The Hayekian Liberty of Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game, the #1 New York Times bestseller, was made into a 2013 film starring Harrison Ford, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, and Ben Kingsley.

Finally, after much encouragement from my college freshman daughter, I just finished reading Ender’s Game, the best-selling science fiction novel by Orson Scott Card that won the Nebula and Hugo awards when it was published in the mid-1980s. The story follows the cultivation of a 6-year-old, boy-wonder, military tactician, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, as he is prepared to lead a massive intergalactic war that threatens Earth and the entire human race.

This book should be on the reading list of every free-market economist and libertarian. It’s the only novel I’ve read to date that fuses the fundamental problem of market coordination and the value of dispersed knowledge with the essence of individual liberty (although this is fully revealed only at the end). The main plot and character arc of Ender can be read as an allegory that brings to life the core conflict between markets (and liberty) and central planning, all in the context of interplanetary warfare.

The story is also implicitly critical of the authoritarian world in which Ender lives—strict population control limits families to two children although Ender  is a Third because the military authorities considered the genetic makeup of his family “promising”—likely to produce a military commander capable of leading the interplanetary fleet. Religion has also been banned, although Ender’s family doesn’t abandon many of these fundamental beliefs. Ender is raised with a strong allegiance and loyalty to his family as a result.

The story is very humanist. It’s primarily a character-driven story,  effectively showing the human toll on Ender and his fellow child soldiers (Suzanne Collins anyone?) during their training for total war. No one will come away from Ender’s Game thinking that the violence total war requires is either compassionate or, for that matter, necessary. Whether it is Just is a bit more controversial, but I won’t spoil too much of the plot and ending in this post.

Rather, it’s the source of Ender’s genius that is so central to the plot and the broader lessons about individualism, liberty, and the value of markets. Ender has a startling degree of empathy. He understands the motivations and psyche of his friends and his enemies. And, as a commander, he allows his officers to lead, take risks, and use their judgement. Even when he is outnumbered, Ender is able to use the creativity of his sub-commanders to gain advantage. In fact, Ender’s insubordination—his willingness to take risks and follow his own path–is an essential part of his development as a commander. This is the entrepreneurialism that forms the heart of much free-market economics, particularly Austrian economics.

In contrast, his enemy, “the buggers,” are directed by a central commander. A Queen Bee, if you will. The enemy’s strategy is centrally coordinated. More uniquely, their entire strategy is based on complete and instantaneous knowledge of the central planners goals, values, and directives. It is a true collective. Even in this ideal setting, the centrally coordinated strategy is less adaptable, less nimble, less robust, and, ultimately, less resilient.

Thus, Card has set up a battle of values and social systems, not just military strategies. Ender instinctively and effectively utilizes the intelligence of all the individuals in his fleet by letting them use their decentralized and fragmented knowledge, expertise, and skills to make critical decisions in the field, including being alert to new opportunities (entrepreneurship) and being accountable for their actions. While Ender still plays the commander, he learns that his effectiveness increases by giving his friends more freedom, not less. Humans survive the war, thus showing the benefits of individual freedom over central planning.

But Ender’s Game is more than an allegory for the economic coordination problem (and calculation debate). It’s also a tale of misunderstanding, insensitivity, and the needless destruction brought about by total war. The military commanders get what they want–the ruthless destruction of an enemy–but the book calls into question in a very fundamental sense what an enemy is. I won’t spoil the ending, but the message is a profound call for the objective value of life and humility in interpreting the intent and actions of others.

Card’s writing style is so crisp, direct, lean that it makes Hemingway seem verbose. While many literary mavens will clamor for more description and rhetorical flare, the benefit is a fast paced novel that ends up focusing more on the psychology and emotional conflicts of the protagonist  than the setting and environment. The fast pace and streamlined writing is driven by dialogue and the inner thoughts of Ender, and this probably explains why the book is popular with teens and young adults as well.

But, like most good science fiction, the ideas are what has given Ender’s Game heft and shelf life, and these ideas are fundamentally celebratory of individual liberty, hostile to the violence of warfare, and, even if indirectly, pro free market.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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