No, It Isn't Surprising That Ghostbusters Mocked the Government

Anti-authoritarian movies and anti-authoritarian public policy


Of all the reactions I've seen to Harold Ramis' death, this passage in Quartz must be the strangest:

Ghostbusters isn't about ghosts. (Well, it kind of is.) But it's also about the power of the US private sector and the magic of market discipline to transform anyone—even effete, over-educated academics—into heroes….

It's hard to believe Ghostbusters was intended to be a pro-business, anti-government polemic. Dan Aykroyd co-wrote the film with Ramis, whose previous flicks—such as Animal House, Stripes, Caddyshack—are filled with liberal digs at establishment authority figures.

But the Ivan Reitman masterpiece was made in a certain time and place. And the movie is worth reconsidering now—almost three decades after its release—if only because it so perfectly captured one of the rare moments when the supertanker of American public opinion clearly changes course.

The problem here isn't the idea that Ghostbusters mocks the government—it obviously does. The problem is the idea that there is some sort of gap between "anti-government polemic" and "digs at establishment authority figures." William Atherton's EPA agent fills the space in Ghostbusters that John Vernon's dean does in Animal House and Ted Knight's old-money country-club man does in Caddyshack. There is no great shift here. We're watching a clearly recognizable descendent of that '70s-style anti-authoritarianism.

There isn't even that big a shift in the targets. In the '70s, activists on the left as well as the right regularly took aim at the regulatory state. Carter presided over more deregulation than Reagan did (though not, admittedly, at the EPA), and Americans well to the president's left pushed for more. These liberals and radicals believed, for good reason, that many agencies had been captured by industry interests and used to squash competition from upstart operations like…well, like the Ghostbusters. There was a natural fit between that fear and the freewheeling disdain for authority in the counterculture's pop-culture products.

These observations are old hat, really, whether you're a libertarian pointing out those continuities to praise them or a Tom Frank type pointing them out to attack them. Ghostbusters is plainly a product of the mindset behind Ramis' other early movies. The big difference between it and the others isn't that it takes on the government; it's that it's much more tightly plotted.

Bonus link: My colleague Nick Gillespie writes about Ramis and baby-boom anti-authoritarianism. I agree with a lot of what Nick has to say—including his maybe-controversial comment that Animal House hasn't aged all that well—but I wonder if the reason Ramis' output grew less interesting after Groundhog Day has less to do with boomers losing their edge and more to do with the fact that he stopped working with Bill Murray.