Katniss Everdeen and the Paradox of Revolution
“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. Indeed, except for the change in the names of the ruling circles, it would be hard to distinguish one from the other.” —Gordon Tullock
For the past three weeks, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, the third installment of the popular dystopian trilogy, has reigned at the top of the national box office. I finally had the pleasure of seeing the film last weekend. Although one reviewer has criticized Mockingjay – Part 1 for being “unnecessarily protracted,” other viewers including myself understand that the penultimate chapter is saving the main action for the franchise finale. Overall, I was pleased that the third film continued to build upon the atmosphere and themes of Suzanne Collins’s bestselling books, thanks to strong performances by the stellar Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Julianne Moore (President Alma Coin), Donald Sutherland (President Coriolanus Snow), and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (Plutarch Heavensbee).
Many commentators have already discussed and analyzed the series’ underlying socio-political themes. Various interpretations have been embraced by the Left, Right, and everything outside and in-between. It’s likely that the deliberate ambiguity is what allowed for the series to become a political Rorschach inkblot with universal appeal. But broadly speaking, at least to me, The Hunger Games trilogy seems to contain a libertarian message that highlights the moral worth of the individual and resistance to oppression, tyranny, and centralized control over daily life.
Although the story never specified the kind of political economy that characterizes Panem (the post-apocalyptic land of what used to be North America), my impression from reading the books and watching the films is that it is some form of feudalism. A tyrannical central authority, the Capitol, exercised total control over twelve defeated Districts that are best thought of as vassal states. A disarmed populace was reduced to complete serfdom under the ruthless Capitol, which maintained a monopoly on all the weapons and technology. Without any means of resistance, there was no option for the people but to submit and obey.
Each District was forced to produce a specialized good or service, according to Capitol mandates, and to pay (literal) tribute every year. The futility and stupidity of a planned economy were on full display with the resulting mass poverty and thriving black markets. In fact, black markets were portrayed in a very positive light as the protagonist Katniss made a living selling poached game to acquire essential supplies. Even under the worst social conditions, people were willing to engage in voluntary exchange, flout regulations imposed by the State under the pain of death, and seek to improve the lives of their fellow human beings.
The last book in The Hunger Games trilogy, Mockingjay, contains profound lessons on the reality of war and revolution. After surviving a second ordeal in the Hunger Games and seeing her hometown firebombed into oblivion by the Capitol, Katniss joins the underground resistance movement, led by the once-hidden District 13, and agrees to be its symbol of rebellion, “The Mockingjay.” With a subtle nod to filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, the rebels and Capitol engage in a massive propaganda war with Katniss at the focal point. Much of the recent film adaptation focuses on this aspect of the plot to the chagrin of some viewers. But George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin praises this emphasis:
It enables us to feel the moral ambiguities of propaganda and the manipulation of public ignorance, even when done in a good cause.... The portrayal of District 13 effectively evokes its oppressive socialism (even more than in the book), while also giving some nods to fascism and militarism. One speech by President Coin even includes veiled references to two lines associated with the Nazis (“One people, one nation, one leader,” and “Today Germany, tomorrow the world”).
From the very start, the lofty ideals and better life the rebels promised seem elusive and suspicious. District 13 is a garrison state where every good is rationed and every aspect of daily life is regimented. (As Ludwig von Mises observed in his critique of nationalism and militarism, “Within a militarist community there is no freedom; there are only obedience and discipline.”) In addition, District 13 shows no signs of a functional legislature or an independent judiciary, just the one-person rule by the charismatic but Machiavellian President Coin (I’m pretty sure the symbolism surrounding her name was intentional). Also, it is unclear that the rebels enjoy popular support among the people of Panem. (Why else would District 13 invest so much time and resources on propaganda, if not to bolster its perceived legitimacy?)
The late Gordon Tullock applied public choice theory to shed light on societies characterized by violence. I believe his insights also apply to the fictional revolution in Mockingjay. In one prominent analysis, “The Paradox of Revolution,” Tullock points out that revolutions suffered from a collective action problem: For a rational individual, the risk of death or punishment exceeds the expected benefits, participation is unlikely to have much influence on a successful outcome, and he or she can free ride on any potential successful outcome without being an active participant. Most importantly to Tullock, “the discounted value of the rewards and punishment is the crucial factor.” In other words, to convince a rational individual to take part in a fool’s crusade, he or she must perceive that the private benefits far outweigh the costs.
On a similar theme, Tullock also notes that most revolutions are actually carried out by insiders against other insiders. He throws cold water on the romantic view of revolutions typically mythologized in the trope of a downtrodden people rising up against an oppressive tyranny, emerging triumphant in a just struggle, and establishing/restoring a noble republic with their victory. In Tullock’s words, the real story goes more like this:
[I]n most revolutions, the people who overthrow the existing government were high officials in that government before the revolution. If they were deeply depressed by the nature of the previous government’s policies, it seems unlikely that they could have given enough cooperation in those policies to have risen to high rank. People who hold high, but not supreme, rank in a despotism are less likely to be unhappy with the policy of that despotism than are people who are outside the government. Thus, if we believed in the public good motivation of revolutions, we would anticipate that these high officials would be less likely than outsiders to attempt to overthrow the government.
From the private benefit theory of revolutions, however, the contrary deduction would be drawn. The largest profits from revolution are apt to come to those people who are (a) most likely to end up at the head of the government, and (b) most likely to be successful in overthrow of the existing government. They have the highest present discounted gain from the revolution and lowest present discounted cost. Thus, from the private goods theory of revolution, we would anticipate senior officials who have a particularly good chance of success in overthrowing the government and a fair certainty of being at high rank in the new government, if they are successful, to be the most common type of revolutionaries.
In Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, Plutarch Heavensbee, is the prime example of a double agent/insider who takes on a prominent revolutionary role and ends up in a comfy, high-ranking position in the new regime after the war.
But whatever Katniss’s political beliefs and other motivations may be, it is apparent that most of her actions throughout the series are driven by a selfless love for her sister Prim. In her desire to see Prim protected at all costs, Katniss sacrifices herself for the Hunger Games, survives against all odds, and sets off a chain reaction that eventually leads her to become a reluctant participant in the rebellion in Mockingjay. Once the war begins, all bets are off.
Near the end of Mockingjay, after the rebels win their Pyrrhic victory and the new government starts to take hold, one revealing conversation between Katniss and Plutarch highlights the brutal truth of realpolitik:
“Are you preparing for another war, Plutarch?” I ask.
“Oh, not now. Now we’re in a sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” he says. “But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction. Although who knows? Maybe this will be it, Katniss.”
Maybe. But in our species’ short time on Earth, any proclamation of “the war to end all wars” is at odds with human nature and the lessons of history. The story’s author, Suzanne Collins, having come from a military family, understood these fundamental insights and incorporated them into her writings. Mockingjay vividly illustrates the risks and uncertainties of using violent revolution for regime change. “Power tends to corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton rightly recognized. Many Mockingjay readers were upset about its dark ending, but this unflinching realism is needed to drive the message home. The costs of war, even for a righteous cause, could never be fully accounted for. Physical and psychological scars are permanently seared onto the survivors.
The 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.