The Hunger Games, and the Shallowness of Conservative Economic Morality

Longtime readers will recall that using science fiction to analyze real-world problems is a favorite subject of mine. Consequentially, when someone attempts the same, and manages to thoroughly botch it, I feel compelled to reply. And Forbes writer what John Tamny does to The Hunger Games is basically a war crime.

In his hands, the popular young adult book becomes a warning about the horrors of big government:

A hapless, interventionist, warring government is the only kind that could have fostered the societal crack-up that is Panem, and then Panem reflects – if possible – politicians even more inept pouring gasoline onto the proverbial fire. [. . . .]

In Panem food, something we take for granted, is scarce thanks to power hungry politicians. Even more than monetary debasement, the creation of food scarcity through unnatural barriers to production and trade is the easiest way for politicians to divide the citizenry, and to be fair, often results from monetary debasement.

If you can’t follow the writing, I don’t blame you. This is what happens when you teach ugly five-buck words (“eventuates”) and business slang (“unnatural barriers to production”) to someone with the writing education of a ninth-grader. But the real sin goes deeper, because The Hunger Games emphatically is not a latter-day Atlas Shrugged for kids. Panem’s dictatorial Capitol isn’t evil because it restrains “self-interested individuals” from “creat[ing] what they’re best at so that they can trade their production for that of others.” It’s evil because it overlays a neo-feudal state — in which the Districts owe the Capitol fealty, and receive in exchange nothing but their lives — with Roman-style decadence, inhumanly maintained in willful ignorance of the suffering of others. Katniss’ continuous narrative throughout the book offers a ringing indictment of thoughtless opulence and the culture of selfish entitlement it creates, while contrasting such sins with the friendly congregationalism of the rural poor. These aren’t inobvious themes: the name “Panem,” the gladitorial pageantry of the Games, and the Capitol’s preference for Latin names (Cato, Titus, Seneca, Octavia, Cinna) all identify Panem’s rich-poor gap as a basic sin of empire, so common throughout human history, and demonstrate an artificial scarcity that’s the product of self-interested imperialism, not regulation.

Moreover, throughout the books, neither wealth nor the pursuit of wealth ever correlate with morality. Quite the opposite. During the Games, we see corporations and rich sponsors spending staggering sums of money on Tributes, but only to make the children’s suffering more entertaining, not to help them for their own sake. In books two and three, the Capitol’s rebels renounce both their wealth and privilege in solidarity with the Districts, but also of necessity. And, when Katniss herself becomes wealthy after her triumph in the first Games, she makes a point of sharing her wealth, by inviting friends to live with her in the victor’s villas. Truly, while neither really applies, the economic morality of The Hunger Games is less Rand than Marx.

The author’s not wrong to note other obvious themes, like the virtues of individualism and self-reliance (the “natural, and very American, urge to be free”). Both are plainly on display in Katniss’ idyllic hunts with Gale, conducted in derogation of the Capitol’s ban on hunting. But the Capitol’s hunting “regulations” aren’t products of a well-intentioned nanny state. They’re enacted because Panem’s imperial overlords need scarcity to keep the Districts poor and weak.

I understand Forbes’ need to build The Hunger Games into a paean to conservative economic morality. There simply are no good science fiction or fantasy stories about conservative economic values. We don’t want to hear how Ron Weasley is poorer than Harry Potter because of “the human error frequently behind poverty”; how Kvothe Kingkiller used his first silver talents to short-sell iron futures, made a fortune, and spent the rest of his life kicking beggars in Tarbean; or how Saruman’s strategy of strip-mining Fangorn and scouring the Shire improved efficiency and made him Middle Earth’s greatest job creator. These aren’t good stories, because they aren’t human stories. They don’t inspire. Maybe there’s a lesson in that.

Small Catastrophe,” the Tiny Tin Hearts

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Image credits to this guy. Oh, and I couldn’t fit it in anywhere, but don’t miss the end of the article:

We’re thankfully a very faint shadow of Panem in the United States, but increasingly we live at the mercy of politicians irrespective of party. If this is doubted, try to evade your taxes, and when you get a letter from the IRS asking for them, ignore the letter. Eventually you’ll be visited by government officials who, if not carrying guns, will be backed by those who do.

