Why does the left seem better at making non-cringeworthy political videos? Does that necessarily have to be the case?
John Papola joins us this week to share his background at MTV, Nickelodeon, and Spike TV; his thoughts on the filmmaking process; and why it’s essential to tell character-driven stories. We also discuss Libertarianism.org’s new series, Freedom on Trial, which was produced by Emergent Order and directed by Papola.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Here’s our Freedom on Trial landing page. There, you can find the videos themselves, supplemental videos, and more info about the cast and crew for the production.
Emergent Order’s website is here.
Here’s Papola’s trailer for the Rocket Power movie, his first opportunity to direct and edit a trailer.
”Fear the Boom and Bust” and “Fight of the Century” are the two rap battles between John Maynard Keynes and F. A. Hayek that Papola and Emergent Order are most well known for.
Trevor mentions our Free Thoughts episode with Russ Roberts on his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.
Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is John Papola. He’s the Director of Freedom on Trial, the new movie from Libertarianism.org. He’s the Founder, CEO and Executive Creative Director of Emergent Order, an Austin-based creative agency and film production company. Welcome to Free Thoughts, John.
John Papola: Thanks for having me guys. It’s a real honor.
Aaron Ross Powell: So I want to get into these new movies from Libertarianism.org, Freedom on Trial, but I mean let’s start by giving our audience a bit of your background. How did you get into filmmaking?
John Papola: So if I step back before really getting into – being interested in video, I’ve always had sort of an argumentative bent. So I always – I’ve been getting in political debates with friends and family for probably longer than I had an interest explicitly in filmmaking and video and editing and the craft of film and video.
But when – in a way, when I think about it, some of my earliest video projects had a political bent. My co-founder Josh Meyers and I, who has also been my best friend since fifth grade, actually made up a political satire in high school that for the – for the little internal like closed circuit TV system in our little Catholic high school.
So you can say we sort of got started at this intersection of trying to do creative video and also have a kind of political or philosophical bent. I went to film school coming out of high school and coming out of film school, that interest in philosophy and politics really took a backseat and I got a job entry level at MTV. Actually in the animation department, the folks that did Beavis and Butthead and Daria and Celebrity Deathmatch.
Then over the course of 12 years, worked up through the MTV networks, the collection of networks that are owned by Viacom. So I worked at MTV. I worked at Nickelodeon, which is also where I met my wife Lisa who’s the other co-founder of Emergent Order with me and Josh.
Then moved to Spike TV and at Spike, I ended up – for the last – I was there for seven years and the last several of them as a creative – one of two creative directors. So as a creative director at Spike, I was responsible – I would direct some spots, some commercial spots and some longer form sort of marketing interstitials and pieces like that.
But then I also oversaw the overall communications in marketing for about half of the network’s content, their launches, the show launches. I was responsible for the campaigns for a show called Deadliest Warrior and 1000 Ways to Die, and a lot of other sort of stuff at Spike, as well as like the big award shows.
So that was my – I started off in film school and ended up professionally working at this intersection of – you could say film and commerce in the form of advertising and marketing.
Trevor Burrus: What sort of stuff in those years, MTV and Nickelodeon and Spike, what sort of – the most interesting things that you worked on at that time? For example in MTV, did anything that listeners might be familiar with?
John Papola: So I think – when I was at MTV, we were – I graduated in ’99, started working in MTV, began working in the series development department for animation. When the dot com boom hit, that entire department was eliminated and one of the largest layoffs in like MTV network’s past 20 years. I actually lost my job and then was – after several months, found a new position at Nickelodeon.
So I was a victim of the credit cycle, even though I wasn’t yet super engaged in the boom and bust the way I would be later, from a philosophical causal standpoint.
At Nickelodeon, I worked on – again, in the promos department. So perhaps my most famous project was I was given my first chance to edit a movie trailer and it was for an animated TV movie special for a show called Rocket Power and the movie – so it’s like this. The show for – there might be members of the audience who watched it growing up, but – especially if they’re millennials. But the show was this group of kids who were – lived in Hawaii and were like sort of skate kids without too much of a hard edge to them.
