I’ve talked before how certain ideas or lessons in economics can be found in works of fiction, such as how Bryan Caplan’s idea of rational irrationality was illustrated in an episode of House, M.D. It turns out there are a few different ideas illustrated in Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22.

For those who haven’t read the book, the story of Catch-22 is about an American military pilot in World War II named Yossarian. He wants to get out of fighting, on the grounds that every time he flies a mission, people on the other side try to kill him. He tries every trick he can think of to game the system to avoid flying more missions, and often argues with his superiors in favor of being relieved of duty. 

In doing this, Yossarian illustrates a classic free-rider problem in economics. Free-rider problems can occur when an activity depends on a collective effort to which nobody in particular has an incentive to contribute. The author makes it clear that Yossarian is fully aware of the free-rider problem, and that Yossarian simply doesn’t care – he thoroughly owns his position and feels no shame in it. This is shown in a bit of dialogue where Yossarian is arguing with one of his superiors, who asks if Yossarian simply wants America to lose the war, leading to the following exchange:

“We won’t lose. We’ve got more men, more money, and more material. There are ten million people in uniform who could replace me. Some people are getting killed and a lot more are making money and having fun. Let somebody else get killed.”

“But suppose everybody on our side felt that way.” 

“Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

And this is exactly what creates a free-rider problem. If everybody else is willing to fight, Yossarian’s best move is to avoid the conflict and let others do the fighting. If nobody else is willing to fight, then Yossarian’s best move is still to avoid the conflict, because he’d be the only one doing the fighting. 

(It’s worth pointing out that regarding war, the free-rider problem is really only a “problem” if the war in question is both just and necessary. In the case of a war that is unjust or unnecessary, the free-rider problem would actually be a free-rider solution!)

Another important economic point is illustrated in the backstory of the officer Yossarian argues with in the above bit of dialogue, a man whose first, middle, and last names are all Major. Upon joining the Army, he is immediately promoted to the rank of Major, making his full rank and name out to Major Major Major Major. His father was determined to give him this name entirely for his own amusement. The author tells us, “A lesser man might have wavered that day in the hospital corridor, a weaker man might have compromised on such excellent substitutes as Drum Major, Minor Major, Sergeant Major, or C Sharp Major, but Major Major’s father had waited fourteen years for just such an opportunity, and he was not going to waste it.” 

But the economically relevant point made by Major Major’s father is not about his keen sense of branding. Instead, Major Major’s father illustrates the often-overlooked idea that contrary to popular belief, businessmen are not dedicated supporters of capitalism. They are, at best, asymmetric supporters of capitalism, wanting capitalism and competition for everyone else, and socialism and protectionism for themselves. Major Major’s father, a farmer, was very much an example of this in action:

Major Major’s father was a sober God-fearing man whose idea of a good joke was to lie about his age. He was a long-limbed farmer, a God-fearing, freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism.

Major Major’s father also illustrated another important point in economics. Subsidizing something leads to more of that something. And when you subsidize idleness or wasteful behavior, you get more of that too. Major Major’s father just so happened to benefit from a government program that paid people to not grow food crops. Major Major’s father was very responsive to the incentives created by this program:

His specialty was alfalfa, and he made a good thing out of not growing any. The government paid him well for every bushel of alfalfa he did not grow. The more alfalfa he did not grow, the more money the government gave him, and he spent every penny he didn’t earn on new land to increase the amount of alfalfa he did not produce. Major Major’s father worked without rest at not growing alfalfa. On long winter evenings he remained indoors and did not mend harness, and he sprang out of bed at the crack of noon every day just to make sure the chores would not be done. He invested in land wisely and soon was not growing more alfalfa than any other man in the country…Major Major’s father was an outspoken champion of economy in government, provided it did not interfere with the sacred duty of government to pay farmers as much as they could get for all the alfalfa they had produced that no one else wanted or for not producing any alfalfa at all.

The last point relevant to economics I’ll be bringing up is when Yossarian is grousing at everything he thinks is wrong with the world. In his tirade, he insists that God did a sloppy job of making such a broken world, asking “Why in the world did He ever create pain?” When he’s told pain is useful because it warns us of bodily damage, he retorts with the following:

Oh, He was really being charitable to us when He gave us pain! Why couldn’t He have used a doorbell instead to notify us, or one of His celestial choirs? Or a system of blue-and-red neon tubes right out of the middle of each person’s forehead. Any jukebox manufacturer worth his salt could have done that. Why couldn’t He?

Yossarian is missing an important point about pain, which is related to an important point about prices. Pain and prices are both conveyers of information – of bodily damage in one case, and of relative supply and demand for some commodity in another case (at least, when prices are allowed to adjust freely). But they both do more than merely provide information – they also provide an incentive to act on that information. Simply knowing something isn’t enough to create an incentive to respond to it. When price controls created gas shortages in the 1970s, it’s not as though the shortage of gas was something people were somehow unaware of – the long lines people would sit in for hours waiting for a chance to get some gas was a pretty good indicator. But, in the absence price adjustments, merely knowing there was a gas shortage wasn’t enough to meaningfully change people’s behavior. Price spikes can be painful, but they create the necessary incentive for producers to make more of something and for consumers to cut back on their use of it. An economy without price spikes would be like a body without pain – seemingly beneficial in the very narrow, very short run, and endlessly deteriorating in the long run.