Suzanne Collins creates a classic dystopian future in The Hunger Games on par with Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984 and Vonnegut’s Fahrenheit 451. The movie adaption of the book will be released this week. Collins adds an especially horrifying twist to an otherwise familiar vision of a tyrannical central government that oppresses the majority of its citizens who labor to produce the goods but prohibited from sharing in the overall prosperity. That twist is the law that each year 24 adolescent “tributes” are selected to participate in a fight to the death choreographed for television called the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games themselves are reminiscent of the combat of gladiators in ancient Rome combined with the spectacle of a 21st century Olympic Games complete with human interest interviews and personal stylists for each competitor. As with most of the governments in this genre of novels, the rule of law is corrupted to benefit an elite class and to keep the majority (the producers) enslaved.
Of course human history is ripe with examples of governments falling into tyranny. Whether one chooses to study Rome under the Caesars, France under Napoleon, Stalin’s Soviet Union, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, or Mao’s China, we see a similar imposition of laws that limit personal liberty for the so called public good. The more restrictive the rules of law, the fewer individual liberties remain for the general citizen, and the deeper a government spirals into tyranny.
The fact that each generation produces one or more novels that teaches this valuable lesson is not surprising. The fact that tyrannies continue to exist despite these repeated warnings tells us something about the human condition. We must be watchful to recognize when laws become too restrictive and when common sense is usurped by rules and regulations.
Aristotle called the greatest virtue “practical wisdom.” This was the gift that Solomon prayed for and received from God. It is the gift of discerning the right way to do the right thing. The book Practical Wisdom authored by two Swarthmore College faculty, Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action, and Kenneth Sharpe, Professor of Political Science, highlight the need for a human approach to the problems facing our institutions – government, education, and health care. With carefully chosen examples they illustrate heartwarming cases in which decisions are rendered specific to the unique circumstances of a given problem and heart-wrenching cases in which blindly following laws, guidelines or scripts leads to folly. Professor Schwartz’s talk “Using Our Practical Wisdom“ conveys a few of these stories (http://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_using_our_practical_wisdom.html).
Whether we are talking about establishing rules and regulations to improve education, provide better health care, or make government more efficient we must remember that no sets of rules can replace the human application of practical wisdom. It is why our justice system relies on judges, lawyers, and juries and not just law books and sentencing guidelines. It is why our medical system relies on doctors and nurses and not just expert systems. And it is why our educational system relies on teachers and not actors following a script. What are needed are leaders of good character and virtue. Today, as it was in the times of both Aristotle and Solomon, the path to practical wisdom is a solid and broad education tempered with careful observations of day to day experiences.