The movie was essentially terrible. But I – the approach I decided to take was – OK, if I’m going to cut a movie trailer, I want to do one of those big, awesome movie trailers with the guy that says, “In a world …”
So I actually – so I watched every movie trailer I could find on the Apple trailer site, which is still a great place to find them. But at the time, it was probably one of the only places to like aggregate movie trailers.
Then basically ripped off all of the best tropes I could and then I wrote this script, tracking against that, treating the movie like the most epic thing you will ever see. Then I actually got the famous Don LaFontaine, who is the guy that made famous the “In a world where one man must fight, one team must be put to the challenge …”
Trevor Burrus: That sounds incredible. That’s exactly what I’m going to watch when we’re done recording here.
John Papola: So – you know, in a way, it was like my first professional success in that I had written the script and then I edited the piece myself on my laptop, which at the time was right at this transition point as the industry was starting to transition from these big, extensive, expensive edit rooms running on the avid system to off-the-shelf Macs running Final Cut Pro.
So that combination of being a creative but also being a tech geek was something that was a big part of my career progress, if you could say. To cap the story off I guess is that I remember talking to my mother who was down at the Jersey Shore at the time and she said, “You know, I went over Aunt Rita’s house and there was a sticky note on her television to watch the Rocket Power movie on February 14th.”
So that trailer – and at the time, that really fairly poor TV movie I think got some of the highest like one-time ratings Nickelodeon achieved. It was – there wasn’t a lot of – and I think in a way, like that is – that approach of taking a kind of genre style and applying it in a new domain is something that has come to dominate a lot of what we’ve done in Emergent Order including Freedom on Trial.
You see the sort of echo of hey, here’s this fun topic. How can we take like a big entertainment convention and overlay it in a surprising way? It’s something that just – you know, the Keynes-Hayek rap videos do that. The Kronies did it and I think Freedom on Trial is like the latest incarnation of this effort to sort of blend unlikely ideas with style forms.
Aaron Ross Powell: So that’s how you got into filmmaking. How did you get into libertarian filmmaking?
John Papola: The vast – it’s the vast marketplace of libertarian filmmaking of course.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yes.
John Papola: How could you not bump into it along the way? So I’ve told the story a couple of times when the –Hayek versus Keynes rap videos that I created when Russ Roberts came out. But the short version is it was this intersection of the rise of social media, causing political debates, especially in the run-up to the 2008 election to become way more heated and way more present even in a workplace that has nothing to do with politics.
So the 2008 election, Facebook starts to escape from just being something college kids use in 2006 and by 2007, everyone in your office is suddenly on Facebook and starting to share their thoughts about the election without any sort of social norms sort of established. Not that many had been established since, as I think about it. But just sort of unfiltered.
So the political sort of dialogue was accelerating and being very pulled to the foreground at the same time that I was now older, married, had a mortgage, was concerned about interest rates and the financial crisis and the sort of breakdown of the mortgage market and everything was something that up until that point in my life, I probably just – I don’t think I had the skin in the game to care about.
So that was sort of a broader context and then in particular, Ron Paul’s sort of singular voice pointing to what seemed like the only rational, plausible take on what was going on, really was the invitation for me to take a look. I had always sort of seen myself as a conservative republican, essentially inherited from my family as a lot of people’s politics are.
It was really through Ron Paul as well as essentially being – you know, spending over a decade working in the diversity of views of New York City that in a sense moved me to the left into libertarianism. So I very much feel more like a left libertarian in a lot of respects. My concerns that – what animates my interest in libertarianism is a very humanistic belief in freedom as an empowering force for good, as opposed to a kind of religious adherence to the constitution or a kind of traditionalist, “Well, this is the American way.”
Like, I really believe that freedom and the sort of classical-liberal conception of it is the true path to like human betterment and so for me, that’s what all jelled as I think I got more mature, and circumstances raised awareness about what’s happening in the world of politics and economics.
Trevor Burrus: Talk a little bit about that, the Hayek-Keynes rap battle videos. What was the genesis of that? Was that your idea originally and you contacted Russ or did you come up with it together? How did that …
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s a very odd idea.
Trevor Burrus: If I just pitched it to someone immediately, especially at the time, because rap battles are more common. I guess we have the epic rap battles of history and of course Keynes-Hayek. So I feel like at the time – what year did the first one come out?
