In today’s Acton Commentary, “Secular Scapegoats and ‘The Hunger Games,'” I examine the themes of faith and freedom expressed in Suzanne Collins’ enormously popular trilogy. The film version of the first book hit the theaters this past weekend, and along with the release has come a spate of commentary critical of various aspects of Collins’ work.
As for faith and freedom, it turns out there’s precious little of either in Panem. But that’s not necessarily such a bad thing, as I argue in today’s piece: “If Panem is what a world without faith and freedom looks like, then Collins’ books are a cautionary tale about the spiritual, moral, and political dangers of materialism, hedonism, and oppression.”
Last week I was also privileged to participate in a collection of pieces at the Values & Capitalism website related to “The Hunger Games.” I provide an alternate ending (along with some explanation here) at the V&C site, where you can also check out the numerous other worthy reflections on Collins’ work.
One of the criticism’s of Collins’ work is that it isn’t specific (sorry, ideological) enough. Ilya Somin writes that “Collins’ world-building is relatively weak. We don’t learn very much about the political and economic system of Panem, and some of what we do learn is internally inconsistent. We don’t even know whether Panem’s economy is primarily capitalist or socialist. Are the coal mines mines where most of District 12′s population works owned by the government or by private firms? We are never told.”
On one level, I think this complaint misses the point. We don’t need to know the details to know that Panem is ruled by an oppressive regime and to see the deleterious social, moral, and spiritual consequences. But we do seem to have enough information to make some basic assessments.
District 12 is a quintessential extractive economy. It’s oriented around a coal mine, the kind of facility where unskilled labor can be highly productive in light of the value of the underlying commodity. In a free society, market competition for labor and union organizing would drive wages up. But instead the Capitol imposes a single purchaser of mine labor and offers subsistence wages. Emigration to other districts in search of better opportunities is banned, as is exploitation of the apparently bountiful resources of the surrounding forest. With the mass of Seam workers unable to earn a decent wage, even relatively privileged townsfolk have modest living standards. If mineworkers earned more money, the Mellark family bakery would have more customers and more incentive to invest in expanded operations. A growing service economy would grow up around the mine. But the extractive institutions keep the entire District in a state of poverty, despite the availability of advanced technology in the Capitol.
One of the key features of these “extractive economies” is that “once extractive institutions are established they’re hard to get rid of.” Indeed, the history of Central and South America in the age of the conquistadors displays this dynamic: “the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.” The institutional inertia of this extractive logic (otherwise known as a form of corruption) is one of the reasons that I wrote my alternative ending to the trilogy the way I did.
So Yglesias says that Collins did well in being as sparse in the details as she is: “Collins wisely avoids going into detail about what life is supposed to be like in Districts specializing in luxury goods or electronics. It’s difficult to have a thriving economy in electronics production without a competitive market featuring multiple buyers and multiple sellers.”
So the lack of ideological rigor or clarity criticized by Somin may in fact be a strength. (This is in part why The Hunger Games books might stack up favorably against Atlas Shrugged, for instance.) As my friend Ryan Reeves wrote in a review of the first book, “It’s difficult for many sci-fi authors to refrain from dwelling on every detail of the horrible, futuristic world. Collins keeps it reigned in and only reveals a bit here and there, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination.” It’s likewise clear that Collins is counting on the moral imagination of her readers to draw the necessary conclusions about tyranny.
As I conclude in today’s piece, “Collins’ story is ultimately about the injustice of such a world and the corresponding moral imperative to work, even to fight, to improve it. Indeed, the patent illegitimacy of any government whose existence depends on the oppression of its people, particularly its most vulnerable members (whether defined by class, creed, or color), is manifest throughout Collins’ books.”