The Wire - Best Libertarian Propaganda I've Ever Seen

One of the things I love about The Wire is that "The System" is a character. hell, a main character. Hell, in many ways, The System is the antagonist of the entire show! Cops/Drug dealers does not map to Good Guys / Bad Guys. Instead what you have is a bunch of people trying to accomplish their goals and often being prevented by the nature of the world and the web of incentives that governs it. A system that those nominally in charge of (Mayor, police chiefs) are at the mercy of almost as much as everyone else.

I mean, that's the economic worldview! That's the libertarian / public choice worldview. And the amazing thing is that it doesn't seem to spring from economic or libertarian inclinations - only from being based on actual experience as cops (the show's creator spent a year embedded in a police dept and wrote a book about it), and studies of drug dealers. (Apparently the drug gangs are based on that study described in Freakonomics where the econ grad student hung out with drug dealers and learned how it actually works).

Whereas House, say, clearly is motivated by atheists (it is written by atheists), and can be dismissed as having an axe to grind, and Atlas Shrugged is the product of moral intuition, not data, The Wire comes to a worldview that is very nonintuitive to most people and that is increasingly at the center of my political beliefs, purely based on data and experience.

In many ways it's not that fun a TV show because it isn't a happy world where people are faced with concrete challenges and opponents that they can overcome. It's not about people getting things done - because that isn't how government works. It isn't about the world getting better - because that isn't what government does. It's a portrait of real people in a mostly dysfunctional system. I'm amazed that it has gone on for 5 seasons and got lots of viewership, even though it is complex and nuanced and very non-feel-good.

It's the best libertarian propaganda I've ever seen.

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"Econ Grad Student"

It was based on Sudir Venketesh's work. He is an Ethnographic Sociologist. His last book, Gangleader for a Day has some portions that are directly placed in The Wire: the scene where Barksdale tries to recruit new members in the suburbs and they say they want to buy a new bike.

The strange thing for me is that The Wire has made me less libertarian in the sense that I feel more responsible to my community and its function. Instead of exit, I want to voice and organize more.

Some links

What do real thugs think of the wire? at the Freakonomics blog.

all the pieces matter:

in all this time we never had any real villains. That’s because an institution doesn’t need a villain to make it a terror. An institution is not one thousand people all conspiring to do evil. An institution is one million people with no incentive to do good.

Short of a documentary, there has never been a more real look at the American urban landscape than in this series. The writers aren’t just residents of Baltimore or experts on it – they’re beat cops and ex-reporters who know the city inside and out. Many of the cast come direct from the streets themselves. The show avoids tidy resolutions, pigeonholing and – to a surprising extent – moralizing.

There is no quick fix. People routinely find themselves at the head of the table with nothing to serve – they have the power they’ve craved for so long and find themselves powerless. One scapegoat or kingpin gets taken down, only for his subordinates to begin scheming at his wake. The City, and the infrastructure that prop it up, are bigger than any one person.

Robin Hanson on The Wire

Robin Hanson's comments on The Wire suggest that The Wire is not libertarian propaganda. Rather, it's a mirror, in which a person will see his own political views vindicated.

We should not be overly surprised, since, after all, what's supposedly so libertarian about The Wire is that it is very realistic, and there's something which is even more realistic than The Wire, namely, reality itself, in which everybody lives, and yet they're not all libertarians by now.

It's not up to long-time libertarians to judge what is or is not good libertarian propaganda. Show me people who were not libertarian, and then became libertarian after watching The Wire. Ayn Rand may have a better track record at persuading people to change their minds.

Good point.

Good point.

Art imitating life?

For what it’s worth:

In the final season of The Wire, (**SPOILER! SPOILER!**) the police commissioner (?) tries to fend off budget cuts by whipping up a public furor over an alleged serial killer attacking homeless people. The story is bogus, but takes on a life of its own because it serves so many people's interests. In particular, a reporter gains great notoriety by claiming to receive phone calls from this serial killer. In the final episode, the reporter is depicted receiving a Pulitzer Prize.

I mention this only as an excuse to recall an account in a public policy class I attended. One of our alums was a mover and shaker in a major metropolitan city, and came to tell us a story. The local paper broke a big story and ran a scathing editorial about a specific city problem. Investigative journalism at its finest, guardians of the public interest.

Embarrassing as this was for the mayor, he knew that stories and editorials that provoke ACTION are deemed more Pulitzer-worthy. Tacitly, the mayor agreed to grudgingly acknowledge at every press conference how crucial the newspaper story was in bringing this problem to his attention, and the newspaper agreed to give all the subsequent stories the maximum space and the most upbeat spin – basically as a form of self-promotion. The hard-nosed investigative reporters suddenly found themselves in bed with the mayor’s office, but had to conceal this fact. And, sure enough, the Pulitzer Committee was happy to oblige them with a prize.

This dynamic doesn’t prompt a lot of cynicism in me: a problem was discovered and fixed. But it is amusing to see the mayor and the newspaper maintaining a kind of kabuki antagonism for public consumption long after they found themselves with complementary interests.

I'm not sure where the idea

I'm not sure where the idea came from that The Wire is based on Venketesh's work. It's based on the real experiences of the show's main writers (David Simon and Ed Burns). Melvin Williams (who appears on the show as the Deacon) is the inspiration for the Avon Barksdale character (he was arrested by Ed Burns), Timmirror Stanfield is the inspiration for the Marlo Stanfield character. A lot of the elements in the show come from the writers' experiences: season 4 comes out of Ed Burns' experience as a public school teacher in Baltimore; and season 5 is straight out of David Simon's background as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun.