The Volokh Conspiracy

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The Hunger Games and Gordon Tullock's Paradox of Revolution


Aaron Tao of the Independent Institute has an interesting post arguing that the Hunger Games trilogy exemplifies economist Gordon Tullock's "paradox of revolution." In his classic article by that name, Tullock argued that most revolutions tend to be led by unscrupulous political elites (who are in the best position to successfully overthrow the preexisting government) who then tend to establish a new regime as bad as the old one. As he put it, "Historically, the common form of revolution has been a not-too-efficient despotism which is overthrown by another not-too-efficient despotism with little or no effect on the public good."

Tao argues that this pattern is evident in much of the "Hunger Games" trilogy. Elites associated with the oppressive Capitol play an important role in the effort to overthrow it. And the opposing regime led by President Alma Coin of District 13 is just as bad as the one it seeks to replace, in some ways possibly even worse. Tao concludes that "[t]he last book in The Hunger Games trilogy makes it dramatically clear that revolutions usually end up substituting one tyrant for another. If there is but one takeaway from this haunting series, it is that putting hope in a political savior is foolish."

There is a lot of validity to Tao's interpretation of the series. Suzanne Collins' plot does indeed convey skepticism about revolutionary movements and government generally. But I don't think the analogy to Tullock's theory is completely successful. Plutarch Heavensbee, the most important high-ranking Capitol official who joins the rebels, is a morally ambiguous figure in the books and movies, rather than a flat-out villain. The latter role, among the rebels, is reserved for Coin. In addition, Coin gets killed at the end of the story, and her oppressive government is overthrown. The last part of the final book implies that the new government that emerges afterwards is, though far from ideal, significantly better than either the Capitol or District 13 under Coin. This outcome suggests that violent revolution can sometimes improve things after all, even though it isn't nearly as wonderful as ardent revolutionaries like to think.

For these and other reasons, I continue to think that the political message of the Hunger Games series is ambiguous. Libertarians like Tao and myself can find inspiration in it. But so can leftists, Tea Party conservatives, and many others.