A friend of mine who is a Ghostbusters fanatic — the song was performed on his wedding day — once observed an overlooked theme in the 1980s classic.
“It’s a pretty libertarian movie,” he told me.
My friend is not a libertarian, mind you. But he was onto something.
The first time we get a glimpse of the theme in the movie is after the original three Ghostbusters—Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Akroyd), and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)—get fired by the university that employed them.
Dr. Raymond Stantz: This is a major disgrace—forget MIT or Stanford, now. They wouldn’t touch us with a ten-meter cattle prod.
Dr. Peter Venkman: You’re always concerned about your reputation. Einstein did his best stuff when he was working as a patent clerk.
Dr. Raymond Stantz: You know how much a patent clerk earns?
… Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities—we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college; you don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector…they expect results! (emphasis added)
Did you catch that? The university gave our hero scientists funds and a place to work, and they didn’t even have to produce anything — a sharp contrast to the private sector, which actually expects you to create value! (Earlier in the film, viewers see the little “science” Venkman is producing is pure rubbish.)
It gets even better, however. Later in the movie, after the Ghostbusters join the private sector, they actually start creating value by providing a service: trapping ghosts that are haunting people.
For a while, everything goes swimmingly. The Ghostbusters begin racking up so much business that they have to hire another Ghostbuster (Winston Zeddemore, played by Ernie Hudson) to help them handle all the work they’re getting. Their customers, meanwhile, are being rid of the pesky ghosts that are spooking them.
Things go awry, however, when a third party enters the story: the United States government.
“You Go Get a Court Order!’
Walter Peck is one of the most delicious villains of 80s cinema, ranking up there beside Johnny Lawrence (Karate Kid), Biff Tannen (Back to the Future), Judge Smails (Caddyshack), and Principal Ed Rooney (Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off).
Peck, played by William Atherton, is an inspector for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who arrives at Ghostbusters headquarters to learn more about the work they are doing.
He immediately encounters the wise-cracking Venkman, whom Peck refuses to call “doctor” even after Peter, in response to Peck’s question, points out he has degrees in parapsychology and psychology.
Viewers quickly get the sense that Peck is a smug know-it-all who doesn’t believe in ghosts. When Peck demands to see the facility where the ghosts are stored, Venkman asks why.
“Well, because I’m curious,” Peck testily responds. “I want to know more about what you do here! Frankly, there have been a lot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess for any possible environmental impact from your operation! For instance, the presence of noxious, possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement! Now you either show me what is down there, or I come back with a court order.”
Venkman, who clearly has more backbone than brains, tells Peck to get lost.
“You go get a court order! And I’ll sue your ass for wrongful prosecution,” he says.
‘I’m Not Interested in Your Opinion, Just Shut It Off’
Things don’t end there, of course. Peter’s quasi-girlfriend, Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) gets possessed by a demonic dog named Zuul. Her neighbor, Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), gets possessed by Vinz Clortho, the Keymaster of Gozer. And together they’re going to resurrect Gozer, a Sumerian god who was worshiped in Mesopotamia in 6,000 BC.
That’s bad news, but things get a lot worse when Walter Peck shows back up at Ghostbusters headquarters. He has his court order and is accompanied by an NYPD police officer and a utility worker.
Egon tries to defuse the situation, reminding Peck that he’s on private property. Peck doesn’t care. He tells the utility worker to turn off the storage facility, even though he has no idea what it is. Egon tries to stop him.
Egon: I’m warning you. Turning off these machines would be extremely hazardous.
Peck: No, I’ll tell you what’s hazardous. You’re facing federal prosecution for about a half dozen environmental violations. Now either you shut off these machines, or we’ll shut them off for you.
Egon: Try to understand, this is a high voltage laser containment system. Simply turning it off would be like dropping a bomb on the city.
Peck: Don’t patronize me. I’m not grotesquely stupid, like the people you’ve bilked!
At this point, Venkman arrives on the scene. He tells the police officer he’s “a partner in this facility and I’m going to cooperate in any way that I can.” Peck isn’t interested.
Peck: Forget it, Venkman. You had your chance to cooperate, but you thought it would be more fun to insult me. Well, now it’s my turn, wiseass.
Dr. Egon Spengler: He wants to shut down the protection grid, Peter.
Dr. Peter Venkman: [to Peck] You shut that thing down, and we are not going to be held responsible for whatever happens.
Walter Peck: Oh yes you will, I’ll make sure you will.
Peck clearly has no idea what the storage facility is, but he’s demanding it be shut down. Worse, he says he won’t be held responsible for whatever happens. The Ghostbusters will.
Peck, who tells the police officer he can shoot Venkman if he tries to get in the way, is given one last chance to avoid causing a catastrophe when the utility man tells him maybe they should listen to the people who, you know, actually designed the system.
Con Edison Man: I, I’ve never seen anything like this before. I’m not sure…
Walter Peck: [interrupting] I’m not interested in your opinion, just shut it off.
Ghostbusters and the Use of Knowledge in Society
The utility man does as he’s told—and of course all hell breaks loose. But notice who actually made the decision.
It wasn’t the scientists who built the ghost storage facility. It wasn’t the utility worker, who at least had some knowledge of power systems. It was the government bureaucrat who knew absolutely nothing about the system.
Ghostbusters is just a movie, but the scene demonstrates a very real-world problem, one the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich A. Hayek described in his 1945 work The Use of Knowledge in Society.
Hayek understood that rational economic planning required virtually infinite amounts of data that were dispersed among many individuals. Because these data were so widely distributed and so vast, it was impossible for any single central authority to obtain this knowledge, which is highly localized.
For this reason, Hayek argued economic decision-making should be left to individual actors with local knowledge, not central planning authorities working with incomplete or erroneous knowledge.
“If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them,” Hayek wrote.
Unfortunately, Hayek saw, modern society was increasingly doing the opposite: delegating economic decision-making to state planners and bureaucrats—people like Walter Peck.
The results in the real world have proven just as dismal — indeed catastrophic — as in Ghostbusters. Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Stalin’s Five Year Plan, and most recently the effort of governments around the world attempting to “manage” the COVID-19 virus through central planning are all examples of statists using incomplete knowledge (and the iron fist of government) to replace the plans of individuals with their own sweeping plan.
In the end, the Ghostbusters are able to save the city from the catastrophe the meddling EPA created. But the film is nevertheless a hilarious cautionary tale on what happens when we empower clueless bureaucrats instead of individuals with local knowledge.