Many view Netflix blockbuster Squid Game as an indictment of capitalism, with people choosing to kill and bear terrible survival odds in the single-minded pursuit of money. Yet, a closer look at the nine-episode series reveals many reasons to embrace capitalism, which remains the best system we have for organizing the economy.
Squid Game’s director, Hwang Dong-hyuk, explicitly described the show as a “fable about modern capitalist society”. Many of Squid Game’s elements correspond to what people commonly associate with capitalism: being in debt due to the pressure of keeping up with the Joneses; extreme inequality in power and income; having your morals corrupted by money, and having to degrade yourself out of economic desperation.
These claims reflect deep misconceptions regarding capitalism. One of the most fundamental omissions is the central and positive role that competition plays in a capitalist society. The reason you can buy the food that is essential to your life for such a low price is competition, and it is the reason why the profit margins are so low on many critical goods and services you purchase – cars, internet data, pens, laptops, etc.
Yet in Squid Game, the only competition is between members of the underclass, whereas the elite are totally entrenched and face no pressure. A permanent, monolithic monopoly is the exact opposite of capitalism. In the real world, even those that illicitly amass market power, such as Microsoft or Facebook, face considerable competitive pressures that prevent the sort of exploitation we see in Squid Game.
Capitalism is also synonymous with innovation and dynamism, yet Squid Game is about a game that hasn’t changed in 40 years, because the organizer doesn’t need to change anything. If anyone – contestants or guards – steps out of line by an inch, they face severe punishment, destroying any incentive to try something new. Modern capitalism is about perpetually vying to produce better products and services, because in the presence of competition, that’s the only way to realize higher profits.
In fact, the notion that you are not allowed to leave Squid Game upon entry is a historical feature of socialist and communist societies, not capitalist ones. Whether it’s the USSR and Eastern Europe in the 20th century, or Cuba and North Korea today, it is left-wing totalitarianism that literally imprisons you, not capitalism.
Squid Game’s extreme inequality, slaughter, mutual suspicion, and general terrorism are all straight out of the playbook of a left-wing dictatorship. The historical data on deaths from famines and internal oppression are unequivocal in demonstrating that capitalism is more desirable than socialism.
That’s not to say that capitalism is perfect – it has many flaws, and governments play a critical role in addressing them, such as by breaking up illicit monopolies, or using taxes to tackle inequality. But even in its worst form, capitalism is the lessor of two evils.
Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Montesquieu and other philosophers of the European Enlightenment – a period celebrated by left-leaning intellectuals – argue that the commerce and exchange facilitated by capitalism leads to people being nicer to one another; whereas the tyranny, expropriation, and restrictions associated with socialist systems breeds mistrust and misery.
This sentiment is reflected in Squid Game, as the limited space that the contestants are offered – which is to make teams of their own volition and to trade favors with whomever they want – leads to the formation of friendships that soothe their dystopian pain. It is completely appropriate that after joining the hero’s team, the North Korean defector, Kang Sae-byeok, finally overcomes her communism-induced misanthropy by engaging in the sort of positive reciprocity that capitalism engenders.
Ironically, the success of Squid Game is a perfect illustration of capitalism working properly. Netflix burst on to the scene during the early 2000s by disrupting the stagnant video rentals market via its DVD mail service. It correctly anticipated that its success would be short-lived due to the proliferation of broadband internet, and so it continued to innovate by developing an excellent streaming service.
Competition from other streaming services forced it to develop its own content, giving a global platform for shows like Squid Game that would normally have never left their own market. The talented team involved in making the show now have the resources to make newer, better ones, with many of those resources being reallocated away from studios that have run out of ideas and who make shows that nobody wants to watch.
Like many pieces of art, each viewer takes their own personal lessons from Squid Game. While many may initially think that Squid Game reinforces their distaste for capitalism, a better understanding of capitalism – and of the horror of its alternatives – should make viewers more sympathetic.