Republicans might say that at least Republican politicians seek to lower our rates of taxation, but think about that for a moment. When politicians promise lower tax rates, they’re implicitly telling all of us that they have the power to charge us as much or as little as they want to for our work. A nation founded on deep skepticism of government and politicians now has leaders who “grant” us the right to keep more of our money.

If you didn’t pay taxes, you might go to jail! Isn’t that terrible?! And animals are crapping in our houses! Did we lose a war!??!

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10 comments

  1. Have you ever read The Unincoprorated Man? I haven’t read the two sequels, which maybe would help me figure out which, but it’s a dystopian science fiction that’s either trying to skewer conservative economic values or skewer what the authors consider misappropriation of conservative economic values (analogous to the way socialist George Orwell wrote anti-Soviet fiction). Basically, in a far-in-the-future society where a reductio ad absurdum of capitalism has resulted in every single person being made a legal corporation at birth, a cryogenically frozen man from our time gets thawed out and refuses to incorporate himself. Havoc ensues.

    1. I took the hunger games as more of an over-controlled, super centralized power government, where there is no seperation of powers, and therefore this power in the wrong hands could actually lead to something like this. Similar to what the nazis(National Socialist German Workers’ Party) did in WWII, when they played games with the jewish prisoners. The moral I believe is to never give up, and a deeper moral would be, to not let power become centralized or corrupted. Freedom from oppression by your government is what you should be looking for…..NOT A GROWING SOCIALIST GOVERNMENT…..You don’t want centralized power because it ends up leading to bull shit like this.

  2. I’ll have to check that out! It sounds … strange.

  3. That (The Unincorporated Man) is a fantastic book! (I also have not read the sequels. They’re in the “after I finish this [unprintable] dissertation” stack, though.)

    Jennifer Government is in a similar vein, though it’s way more heavy-handed. Great premise, absurd over-moralizing (yes, we get the point, Author, seriously, can we get back to the plot?).

    1. I started Jennifer Government, but way too heavy-handed for me and I quit before the damn shoes even started getting sold. Max Barry wanted me to look at His Over-Moralizing even more than Mr. Burns wanted me to look at his vest.

  4. The one ‘good’ conservative SF I can think of is the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. It’s essentially military (later increasingly political) SF that centres around a conflict between two great powers, a capitalist constitutional monarchy and a socialist state. I’m qualifying ‘good’, because between the somewhat heavy-handed politics and annoying Mary Sue-ness of the main character, I’m personally not a fan of it (didn’t make it past halfway into the third book). But it’s getting good reviews, so…

    I suspect another reason why there’s so little conservative SF is that the viewpoint lends itself poorly to a genre that generally tries to envision societies that are fundamentally different from our own. Libertarian SF has been much more succesful, after all. And fantasy I think tends to be somewhat less political/politicised overall.

    Also, “inobvious”? Really, Marius? What’s wrong with good English words like ‘ambiguous’ or ‘obscure’? :p

    1. And I think I’d probably put Orson Scott Card in there as ‘good’ conservative SF, as well (not a fan of him, either), in the light of e.g. the Empire series.

  5. AK, I’ve actually read most of David Weber’s work, including the entirety of the Honor Harrington series and all its supporting material. The Mary Sueness of his female protagonists is kind of a problem he has in everything he writes (except for the handful of books that have a male central character). As for the heavy-handedness of the politics, that ameliorates itself some in later books by not being as present and in others because the nature of the conflict shifts a few books after you quit reading the second-worst book… or maybe third, this last one was a real disappointment due to Molasses Plot Movement. The politics change in that the Socialist State undergoes some revolutions, the constitutional monarchy has a different coalition government for awhile, a theocratic constitutional monarchy undergoing a top-down liberalization becomes a major player, and for the last couple of books the bad guys have been a corporatist colonialist superpower and an expansionist absolutist minor power with a transhumanist caste society. As for social conservatism, on the one hand polygamy, bisexuality (and presumably homosexuality, though only implicitly as I remember), open marriage, and fornication are all treated favorably, but there’s some obnoxious anti-abortion moralizing in the third-to-last book of the main series.