John Papola: We released the first one Fear the Boom and Bust in January of 2010.
Aaron Ross Powell: I remember hearing – so I had been at Cato for six months or something I think then. I remember hearing there’s this Hayek-Keynes rap battle video and you got to watch it, and preparing for it to be really bad, because it sounds like the kind of thing that would be really bad. Then it totally wasn’t.
John Papola: So EconTalk – so as I said before, we started – this podcast has actually entered the top of my list alongside of EconTalk. But my first love will always be EconTalk.
Trevor Burrus: That’s OK. It’s ours too. So that’s fine.
John Papola: And so that – I had this long bus commute which was a big – which was essentially my schooling, because I didn’t take any formal economics as my education.
So I was listening to EconTalk as well as like Planet Money from NPR, which was always exceptional and very classical-liberal really when you listen to it. You know, because they are interested in actual facts. After the election and with the bailouts and this massive stimulus program, I was really animated into a kind of activism. I wanted to try to get the message out that we’re doing all the wrong things, that we’re like repeating the same mistakes that got us into the mess in my view, from reading about Hayek and listening to Ron Paul and reading Money Mischief from Milton Friedman and listening to EconTalk.
So I decided – actually with a lot of instigation from my wife Lisa who really said, “You got to do something interesting with this interest, because man, this economics that you’re so excited about is the most boring thing in the world.”
She has always pushed me to try to think in a mainstream way because I can be as – about as hardcore – a libertarian geek as one can find. If you don’t believe me, pick up the laissez-faire books edition of A Tiger by the Tail because I wrote a foreword for it, which is like my faux attempt at being an intellectual.
But I cold-called Russ Roberts because I thought, “Well hey, if I just try to do something about the boom and bust on my own, who the hell is going to pay attention to me?” I’m not an economist. I don’t have any credibility in that domain. I also want to check to make sure I’m even like getting some of the stuff right.
So I cold-called Russ, left this like winding message about how I was a creative director at Spike and got interested in monetary policy and wanted to make a video with him and I was really excited about Hayek.
When Russ called me back, I swear this was more exciting than any celebrity shoot I had ever been on or directed. I even got to shoot a shot-for-shot recreation of the original Back to the Future movie trailer with Michael J. Fox and even – including that, I think I was more excited to get a callback from Russ Roberts.
Trevor Burrus: We were pretty excited when you came on Free Thoughts too. So we understand.
Aaron Ross Powell: It’s weird how I’m hearing the voice come out of someone.
John Papola: I know. He’s just – I really believe he is the best living economist today. I say that because I think he has – he embodies that classical, liberal, political economy that’s richer than most economists who come up through this much more mathematically-oriented, much more equilibrium-minded school. He’s just – he’s a true economist.
So we started to have a dialogue and Russ is a very small C conservative person when it comes to taking on projects. He’s always very busy. A lot of people, I’ve learned, approach him about things. So it took about nine months from the first phone call to the completion of Fear the Boom and Bust and we took many zigs and zags along the way. It didn’t start off as a rap battle. We originally thought, well maybe we will do like a faux sitcom with Keynes and Hayek as like the odd couple. Then we thought, well, that’s going to be really hard to pull off and it might not be very good. So why don’t we do the – like just the show open and make like a funny, spoofy show open to that show and that will be the video.
Then Russ made an off-handed joke about doing a rap battle and I immediately glommed on to it. You know what? That’s actually a great format for a back and forth and the cadence of rap. I wasn’t much of a rap fan, which is the ironic thing. So I had to basically – have either of you seen the movie Hustle & Flow?
Trevor Burrus: No. Have you seen that movie?
Aaron Ross Powell: No.
John Papola: So in Hustle & Flow, basically it’s the story of a pimp who has rap talent and becomes like an up and coming rapper. But you watch it very tangibly happen. Like he just lays down these rhymes and he has got a buddy that’s a music teacher. He takes his rhymes to his buddy and he’s like, “Well, you don’t have a hook.” He said, “Well, what’s a hook?” It’s like it’s the refrain. It’s what repeats and sort of pulls you in.
