The Princess Bride, in addition to being one of the great satires of the late 80s, with some of the most quotable dialogue ever written, also happens to include some great examples of applied economics. Perhaps the most famous is a game theory analysis of the Battle of Wits between the Man in Black and Vizzini the Sicilian (Worth a watch). However, the most interesting question to ask about the film is what can Prince Humperdinck teach us about public decision making and the relationship between political rights and economics?

Yet another villain with a hardworking stylist

At the outset, he proposes to marry Buttercup, a beautiful commoner, to secure the support of the people of Florin. However, as we learn from a conversation with Count Rugen, he plans to murder his fiancé to start a war with Guilder, Florin’s sworn enemy.

This is interesting, because, while Humperdinck is a megalomaniac, he still recognises the role of the public in decision making. This would seem at odds with his reputation as a tyrant. The more interesting question is what are the consequences of this for the people of Florin. A common view is that this paternalistic form of government is good for economic development. As Lee Kuan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, famously said, “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development”[1]. This would suggest that the Prince’s ruthless pragmatism would provide support for the economic development of Florin. However, given his role as pantomime villain complete with a moustache twirling sidekick, it seems unlikely that benevolent rule is his goal. In fact, the incentives faced by a monarch would appear to encourage literal empire building. However, in an economic sense this can refer to the growth of a business or government department beyond the efficient level. Typically, there are incentives for a manager or, in this case ruler, to equalise the total benefit of a decision to the total costs, a terrifying thought for any economics student. Luckily, there is significant research dedicated to studying the impact of politics on economic development.

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The Niskanen Model of Bureaucracy

Amartya Sen, winner of a Nobel prize for Economics, writes extensively on the role of political rights and public choice in economic development. One of his most provocative statements was that “[famines] have never materialised in any country that is independent, goes to elections regularly, that has opposition parties to voice criticisms”[2]. Sen highlights the importance of political rights in preventing and responding to major disasters, like famines. Notably, some of work focuses on the Bengal Famine during the 1940s, where autocratic imperial rule exacerbated a decrease in food production and caused one of the worst famines of the last century. What does this have to do with the Princess Bride and Prince Humperdinck’s plan to invade a foreign country on false pretences?

While Sen isn’t arguing for democratic peace theory, he does suggest that functioning political rights put a greater focus on the economic welfare of society, rather than the egos of their leaders. Ultimately, while Humperdinck’s motivations are cartoonish, we can see that there are clear parallels to contemporary authoritarian regimes. For example, Hungary has used George Soros as a bogeyman to drive the Central Europe University from the country. A move that is likely to have a negative long-run economic impact[3]. This is evidence of economic priorities being secondary once political rights begin to erode.  While there isn’t a robust association between economic growth and different forms of government, Sen does argue through his capability approach to development that it is sometimes only possible to understand deprivation through the lens of public discussion[4].

There are of course, issues with this view, such as the fact that malnutrition is still rife within parts of India. However, arguments against expanding political rights tends to rely on the assumption that they are opposed to economic development rather than complimentary[5]. While it isn’t known if Amartya Sen has seen the Princess Bride, it seems not inconceivable that he would view it as the perfect example of perverse economic incentives leading to a distorted prioritisation of economic resources.

The moral of the story is that for economics students worried about job prospects, Hollywood is always an option.

-Zach Hayward


[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/03/23/what-lee-kuan-yew-got-wrong-about-asia/?utm_term=.cb4b15c9fbf0

[2] Development as Freedom 1999

[3] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/opinion-soros-hungary-orban-authoritarian-trump_n_5bdc8a25e4b01ffb1d020f04

[4] Development as Freedom 1999

[5] The Idea of Justice

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