On my recent trek between Virginia and Massachusetts (and back), I listened to an audio version of the book Bioshock: Rapture by John Shirley (If you’re looking for something light to take your mind off of things, this is a good book). The book details the rise and fall of Rapture, a massive underwater city built by Andrew Ryan (a not so subtle jab at Ayn Rand) to escape the “parasitic” governments of the world and build a society dedicated to freedom and free markets. While the initial goal of Rapture may have been freedom and free markets, as the novel (and the video game that the novel is based on) details, Rapture becomes a totalitarian police state with an extremely wealthy (and often sadistic) upper class, and extremely poor low class, and no one in between. Some see Bioshock as a refutation of Randian philosophy, however, I will not address that here as I am no expert in Ayn Rand (for an excellent discussion, see The Value of Art in Bioshock: Ayn Rand, Emotion, and Choice by Jason Rose). I’ll leave that to people far smarter than I. Rather, I want to address the economic situation of Rapture and discuss, briefly, how that contributed to the downfall.
A few quick disclaimers before I begin:
- As far as I know, Bioshock: Rapture is not canonical. However, it is the only detailed source I can find thus far on the days of Rapture that take place before the video game (which is canon) so I will operate on the assumption that my source material is canonical knowing full well everything I write here could become completely worthless insofar as discussing canonical information (the lessons gleaned from this book are still important, however).
- Nothing in this essay should be taken as implying the rise or fall of Rapture is purely economic. There are many other factors involved (social, political, medical, psychological, etc). I skip or gloss over these not because I think they are unimportant (quite the opposite, really), but because I simply lack the expertise to discuss them with any confidence.
- I will be avoiding using direct quotes in this version of this essay. The reason for this is simple: I have the audio book, not the book itself. I can’t easily do verbatim quotes and attribute them to proper pages for citations. Therefore, the reader should be aware that I am doing this partly out of memory (although I did scribble some notes) and further the reader should assume that whenever I describe what’s happening in Rapture, that is a reference to the work of Mr. Shirley. The only original material will be my analysis. Any inaccuracies, either to details or analysis, belong to me and me alone.
The short version of what follows: Rapture cannot be classified in any meaningful sense as a “free market.” It suffers from several deficiencies that prevent us from labeling Rapture as a free market: lack of property rights, lack of free trade (autarky), lack of labor mobility (autarky in the labor market), rejection of altruism, widespread and institutionalized fraud (this issue is speculative based off of interviews with characters within the book but not substantiated by details), and censorship (indirect at first, but more direct later). In Andrew Ryan’s Rapture, “free market” and “laissez-faire” were not much more than dishonored buzzwords. It can best be described, in the words of James Buchanan, as “moral anarchy,” (see Moral Science and Moral Order, especially page 190 and Limits of Liberty, especially Chapter 7). These factors, coupled with other psychological, social, and other factors, lead to the decline, civil war, and eventual fall of Rapture. Continue reading