[Ilya Somin (guest-blogging), April 6, 2006 at 4:47pm] Trackbacks
Decentralization and Federalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature:

Inspired by the interest generated by my post on "The Law of Star Trek," I thought I would devote a post to the intersection between science fiction and fantasy literature and one of my major academic research interests - federalism and decentralization. Despite the quip in the previous post, I think there is some value to exploring political themes in SF, although that value is easily overestimated. And even if there isn't any value it's still fun!

In sharp contrast to legal scholars and other academics, the majority of whom tend to favor relatively centralized government, major science fiction and fantasy writers tend to support decentralized political systems or even anarchy. I am not arguing that decentralization is the main theme of these works and in some cases it isn't even conscious. But it does seem to be there.

A few examples:

1. J.R.R. Tolkien

Sauron and Saruman's efforts to unify Middle Earth under centralized rule are portrayed negatively. When the "good guys" win at the end, King Elessar (Aragorn) establishes a highly decentralized state, with regions such as the Shire and Rohan enjoying near-total autonomy. This was actually a conscious theme of Tolkien's work, as he hated what he considered the excessive, homogenizing centralization of modern industrial society, and also despised the centralizing policies of Britain's post-WWII Labor government.

2. Ursula LeGuin

LeGuin is, of course, an anarchist, and many of her books explicitly promote anarchy and denounce government, particularly The Dispossessed.

3. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series.

The Harry Potter series portrays government so negatively that even the "most cold-blooded public choice theorist could not present a bleaker portrait." The state is portrayed as both venal and incompetent throughout the series and virtually every positive achievement is the result of decentralized private initiative.

4. Isaac Asimov's Foundation.

A centralized galactic empire breaks down as a result of bureaucratic sclerosis (symbolized by the literally labyrinthine bureaucracy on the capital planet of Trantor). Only decentralization combined with the private initiative of the shadowy Foundation saves the day. The work is somewhat ambiguous because the Foundation's goal is to eventually establish a new and better empire. Nonetheless, the evils of centralization are powerful portrayed, while its benefits receive short shrift.

5. Marion Zimmer Bradley.

In The Mists of Avalon, Bradley is very hostile to the efforts of the Church and the central government to curb the autonomy of local communities (including Avalon itself) and impose a unified state and religion. Centralization is also viewed skeptically in her Darkover series.

6. Robert A. Heinlein.

Heinlein attacked centralization in many of his books. Not surprising, given that he was a libertarian.

7. Vernor Vinge.

Same as Heinlein above.

8. David Brin.

Defends decentralization in several of his novels.

9. Frank Herbert

In his famous Dune series, a horrendous war arises from the efforts of the galactic Emperor to extend his power over a what had been a relatively decentralized political system (Dune). Even more carnage arises from the hero's efforts to consolidate his own imperial authority after he overthrows the previous emperor (Dune Messiah). Eventually, only the destruction of the empire enables humanity to be saved and renewed (God Emperor of Dune).

10. Orson Scott Card.

This is a partial exception. Card's Ender series portrays sympatheticallyPeter the Hegemon's efforts to unify Earth under a single (and increasingly powerful) government. However, the effort succeeds only because dissenters are given the chance to establish colonies on other worlds that will be highly autonomous.

Two prominent examples from TV sci fi:

1. Star Trek.

The Federation is a very loose federal system with each planet enjoying a high degree of autonomy. This is portrayed favorably, while centralized empires such as the Romulans, the Dominion, and the Borg are viewed negatively.

2. Babylon 5.

There is a sympathetic portrayal of the efforts of Mars and other colonies to secede from Earth. Centralized empires (the Vorlons, the Shadows) are criticized for their efforts to destroy local autonomy. Even the efforts of "the good guys" to establish a UN-like Interstellar Alliance are portrayed as a failure that ends up making the situation worse.


What is interesting about the strong support for decentralization in sci fi and fantasy works is that it cuts across ideological lines. It is not just libertarian (Heinlein, Vinge) and conservative (Tolkien) writers who favor it. So too do liberal (Rowling, Herbert, the creators of B5 and Star Trek), and radical ones (LeGuin, and also Samuel Delaney, whose work I probably should have included in the list). In several cases, particularly LeGuin, Tolkien and Vinge, the critique of centralized authority and advocacy of decentralization is a consciously intended theme.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive analysis and I'm sure I've missed some counterexamples as well as inevitably oversimplified the work of the writers I've covered. Nonetheless, this is an interesting trend, especially given the contrast between the sci fi and fantasy writers and the views of most other intellectuals, particularly those on the political left.

UPDATE: I thought it was reasonably clear in the original post that decentralization does NOT = libertarianism. Although most libertarians support political decentralization, so too do some nonlibertarians. Thus, I tried to point out that the support of LeGuin, Rowling, etc. for decentralization is interesting - in part - precisely because they are NOT libertarian or conservative. However, it seems that I was not as clear about this as I thought, so I have tried to restate the point here.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Decentralization and Federalism in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature:
  2. The Law of Star Trek: