Is The Hunger Games Libertarian?


Nestled snugly atop the box office right now rests The Hunger Games. The movie is based on a Young Adult novel by Suzanne Collins and it's the latest in a line of series (See: Twilight and Harry Potter) to make teens and unashamed adults flip out and reach for their wallets. Meanwhile the movie's $150 million-and-counting haul in its first week of release, plus the two more book sequels to turn to profit means more delicious chocolate gold for a lackluster movie bizs is on its way.

For those not in the know, the books are the story of a future North America ruled over by an opulent and oppressive capital city which exploits and oppresses most citizens as they wallow in menial labor and bare-bones survival. Worse still, every year, as punishment for a failed revolution, 24 children from around the country must compete in the eponymous games. The proceedings are portrayed partially as a withering, hyper-critique of reality TV-style disconnect, as rich capital citizens watch the life and death struggles as entertainment. But within the story, the games' true purpose is to keep the government's power over their very lives fresh in the minds of citizens in case anyone else feels like revolting. The books' narrator is a 16-year-old girl named Katniss Everdeen who heroically takes her little sister's place when the youngster is picked most unluckily for the games. Things follow, drama, bloodshed, some romance. 

But, say, is this saga of an oppressive government that hinders freedom of movement, expression, and even trade, while holding the ultimate power of life and death over its citizens remotely libertarian? 

A lot of people seem to think so. Today Dave Grant at The Christian Science-Monitor muses "The Hunger Games: Should Ron Paul be a Hunger Games super fan?"

His answer, in awkward, libertarian-basic-prose, is yes indeed: 

The Hunger Games trilogy has violence as its main consideration. But whether it's on war or myriad other topics, we don't think Great Libertarian Poobah Ron Paul would quibble with many of the sentiments sprinkled in Collins's writing.

Let's run through four of them.

1. "As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve," Katniss recalls her father telling her. In this case, the play is on her name, a sort of bluish tuber that she claws up from a riverbank. The book begins on this note of ultimate self-reliance, that only the individual can keep life alive.

To avoid starvation with help from the government, one must enter a devil's pact. While all citizens are entered into the Reaping, a lottery to decide which boy and girl will be sent into the hellish Hunger Games, citizens can opt to enter their name more than once for a year's supply of vital – but meager – foodstuffs. And the entries are cumulative each year from age 12 to age 18.

If you can provide for yourself, the Hunger Games tells us, you can make it through. If it's government help you want, the price may be your very life.

2. "District 12: Where you can starve to death in safety," Katniss laments near the book's outset. It's forbidden for the people of Katniss's district to venture out into the woods to hunt, fish, or gather plants. Here one could hear echoes of the cries of libertarians, crying out against a government that by securing total security has all but destroyed liberty.

In other words, one must rely on themselves to survive, even in the face of a government that restricts almost all avenues to prosperity.

3. Government bureaucrats, a favorite libertarian target, get a very harsh reading. Not only are Panem's paper pushers aesthetically and culturally bankrupt, the book makes clear, they consider themselves far superior to people from the nation's 12 districts.[…] 

4. Lazy, capricious and warmongering. And it's the last third of those that is most accentuated in the Hunger Games. In the modern libertarian movement, the answer to war is to stop "policing the world."

Libertarian's hold that a force capable of defending the United States should be the mission ofAmerican military spending. Simply put, the goal isn't to find ways to insert oneself into conflict but to protect oneself and fight if attacked. Petaa, Katniss's fellow gladiator from District 12, gives a succinct statement that weds a libertarian instinct about violence to his desire to subvert the entire violent system.

"No, when the time comes, I'm sure I'll kill just like everybody else," he says. "I can't go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to… to show the Capitol they don't own me. That I'm more than just a piece in their Games."

It's not just the CSM. 

Several of Lew Rockwell's writers were all in a tizzy about the meaning behind the movie and books (as well as their appeal to teenagers being nothing but a positive sign; a bookend, if you will, to Ron Paul's success with the kids). Southern Avenger Jack Hunter dubbed it "a libertarian movie." A very alarmed writer for is sure the oppressive government portrayed is on its way. Other writers have said it's vaguely survivalist or a " Junior Tea Party training manual." Sam Staley over at the Independent Institute thinks "Katniss Everdeen is is almost Randian in her individualistic quest for liberty."

Intriguing, but let us turn to the excellent law blog Volokh Conspiracy where Ilya Somin gets to the heart of the problem with these hopeful analysis of the books. So many of the critiques of the stories' fictional society are usable for leftists who claim that fuzzy, good government is the answer to such bad government! (And indeed, the author's politics seem pretty unknown):

Collins does indeed convey a very skeptical view of government. Not only the Capitol but even the government promoted by its opponents turns out to be tyrannical, which suggests that the flaws of government are institutional and not merely the result of the wrong leaders being in power…. The "sybarite class" of the Capitol and their oppression of the twelve districts can be seen as a classic leftist parable of the oppression of the poor by the rich. The game show-like nature of the Hunger Games can be interpreted as an indictment of commercialism. And perhaps the true way forward for Panem is a government that cracks down on commercialism, redistributes wealth to the poor, and gives everyone free food and health care.

Quite. And speaking as someone who literally read the first book this last weekend (it went down easy enough in a few hours. It's entertaining, with some satisfyingly disturbing moments, I would have loved it a decade or so ago), I also reveled in its good, old fashioned railing against the state moments. But I also wondered if the books/movie were any more overtly libertarian than any other dystopian tale. Plenty of left and right folks are quite keen on throwing off shackles and putting on different chains in just their size. Critiquing one government is, to most people, probably not critiquing all governments or the nature of government period.

But then we have to ask, so what if it's not libertarian on purpose? I delight in seeing any strongly anti-government characters or acts portrayed in fiction, from Firefly, to Parks and Recreation, to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But the most famous skewering of oppressive government, the book that gave us "Orwellian," "doublesthink," "Big Brother," and other words now about as overused as Hitler comparisons, was written by old George "democratic socialist" Orwell. Maybe it doesn't matter the creator's intention if disturbing truths about the nature of the state can be sussed out and inferred from the art. And if that art is as popular as The Hunger Games, so much the better. 

Reason's Peter Suderman and Kurt Loder both reviewed The Hunger Games film