I literally had that exact same experience. I did a one crazy overnight pass on the first lyrics of Fear the Boom and Bust. I probably get them about 75 percent to 80 percent there and brought – and actually did a recording of it.
I brought it into – to Spike and I used the instrumental version of this song Remember the Name, which had the simple strings, kind of classical rhythm as a bass, and played it for a buddy of mine that was also a musician. He listened to it. He’s like that’s actually pretty – that’s not bad. But there’s no hook! There’s no refrain! And I was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s right, the refrain. Well, how many of those do you need?” He was like, “Oh, like about every 12 to 16 bars.” I was like, “Oh, well, what’s a bar?”
Yeah, I mean I was really like – it was like a child recreating something that has been well-understood for centuries. So, well like every line is like a bar. So like four bars is a measure and – and so OK. So then I went back to the script and said, “Well, actually the first four lines are a pretty good refrain.” We’ve been going back and forth for a century. I want to steer markets. I want them set free. There’s a boom and bust cycle and good reason to fear it. Blame low interest rates. No, it’s the animal spirits.
So I took that, copied it basically every four to six measures of lyric and then worked with it with Russ for like three, four months and then we – and Lisa found the actors that play – Billy and Adam who play Keynes and Hayek and because Russ is such a great public intellectual and such a welcoming personality, he had great relationships with PBS and NPR.
So that gave us some initial coverage to help us launch the project. So we actually had the folks at PBS News Hour film at one of our recording sessions and there was a – before the release of the video, there was actually a story on NPR about the rise of Keynes and I have to say like it was pretty neat because that story became not just the rise of Keynes but the debate about Keynes versus Hayek, which it wouldn’t have been had they not engaged Russ and I about this project.
So like in a way, we had already started making an impact on getting Hayek’s ideas about to more people even before the video was released and that taught me a lot about the way you can kind of work with media, as friends in the media that kind of helped make an impact and balance out the story that’s out there.
So it was released on like – end of January in 2010 and it was just so salient because we were right in the thick of this debate about stimulus and what grows the economy and how do you get out of – what caused the great recession and the – why is the unemployment still so high and all that stuff.
So really it was a very fertile time to sort of bring this kind of approach to the table. We didn’t have any media dollars behind it. Frankly, I don’t think you could reproduce. If we launched the same video today, I don’t think it would have gotten the kind of traction without a different amount of like support than what happened back in 2010.
Then we did a sequel in 2011, Fight of the Century.
Trevor Burrus: So the sequel was just sort of by popular demand or – I mean I know there was a lot more attention of course paid after the first one and then people just sort of wanted more, it seemed like. I did. I know I did. So …
John Papola: So after the first one, I started – it was really when I first started to genuinely become aware of the broader movement outside of frankly the Cato Institute and EconTalk, because I was listening – Cato has always been a go-to for me as far as finding great – a great source of ideas and just raw material to try to understand what it means to be a classical liberal and what it means to have a free market operate and solve problems in a free market society.
So I started to get approached by folks in the movement. They were interested in doing – trying to do more things like this and it seemed like not – people had – like you guys said, like people weren’t expecting it. I don’t think people thought it was possible to do something like that. So we – Russ and I were invited by The Economist magazine to their annual Buttonwood gathering, which is this kind of highfalutin conference with like heads of state and central bankers and all kinds of crazy people.
So we – and this was in the fall of 2010 and so at that point, the video had gotten over a million views, all like organically, and been covered all over the rest of the media. We decided – since that was such a big opportunity, we wrote lyrics as a kind of sequel follow-on and had Billy and Adam perform these lyrics and they were an only version of Fight of the Century.
That video is actually on EconStories’ YouTube channel, this – the Buttonwood gathering event. So coming out of that – and it was very – I mean it was like central bank – the head of the Central Bank of England at the time was there and all kinds of crazy people.
So we then had this raw material and Brian Hook and the folks at the Mercatus Center had helped raise money to make another bigger, better version on the basis of that script. So I wanted to just take everything to the next level, so we brought in this awesome vocalist Charlie Murphy who happens to be Eddie Murphy’s brother, but he has got this great voice and presence and we made the song more of an exchange.
