Free-Market Movie Moments, Part I

(Note: If the current crop of summer movies doesn’t interest you, here are some examples of movies that feature free-market themes. Popcorn not included. Part II will appear in this space June 1.)

If you believe that an unfettered market economy with limited government interference is the best system for ensuring personal liberties, social equality and boundless economic opportunities, going to the movies can too often be a wince-inducing exercise. Even films that ardent free-marketers reasonably expect to be absent messages promoting big government and anti-business sentiments are full of gratuitous dialogue that peddles Hollywood’s pervasive but infantile anti-market sentiments.

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Rare is the film that takes a turn in the other direction, wherein the hero wises up and defends private property, free enterprise, lower taxes, civil society and other principles that actually improve life and preserve our liberty at the same time. This is not a trivial matter. Movies and movie stars do more than simply reflect the popular culture; they help shape and move it in certain directions. It takes superhuman special effects to make socialism look good, but Hollywood can make the most preposterous claims seem glamorous.

One plot so shopworn it parodies itself is of the evil and greedy businessman intent on destroying the environment or taking advantage of the poor as crusading individuals fight to stop him. For example, director Ivan Reitman’s 1993 flick "Dave" features Kevin Kline as a presidential look-alike who fills in when the real president suffers a massive stroke. Halfway through an initial viewing, one is tempted to think, "This is genuinely funny, and so far I haven’t been propagandized." But this conclusion is too quickly reached, as the stand-in president eventually becomes a hero when he "sees the light" and champions more federal welfare spending.

Just as the proverbial broken clock is right twice a day, however, every now and then the film industry produces a memorable moment of dialogue — and once in a blue moon, even an entire movie — that breaks the mold. Ivan Reitman also directed "Ghostbusters," which was released in 1984. Four parapsychology cranks finally are tossed out on their ears from cushy jobs at a state university. Lamenting their predicament, one of them suggests going into business for themselves. One member of the inept quartet, Dr. Raymond Stantz (played by Dan Aykroyd), expresses his reservations this way: "Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities. We didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results!"

In this brief utterance, Stantz enshrined a cardinal rule of economics in the minds of millions of "Ghostbusters" fans, and no one wondered what he meant. No firm in the private sector can long afford to squander its resources on outputs of dubious value. The tax-funded public sector, however, is another animal altogether. The movie’s villain, by the way, is an arrogant control freak from the Environmental Protection Agency whose order to release the spirits incarcerated by the "Ghostbusters" crew wreaks havoc on New York City.

Martin Scorsese’s "The Aviator," winner of five 2004 Academy Awards, tells the story of Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), the wealthy and eccentric aviator, engineer and movie producer. The film does a great job of addressing big government in a variety of ways. At dinner with girlfriend Katharine Hepburn’s family, Hepburn (Frances Conroy) proudly reveals that the members of her family are "all socialists" and indicates that she is a fan of President Franklin Roosevelt. Not often does one find a film bold and honest enough to link socialism with the president responsible for preventing voluntary business transactions, paying farmers to remain idle and taxing 91 percent of Americans’ incomes.

The film also espouses a refreshingly negative viewpoint of government intervention in the market. When Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) of Pan Am airlines attempts to establish a government-backed monopoly for his airline, a furious Hughes exclaims: "It just isn’t fair! Look, he owns Pan Am, he owns Congress, he owns the Civil Aeronautics Board, but he does not own the sky!" In that single line, Hughes illustrates that even though government apologists often advocate intervention as a remedy for an allegedly unfair market, true monopolies result from the government bestowing unmerited advantages upon favored groups.

Perhaps one of the most riveting moments in the entire film occurs toward the end, when Hughes is forced to defend his use of government grant money in front of the Senate. The reclusive Hughes garners the courage to turn the tables, exposing the hypocrisy of the corrupt Sen. Ralph Owen Brewster (Alan Alda). Hughes shows that Brewster has been receiving favors from Pan Am in return for sponsoring Pan Am monopoly legislation. The same message is present throughout the film: Government intervention in the free market is unjust and inefficient.


Christina M. Kohn recently completed her senior year as an economics and history major at Hillsdale College and was a 2006 summer intern at the Mackinac Center. Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the authors and Center are properly cited.