Bryan Caplan  

Villains, Victims, and Heroes

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Many of my favorite economists - including Arnold and Tyler - recoil from "villains-and-victims" stories. After a recent lunch, similarly, Robin Hanson panned the movie Blood Diamond in large part because of it is a villains-and-victims story. It's a safe bet that these economists are also jaded about stories with heroes. Tyler probably speaks for most economists when he writes things like:

[F]inancial markets rarely fit into simple moral narratives, and much as these stories may comfort many of us, they are not a good guide to understanding financial policy.
Personally, I think the real lesson of economics is not that most stories have no villains, but that we're often deeply mistaken about who the villains are. When we capture the villain and pull off his mask, Scooby-Doo style, he usually turns out to be the demagogue rather than the speculator. (Though if we pull on the demagogue's face one more time, we may discover another mask; the true villain is the economic illiteracy of the median voter!)

What do you think? Are villain-victim-hero stories really over-used, or just misapplied? To focus your thoughts, perhaps you'd like to take up the same challenge I gave Robin after a recent lunch:

Name the most important issues where you think a villain-victim-hero story is true.

Bonus points: How do you think Robin answered? (Here's a hint).


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COMMENTS (23 to date)
David N. Welton writes:

I'll take a stab at it:

Where there are market failures or externalities.

Because it's possible for people to get away with nasty things where the market doesn't correct or punish their misdeeds, and government has trouble keeping track of the 'bad guys', given a slow, inefficient bureaucracy charged with oversight. Someone dumping toxic junk that causes cancer, ala Erin Brockovich, for instance.

Faré writes:

Let's see.

World War II - american soldiers (heroes) saving europeans (the victims) from the gestapo (the villains)?

Felix Rodriguez (the hero) who rid poor bolivian farmers (the victims) from the evils of Che Guevara (the villain).

Al Qaida is made of villains, and those who actually go there and take them out are heroes.

Cambodia and Vietnam ran out of heros in 1975, but they were plenty before lefties handed these countries to communists.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was clearly a villain. So are the leaders of North Korea, Sudan, Burma, China, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, etc.

So yes, a lot of Statesmen are villains. Inhabitants of their respective countries are victims. And those who topple the villains are heroes when they institute lesser villains, or villains themselves if they institute greater villains. Note that this makes Pinochet a hero.

Certainly, the villain-victim-hero pattern is not the be-all, end-all of stories. It is a very primitive one, that does not account for the positive sum games by which our society is built, or the negative sum games fostered by ignorance.

Although in the latter case, we can praise as heroes those who dispel ignorance, and villains those who spread it. A whole new category of hero stories here. Darwin, von Mises, and many more are my heroes. And the inventors of the Internet are my heroes, too.

TGGP writes:

I didn't see the movie, but I heard the town in "Erin Brockovich" didn't have higher cancer rates than the national average and that there wasn't any evidence that the chemical dissolved in water caused cancer.

From the hint I'd guess terrorists are real villains or Hanson was a hero in attempting to set up the futures market.

Gary Rogers writes:

I see the Erin Brockovich story was the first mentioned, but I suspect there was more villainy in the story telling than the actual deed. Although I am not an expert on this story, I read enough contrary articles to believe that neither the danger from the chemicals nor the link to the victims illnesses were as clear cut as presented in the movie. I also suspect that PPG&E was not the villain they were made out to be. Companies have their own self-correcting mechanism in that by breaking the trust of either their customers or employees their ability to do business is put at risk. Companies have to stay focused on what they are in business to do or they fail.

Governments, on the other hand often remain in power through military means. I vote for Darfur and Mayanmar as examples of true modern day villains. The difference is accountability. Businesses are almost always held accountable for their actions by their customers and employees, while governments are not. Those that villainize the companies they depend on for jobs and prosperity in an attempt to increase government involvement are playing with fire.

Troy Camplin writes:

Aristotle pointed out that fiction is more philosophical than history, and that makes it more important. To complain about stories having heroes, victims, and villains is to complain that there are stories. Now, we may argue abot who should be portrayed as villains, etc., but without them, theres no story -- you have to have a problem of some kind if you're going to have a story.