So instead of in the first one it’s just Keynes says this thing and then Hayek says his, and the second one, it’s much more of a battle where they’re like parrying and sparring back and forth lyrically, and we took the production value way up and used – had a much bigger crew with tons of extras and this period set and this boxing ring.
It was – then it really kind of matched the trajectory as far as the media interest is – I mean tragically, one year later, the debate about the boom and bust was just as present and people’s concerns as it was a year prior because of the depth of the great recession.
Just to sort of button on that, that project, Fight of the Century, was the sort of maiden voyage for me as an entrepreneur. Josh and I left Spike and the three of us, him and Lisa, started Emergent Order and that was our first production as an independent company.
Aaron Ross Powell: So let’s turn to Freedom on Trial, which came out – we are recording this on Wednesday and it came out on Monday of this week and so we approached you – we being Libertarianism.org approached you guys to do cool video stuff for us, because we’re terribly jealous of the other people who got to do cool video stuff with you.
Well, first I tell our listeners if they haven’t watched already, shame on them. But we will put links in the show notes. What Freedom on Trial is and then how this idea came about.
John Papola: So when you guys approached us, we were very excited because obviously Cato really is the premier libertarian think tank and sort of institution. So it was a really exciting opportunity for our team and for me personally and also what was just so great is that your Libertarianism.org is very much a – like a safe space to engage ideas without necessarily being tethered directly to the more tangible mechanics of particular public policy.
So it’s a chance to engage the audience with the fundamental, ethical and economic and moral frameworks of classical liberalism and a free society, both historically and today. So that was like our – it’s like – we don’t always get to be doing projects that are so fundamentally educational and idea-driven. But that’s what we exist to do. That’s why I started this company with my friends and family.
So Freedom on Trial is very much in keeping with that tradition of the Keynes-Hayek rap videos. End of the Kronies, which was another project that we had done several years back. Of taking a popular media form. In this case are kind of serial courtroom – like a procedural courtroom drama a la Law and Order and using that as a device dramatically to engage freedom-related subjects. So in this case, the setup of the story is that we have lawyers for liberty, an underdog law partnership of William and Holly who try to take on underdog cases of people whose rights and freedoms have been constrained or trampled or under threat and defend them in the court of law, in the court of public opinion.
Trevor Burrus: Sounds like the Institute for Justice.
John Papola: Yes, it’s the dramatic telling of the Institute for Justice or the Pacific Legal Foundation and so in this – what we really saw again like aspirationally as a pilot was to take – they would take on this case of Philip Carvel, a small hardware store owner who has a young employee that he’s paying below the minimum wage and he’s prosecuted for doing so and the case takes a dramatic turn when it’s framed and its scope is broadened by the prosecution to really be a discussion of inequality in the country as a whole.
So obviously that’s a very salient topic right now. But it’s also very evergreen and it’s always convenient how they never want to index the minimum wage to inflation because that would prevent politicians from getting to reignite it as a new issue every several years.
So that’s the basic story is that it’s a legal drama with high personal stakes for the characters and along the way, we get to hear the flavor of the arguments, on both sides, and again in keeping with I think the ethics of you guys and your organization and of Libertarianism.org and it was such a great collaboration because you really encouraged us to be – to give both sides strong arguments and to let the debate that takes place be a full and balanced and robust debate.
So even though our sort of heroes, if you will, are the classical liberal lawyers, we didn’t hobble the arguments of the prosecution or the other side in anyway. That was something that was the kind of ethos that began with the Keynes-Hayek rap videos for me personally and I just think it’s a great way to engage dialogue.
Aaron Ross Powell: How does that then impact what you’re hoping viewers of Freedom on Trial will get out of it? Because if it had been – so the one way to present it which is how we opted not to, which would be – would be to have the libertarian side win. We say here’s a – bad arguments and we’re going to knock them down and therefore liberty and that would be a clear goal. Our goal would be to show the audience that the arguments in favor of the minimum wage don’t work.
Well, I think we did a bit of that. Like you said, trying to give every side a chance to express their view as strongly as possible and take them seriously. It ends up leaving things – we won’t give away the ending. But it ends up leaving things a bit more ambiguous. So what were you hoping that an audience – someone who watches that, who’s not already say a committed libertarian, gets out of it, if it’s not that libertarianism trounces statism?
