The Constitutional Economics of the “Divergent” Films

The third installment in the Divergent movie franchise, Allegiant, inserted itself into cinematic pop culture with a whimper on its opening weekend, but the movie seems to be completing a unexpectedly weighty arc on the nature of politics. While almost certainly unintentional, the thematic arc is intriguing because it brings to life the warnings proffered by James Madison in what is perhaps the most famous of the Federalist Papers: Federalist No. 10 on factions, and their implications for governance.

The Divergent films bring onto the big screen the dystopian stories penned by Veronica Roth set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. With the rest of the world decimated, or at least presumed inert, the principal protagonists–Beatrice “Tris” Prior and Tobias “Four” Eaton–fight powerful faction leaders determined to control their existence and their highly localized society in Chicago.

In the aftermath of world war, Chicago exists as a seemingly ordered society based on five factions:

  • Abnegation, the “selfless”, run the government presumably in the public interest.
  • Amity, the peaceful, are farmers and producers.
  • Candor represents the honest and judicious faction.
  • Erudite represents the intellectuals, the philosophers.
  • Dauntless, the brave, are the enforcers.

Some don’t make into a faction, and they are the disenfranchised “factionless.” Divergents are those that have abilities or psychological dispositions that span multiple factions.

The nod to Plato’s The Republic and its rigid class structure–workers, guardians, and philosopher kings–is pretty transparent, although Roth doesn’t draw on this tome as her inspiration. On the contrary, she writes on her blog that an important part of her inspiration was her interest in group interactions, group identity, and personality. She appears to have an anti-authoritarian streak, however, in that she also writes:

“And I’ve always been interested in government systems that stick people in classes or castes (even if I’m also pretty horrified by them), or high school cliques, as depicted so well in Mean Girls: So: groups. It was bound to happen.”

James Madison and Veronica Roth seem to have come to the same conclusion, although Ms. Roth appears to have skipped American government when it came to the Federalist Papers and the structure of U.S. government (not surprising for a creative writing major).

Nevertheless, both Roth and James Madison seem to be pegged to the same ideas: Both see the moral and practical necessity of letting people pursue their individual talents and abilities to improve social welfare. For Madison, however, the explicit question is similar to the implicit one in the Divergent series: How are factions constrained without compromising liberty? Roth’s plots put this dynamic in play, making the Divergent series all the more interesting, particularly as the stories are depicted through the third installment in the film franchise, Allegiant. (A fourth installment is due out in 2017.)

The first movie, Divergent, dwells on factions as a meditation on the constraints of ordered class hierarchy in a social context. Tris, the divergent, is literally fighting for her survival against a government effectively taken over by Erudites (philosophers turned philosopher kings), who turn authoritarian and murderous. The real threats to the order are the so-called divergents such as Tris and Four. They don’t easily fit into one class and have skills and abilities that cross over factions, and they are marked for death. The Erudites use drug induced mind control to commit genocide by massacring the entire Abnegation faction (which is also the faction in which Tris and her family belonged until she joined Dauntless).

In the second film, Insurgent, Tris escapes with the help of Four and several others who seek refuge in an Amity community. The plot revolves around Tris’s goal of killing Jeanine, the authoritarian Erudite faction leader, and the attempt by other factions–Amity, the Factionless, and remnants of Dauntless–to overthrow Erudite. They are successful, but the seeds of power have already become embedded in the leaders of the victorious factions. Thus, victory is secure, but stable governance is fleeting.

Allegiant takes the cultural meditation a step further, and this is where Federalist 10 and public choice economics steps in to provide some clarity. A coalition has emerged that includes Amity, Candor, and the Factionless, but their rule quickly disintegrates under the brutality of the new leaders. In order to root out opposition from the deposed, the leaders engage in trials and executions of former leaders and conspirators (also invoking, probably unintentionally, the brutality of the French Revolution).

As Tris and Four escape the hostile order under the new ruling coalition, they make their way beyond the wall surrounding Chicago to discover they have been part of an experiment. They are taken in by the Bureau of Genetic Welfare, an organization of survivors from the war that has been, in effect, trying to breed divergents as a “genetically pure” component of the species. Chicago is their test tube and laboratory . Tris makes a plea for a factionless world, where individual identities, strengths, and weaknesses are recognized and valued. The factions, however, continue to fight for power until they have a new, common enemy: The master manipulator, the Bureau of Genetic Welfare.

Traditional literary analysis sees these protagonists and antagonists through the lens of conflict. After all, that’s what propels story. As each character is confronted with a new challenge, they evolve (arc) and are changed for the experience. The conflicts are pretty predictable, and the plots become stale–how many times can Tris (or Four) survive another attempt on their lives or run through yet another gauntlet? As conventional literary fare, critics have not surprisingly skewered the films for their lack of originality.

But these films are not just another version of Mean Girls, The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter. Whether intentional or not, they end up grappling with the very real and practical problem of governing among factions.

Another way to look at this series and its plots is through governance, or the subfield of Constitutional political economy, where the rules and alternative institutional arrangements that govern society are examined. Madison argued that Democracy, particularly small ones, were prone to manipulation by factions. With the establishment of five factions, regime stability is problematic because, in a democracy, a coalition of three can overcome the objections of the minority (through persuasion or bribery) and exert their will.

But these coalitions are unstable. In the Divergent films, we see a stable society without well established rules for governing disintegrate, first through the focused power seeking of one ambitious leader (Jeanine of Erudite) accepting uncritically the value of imposing a Platonic social order on the community and the establishment of one faction as a ruler over the others.

But this regime can’t be sustained. The other factions are populated by people with their own desires and will, as exemplified by divergents such as Tris and Four, and the Factionless. They rise up, and the governing regime–whether authoritarian under Jeanine or coalition under Amity and the Factionless–is destabilized. No one faction has sufficient power to overwhelm the others (absent a convenient doomsday weapon such as a mind control drug conveniently inserted by the author). Under centralized control, consolidating power and authority is the primary objective. Notably, the coalition that disintegrates includes the factions that are genetically disposed toward peace (Amity), honesty and judiciousness (Candor), and the marginalized (the Factionless). In other words, it’s not who is charge; it’s the rules that set up the game.

Thus, public choice economics has insight into the social dynamics of the Divergent movies (and the series) so far. Viewed from a Constitutional economics perspective, the stories have brought something new, whether the author (and directors) intended for this to happen or not. At some point, regime stability will be achieved when a governing system allows for individuals to flourish, developing their individual talents and pursuing their own desires–breaking down of factions–without centralizing power in a way that allows it to redistributed to concentrated interests. For James Madison, the solution was a large, diverse community too big for one group to dominate. This goal of diffusing power was also a central organizing principle for Federalism.

The Divergent films end up becoming an allegory the dangers of political factions operating in a centralize system of power and governance. The Divergent series begins with the premise, like Plato, that groups and hierarchies reflect a natural order of the world (ruled by public-interest minded servants). This natural order, however, is corrupted in a world ruled by a centralized authority with concentrated power that, in effect, incentivizes breaking from the natural order to establish a ruling class (re: feudal kings). The existence of divergents–true individualists–brings that romanticized world crashing down because they disrupt the collectively perceived natural order. Factions are celebrated in the beginning, but the faction system has embedded within it the seeds of its own destruction.

That should make for a worthy classroom discussion of liberty and the rules necessary for promoting it.

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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