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Simulating Statism

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Tags Media and CultureTaxes and Spending

03/01/2000Timothy D. Terrell

The Free Market 18, no. 3 (March 2000)


Statism has so permeated our culture that even the games we play reflect the popular belief in omnipotent government. For example, one of the most successful computer games of all time is the SimCity series, which requires the player to plan a city in exhaustive detail from uninhabited terrain. Over five million copies of the game have been sold, and each version to date has reflected a government-centered view of the world.

The latest version of the game, SimCity 3000, takes graphics to new highs and municipal statism to new lows. As in previous versions, the player dictator is required to use tax revenues or bonds to build critical parts of a growing city. An astonishing array of products and activities - roads, mass transit, electric utilities, water systems, airports, seaports, fire protection, police, hospitals, schools, colleges, museums, libraries, stadiums, parks, and zoning - all fall within the purview of the "mayor." The latest version adds solid waste disposal and pollution reduction to the myriad obligations of municipal government. A malevolent player can even bring down natural disasters on the hapless citizens, rounding out the list of god-like authorities and powers.

Building infrastructure, zoning, and imposing various regulations and social programs induces immigration and development in the zoned acreage. The game' s simulator factors in population density, commuting distance, crime, land value, water supplies, school systems, pollution, and a host of other variables before generating buildings for zoned sites. The government plans; the citizens dutifully react.

The equations for the simulator must have been devised by faithful socialist planners. The fatal problems of interventionism and socialist economic calculation are ignored. For example, city parks enhance land value in surrounding areas instead of becoming centers of crime and depravity as they do in the real world. Tax-funded homeless shelters, public entertainment, and command-and-control regulation tend to produce positive outcomes for cities. Private schools, churches, and charities are completely out of the picture as participants in the social order; everything important has civil government as a reference point if not a funding source. In fact, nothing happens in the game until the government spends money. In keeping with the assumptions of socialist planners, the simulator treats residents as though they are sheep, virtually incapable of new ideas of their own and in desperate need of being shepherded and corralled.

It did not seem to occur to the game' s designers that the functions they impute to municipal government can be handled by a free market (and with much greater success). Turning over fire protection, garbage disposal, education, medical care, or road management to private providers is apparently beyond their imagination. Yet the same company schizophrenically produced a similar game, SimTower, which requires private capital owners to allocate vast quantities of critical resources.

At least overtaxed, overregulated residents of SimCity can still vote with their feet. A particularly tyrannical mayor will observe citizens fleeing to neighboring towns while deserted buildings appear on the screen. This is, in fact, one of the more realistic aspects of SimCity. As long as it is easy for oppressed residents to flee, they will do so. That is one reason so many statists dream of federal taxes and regulation rather than the municipal or state equivalent. Because it is much more difficult to emigrate from a country than to leave a city or state, federal taxes and regulation can be far more oppressive before causing an exodus. If regulation to prevent urban sprawl produces refugees when enacted at the local level, it will be attempted at the federal level. If local taxes cause residents and businesses to leave for a neighboring town, then local governments will let the federal government exact most tax revenue and clamor for grants or transfers.

It would not be difficult to modify the game to substitute entrepreneurial planning for government scheming. Of course, no computer can ever come close to simulating the dynamic, complex environment in which entrepreneurs operate. As Mises demonstrated, humans do not act according to fixed equations, and computers cannot simulate the role of ideas in an economy. Yet, even with these limitations, such a game could be a useful educational tool illustrating the difficulty and rewards of entrepreneurship. SimCity 3000's designers recognize the educational potential of such games the associated Internet site ( /3000) contains a teacher' s guide for the instruction of aspiring statist planners in middle schools and high schools.

We cannot lay all the blame for statist games at the feet of the software designers, however. Most game buyers assume that transportation, utilities, zoning, and city stadiums are the responsibility of civil government. As game software is bought primarily for entertainment, not education, we cannot expect software firms to sacrifice profits by contradicting commonly held ideas. Our games therefore reflect the increasing statism of our society.

This has not always been the case. The ever-popular Monopoly board game includes virtually no government each player acts as a member of the business community and not as an autocrat. Every aspect of the 66-year-old game is dependent upon private contract, entrepreneurial decisions, and the uncertainty of the roll of the dice. Only the chance of being arbitrarily thrown in jail hints at the presence of government. Water, electricity, and railroads are all privately provided. The Monopoly game is economically unsophisticated and imperfectly simulates the effects of its namesake market structure the market is not a zero-sum game but it at least reflects an entrepreneur-centered view of the world.

Until a freedom-minded software developer comes up with an entertaining, entrepreneur-centered urban simulator, we must suffer the insult to sound economics when playing SimCity. Perhaps such a game could even help reverse the trend of municipal statism.


Timothy D. Terrell is assistant professor of economics at Liberty University and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute. Further Readings: Walter Block, "Congestion and Road Pricing," Journal of Libertarian Studies 4, no. 3 (1980): 299- 300; Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar's Edition (Auburn, Ala.:Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998), pp. 11-29, 691-93; Murray N. Rothbard, "The Fallacy of the- Public Sector," in The Logic of Action Two (Cheltenham, U.K.:Edward Elgar, 1997), pp. 171- 179.


Contact Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is a Senior Fellow of the Mises Institute.

Cite This Article

Terrell, Timothy D. "Simulating Statism." The Free Market 18, no. 3 (March 2000).

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