John Papola: I think that one of the things I learned about politics broadly defined, political economy, debates over big ideas, from being at – in Viacom and being someone who was politically not sort of in the mainstay of my peers on a lot of issues, was that you get more bees with honey and you engage a much more rich dialogue with people when you don’t immediately push their buttons and trigger their tribal impulses.
Nobody wants to listen to you if they just think you’re a jerk or if you’re being too strident in your position and don’t seem to even know or care about their concerns. So I think with all of our projects, we try to do this. We try to – and it’s not just a matter – like – so the strategic positioning, although I think it does that too.
But to disarm people of their prejudices in the body of the project, to have the – I think like for us, like having it be very highly produced is part of that signaling of making something inviting to watch. But then I think having – you can’t avoid the fact that these are deeply contentious subjects and that there are well-intentioned people on both sides.
I think if you just set up the opposition – in this case, people who believe that government not only should have the right to interfere with the agreements of two consenting adult parties, but that it will make them better off or it will make society as a whole better off. Nobody is twirling their mustache as a villain thinking that for the most part. I mean maybe a handful of narrow interests are doing so, this sort of like – the bootleggers of the crowd.
But most people want to make the world a better place. So I think you have – I think it’s important to embed that understanding in your storytelling and I think as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, you have richer, more dramatic characters when they’re not just white hats and black hats. I think white hats and black hats is boring.
The character complexity is a huge part of what makes a dramatic story be dramatic and be surprising. If you know what the ending is going to be right before you start, are you even going to watch to the end?
So I think it’s both philosophically and morally a good way to go and I think it’s dramatically a good way to go.
Trevor Burrus: Was this a different kind of project than Emergent Order had done in the past? Was this something new to you guys and how you had to go about doing it?
John Papola: Well, we have done one scripted dramatic web series prior to this that I think was sort of a good prototype in a way, which was the Love Gov series that we created for the Independent Institute.
So we had already managed I think to successfully tell a character-driven story that had a didactic framework to it without it being – one commenter said this is not cringe-worthy, which on one hand feels like fake praise. But I think when you’re trying to actually like unpack this kind of ideas, that’s actually great praise from my perspective, because it’s like you said. The pitch of these things, your first impulse is, oh, that’s not going to be very good.
Aaron Ross Powell: Right.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that’s kind of interesting. That’s the real fascinating I guess challenge that you’re engaged with and it’s what we thought about when we were discussing the different concepts for the movies, was what would not be cringe-worthy. It’s kind of odd because there are a lot of tropes out there. Like, Captain Planet …
Aaron Ross Powell: Which has been turned into a live action movie.
Trevor Burrus: Well, I think Leonardo DiCaprio wants to turn it into a live action movie.
John Papola: I didn’t know that! Oh no!
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but Captain Planet is I mean absolutely, unbelievably ridiculous. But people don’t really perceive it as – I mean I think people perceive it as ridiculous. It’s a 90s cartoon and it’s a little bit pompous. But not because the evil corporations are trying to kill the environment and there’s a superhero saving it. If we try to make a – I don’t know, Captain Capitalism or Captain Free Markets or something like that, I mean I guess we could do it if we parodied Captain Planet. You should put that one in your idea bank and Captain Free Markets that parodies Captain Planet.
But it would be very cringe-worthy or if we try to make a movie where the government – because businessmen are often the real big snidely whiplashes who are always twirling their mustaches and it doesn’t make people cringe.
It seems that we have a cringe deficit in terms of trying to convey libertarian ideas without sounding too preachy and not having people just cringe of what we’re saying.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, and just to piggyback on that, I mean you notice this in – not just in the more didactic filmmaking that we’re engaged in as the Cato Institute and Libertarianism.org of the message we want to promote, but also in just general say Hollywood filmmaking. It always – it seems like the left is able to get away with producing more ideological stuff than libertarians or conservatives are, that when – you can watch a Hollywood movie that has an extremely leftist message and simply enjoy it as a movie.
But when it’s a libertarian or conservative message, that cringe-worthiness often comes out and is often – it’s a justified response on your part. Like, the film simply is more cringe-worthy. So why is that? Why does the left seem better at making non-cringe-worthy political stuff than we are?
