Television

Avon Marxdale?

|

Ezra Klein weirdly tries to claim The Wire for big government:

You already know the panoply of lefty bloggers who regularly recommend and rave over the show, but now Cato is recommending it as a stocking stuffer. Meanwhile, my personal Wire-watching group includes lefties, punk rock chefs, and hardcore libertarians. So I think the anecdotal evidence of pan-ideological appeal is ironclad. Which is a bit odd, given that the creators are, as best I can tell, revolutionary socialists.

Really? The show depicts the systematic failure of one government institution after another. How exactly is that an endorsement of socialism?

To support his position, Klein argues that the show's most entrepeneurial, up-by-the-bootstraps characters are the ones that seem most prone to unhappy endings. But those unhappy endings generally come courtesy of bad government policy—usually the violence begotten by drug prohibition. It would be a bit like saying a show depicting a small businessman crushed by excessive regulation somehow shows the creators' contempt for private enterprise. Fiction writers routinely abuse virtuous characters. It may reflect a writer's cynicism, sadism, nihilism, or any number of other isms. But it doesn't necessarily depict a writer's contempt for virtue. A character's arc doesn't have to indicate what value the writers place on that character's values, or on the wisdom of the decisions he's made.

As for The Wire specifically, I doubt Ed Burns and David Simon strive to inject any sort of politics into the show's plotlines, other than a certain fuck-all cynicism for institutions people like Klein hold sacred (public service, unions, government workers, public schools). But if you were to draw an ideology out of the show's rough treatment of sympathetic characters, I'd think it would be something about how even well-intentioned public policy tends to pervert incentives, and crush the few people in desperate neighborhoods with the potential, values, and ethic to get out.

In other words, the opposite of socialism. Which would be….oh….damn….what's a good word for "the opposite of socialism?"

I don't know much about Ed Burns' politics. But I do know a writer who's working with David Simon on his next project. That writer has told me that Simon has nearly converted him to libertarianism, which suggests that Simon's not just a libertarian, but perhaps even a proselytizing one. Klein might also read Jesse Walker's interview with Simon. He doesn't mention the l-word, and the interview itself isn't explicitly political, but I think it's pretty clear that socialism isn't on the guy's radar.

ADDENDUM: Okay, so some feedback posted below and sent via email point to interviews where Simon says some things about capitalism that don't jibe with doctrinaire libertarianism. Fair enough. And it's certainly possible the writer mentioned above was politely patronizing me a bit. Still,taking note of the fact that capitalism does indeed create winners and losers—and lamenting what it does to the losers—isn't necessarily an endorsement of massive government programs to correct or reverse the process, particularly in a show so cynical about government in other contexts. There's also the point that the type of raw capitalism Simon is so critical of in parts of those interviews—which would include sexual slavery—isn't compatible with libertarianism.  So I'll offer those concessions, and retract my snark.

But I'd still maintain that there's lots for libertarians to like about the show, and that it's a far cry from any endorsement of socialism.

Klein also responds below to clarify, with a comment that I think I can agree with:

The show is so cynical about everything—both public institutions and private initative—that every ideology sees their enemies skewered, while the relentless cynicism sidesteps the discussion over solutions. That makes it, in a weird way, pan-ideological—it hates the status quo so much that every would-be reformer can find something to love.

Sounds about right.

NEXT: The Freedom to Be Unhealthy Is the Opposite of True Freedom

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Having grown up in Jersey City in the 70s and 80s and also having lived in Baltimore, I find The Wire to be an incredibly accurate portrayal of rough inner city life.

    And I am with you in that it in no way endorses big government. In fact, it was my experience in the ‘hood and enduring the daily nightmare of drug crime that made me a libertarian. The legalization of drugs would overnight improve the lives of millions in the inner city. When liberals pose as being concerned for the poor ask them why they tolerate the poor having to live in a battle zone? For what point?

    Prohibition created incredible crime and gangster violence and the re-legalization of alcohol eliminated those ills. Why can’t we do the same with drugs? There will always be alcohol abusers and drug addicts but they are there anyway and making drugs illegal just causes immense suffering on the poorest part of society. I challenge any opposer of drug legalization to live for one week in the West End of Baltimore. Never mind being born there.

  2. Well, here David Simon says:

    The second season of The Wire, centered around Baltimore’s dying port unions, is a meditation on the death of work and the betrayal of the American working class, it is a deliberate argument that unencumbered capitalism is not a substitute for social policy, that on its own, without a social compact, raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.

    Not a particularly libertarian thing to say.

  3. I won’t claim that Simon is a libertarian, but I will say that when he uses the word “capitalism,” he doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing that, say, Ludwig von Mises meant by it.

    I get the impression that by “capitalism” he means buying and selling; that by “raw capitalism” he means buying and selling everything, from ordinary goods to coerced labor to votes; and that by “without a social compact” he means all the other institutions, statist or not, that are supposed to keep us in check, including the rule of law. That’s just my reading, though; I didn’t ask him about it in the interview.

    The Wire is certainly shot through with distrust of bureaucracies and institutions of all kinds, including those operated by the government.

  4. Simon really laid into a commenter on a TV blog last week regarding his politics.


    Here’s a link, scroll down about 2/3 the way to Simon’s comment at 11:40AM on 12/07/2006

    The meat of his comment:

    “I am on some issues conservative, on others middling, and on many matters way left of liberal. In Europe, I might be called a social democrat, maybe a green, or, depending on the country, a labourite.
    In these United States, I am someone who has spent enough careful time in the other, marginalized America to be wholly contemptuous of anyone who equates raw, unencumbered capitalism — absent any other social or political framework — as even a poor excuse for how to run a country and take care of its people.”

    He may be pretty libertarian on drug prohibition, but his echos of John Edwards’ “two Americas” leads me to think he’s pretty damn far from a libertarian. Nevertheless, he’s created a very compelling show, most likely because it much more DEscriptive than PROscriptive.

  5. Hmm — I mean, very literally, that the creators appear to be revolutionary socialists, not that the show is. Phocion has one quote, I put another from a Slate interview over at my site. In short, they routinely say that their show is about the triumph of capitalism and the horrors it has wrought. It’s not, I think, what you’d say about capitalism.

    That said, I fear you may have missed the point of my post (or I wrote it sloppily): The show is so cynical about everything — both public institutions and private initative — that every ideology sees their enemies skewered, while the relentless cynicism sidesteps the discussion over solutions. That makes it, in a weird way, pan-ideological — it hates the status quo so much that every would-be reformer can find something to love.

  6. The problem with labels; different people have different ideas of what they mean.

  7. Really? The show depicts the systematic failure of one government institution after another. How exactly is that an endorsement of socialism?

    What could possibly be a better endorsement? ‘They don’t have true Socialism because it has not been tried right yet.’

  8. “I am someone who has spent enough careful time in the other, marginalized America to be wholly contemptuous of anyone who equates raw, unencumbered capitalism — absent any other social or political framework — as even a poor excuse for how to run a country and take care of its people.”

    Not to legitimize John Edwards or the Lurch, but even a broken clock is right twice daily. There really are two Americas, although the contrast is nowhere near as stark as Brasil or India or other examples of extremely unequal wealth distribution. And he’s right: absent any checks and balances a truly capitalistic society would be a horrible place to live.

    However, even libertarians (well, most, at least) advocate some sort of safety net for the disadvantaged (private charity). That of course differs markedly from statist safety nets (government-enforced wealth distribution) but the basic sentiment is the same: We are our brother’s keeper. There’s nothing particularly anti-libertarian about that statement nor Simon’s aforementioned statement.

    I think you’re suffering from the liberal-in-your-head syndrome, Dr. Noisewater.

  9. By the way, where is this “raw, unencumbered capitalism” Simon speaks of? I’m thinking about moving.

  10. And it’s certainly possible the writer mentioned above was politely patronizing me a bit.

    It’s also possible your writer friend said what he said solely because of Simon’s vociferous opposition to the drug war. That’s a point of view closely linked to libertarianism in the minds of the public. In fact, it’s all a lot of people know about libertarianism. More mainstream righties and lefties rarely advocate any drug policy more liberal than legalizing medical marijuana.

  11. “Descriptive” is a mighty understatement when it comes to The Wire. When was the last time you saw a TV show or a movie about American life where you came away saying “That’s it; that’s the way things really are“? It’s such a revolutionary idea – actually describing the networks of human struggle, as they actually exist, from the very bottom of the social pecking order to the top. The series started as an intimate cop-vs-gangsta drama and has slowly expanded its scope to create a huge, Dickensian portrait of an entire city. The anti-Drug War theme is just icing on a cake.

    Just my opinion, but anyone who chooses to skip this incredibly brilliant show due to some perceived lack of libertarian cred is an asshole.

  12. Just my opinion, but anyone who chooses to skip this incredibly brilliant show due to some perceived lack of libertarian cred is an asshole.

    I skip it because in the free market I have chosen not to pay for HBO, but I think you make a damn good point. So what if a good show doesn’t have 100% libertarian cred?

  13. I think you’re suffering from the liberal-in-your-head syndrome, Dr. Noisewater.

    I’m not sure what that particular accusation is supposed to mean. I’m not creating liberal strawmen or caricatures to argue against. I’m simply pointing out that, from what he’s said, I think it’s a pretty futile exercise to try to draft him for Team Libertarian. When someone describes themselves as a “social democrat”, “green”, and/or “labourite” just before expounding on the “two Americas” I think it’s pretty fair to describe such a person as “not libertarian.”

    The man still writes a kick-ass show, though!

  14. what’s a good word for “the opposite of socialism?”

    I know what isn’t the opposite “liberaltarian”

    A question What would you call a minarchist,critical if not opposed to capitalism,
    who does not advocate excessive government regulation of markets? I suppose one could be an anti-capitalist libertarian… No?

  15. “Descriptive” is a mighty understatement when it comes to The Wire.

    Since I’m the only one that I can recall as having used the term in this thread…

    The term “descriptive” wasn’t an attempt to crystallize the vivid picture that The Wire paints in one word. It was just a way of saying that part of what makes the show great is that Simon is more concerned about portraying the reality than offering up his own solutions.

    Gene Healy says it better than I could ever hope to.

  16. “When someone describes themselves as a “social democrat”, “green”, and/or “labourite” just before expounding on the “two Americas” I think it’s pretty fair to describe such a person as “not libertarian.”

    You’re right about the first part. Someone who calls themself a green or a labourite is pretty unlikely to be a right-libertarian, although those terms aren’t diametrically opposed to right-libertarianism. Calling himself a social democrat would seem to exclude him more convincingly from Reason’s prevailing ideology, although it certainly is no proof that he’s a statist. Minarchism/anarchism come in many flavors.

    What I objected to was your implication that merely talking about “two Americas” was antithetical to right-libertarianism, and I think I adequately spelled that out in my previous post.

    What would you call a minarchist,critical if not opposed to capitalism,
    who does not advocate excessive government regulation of markets? I suppose one could be an anti-capitalist libertarian… No?

    Again, many an/minarchists are anti-capitalism. They just prefer social and laboral checks on capitalism as opposed to government regulation. Of course, there seem to be about as many varieties of anarchism as there are people.

  17. While I’m not familiar with the politics of the creative leads on the show, I will say that I’ve talked to some of the lower level crew — set builders, camera, etc. — and there aren’t a lot of lefties among them. They tend to express extremely non-left views about the causes of poverty, the virtues of public schools, etc. This is probably unusual for TV folks.

  18. I get the impression that by “capitalism” he means buying and selling; that by “raw capitalism” he means buying and selling everything, from ordinary goods to coerced labor to votes; and that by “without a social compact” he means all the other institutions, statist or not, that are supposed to keep us in check, including the rule of law. That’s just my reading, though; I didn’t ask him about it in the interview.

    I heartily agree, Mr. Walker. Given his reference to the “many” and the “few” he may additionally be obliquely referring to consolidation and indentured servitude.

  19. By the way, where is this “raw, unencumbered capitalism” Simon speaks of? I’m thinking about moving.

    India.

  20. Sam Franklin,

    Having been away from the college students for so long I think I need a refresher. Firstly, I need to find the Newspeak Dictionary 69th edition. All these fance new political termsz for the same old thing.

    Secondly, I need a new political map of the world as India was a garden spot of the Left the last time I paid attention in those terms.

    I guess China is of the Left tour guide too. What is left now? North Korea and Cuba?

  21. Still,taking note of the fact that capitalism does indeed create winners and losers — and lamenting what it does to the losers — isn’t necessarily an endorsement of massive government programs to correct or reverse the process

    Its not? But I thought massive government interventions into society never create winners and losers.

    raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.

    Because the total state will never serve the few at the expense of the many.

  22. Secondly, I need a new political map of the world as India was a garden spot of the Left the last time I paid attention in those terms.

    You are falling behind. Besides capitalism (or lack thereof) is separate from the issue of whether a nation is Right or Left.

  23. raw capitalism is destined to serve the few at the expense of the many.

    Because the total state will never serve the few at the expense of the many.

    So raw capitalism would (over the long run) herd the vast majority of the people into indentured servitude.

    And the total state would (over the long run) herd the vast majority of the people into indentured servitude. (RCD said it and I heartily agree)

    What to do? What to do?

  24. So raw capitalism would (over the long run) herd the vast majority of the people into indentured servitude.

    Bold assertion. Any supporting evidence?

  25. Bold assertion. Any supporting evidence?

    India.

  26. India.

    Your definition of “raw capitalism” is an odd one.

  27. Your definition of “raw capitalism” is an odd one.

    I am trying to stick with what I perceive as Simon’s definition of “raw capitalism” based on the context of his statement. I take his statement to mean that he thinks “raw capitalism” is any system where people achieve political control by owning capital. In India, with its no-jury-trials, 30% income tax ceiling and no tax on corporate dividends rule certainly applies. I don’t think Simon would see the fact that the government has a role in these favorable (to capital owner) rules to make India something other than “raw capitalism.”

    Personally (but not in this thd about Simon), I operate under a different definition of “raw capitalism.” I think capitalism should be a synonym for competition. Under India’s system, especially with its apparently non-existent antitrust enforcement, is not “raw capitalism” as I would use the term. To me, personally, “raw capitalism” is a good thing, an Invisible Hand thing, and there is a lot less of it than there used to be. Of course, the proverbial paradise for that type of raw capitalism is the US from the Civil War until 1980 (around the time Miltie flipped on antitrust).

  28. The fact that Mr. Balko can conjure up a line of reasoning that traces all the bad things that happen to the characters back to “Big Government” doesn’t mean that is the dynamic being presented by the shows leftist creators.

    This post is the libertarian equivalent of National Review’s “Top 10 Conservative Rock Songs.” Hey, if I really stretch, I can impose a narrative on the art that completely contradicts that intended by the artists!

  29. “…other than a certain fuck-all cynicism for institutions people like Klein hold sacred (public service, unions, government workers, public schools).”

    As Klein points out, the show demonstrates an equal cynicism towards la-te-da bootstrap ideology.

    What’s another word for cynicim towards the idea that people just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps?

  30. joe,

    This post is the libertarian equivalent of National Review’s “Top 10 Conservative Rock Songs.” Hey, if I really stretch, I can impose a narrative on the art that completely contradicts that intended by the artists!

    I had an undergrad English instructor (back when it was in the Liberal Arts department, before disguising it with other names) in college who asserted, both verbally and with the power of his grading pen, that the artist is the last person who knew what his intent or meaning was.

