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Public Choice Television

Tragedy of the Commons... Ethnic Strife...

Deadwood is the best television series I've seen. I'm a big fan of Joss Whedon's work, but this surpasses it. Read Mancur Olson on stationary and roving bandits, then read some Tullock, then watch the show.

Al Swearengen, who owns the town's bar and first brothel, essentially serves as Olson's permanent bandit. Self-interest rules and he's not above sending out a thieving party to rob a wagon coming into town if it suits him. But, he's far more a permanent bandit. His success depends on the security of the gold claims, constraining rivals like the Hearst combine, on the growth and prosperity of the town, on keeping the hooples from acting up, and on ensuring that the rent-seekers from Yankton don't take everything during the town's accession to the Union. Swearengen invests in public goods, like getting a smallpox vaccine into town when a plague happens along. Cy Tolliver, a roving bandit, makes no such investments: instead, he extracts as much as he can as quickly as he can and works to set up the Hearst interests in place of Swearengen, calculating that life as lap-dog to Hearst is more lucrative than that of roving bandit in opposition to Swearengen.

Deadwood takes anarchy seriously. There's no backdrop of the state to provide law and order, only the threat of possible future accession to the Union. In The Sopranos, by contrast, Tony is only able to operate because of the existence of the State. He earns rents due to his willingness to use violence and cut around the law; absent the law, he'd not exist. He'd be out-competed on every margin of his business. Without state prohibitions on gambling, what would happen to his numbers rackets? Normal rate of return only. Without state protections of unions, what would happen to his pension fund rackets and no-work contracts? Gone. Al Swearengen thrives because of the absence of government. Town needs law and order? Hire a sheriff who's beholden to nobody and who can't be bought. Hiring a corrupt sherrif would have you in a perpetual bidding war with Cy Tolliver; hiring one instead that cares about the best interest of the town ensures prosperity where you're the residual claimant. Doc Cochran feels for the town and cares about what's best, but Al gets the job done, expecting (and generally receiving) naught but the derision of the soft-hearted. The hoople mob cannot be trusted to govern itself; it needs to be guided lest it fall victim to Cy's rumour-mongering on behalf of Hearst.

The third season hasn't yet aired in NZ; I'll be interested to see how Al deals with accession to the Dakota Territory and the Hearst threat.

Of course, there's plenty of public choice in many other shows. Yes, Minister is obvious. Strictly Ballroom was a story about rent protection versus entrepreneurship with some kind of love story and dancing thrown in so the hooples would also enjoy it. Feel free to contribute others in the comments.

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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory

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The author at Club for Growth in a related article titled The Economics of Deadwood writes:
    This is a great blog post about the self-interested Al Swearengen of HBO's "Deadwood" series. In my mind, "Swiggen" is the greatest TV character of all time. And a lot can be learned about economics just by watching this show. (SIDE NOTE: I would be a ... [Tracked on July 20, 2006 8:11 AM]
COMMENTS (4 to date)
MikeKP writes:

I'm also a big fan of Deadwood and its socioeconomic content. I've just watched the first season on DVD, and the second season awaits. David Milch (creator/exec producer) discusses his fascination with the "order without law" question in one of the bonus features included with the first season DVD set.

For those interested in the topic, David Tufte has blogged about the economics of Deadwood at VoluntaryXchange. (See

daa writes:

What about Sopranos? It is very subtle, but no other show comes to mind (I have not seen Deadwood) that can better illustrate human nature and decisions made outside of traditional market structures.

Ted Craig writes:

Northern Exposure jumps to mind. A number of episodes dealt with how the town ran, including one about how bring more civilized order would ruin its character.

dsquared writes:

Ian MacShane is most famous in Britain for playing Lovejoy, about an antique dealer (albeit one who gets caught up in more than the normal number of murders); this also has quite a lot of interesting economics content and I bet you can get it on DVD these days.

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