John Papola: It’s a great question. It’s something I have thought about a lot. I think that – well, first – just before things get away if we don’t come back to it. Our team had put together as you know like five or six different unique ideas that were all intended to be something that you could repeat to tackle many different subjects from a classical liberal point of view. It was actually Max Borders, who’s one of the members of my team and really like a great philosopher and a thinker in his own right, that came up with the idea for Freedom on Trial.
Then we discussed. Well, should it be Freedom on Trial or should it be Government on Trial? So there’s a lot of – the process of just arriving at the idea as you got to experience with us is this big, broad exploration. Then the second half which is really like the 98 percent that matters in another sense is that – OK, you’ve got the two percent inspiration. How does the perspiration, how does the execution play out? Which is I think something that we’ve always tried our best as a company to do.
I think that’s the first part is I think that a lot of – I think that there’s a craftsmanship deficit creatively on the – god, I hate to say on the right. But I guess I will just say it. Like on the right. I don’t know why that is. I don’t know if it’s like genetic that there tends – you know, if you tend to be more creative and aesthetic, that your brain tends to be wired, maybe a little more collectivist. There’s something there.
There’s like a clear ideological delineation between creative fields versus more systematic fields like engineering and construction and other disciplines as far as the way people’s politics break down.
But I think one other like big picture is I think people in the political circles, especially that – you know, on the sort of free market or right of center so to speak have this notion that Hollywood is sort of driven by ideology. I actually don’t think that’s correct. I think there’s an ideological bias that’s like – like endogenous like I was just saying. But Hollywood just wants to make money. Hollywood is like Randian capitalism on steroids. It’s very transactional.
I mean you don’t have to look any further than the post-Passion of the Christ bout of Christian TV shows and movies that were suddenly all the rage. It’s – if it can find an audience, the business folks in Hollywood are going to make it.
So that leaves us with this question of, if it’s not sort of a systematic bias at the business level, it’s an aesthetic bias. I actually think we have a real challenge on our hands. Because what is our story? Our story is the invisible hand. Our story is trying to show the unseen. These are not easy things to point a camera at.
I mean one of the things about – there’s a sort of – if Mises’ Human Action is like a – is a canonical tome of classical liberalism, it has a corollary in the storytelling world, which is Robert McGee’s story. In that book, I mean it basically is the human action of storytelling. It says people’s character is revealed through action. It’s revealed through the choices they make. Not what they say. It’s what they do.
The problem we face is that dramatically, our stories are often not of the individual motivations and intentions of a person, but the actual like outcomes of systematic incentives, that actually like, as Milton Friedman would say, guide even bad people to do good things.
When you’re trying to tell a character story, people’s individual motivations matter. You judge the character. The goal is to have their personal character revealed. It’s like why the word “character” both means a person but also their nature, their moral nature.
I think that’s really hard when you’re trying to say, look, yes, this statement that we want to help poor people that are working live better. Well, I can do that by passing this law that tells these greedy, rich people to pay them more. That is – the intentions are there. So you can tell that story, that Mr. Smith goes to Washington story, of the reformer that takes on Capitol Hill. You know, the classic like – probably the best example would be the movie Dave where you’ve –
Trevor Burrus: I was just going to say Dave. Yes, this – I love that movie, but it is also just absolutely aggravating. But yeah, you wonder how you could tell that if it was a libertarian story.
Aaron Ross Powell: I made the crack at Trevor a while back that the reason – I adore The West Wing TV show, which is not a popular opinion I think among my colleagues.
Trevor Burrus: I do too.
Aaron Ross Powell: But I had remarked to Trevor that a libertarian West Wing wouldn’t work dramatically. It would be boring as hell because it would just be a president sitting in the oval office, saying, “Well, I’m not going to do anything about that.”
John Papola: That’s beyond the scope of what I am capable of doing. I don’t have the knowledge or incentives to do it.
Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.
John Papola: It’s like OK.
Aaron Ross Powell: What would that make for an exciting 45 minutes of television?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and in Dave, he – the big thing is when he proposes on employing –having the government give everyone a job and it’s just absolutely infuriating. But then you’re like, hey, it’s kind of endearing in its own way.
