Around midday on February 27, the Internet seemed to come to a halt when word broke that Leonard Nimoy had died. While Nimoy had worked for 60 years as an actor, director, photographer and even a singer, it was his role as Star Trek’s half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock that prompted the outpouring of grief upon his passing. Spock’s embrace of Vulcan philosophy, whose adherents prize dispassionate logic above all, made him the quintessential outsider among his human crewmates on the USS Enterprise. To anyone who ever had trouble fitting in, who felt socially awkward or out of place, Spock was like a friend who understood you.
Spock’s unique status and cerebral nature gave him some of the best lines on the show, and so, in honour of the man who embodied him, I offer the following list of some of the character’s most inspiring quotes—with a libertarian take on each one:
“You Earth people glorify organized violence for 40 centuries, but you imprison those who employ it privately.” — Season 1, Episode 9: “Dagger of the Mind”
There is no denying that humans glorify organized violence: our culture, literature and film are replete with depictions of war as glorious and soldiers as heroic. Rather than focus on the horror of mass killing, we prefer to imagine it as something noble and, in recent years, even humanitarian. More insidiously, most of us view the state—an entity defined by its monopoly on the legitimate use of force—as benevolent and uplifting. We honour those tasked with wielding state coercion against us as “public servants” and insist that is preferable for politicians to formulate the rules by which we live our lives—and enforce them at gunpoint if necessary—than to let us govern ourselves. And yet, while almost no one acknowledges the massive violence perpetrated by the state, almost everyone agrees that it is proper that an individual be punished for the crime of murder. As Spock would point out, the contradiction is highly illogical.
“Change is the essential process of all existence.” — Season 3, Episode 15: “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”
Change is a fundamental component of the human experience. There has never been a time or a place without social, economic, technological and other change. And, sadly, neither has there been a time or a place free from those who would beseech government to oppose change. Whether it is businesses trying to ban new technologies, unions trying to raise tariff walls, clergy trying to prevent scientific discovery, conservatives trying to enforce social mores, or xenophobes trying to keep out foreigners, there are always countless groups with no qualms about using state coercion to maintain the present conditions that they favour. Of course, not all change is good, but it is ultimately impossible to freeze society in time—and it is abhorrent to use violence to do so.
“Insufficient facts always invite danger.” — Season 1, Episode 22: “Space Seed”
It is rare, when making decisions both big and small, to have complete information. Not only are there things that we do not know, there are almost invariably things that we do not even know that we do not know. This problem is bad enough when we make decisions for ourselves, but when the government makes decisions for all of us, it becomes intolerable. It is impossible for politicians and bureaucrats to possess the information required for them to make optimal choices on everything from what pesticides present an unacceptable risk, to how many doctors should be admitted to practice every year, to how large our road network should be. They cannot possibly know enough about our habits, our preferences, our plans, or the world around us to justify their power to impose their decisions on us all. And yet they do just that every day, based on incomplete and inadequate data. As Spock points out, the inevitable consequence is to constantly invite danger, in the form of people who are less wealthy, less free and less happy than they would be if they were free to use what they know about their personal circumstances to make their own decisions for themselves.
“Without followers, evil cannot spread.” — Season 3, Episode 4: “And the Children Shall Lead”
Spock’s pithy observation is entirely correct: Without followers, evil cannot go very far. Had no one been willing to follow them, men such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao would have been little more than antisocial cranks with a temper. While it’s true that a single person can carry out bad deeds, a bad person with millions ready to do his bidding is infinitely more dangerous than a lone individual. Human history would be far less bloody—and the world a much better place—if we were more skeptical about those who claim the ability to improve our lives if only we first give them our allegiance and our freedoms.
“It is curious how often you humans manage to obtain that which you do not want.” — Season 1, Episode 26: “Errand of Mercy”
One of history’s universal truths is the law of unintended consequences. Laws enacted to achieve some purpose have tended to produce outcomes not foreseen at the time—outcomes that are typically undesirable. In other words, throughout history we humans have been highly adept at obtaining, through government action, that which we do not want. Prohibiting high-interest lending pushes those with poor credit into dealing with loan sharks and gangsters. Placing restrictions on property rights wherever endangered species are discovered encourages land owners to destroy natural habitat and kill rare animals on sight while burying the evidence (commonly known as “shoot, shovel and shut up”). Increased security at airports encourages frustrated travellers to take their cars instead, and since flying is generally safer than driving, the result is avoidable road deaths. When evaluating the costs and benefits of past state actions, it is vital to look past the immediate consequences and try to consider all the ways in which people have changed their behaviour in response to the law’s incentives.
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
It’s unclear whether Spock’s best-known philosophical observation is intensely socialist or intensely libertarian, but I prefer to think the latter. To my mind, “the few” are those who claim the right to use force against us: politicians, bureaucrats, and the special interests who lobby them to use the state’s coercive apparatus to compel us to behave in ways that cannot persuade us to behave voluntarily. Whereas “the many” are those of us with no desire to compel anyone to do anything who simply want to go about our business in peace. Spock uttered these words after famously sacrificing himself to save the Enterprise from certain destruction—after he freely chose to give his own life to save his friends and colleagues. Freedom may include the freedom to think only of oneself, but most of us find it more rewarding to also use our liberties to help others and be kind to one another, as long as the arrangement is entirely voluntary.
“Live long and prosper.” — Common Vulcan Greeting
Long life may be uncontroversial enough (although baseless concerns about overpopulation still abound). But to prosper means to “succeed in material terms; be financially successful.” For too many people, wealth is dirty (“filthy lucre”) and prosperity is invariably the result of immoral or unsavoury means. We are suspicious of people who succeed financially, assuming them to be shifty, greedy and unscrupulous. In fact, wealth—in the form of everything from medicine to entertainment to travel—is what allows us to live longer, happier lives. Spock’s iconic greeting is a reminder that prosperity is a wonderful thing, and that to wish it upon someone is a kindness.
Leonard Nimoy may be gone, but Spock will live forever as long as he and the universe that Gene Roddenberry created remain part of our popular culture. Star Trek may not be the most libertarian show ever made, but it does contain a message of peace, humanity and progress that should resonate with anyone who believes in non-violence and is optimistic about the future. And so while Mr. Spock might not call himself a libertarian, I’m confident that he would agree that respecting the rights of others to do as they please—on condition that they respect ours—is the only course of action that is truly logical.
* Adam Allouba is a business lawyer based in Montreal and a graduate of the McGill University Faculty of Law. He also holds a B.A. and an M.A. in political science from McGill.