The Odds are Never in Your Favor: Pareto Efficiency in The Hunger Games

The Odds are Never in Your Favor: Pareto Efficiency in The Hunger Games

Keeping people poor makes them easier to control. Controlling people makes it easier to keep them poor.


If the founders and rulers of Panem are students of history, they’ve probably studied how states rise and fall. If they have, they’ll have noticed a curious coincidence in the transition from a feudal state (similar to Panem’s current existence) to a democratic state (which is presumably where Panem doesn’t want to go): things go downhill once people start getting money.

The English Civil Wars of the 1640s were sparked when the gentry of England realized their power to obstruct Charles I, given that he relied on them (through Parliament) to collect tax revenue. The French Revolution was brought on by the Third Estate, comprised of the bourgeoisie tradesmen of Paris and rural farmers. The American Revolution was started by plantation owners in Britain’s colonies. The Indian Revolution was carried out by the masses, but started by small cadres of educated Hindus, such as Gopal Gokhale and Mohandas Gandhi. And so forth.

If we could just get the Parliamentarians to slaughter each other for sport, I might get to keep my head.

Considered from our armchairs, this pattern of historical revolution makes sense. Once you give a class the freedom to earn wealth, instead of simply inheriting it from a parent or being granted it by a king, their natural desire is to acquire more. They will continue to acquire wealth and power until legal barriers obstruct them. They will then agitate to have these barriers brought down, causing either social change or a revolution.

Bourgeois revolution comes about when a middle class – caught between the concentrated rulers and the disorganized laborers – chafes at their assigned role. They sense the opportunities available to them, the Pareto efficiency that would come if they could set their own price for tea or make their own salt. But the force of law prevents them from seizing these opportunities. So the law has to go.

Being locked into one role for your entire life – being a red piece on a blue square, to return to the gameboard analogy above – can be an immensely frustrating feeling … unless you don’t know that there are other roles available.

Now the Capitol’s master plan becomes clear. No communication is allowed between Districts. All information is relayed to the Capitol and redistributed to the Districts in turn. The Peacekeepers prevent travel between Districts, which also stops the flow of information. All anyone knows in the Seam is life in District 12. They get glimpses of unimaginable opulence in the Capitol through government broadcasts, but they can no more imagine themselves in that role than you or I could imagine ourselves as comets.

What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to to roll in and die for their entertainment?

A Pareto-improving move is one which makes both parties better off. But if people keep getting better off, accumulating wealth and the free time to think, then they’ll start agitating for change. So the only way to prevent these moves is to prevent the free flow of information. Don’t let people know that a better life is possible. Don’t let Peeta Mellark know that there’s a demand for his pastries. Don’t let Katniss Everdeen know that there’s a life outside of the Seam, a life that doesn’t require scavenging or callousness. If you don’t know that you can improve, you can’t be unsatisfied.

And economic theory backs this up, too. One of the presumptions of Pareto efficiency is that information can flow freely between participants. If I’m a red piece on a blue square, I need to know where the red squares are in order to know which moves will improve my score. If I operate in a market with imperfect information, the side that knows more has an advantage. Joseph Stiglitz demonstrated this with his work on asymmetrical information, work that earned him the Nobel Prize in 2001.

Having slain 23 other nominees in a televised arena to win the Prize.

We see this on the used car lot, where a shady dealer fudges the truth about the quality of the car we’re staring at. We see this in the equity market, where banks create securities filled with toxic mortgages and pass them off to institutional investors. And we see this in Panem. An all-knowing Capitol observes the Districts and dispatches Peacekeepers as needed. Any news from other Districts is censored. And any District that gets out of line – as happened with District 13, seventy-five years ago – gets crushed hard without any explanation.

By controlling information, Panem prevents their subjects from knowing what they have to trade. By controlling trade, Panem prevents a middle class from forming. By quashing the bourgeoisie, Panem maintains its rule.


Skeptics among you might be feeling some doubts right now. The Hunger Games is a lot of things – thrilling adventure, heartbreaking teen romance, metaphor for high school – but it’s probably not a secret economics textbook.

Despite creating a world defined by income inequality, Suzanne Collins doesn’t seem to care much about the economics of Panem. A few offhand questions about the market forces that define the Districts would poke holes in the canvas. For instance: where do the bakers of District 12 get the money to make fancy treats, like frosted cakes, if there’s so little demand for their goods? How can the Capitol sustain the expense of building a huge enclosed field for each year’s Hunger Games, filling it with electronics and hydraulics, and then allowing it to go unused (but maintained enough for tourists) forever? How exactly do sponsors make sure their gifts get to their tributes: how are the packages assembled and delivered?

Collins doesn’t need to answer these questions for The Hunger Games to be a great novel – she doesn’t and it is – but it’s indicative. There’s a type of science fiction novel that’s very concerned with the logistics and engineering of its society: the Asimov / Heinlein / Niven generation of sci-fi authors. Then there’s the type of science fiction novel that’s more concerned with atypical societies that could never exist today: the Bester / Butler / Atwood type of sci-fi author. Both are valid, and Collins’s work falls into the latter.

But we can’t dismiss the Pareto angle just yet.

First off, hypothetical critic, economics isn’t just about jobs and factories, despite what you read in the news. Economic theory is about information and choices and satisfaction. It’s about the paths people choose to get what they want, and how they make end runs around the obstacles put in their way.

But second, I don’t think it’s a stretch at all. Suzanne Collins might not care very much about the economics of how Panem actually works. But Pareto optimization is about letting people make the choices that fulfill them the most. And The Hunger Games is absolutely and explicitly a book about people being uncomfortable in the roles chosen for them.

6 Comments on “The Odds are Never in Your Favor: Pareto Efficiency in The Hunger Games”

  1. K8 #

    You have not read all the books but I encourage you to. Gale certainly has more interest in Katniss than friendship and the biggest thing that stuck out to me is yes, the Capitol is purposefully keeping the nation poor. The Capitol itself benefits from the labor of the districts regardless of the members natural talents and the rest of the nation is left to starve. The point is to punish those who went against the Capitol and remain in control… It’s brutal really.


  2. Elephants #

    You don’t even really need to read the next books. It’s obvious that you know what’s coming. All of your analysis finds a place in the next few books.


    • John Perich OTI Staff #

      Thanks! I suspected as much, since it’s impossible to research the books and remain completely ignorant of what happens. But it’s good to know that the personal = economical = political scale plays out in the rest of the series.


  3. Kyre #

    While I am not an economist, I think that your line “A Pareto-improving move is one which makes both parties better off” is only half-correct; a switch that improves one party while leaving the other the same should still move your coordinate in this 2D Pareto space towards the Pareto-optimal front, where either party can’t improve its position without being forced to diminish the other party’s position.


  4. Tiffany #

    What an insightful article! As a Hunger Games fan who ALSO has a BA in economics, I found this a pretty interesting read. The Capitol does intentionally keep the District citizens poor and isolated from each other because that’s how they keep control and I’m sure the founders of Panem realized that from history. Obviously I’m going to urge you to read the other two books if you haven’t already. You are definitely on the right track, but there are some… elements to the Panem environment that you haven’t been introduced to yet, especially in regards to what the victors like Haymitch are really like and the environment introduced in Mockingjay.


Add a Comment