How Libertarian are the Hunger Games?

Nicole Forster talks with Professor Ilya Somin of George Mason Law School and Volokh Conspiracy about The Hunger Games, and the themes of liberty in this popular series of novels.

Nicole Forster: Welcome to this Kosmos Online podcast. I’m Jeanne Hoffman. Today I’m talking about Hunger Games and Liberty with Ilya Somin, Associate Professor at George Mason University School of Law. Welcomes professor Somin and thanks for joining us.

Sebastian Wood: Thanks for having me.

Nicole Forster: First for any listeners who might not be familiar with the books or the movie, could you give a quick overview of the plot?

Sebastian Wood: Sure, the Hunger Games is a series of three novels by Suzanne Collins. The first of which has now been made into a major movie and its set in a futuristic setting where after some sort of environmental or other cataclysm what’s left of the United States has been turned into a set of 12 districts ruled by a 13th district, the Capital in a highly tyrannical hallway. In the aftermath of a revolt against the Capital, which happened about 75 years before our story starts, the Capital suppressed the revolt and as a reminder to the districts of their suppression, it forces them each year to send two tributes to children aged between the age of 12 and 18 to participate in a televised game known as the Hunger Games and the 24 children fight to the death until only one remains.

This is a nationally televised event where people watch, this is sort of based on reality TV almost and the heroine of the story Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 and she actually volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games to save her sister from participating. Her sister had been chosen in the lottery in which most of the participants are picked but there’s a rule which vows another child to volunteer in place of someone who has been chosen.

Nicole Forster: How vivid is the political arena created by the author Suzanne Collins?

Sebastian Wood: It’s in one sense very vivid. You get a real sense of the terrible oppression that the districts live under as contrasted with the wealth and power of the Capital. In that sense therefore it is very powerful, but in another sense I think the world that she builds is not as well developed as it could be. We have almost no sense of any kind of ideology that the Capital has, which is unrealistic given that real life dictatorships almost always have some of kind of ideology that they try to justify themselves by.

We also don’t learn very much about the structure of the political or economic system in the Capital controls. We know certainly that the 12 districts, each specialize in producing some kind of good or product that is mostly used by the Capital. For instance, Katniss’s district 12 produces coal but we don’t know whether this is a Capitalist system or social one or some sort of mixed economy and we often don’t know very much about the politics and economics in this world more generally.

Nicole Forster: And speaking of politics, several writers that made your blog have encountered the politics of Hunger Games including yourself. But some see it as promoting an anti government ideology but you are not so sure. Can you go into this a bit?

Sebastian Wood: Sure, of course. In one sense, there is some degree of an antigovernment theme. Obviously the main driver of the story is the oppression by the government, by the Capital and more over by sort of a powerful central government is oppressing subordinate districts elsewhere. That is some people have said that this is like the Tea Party’s vision of Federalism and how we need to decentralize power. The antigovernment theme is further reinforced later in the story when we have a look at the alternative government set up by the rebels. People want rebel against the Capital and it turns out that that government is in some ways just as bad or even worse than the Capital is which suggests that the problems of governments in this world are structural. It’s not just a matter that some bad people are in power in the Capital.

On the other hand I do have some skeptism about whether the series really promotes a libertarian oriented government message for two reasons. First as I said before, the politics and economics of the series is very vague which enables readers of different views to attach their own meaning to it. One can easily come up with a left wing interpretation of the Capital as being really about the rich exploiting the poor. When Katniss goes to Capital for the Hunger Games she sees how wealthy and decadent the people there are in comparison to the oppressed poor people of the district.

Secondly while Collins vividly sketches out sort of the harm caused by oppressive government; it’s not really clear what her solution to this is. It could be interpreted the solution is to severely limit the powers of government but one could also interpret as merely being that what we need is a government with different structure or a government with different and better people in it although the better people idea is somewhat undermined when we look at the rebels and how their government works.

Nicole Forster: And Collins is clearly going after the concept of reality TV too and sort of what the modern media has largely evolved into, do you think the series is more of a media commentary than a political commentary then?

Sebastian Wood: I think it is some of both and perhaps neither. As I said before there are important political themes about oppression at the same time one of the most powerful parts of the book is when you actually see the Hunger Games in the first book in the series where a lot of it is about how Katniss and the other competitors on the one hand they are fighting each other in the arena. But on the other hand, they are very conscious that they are on TV and they know in order to survive they either receive gifts from sponsors, that is wealthy people who watch the program and are going to donate money to buy supplies for those competitors that they like and I think this is pretty obvious way of critique of reality TV and of how reality TV seems to sort of trivialize and falsify important issues.

In this case obviously taking it a step further than our reality TV and actually having life and death issues. Of course, the Hunger Games is a battle to the death. On the other hand, however, I’m not sure that either political or social commentary is quite the main point of the book in that a big part of it is actually the vivid character development of Katniss and some of the other characters. So in some ways it works better as a character and plot driven story than as a sort of ideological or political story.

Nicole Forster: So we had Benjamin Barton on the program a few months ago to talk about the political world of Harry Potter and he saw that series evolved to be significantly anti-government in tone and hoped it would influence the generation that grew up with these books. Do you think the Hunger Games could have a similar effect of making people skeptical of bureaucracies?

Sebastian Wood: I think it’s perhaps too early to say. As I said before the themes of the story are ambiguous and can be interpreted at least from a political point of view in different ways. That said it’s striking to me that a lot of commentators on different sides of the political spectrum ranging from people on Slate on the left to various conservative websites like Ricochet have all picked up on this anti-government theme and have analogized the story to libertarianism where it’s the Tea Party.

Ricochet, a conservative blog, even said well this is like a Tea Party training manual for kids. I think that’s an exaggeration but if so many different people do view the story in that way it’s possible it will have that sort of impact even if that’s not what Collins intended. I suspect it may well not be what she wanted but sometimes readers interpret a story in a different way than the author wanted them to.

Nicole Forster: Well thanks for joining us Professor Somin.

Sebastian Wood: Thank you.

Nicole Forster: And for more interviews with leading scholars including previous interviews with Professor Somin visit and this is Nicole Forster, signing off. Get Kosmos podcasts on iTunes.