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Why President Obama's ex-regulatory czar is writing a book about Star Wars


Cass Sunstein is probably best known as a Harvard law professor and President Obama's former regulatory czar (or, if you want to be technical about it, the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs). But he's also something of a sci-fi geek — particularly a Star Wars geek. And recently, Sunstein has been combining his many identities into one.

In May 2015, he released a paper titled "How Star Wars Illuminates Constitutional Law." And last week, Dey Street Books announced that Sunstein is writing a book on the series.

Susntein's work is always provocative — at times, it's deeply controversial — so I began our interview by asking the obvious question.

Ezra Klein

Let's start here: What do you believe about the political economy of the Star Wars universe that most Star Wars fans would disagree with?

Cass Sunstein

A lot of Star Wars fans think the Star Wars universe is about destiny and the power of prophecy. Actually, it's not about that at all. It's about the power of choice. Key words, from Yoda: "Always in motion is the future."

In the first trilogy, Luke makes the right choices, under circumstances where things might have gone sour. The second trilogy has at least one terrific feature, which is that Luke's situations are precisely mirrored in Anakin's, and Anakin of course chooses badly. The foundation of the political economy of Star Wars was well put by Milton Friedman: Free to Choose.

Ezra Klein

I think you're underplaying structural factors here. Political scientist Jonathan Ladd, for instance, has made a persuasive argument that the Jedi were the problem with the Galactic Republic.

"It is a bad idea for a republic to outsource its police and military power, as well as most of its diplomacy, to an autonomous religious cult," he wrote. "Monopoly on the use of force is a central function of a healthy state. The Galactic Republic relied on the Jedi to enforce its will domestically and internationally. Such a scenario made the republic very vulnerable to a Jedi coup, something senators would have been aware of and vigilant against. The Senate was insufficiently vigilant against a rising Emperor Palpatine because its main fear was an Emperor Yoda."

So on some level, sure, individual choices drive outcomes. But on another level, those individual choices are happening within the context of a deeply unstable system.

Cass Sunstein

Maybe! I think George Lucas's main interest is in individuals, not structures, and so the heart of the plot, and the heart of the series, is about individual choosers. Luke chose to go to Alderaan, and that made all the difference.

I am not at all sure how strong the Force runs in Jonathan Ladd's family. (Is he perhaps Sith? Doesn't "Jonathan" have almost the same numbers of letters as "Sidious"? Can that be a coincidence?) I don't think the Jedi are best characterized as an autonomous religious cult.

What stands out is a squabbling legislature, unable to reach consensus on relevant issues, such as (say) immigration policy. That can be a real problem, to be sure.

Ezra Klein

I guess the question raised by the Jedi, and by the broader political system, is whether it's safe to have so much of galactic peace resting on the decisions made by fallible individuals. This is even more worrying, I think, given that the dark side seems to include some kind of decision-distorting pull — one might call it a "nudge" toward evil.

So what's your analysis, then, of why Luke makes the right choices while Anakin makes the wrong ones, and is there anything that future denizens of the Star Wars universe can do to keep these powerful players on the right path?

Cass Sunstein

As James Madison said, "Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm," so any Republic needs institutions that provide safeguards in the case of the unenlightened. That's not the theme of Star Wars, but it's true.

I think that Luke makes the right choices partly because he isn't a damaged person (as Anakin is) and partly because at the key moment, he isn't confronted with a searing outcome that he might be able to fix if he turns to the dark side. (Anakin turns to save his beloved.) Note that Luke comes very close to going dark, once Darth Vader threatens his sister. The parallels in the two "turning" scenes are very precise.

In terms of staying away from the dark side: As President Kennedy is said to have said, "Don't get mad. Get even." My friendly amendment would be: Getting even isn't about vengeance; it's about promoting justice and ensuring against injustice.

Ezra Klein

So I'm curious: Do you share the world's low opinion of Episodes I through III? Or do you think they're underappreciated?

Cass Sunstein

Both. They lack the high spirits, the wit, and the energy of IV, V, and VI. Also some of the dialogue is less than fabulous, of course. And I and II are bloated, I think. But they're visually amazing; Lucas has an extraordinary visual imagination. And the mirroring of IV, V, and VI is ingenious, especially in III.

Ezra Klein

So why write a book on the series? What are the main frameworks or insights you want to use to explore the films?

Cass Sunstein

Writing a book about the series is really fun, so it would be foolish not to, don't you think?

The book very much remains in progress, but here are three major themes: 1) Freedom. The series is really a celebration of choice-making. That's worth exploring. 2) Redemption. That's the secret theme of the series, in my view. That's what it's all about. And being a parent, and being a child — closely related to redemption. Kids often redeem their parents, and most parents would fight the emperor to save their kids. 3) Serendipity. That is related to the series, but also to the genesis of the series. (What did Lucas know, and when did he know it? What did Luke know, and when did he know it?) And also to the success of the series. How'd it get to be so huge? Was that destiny? Umm, no.

Oh, and I almost forgot: 4) Attachment. The path to the dark side — and also the lightest of the light.

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