    However, I don’t believe him any more than I believed his assertion that the breakup of Yugoslovia was ‘stupid’ because ‘we all know that oraganizing into larger collectives is the most efficient way to do things’. Sorry, I used to remember his exact quote, but that was the idea.

    Thank goodness he did not add that nonsense to the classroom. I got to hear that crap while we were smoking in the stairwell.

  31. Which would be….oh….damn….what’s a good word for “the opposite of socialism?”

    Individualism.

  32. I haven’t read anything in this thread except for the first post, but I just have to say, Leonardo, that I also grew up in Jersey City, during the same time period as you, and I’ve been amazed by how much the Baltimore of “The Wire” reminds me of Jersey City. The classroom stuff and the city politics especially (I don’t know from drug dealing or being a cop – I mean, “police” – but I went to public school and my folks were active in local politics). I remember talking to a guy from Baltimore a few years back and was surprised to find that he said a lot of the same things about Baltimore that I might have about Jersey City. I think he was a little annoyed when I compared his hometown to my own, less storied one, but what can you do.

  33. The show is so cynical about everything — both public institutions and private initative — that every ideology sees their enemies skewered, while the relentless cynicism sidesteps the discussion over solutions.

    This seems to be how I define modern liberalism, as opposed to modern libertarianism. Many liberals I know are anti-establishment– NOT anti authortiarian– quite a difference. Libertarians, on the other hand (speaking primarily for myself) tend to be anti-authoritarian, but not necessarily anti-establishment.

  34. If you want to hear the “socialist” interview with David Simon, subscribe to The Wire podcast on iTunes. About halfway through he says:

    “Yes, I am talking about a class war. The rich do need to be soaked…and they do need to fear for what they’re doing. Because ultimately, they’re creating an America that’s not sustainable.”

    And there’s plenty more after that…

  35. This seems to be how I define modern liberalism, as opposed to modern libertarianism. Many liberals I know are anti-establishment– NOT anti authortiarian– quite a difference. Libertarians, on the other hand (speaking primarily for myself) tend to be anti-authoritarian, but not necessarily anti-establishment.

    Another difference is that libertarians tend to see a sharp distinction between anti-establishment and anti-authoritarian, while liberals tend to think that two positions really amount to much the same thing, at least once one properly recognizes the private sector’s tendency to try to excercise its own forms of authoritarianism.

  36. “Yes, I am talking about a class war. The rich do need to be soaked…and they do need to fear for what they’re doing. Because ultimately, they’re creating an America that’s not sustainable.”

    You don’t have to be a Marxist to realize there has been a class struggle going on for a long time, and that class struggle accounts for a lot of the way that people, both rich and poor, act in the real world.

    I don’t even think there is anything unlibertarian about perceiving a class struggle. Simon’s next step is to “soak the rich,” and that part is Marxist. Still, I think it is more honest for a libertarian to concede the class struggle and argue against Simon’s preferred prescription, rather than to deny the class struggle.

    (as you may have guessed, I don’t like the class “war” terminology — it is not a war.)

  37. In fact, even the idea of “soaking the rich” is not neccessarily unlibertarian. Soaking the rich as a way of paying for the Iraq War is not unlibertarian because the Iraq War is a form of government spending that libertraians (around here at HnR) seem to approve of. If it is a legitimate government expenditure, it is fair to have the rich pay for it, especially if the rich benefit disproprtionately from the war as a class (and they do).

    Drilling down to another level of “soaking the rich” is that this can also be accomplished in the private sector. If one believes that the private sector and free markets always move toward optimum efficiency and are self-correcting (looking at you, everybody but me, Dan T. (the real one) and joe), then you would expect the market to correct on its own when too much capital is controlled by too small a number of people. However this leveling and decentralization of planning type of market correction is suppsed to happen (not clear on this myself), then this would be a form of soaking the rich carried out in the private sector and fully consonant with the RCDelicious zeitgeist here at HnR.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.