The creators of Ghostbusters did not set out to create a political movie. Which is odd. Watching the film from a certain mindset, it is undeniably political throughout. Perhaps it has gone unnoticed as the politics of Ghostbusters fall out of the standard political binary of the American left/right spectrum and instead belong squarely in the camp of libertarianism. In fact, a simple description of the plot works almost as a libertarian’s wet dream: A group of academics are kicked out of academia, start their own business, and must then save the world when the government is incapable.
For those who are unfamiliar with the philosophy, the super quick, unnuanced description is that libertarians are socially liberal but politically conservative. They believe in truly free markets and the power of the individuals over the public sector. The reasoning is intuitive when one thinks it through. In the private sector, if a program starts to fail, people lose jobs, things get changed, and, in the worst case scenario, companies go out of business when they’ve outlived their use. In the public sector, no one loses their jobs. Maybe a failing program eventually gets shut down, but not before more money is thrown at the problem in an attempt to get it to work. What this all comes back to is that failure is always a possibility in the private sector, and rarely one in the public sector. Thus, in an ideal libertarian world, there should be as little outside interference from government as possible. There should be very little regulation, low taxes, and absolutely no cronyism.
With that love of the private is sector, however, also comes a belief in the amazing abilities of the individual. It is not God that discovered Newton’s Three Laws, after all, but an individual scientist. Man created the wheel, the steam engine, and the iPhone, and man is capable of so much more than we know. It is not to say that there are not religious libertarians, but when given the choice between exulting man or exulting God, the nature of the philosophy means that man will be lifted up.
But enough about the real world. Let us touch upon why Ghostbusters is exclusively libertarian. After all, the earlier summary could come off as a description of a good conservative movie too. The distinction between conservatism and libertarianism comes in the role that religion plays throughout Ghostbusters. To be more exact: the lack of a role that religion plays during the movie. Unlike how a conservative film would approach supernatural themes, Ghostbusters is staunchly humanistic, in line with libertarian ideals. The scientists are able to defeat the supernatural not by using mystical powers granted to them by God to defeat their foes. Instead they use technology to ultimately defeat (a) God. Man defeats God, and there are no negative consequences to man*. Sitting inside Ecto-1, Winston and Ray actually have a discussion where they wonder if these ghosts are omens of a real biblical apocalypse. This, of course, just reinforces the fact that when the team overcomes the God they fight, it is man overcoming God without the help of God.
This is all the more startling taken in context, as all things must be. This was the 1980s. The rise of Reaganism, the Moral Majority, and the Religious Right as a political force. In a time where the country was becoming more religious, or at least acting outwardly more so, this movie went the other way and proclaimed the glory of man over God.
Returning back to the start of the movie, the plot gets started with a standard libertarian observation in Ray Stantz’s statement “I’ve worked in the private sector, they expect results”. Though the viewer is not entirely sure how long they scientists have been working for the university doing their research that has, up until the very start of the movie, revealed absolutely nothing for years. Not only that it can safely be assumed that they were wasting the university’s money while doing so. This complete waste could almost act as a joke in libertarian circles about how colleges waste money on dumb research that often yields no, or biased results. Thus now that the founders must go into the private sector they are going to be found accountable for their success and failures. Stantz is terrified at the thought. It is now on them to start a business, be successful and deal with obnoxious government regulations.
Walter Peck and the role he plays in Ghostbusters is an overbearing obnoxious version of a major complaint that libertarians have about the government: that the government in their zealous attempts to protect everyone stifles innovation with overregulation. Let’s get one thing out of the way, aside from the most ardent anarcho-capitalist libertarian, anyone can admit that Peck probably has a point given that it’s an unlicensed nuclear reactor in the basement.
That’s not the point though because what matters is not Peck’s specific complaint. It matters that here is a business that is successful. It is helpful. It provides a necessary service to society, yet here is some know-nothing government bureaucrat, that without warning, is shutting down the business regardless of the consequences. Ask nearly any small business owner and they can regale you with tales of how the red tape that ultimately does nobody any good aside from providing government jobs and getting in the way of their ability to affordably do their jobs. The day is only able to be saved once the mayor of New York puts Peck in his place and allows the team to do their jobs.
The climax, pardon the pun, is libertarian porn. The government has, once again, no clue how to save the day. It has no choice but to turn to private enterprise. This is reflected in the real world. Much as the government would like to do more about world hunger, the greatest innovations in saving people’s lives have been through GMOs that have dramatically increased yields on food throughout the world which allows for both cheaper and more plentiful food (feel free to disagree in the comments). Where the government fails, private enterprise succeeds.
Ghostbusters is a masterful comedy with an unmistakable libertarian edge. Throughout the entire film, we are shown the virtues of humanism and private enterprise in the face of adversity. It cannot be conservative due to the fact that it rejects the positive religious message that would be required for it to fall into that political philosophy. At the same time, there is absolutely nothing about the film that is liberal, unless you’re talking about the phrase in the classical sense. Instead the politics of Ghostbusters are proudly and outwardly libertarian start to finish.
*The great sin of the sequel is how it undermines the message of the first film. In Ghostbusters, Gozer is defeated purely using technology developed by man. In Ghostbusters 2 the team is unable to beat Viggo the Carpathian using this technology. Instead they’re forced to use the pink ooze, God’s power if you will, to kill Viggo. Thus while the original Ghostbusters is about man not needing God to defeat the supernatural, the sequel actually becomes about how man actually does need to rely on powers greater than their own to beat their foes.