become criminals to do so. (See Defending the Undefendable by Walter Block.) We can assume that an intelligent man like Niska manages to avoid paying taxes to the Alliance. That being said, Niska indirectly pays a hefty price for being on the wrong side of Alliance law in that he is left without a suitable court to settle business disagreements. This leaves him with no choice but brutally torture people to death whenever they fail him.

In general, it is irrational to kill people as it is economically inefficient. Standard economics and Occam's Razor force us to assume that Niska is rational and is only killing people because the Alliance makes him do it and not because he is a psychopath. Even if Niska was a psychopath, his actions would still be the Alliance's fault as they made otherwise legitimate businesses illegal, creating a market that psychopaths could easily take over and become rich and powerful instead of falling to the power of the free market, which punishes people for irrational behavior far more effectively than government ever would. It should be noted that, at the end of the episode, Mal knocks one of Niska's henchmen into a spaceship engine while the later is tied up and defenseless. If you are willing to accept such cold-blooded murder as necessary under the circumstances then you should, at least hypothetically, be willing to accept that Niska needs to kill people sometimes simply to make a point and maintain his reputation.

While the residents of the town could use the aid, they never had a right to it. I assume we can accept that it would be immoral for them to turn to piracy to get their needs even if they were stealing from people who could easily spare the goods. Furthermore, it would be justifiable to respond to such piracy with deadly force. Therefore it is immoral for the town to have the Alliance use legal theft to supply the aid. There is a larger issue at stake here in that giving aid is a major propaganda boost, making the case that the Alliance really is making the galaxy a better place. This would be the same problem as accepting a donation from the Mafia no matter how noble the cause.

Now we come to the really tricky matter where, in fact, Mal is not stealing luxuries from rich or even needed aid for the poor but medical supplies, without which people are going to die. Keep in mind that we have already surrendered any claim to utility and are solely concerned with the principle of liberty. Now we should consider why Niska might have wanted to steal the medicine in the first place and what he might want to do with it. The most logical thing would be to immediately sell the medicine back to the town at an exorbitant price. Presumably, the Alliance would have to step in and come up with the money. In this case, we would be back to the first scenario where it would be no different than if the crate had been full of money. One can go so far as to argue that even if Niska was not planning on doing this, Mal would be justified in assuming that was his intention and wash his hands of the affair. 

It is possible that Niska is planning on selling the medicine to other miners who need it to live. If this were the case then Mal would be justified as the lives of Niska's people are not less valuable than that of the Alliance's. On the contrary, Niska's people have clearly committed less aggression.

What if Niska was planning on simply using the medicine to make a face cream for a celebrity or simply destroy it out of spite? Valuing silly luxuries for celebrities over medicine for poor people is something that society does every day when people throw money away on movie tickets instead of giving to charity. (Clearly, the world of Firefly still has movie theaters as Shepherd Book reserves a special place in Hell for people who talk in them.) In this case, Niska can hardly be blamed for following the same logic to its extreme conclusion. Destroying the medicine could also be seen as a worthwhile deed as it would humiliate the Alliance and demonstrate that they are not as all-powerful as most people think. This would help undermine the Alliance, which might not actually improve anyone's existence but would still be consistent with advancing liberty.

It should be understood that my entire argument rests on the assumption that it was ok for Mal to steal from the Alliance in the first place even if it was just luxury goods for the rich. This would require us to reject the Alliance's moral authority as well as any claims to utilitarian benefit. Once we start down this path than very quickly we find ourselves with a license to let people die from lack of medicine.

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