Garrett Baldwin’s The Man with the Big Red Balloon is a master work of political fiction. An economic allegory that evokes the flaws and ambitions of those who seek power through authority rather than through purposeful productivity or individual achievement.
Modern Trader readers know of Baldwin’s long-form feature work since the 2015 introduction of our magazine’s new look, name and feel.
Having read his first published novel, I have to step back and marvel at this powerful story, which took five years of his life to bring to publication.
Part Hayekian economics lesson, part dark comedy, The Man with the Big Red Balloon is a timeless fable about the struggle between those seeking power and those seeking truth and liberty. After 50 farmers escape a tyrant in a distant nation, they settle upon an untouched land ripe with apple trees stretching beyond the horizon. From nothing, the townspeople build businesses, establish trade and create a financial Xanadu, unshackled from the arbitrary bureaucracy of their former tyrannical king.
As the town expands, business disagreements arise. But farmers address them civilly and without the consent of rulers. Until a man named Arlo Greydon arrives. Greydon is obsessed with “fairness.” He argues that every farmer should have the same amount of money, the same amount of food, even the same amount of windows on their homes. It is here where the book kicks into satirical warning about those demanding socialistic sacrifice from the more productive to make everything “fair.” Once Greydon’s charismatic charm and oratorical gifts enable him to assume power, the real problems begin.
Nepotism, influence-peddling, regulatory creep and corruption follow. New self-appointed leaders earn huge salaries on the backs of farmers — all in the name of “fairness.” Once corruption is discovered, the town must hold a vote. Do they elect a man who will return them to a decentralized system that historically worked or prop up the corrupted official Greydon, who is an ultimate insider. Again, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Senate race in 2016 or a Senate race in Ancient Rome, humanity has a way of repeating its flaws.
It is during this vote that the true antagonist arrives – a stranger who distracts citizens from the real purpose of the election. The Man, using a big red balloon, convinces voters that a major crisis has arrived. He warns that if they don’t vote for the Greydon, the city will run out of fresh air.
What follows is a blistering narrative about big government and regulatory encroachment. It exposes how career politicians manufacture or stoke crises to maintain power. How illogical coalitions formulate in self-interest. And most of all – how political messaging aims to denounce, demonize and destroy those seeking truth. It’s an enjoyable burn, one that leads to a surprising twist and a head-nodding climax that ignites personal reflection.
Some key messages aren’t necessarily new. American Hero (and its film adaptation Wag the Dog) tells a story about a manufactured crisis to preserve power. Animal Farm taps into the hypocrisy of leaders who say one thing and do the other. And The Road to Serfdom – easily my favorite book on the dangers of centralized planning – provides a deeper understanding of how economic freedom evaporates in society.
The Man with the Big Red Balloon achieves those messages in one fictional narrative, and offers an even more compelling lesson: How those seeking power can easily exploit the goals of “the common good” to consolidate power and wealth. You need look no further than Nicolas Maduro’s leadership in Venezuela to see life imitate art. But many of you will find enough parallels here at home.
Most enjoyable is the writing itself. Colorful characters fill the narrative and embody the main actors in our headlines. Whether it’s the shrill councilwoman Priceless Pickett – an amalgam of Hollywood’s climate change hypocrites – or Jasper Ames, the town’s newspaper reporter who fails as miserably as today’s fourth estate in calling truth to power – the story parallels human history. Perhaps that’s the greatest charm: This story will remain eternal as it shows the cyclical nature of how free nations rise and fall – and that it is human decisions, not a faceless bureaucracy – that are responsible.
I began reading Orwell, Hayek and Rand in high school and have returned to them throughout the years. This book will become required reading for my two young teens. It is never too early to learn about the consequences of lost liberty and the ugly dark side of unbridled lust for power.
As Orwell reminds us, “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.”