Of Gods and Central Planners

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

Don’t get your economics from Game of Thrones – or any other fictional Show

Oh, the delicious power of writing fiction! Your paper world is entirely under your control. Not only do you determine the course of the plot, you determine all the laws. I don’t mean just the legislation of your imaginary land. You also get to invent your own laws of physics, biology, medicine, spirituality, zoology and yes, your own laws of economics.

You even get to centrally plan your very own political economy which succeeds or fails as you wish. Time and death bend to your will. Your characters are mere puppets at your mercy, and when they pray, they pray to you. It is the closest thing to being a god that you will ever experience. I recommend it highly. It is a power trip that harms no one.

Fiction is also the only realm in which central planning works, and works wonderfully well. If you want it to.

So it is odd to me in this age of mass obsession with serials like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, that I continually catch people deriving lessons about real life from the paper gods and phony central planners that are fiction writers. But they do.

From a Facebook discussion on my wall:

There are numerous life lessons to be garnered from George RR Martin’s work. Everyone who has and will ever live has ambitions, loves, and desires. They may achieve them or they may not. It depends on an infinite number of possibilities. Do the banking mechanisms have your back (Little Finger)? Does the CIA have use of the negative intel they’ve garnered on you (Varys)? Every single act by every potential actor from Vargo Hoat to Jon Snow has their own plan and their own agenda. You may never truly know it but they are acting as individuals, always. Why is a guard named and placed 49 miles from his post only to be savaged by wolves? Idk, maybe he was rum running. Maybe he was trying to smuggle lordly decrees… we won’t know because Shaggy dog ate them in book three. People act, and most fail. Game of Thrones is the most accurate depiction of this I have seen to date, you either win or you die…

Joffrey is the perfect argument against central planning! He’s just the sort of thing Von Mises was talking about.

Yes, there are quite a few libertarian lessons in the series.

If nothing else about the novel/series is true, power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely.

But it’s not just my Facebook wall. People deriving real life information from fictional shows is so prevalent, Hollywood has a center and an awards program to increase “accuracy.” Yes, rather than reminding people that – hey, this is fiction, this is entertainment and everyone in Hollywood has an agenda – they double down and try to make it more believable. They shop the concept around to doctors and climate scientists, they prostitute themselves to government agencies, they encourage you to “learn” the “lessons” they are putting out. And, of course, government eagerly wants a piece of this space.

It seems obvious, but what I am saying needs to be said.

It is easy to lose yourself in an excellently produced series or beautifully shot film. We, as the audience get to leave behind our mundane problems and travel to engrossing and radically different worlds.  But you DO need to remind yourself that these are rules, character motivations and situations created and manipulated entirely by the writers and creators. ENTIRELY by them. Characters might be relatable. Situations might seem realistic. The whole thing could echo something observed in real life by the writer, but what comes out on paper is heavily filtered through the writer(s) and ends up just exactly how they want it.

You might say that characters must be relatable for fiction to be good. And, to be relatable, they must be rational actors. I would disagree whole-heartedly. In fact, the most beloved fictional characters behave very irrationally in their most memorable scenes. They tell off their boss. They put strychnine in the guacamole. They run into burning buildings. They flippantly mouth off to people who kill with impunity.

They buy entire armies with no way to feed or house them. They stand around in a 7 to 1 sword fight waiting for their turn to fail at hacking at the protagonist. They die easily. They come back from the dead. They act in the best interest of the plot, not themselves. And they are rewarded or punished, they succeed or fail not by karma or luck or prayer or hard work, but by the writers’ whim.

I know. I’m such a spoilsport. Why am I raining on our lovely little fantasy parade? We spend all this time in beautiful escapism and we like to tell ourselves that we are learning something. The truth is you ARE learning something, but only things about the author and their worldview. Someone mentioned on my wall that they learned about tides from a fiction book. Did you? Really what you learned is what the author knows, or thinks he knows, about tides. Just like I felt I might have learned something of architecture from The Fountainhead.  I would verify any of that knowledge before considering yourself educated.

The reality is if we use fiction examples to underline our own political and economic philosophies, we have to then also put up with crap like this.  See also The Young Turks “debunk” libertarianism by citing a fictional sci-fi movie.

Hollywood is filled with dystopian plots that preach political theory. They own arguably the most effective form of propaganda because movies and television are so entertaining. The audience loves to lose themselves and feel absorbed into that world. They learn the writers’ rules. They learn the alternate history, the made-up geography, and lineage and they love it. People are clamoring to latch on to any show that is well-written and slickly produced. Myself included. And it is fantastic if your entertainment makes you think.

I happen to think rational actors in the world of Game of Thrones would probably be nicer to each other since they are all carrying swords and are quite quick to use them. Armed, polite societies and all that.  I also think communities in a zombie apocalypse would be more eager to trade resources and cooperate to rebuild societies and not tolerate meanies like Negan. Mutiny should be a foregone conclusion since everyone hates him, even his own people. And I REALLY think Abigail made a dumb decision to leave Chad on Days of Our Lives. Obviously, she still loves him. Stupid. But these are not my worlds; I’m only watching them.  

They entertain me, give me daily escape and are fun to talk about with friends. They do not inform my politics or my understanding of the real world. Can fiction start a conversation? Absolutely. Many fictional shows have made me curious about topics I would never have thought to explore, and that’s great. But you need to explore those topics in a truthful space. Even stories “based on true stories” must be filtered through reality.

(Maybe this explains the appeal of reality shows… An unscripted show does away with the arbitrary and dictatorial tyranny of the writer… Now there’s something to think about.)

I love them and everything they bring to my life, but writers and producers of fiction should not be teaching you about real world economics and politics. Or medicine or biology or history or architecture or physics or religion etc. You might even want to do some research, if possible, into the political and economic ideas of the writers (and funding) of your favorite shows and books. You may be surprised by who is spoon-feeding snippets of dogma into your psyche, and you really should take it all with a grain of salt, even if your writers are awesome people.

Most of all, let entertainment just be entertainment. It’s OK to just relax and enjoy it without allowing it into your socio-political lexicon. You’re smarter than that.

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

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