    What’s interesting to me is that Weber’s co-written a lot of books, including most of the “supporting material” books for the Harrington series, with Eric Flint – who self-identifies as a Trotskyist. His big work complex is the 163x time-travel-induced-alternate-history series, although I quit reading those after the third book. I much prefer his 18xx alt-history series, if only because it’s based on an “one actual event happened differently, now watch the butterfly effect” premise instead of a “supernatural or time travel intervention changes history” premise (Ruled Britannia vs. Guns of the South if you want to use Turtledove novels for the analogy).

    Baen Books (Weber and Flint’s main publisher) has a reputation for pretty much only printing right-of-center sci-fi and fantasy, though. I recall their Wikipedia entry at one time saying some authors had switched publishers because of it it, and my swag is that one of them was Elizabeth Moon.

    So I don’t do other comments in the thread… Marius, I realized that Volokh Conspiracy had a post pretty recently taking some other writer to task for saying The Hunger Games (of which I’ve still only read the first, finished it on… Wednesday I think) was pushing a right-wing political agenda. Did you read that?

    I’m trying to think of other overtly or at least widely-reputed-to-be political sci-fi or fantasy that’s got a conservative slant, and I’m coming up pretty blank. Part of it of course stems from the Definition Issue: what’s a conservative value? The movie Equilibrium criticizes the “hate crime” concept by name, is that being conservative? And part of it stems from most of the stuff I’ve read being, as you said AK, not conservative.

  6. Steve, yeah, I guess what really annoyed me the most about Honor was the whole “soldiers always know the right thing to do (assuming they agree with Honor), while politicians and diplomats are appeasing namby-pampies and also wrong” vibe throughout especially Honor of the Queen. Especially that Reginald Houseman straw character. I mean, seriously? And Short Victorious War seemed like it would be more of the same, so I gave up on it at that point.

    But getting back to the conservative fantasy and scifi in general, on further reflection, the interesting thing is that there are plenty of more or less conservative good F/SF authors – C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, Pournelle, maybe Niven, Poul Anderson in his later years, etc. – but it’s just that they don’t write ‘conservative stories’ as much as just ‘stories with conservative themes’. The Lord of the Rings, for instance, has that whole ‘scepticism towards industrialisation/modernisation/technology’ thing going on, which is definitely conservative material, but that still doesn’t really make it a conservative work considered as a whole.

    Maybe the real point here is that writing a story specifically to promote a particular ideology, whether conservatism or liberalism or whatever, simply in itself makes for crappy stories. (Ayn Rand kinda gets a pass here, maybe because she’s just so ridiculously over the top.) But starting out with writing a good story, and then working some political elements in there, that can work.

    Or maybe the sort of people to whom it would occur to write an ideological story just aren’t very good fiction writers. I don’t know.

    1. The Honor Harrington books are a lot like the Dresden Files books in that the first few are almost completely forgettable except for being events that get referenced later in the series.

      Ayn Rand (allegedly) wasn’t very concerned with storytelling. Take the story that her editor tried to get her to reduce the length of the speeches in Atlas Shrugged and her response was basically “I’m not cutting any part of my message no matter how much it improves readability, leave it in and tell the publisher to take the extra printing costs out of my royalties”.

      I’ve heard Dan Simmons went very conservative (in some ways) with the sequels to Hyperion. I was disappointed enough with Hyperion that I have no interest in reading the sequels so I can’t vouch for that personally, but I’ve heard they end up endorsing neo-con foreign policy somehow.

      Personally, the agenda I read into The Hunger Games is that only the Ubermensch can expect to prosper. Katniss is physically, mentally, morally, and aesthetically superior to everyone else (with the individuals who may have her beat in one area, she leads them in the other three), therefore the outcome of the Games is no surprise.

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