Dain writes:

Troy,

Do stories necessarily need a villian and a hero? It seems that for at least the last 40 years society has been moving away from this clear cut dichotomy. It began with the popularization of the anti-hero (which continues) and now we find many a story about people "simply being people", suffering from miscommunication, bad luck and an amoral world.

I agree it's necessary to have a story, however loosely concocted, but villians and heroes? Nah.

As for what Bryan is talking about, journalists suffer more from a lack of familiarity with economics - and a popular unwillingness to tackle it - than they do with some kind of imperative to portray good guys and bad. The degree to which they find good and bad guys in a potential journalistic narrative is predicated upon the myths and biases they hold. If scientists were considered devious and class bound by individuals within the media, we'd see more scare quotes and general suspicion in news reporting on that particular topic.

Robin Hanson writes:

To be honest, I was half-joking in describing PAM as a hero-villain story. It is noteworthy that most of the examples people come up with are of war, or of leaders of opposing states; in such situations each side becomes so very convinced they are good and the other side evil. So I still do think we over paint our world with hero-villain stories.

Nathan Smith writes:

Easy.
Villain: Nativists, border patrol.
Victim: Immigrants and would-be immigrants.

General Specific writes:

"Name the most important issues where you think a villain-victim-hero story is true."

Does it have to be current? If not, I choose slavery and the slave trade in the new world.

If current, I choose chinese companies that produce dangerously defective products, the people (or animals) harmed by them, and the legal/regulatory process that finally sets things straight.

Kimmitt writes:

Enron comes to mind.

Eli writes:

Victims: Inner-city children who attend public schools.

Villains: Education bureaucracy and teachers' unions (and voters!).

David N. Welton writes:

* I'm willing to believe that perhaps things are not so clear cut as in the movie. I sure wouldn't want a bunch of that crap in my water though, either, until people are damn sure it's not toxic.

* Companies are generally subject to corrective market mechanisms - of course! However, sometimes companies are also natural monopolies, like PG&E. And that doesn't mean that sometimes they do stupid, or even evil things before the market gets a chance to put them in their place.

Troy Camplin writes:

We are much more comfortable with heroes and villains than with such things as anti-heroes, etc. Yes, we see a wide variety of anti-heroes in late modernist and postmodern literature, but truth be told, almost nobody but I read such works. Take a look at what is most popular. All those books are heroes and villains. Look at cinema: the majority of those movies have heroes and villains. The few exceptions are, again, those artistic modernists and postmodernists who are specifically writing against what humans naturally prefer. Postmoderns also deny that their novels are even stories quite often. Our natural preference for heroes and villains is what makes journalists try to find them when they write a story: because without them, there is no story in the traditional sense of the word.

8 writes:

Most journalists (like most people) are not deep thinkers. They see a problem and attribute the hero and villain role to the two visible targets. They do not understand nuance. Therefore, the profit seeking business in a twisted market created by do-gooders in government which victimizes the poor is the villain. The army that kills a child in the process of deposing a genocidal maniac is the villain. Hanson was setting up a market which would obviously earn money from something negative, so he is the villain. Often there is no hero in many stories, i.e. the journalist himself is the hero for shedding light on the issue.

In investing, it's best to avoid stationary targets, like water rights owners or oil rights owners. Exxon and other oil majors are the villain because they own (some) oil (and have recently had their property taken by Russia and Venezuela) but nobody even knows who Schlumberger or GlobalSantaFe are.

Ben Kalafut writes:

Teachers' strikes, especially in organizing units (such as Tucson, AZ) without systems of merit pay.

Victims: Taxpayers, lower-income families
Villains: Union officers and staffers.

bb8343 writes:

The villain-victim-hero storyline is something people are familiar with, something that we all now and understand. There are bad guys doing bad things and good guys who stop the bad guys from doing the bad things. While that seems fairly cut and dry, and works in several situations - like bullies back in grade school or wars between feuding countries - not every situation fits this villain-victim-hero story line.

