Fraser Forum

A critique of centralization in James Bond’s Spectre

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Spoiler alert: This post contains information about the latest Bond movie, Spectre.

My Fraser Institute colleague, Aeon Skoble, wrote a nice overview of the latest James Bond film, in which he draws attention to the collusion between government and big business, and how this partnership has disastrous consequences for civil liberties. Given the tremendous popularity of Spectre over the holidays, I would like to revisit the film and highlight a couple other ways in which the movie invokes libertarian and free market ideas with a focus on centralization and the mistaken role of government in capitalism.

In Spectre, British intelligence officials intend to dramatically change how espionage is conducted by automating and centralizing the gathering of information. The result will be to terminate the old decentralized “double-O” spy program. We see the first glimpses of this in the previous Bond film, Skyfall, where Bond’s young Quartermaster claims to be more effective (while sitting at his computer in his pajamas) than field agents in the middle of the action.

Bond: Oh, so why do you need me?
Q: Every now and then a trigger has to be pulled.
Bond: Or not pulled. It’s hard to know which in your pajamas.

Bond’s response has a particular sting given that he had been recently shot in Turkey following a command given by M from an office in London.

In Spectre, M pointedly makes this clear as well: “To pull that trigger, you have to be sure. A licence to kill is also a licence not to kill” foreshadowing Bond’s decision not to shoot Blofeld in the final dramatic confrontation.

If we now turn our attention to economics, a very similar debate can be found. Proponents of state-managed economies argue for the centralization of information and decision-making. For some insight into how effective this approach is, we can turn to the former Soviet Union, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela under Chavez. Free-marketers press for the necessity of decentralized information gathering, and we can invoke the prosperity of the West to attest to its success. Hayek provides a concise synopsis of this issue in his classic article, the Use of Knowledge in Society (1945).  

While I am stretching to make a point here (moving from international espionage to economics), the basic point remains that automation and centralization have very serious limitations, limitations that are at the forefront of contemporary concerns about government overreach and the unprecedented rise in state power. The prevalence of drone strikes, and indiscriminate government surveillance of law-abiding citizens, private companies and the leaders of allied nations are clearly informing some of these thematic issues in Spectre.

Spectre also highlights the tight relationship between government and big business.

We are told that the supply of medicines and other goods are strictly controlled by Blofeld’s criminal syndicate. The offices of British Intelligence and its surveillance equipment are financed by private industry (presumably Spectre). Sadly, this close working relationship between large corporations and governments are now perceived to be one of the hallmarks of “capitalism.” But properly understood, one of the defining characteristics of free markets is that they enjoy relatively little interference by any level of government. Businesses in the free-market system are neither heavily penalized by government (through taxation and regulation), nor are they supported by government (through corporate subsidies or special favours).

While Spectre, it must be said, is still about a state-sponsored spy using lavish government financed resources (Aston Martins, exploding Omega watches, fight-ready Tom Ford dinner jackets), this Bond film does a decent job of warning about the growth of centralized governments, and the destructive intrusions of the state in the free economy.


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