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
* * * * *
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.