The line between villain, victim, and hero becomes somewhat blurred in economics. When it comes to allocating scarce resources among alternative uses to satisfy the unlimited wants of humans, there are bound to be multiple sides with multiple opinions. Who is right? Who is wrong? What should be done? These are all questions that economists and those affected by the decision making must deal with. They have to consider what is more profitable and what is more beneficial to shareholders and stakeholders, as well as what is better for the surrounding community and the environment. It can be very confusing. There are several variables that go into the decision making, and those variables themselves can change quite frequently over time. When eventually choosing what do, one is in a sense making someone or something a villain and someone or something else a hero. The problem with this is not everyone is going to agree with who is the villain and who is the hero. There will most definitely be some type of opposition in the business world. A good example of this would be dealing with environmental groups who want to save wildlife that would be affected by the building of a new shopping center that would give jobs to the surrounding community. Who is the villain here? Who is the hero? Is there a definite, 100% right answer? This is where the lines are blurred.

So, perhaps the logic of classifying villains and heroes is unfair, overused even. I know it will always be the nature of humans to assign a good and a bad side, but I don’t think it’s fair to make these sides permanent. Things are always changing. That’s why when it comes to business, with all its ups and downs, one should be careful making assumptions about others.

tsstevens1112 writes:

There are some cases where the villains, victims, and heroes all present themselves clearly....such as in the Second World War (Nazi's bad, Europe the victim (again), US the heroes (again).), or Robin Hood (Prince John and the Sheriff bad, the poor are the victims, and Robin of Locksly saves the day).

However more often than not, who the villain is and who the hero is are largely a matter of who you ask. i.e. The war of Northern Aggression...The North was fighting to preserve the Union, and the Confederacy was fighting for their freedom from oppression and for their rights...Both sides were correct, and which one was the "good" side is largly a matter of opinion.

Then you get into the world of business and money, where everyone is trying to make the most money for themselves, while at the same time pay the minimum amount of money to others for goods and services. The way I look at this situation is that everyone is his own hero and victim, and all other parties in transactions are the villains.

dearieme writes:

Karl Marx
Much of the Human Race
Ronald Reagan, Mrs Thatcher and the Polish Pope.

It is a permanent stain on the Universities that so many academics sided with the Marxists.

Shakespeare's Fool writes:

tsstevens1112 writes:

"The war of Northern Aggression...The North was fighting to preserve the Union, and the Confederacy was fighting for their freedom from oppression and for their rights...Both sides were correct, and which one was the "good" side is largly a matter of opinion."


The evil of slavery is not a matter of opinion.

John

Alex writes:

To say that the Civil War was all about slavery is as gross and disgusting a simplification as you can get. It's as wrong as saying that WWII was all about the Holocaust.

They are both important features of those wars (Even though slavery was legal everywhere in the US at the time according to the Dred Scott decision and many states with large numbers of slaves sided with the Union), but they are not the causes nor the reasons given for fighting.

Steve Sailer writes:

I'd endorse the cotton mill workers of England in the 1860s, who were suffering terrible unemployment due to the Union blockade of Confederate cotton exports. The British Government intended to have the Royal Navy break the blockade, but the mill workers put together an enormous petition to Parliament saying they would rather be out of work than see slavery victorious. Arguably, this saved the Union, ended slavery, and prevented war between the U.S. and the U.K.

Greg Bain writes:

"Bonus points: How do you think Robin answered?"

I think Robin would say the masked villains (Scooby-Doo style) appeared to be the media and the government; but once the mask was removed the real villain was identified as the average citizen.

However blaming the average citizen doesn't do much good, so I'm sure Robin wouldn't do it, but he may finger our political and educational systems.

Now I hope I haven’t just embarrassed myself by thinking that I could anticipate Robins Hanson’s answer to a question.

catamountbaker9730 writes:

The villain-victim-hero scenario is not new in any way. One of the classic examples of a villain-victim-hero scenario is any superhero story. Batman is a hero and tries to save Gothom, the victim, from the villain, Joker. Superhero stories are always cut and dry about who the villain-victim-hero are, but that is not the way in economics.

Economics does not always have that cut and dry answer of the victim-villain-hero scenario. Sometimes it looks like a supplier of a product is the villain of a demander, but it could just as easily be the other way around. Just as easily could a company make stockholders look like victims, yet the stockholders could just as easily be villains. Economist always ask, who’s right? Who’s wrong? It is not always easy to determine the villain-victim-hero scenario in economics.

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