You Can\'t (?) Take The Sky From Me

It strikes me that the whole Firefly series can be viewed as a commentary on Patri's "dynamic geography" concept-- both its promise and its pitfalls. A little spaceship is not so different from a little seastead, and Mal's motivating idea is definitely one of escape from a tyranny he can't defeat. As he tells the Operative in the movie (paraphrasing): "I can't beat you [the Alliance]. Don't have to. All I want is to go my way." On the plus side, he does get to go his way quite a lot of the time. The freedom he and his crew members enjoy is remarkably consistent. So, too, might be the freedom of seasteading.

But there's a heavy price to pay. A spacecraft-- like a seastead-- cannot survive for long without coming to land to do deals; nor can its operators always pick and choose the nature of those deals. The temptation to petty criminality as a bringer of quick cash is powerful. And if the scale of operations becomes more than petty, then the land-dwellers' hammer will come down, whether the crimes involved are malum in se or merely malum prohibitum.

Indeed, the series' pessimism about the possibilities for freedom seems positively Burkean to me (as Tyler Cowen has also noted); and the movie is not much more upbeat. The themes it plays on-- the non-perfectability of man, the superiority of personal honor over the desire to force a better world-- have powerful appeal; but the victories for those of us who prefer limited government may achieve are, in the Firefly/Serenity world, limited and partial at best.


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Hi Nick, Brian, and

Hi Nick, Brian, and Jonathon,

Thanks for the long-awaited Serentity review! In addition to the enjoyable the movie commentary, you made some nice general insights into the cause of liberty.

"...the series’ pessimism about the possibilities for freedom..."

I watched the Serentity TV series just before the first season of Deadwood, and the combined effect was to send me into a several-month funk over the unavoidable loss of freedom. The vanishing horse breaks my heart every time I see the intro to Deadwood.

When I look on the time-scale of years to decades, I see the effects of creeping government meddling. Every dispute between neighbors or natural disaster is an opportunity for a dozen different politicians to make their power-plays to impose a solution by force. When the "solutions" spawn more problems, a whole industry develops to ratchet up the meddling. The larger the industry becomes, the more it is worth, and the more entrants there are.

But on the time-scale of decades to centuries and beyond, the situation looks much more optimistic. Marauding invaders are replaced by tyrants and demagogues, then bureaucracies and limited government. None of them may be pleasant to deal with, but at least the trend is in the right direction. Communication, trade, wealth and education gradually accumulate to bring powers to individuals that were only in the imagination a hundred years earlier.

I suggest the graph of autonomy versus time looks like an increasing background trend with shorter period oscillations around the trend. As we approach the asymptote of full individual sovereignty, the trend will increasingly flatten. I suppose the oscillations are caused by positive feedback forces that eventually exhaust themselves. For example, when leaders impose taxes, they gain enough resources to collect taxes more effectively, which enables them to raise taxes more. Eventually, though, the high taxes will kill off the measurable productivity that was being taxed and the system will move outside its positive-feedback domain.

As suggestions (without backing evidence at this stage), some of the forces at work in this graph is:

1) The human urge to prosper doesn't distinguish very carefully between prosperity through production and prosperity through theft or conniving.
2) Government action is inherently slower than individual action.
3) Government action is more difficult to argue with because of the greater level of force it employs.
4) Technological innovations offer the greatest leaps of autonomy because they can spawn several cycles of growth before government action can control them.
5) Using force against government generally backfires. Violent unrest makes people take shortcuts to less-than-satisfactory solutions that the current government or an opposition government-in-waiting is ready to profit from.
6) Directly arguing against the government of the day is a tedious business where, by design, you will have less resources than your opponent.

When you spend your life trying to fight a defensive battle against government, you will be worn down. If you try to fight an offensive battle with force, you will be crushed. As monopoly governments weaken, your odds may get better, but they will always be against you. Often the best you can do is ignore and avoid them. "Don't try to win--just go on your way."

It is always thrilling to think that all of the lies and violence with which people run a government can come crashing down in one big event. But it doesn't often appear to happen this way, and I expect that it actually happens less often than CNN makes it appear to. Maybe a sequel to Serenity could start out with Mal finding out that even though the signal couldn't be stopped, it also didn't cause everyone to rise up against the Alliance in a shining victory.

Yes, Patri's seasteads will eventually be just as well or poorly ruled as the rest of the planet. They may make innovations to exploit loopholes in geography-oriented governments, but governments will slowly and eventually close those loopholes. But what they will do is allow a space to breath for a few dozen years. And during that time, we can spawn enough other innovations in travel, communication, and trade to outrun monopoly government by a few more paces. Eventually government will have fallen so far behind that it will no longer attract those who see it as an easy way to prosperity.