John Papola: Yeah, and I think that’s – it’s baked into character-driven storytelling that we care about the character’s motivation. We care about a real live person and what they do. So we have to somehow find a way to tell freedom stories that are about individual people’s character. I mean that was what we tried to accomplish with Freedom on Trial by presenting the impact of these two people and framing it around that.
It’s still very – it’s very, very difficult. I think there are some great movies that point towards ways of doing this. I think one of the best is Dallas Buyers Club.
Trevor Burrus: Agreed. That was my next question actually, which is, “What is your favorite libertarian movie?”
John Papola: Oh, my favorite libertarian movie is real easy. It’s Ghostbusters by a million miles. It is the most libertarian movie ever made. I don’t know if it’s just that like markets were – when they aired in the 80s. I mean I’m actually looking across my office right now at a framed LP of Ghostbusters and the complete like $500 worth of Legos set of the firehouse and the Ecto-1.
Trevor Burrus: Right. He’s really not kidding. I’m impressed you’re willing to admit that on the air. That is interesting. I’ve heard that Ghostbusters – and I agree with you. It’s interesting because I often say Dr. Strangelove is one of the great libertarian movies. But both of those movies are incidentally about freedom and markets and entrepreneurship or in the case of the Dr. Strangelove, the complete and utter idiocy of people in the government, which I think is important. It can be difficult to go out and intentionally try to make an ideologically-charged movie. But if you incidentally tell a story of freedom, then it might be a little bit more resonant. That’s also true of Dallas Buyers Club.
John Papola: I think it’s this – there’s the sort of dramatic structures of man versus man, man versus nature, man versus the system. I think that there’s a lot of great freedom storytelling to be told in the framework of man versus the system, which is what Dallas Buyers Club is. To some extent, with Ghostbusters, the bad guys are – it’s like it’s hard to tell who’s the bigger bad guy, the EPA regulator or the actual ghosts trying to destroy New York City, and he’s like the classic Adam Smith man of system, you know, Walter Peck.
Trevor Burrus: Yes. It is true. That man has no dick. Isn’t that the question? The famous line in the movie. Yeah, it is a great libertarian classic. But that’s the interesting thing about the challenge of Freedom on Trial. It’s obviously explicitly ideological to some degree. But you also have to tell a story that’s worth watching.
Aaron Ross Powell: With compelling characters.
John Papola: So I think it’s like you have to find ways of grounding – of staying at the ground level, at the level of human action, of people doing things. You have to let I think good storytelling – look, as a firm and as a storyteller, we don’t always get this right. But we try to actually put the story first on the basis that if you don’t have a good story, nobody is going to walk through the door.
So no matter how nicely you’ve set up the room, if they don’t walk through the door, it doesn’t matter. So the story has – and I think that’s – so I think there’s this class of didactic movies that are garbage and they do span the spectrum. Because of the sheer volume differences, there’s probably as many horrible left wing ideological screed movies as there are free market or right wing ones. The free market ones stand out to the extent of free market in fact at all, because of the success to failure ratio on the right is way different.
But I mean you take a movie like Elysium and you can argue about whether that – whether it’s really an analogy about immigration versus an analogy about economics and capitalism. But in that movie, it is horrible and it wears its ideology on its sleeve in a way that the prior film by that director, District 9, didn’t do.
Aaron Ross Powell: So where do we take Freedom on Trial from here? Do you have ideas for things you would like to explore in future episodes?
John Papola: Well, I think if the world of support for the projects comes to the table and is interested in there being more stories like this, I think what we try to do with the series and thinking of it as a pilot is set up a structure that’s repeatable in that they can take on so many different kinds of stories. I mean like you guys mentioned the legal advocacy groups like IJ or PLF and almost any story out of their docket is something that I think could make for a compelling case.
I think it would be interesting to take on the victims of the drug war and to really take on things that are less obviously on the political right. Like things that surround the criminal justice or immigration for that matter. I mean to take on this – some of the more populist issues that are soul-crushing as a libertarian in 2016. But I think there’s a kind of endless supply of human stories where the lawyers for liberty could make the case for a more individual freedom and autonomy.
Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed today’s show, please take a moment to rate us on iTunes. Free Thoughts if produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.