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Frank Underwood’s Top 3 Lessons for the Voting Public | House of Cards Review

Netflix recently debuted season two of its original series House of Cards. Some have suggested the show reflects a deeply cynical view of politics, but Prof. Steve Horwitz argues that it is an unromantic and realistic portrayal of how the incentives politicians have in the United States can give rise to the same kind of behaviors Congressman Frank Underwood exemplifies. Prof. Horwitz also describes three lessons viewers of House of Cards can gain from the show.

  1. As a general principle, we should be very skeptical of politicians.
  2. House of Cards shows the constant backroom trading of favors among politicians, their staffers, special interests, and the occasional member of the public.
  3. Politics attracts those who are especially skilled at public relations, favor trading, and power plays, not necessarily those who best serve the public interest.

It is important to remember that politicians are just normal people seeking their own personal self-interest over anything else. If we do not have a limited government designed to keep selfish motives in check, Frank Underwood–style politics will rule the day. If we want to keep ruthless and power-hungry people from ruling our country, we need to change the incentives politicians have and reduce their power. Prof. Horwitz says, “We need a more limited government without the possibility of dealing with these kinds of special favors.” How realistic do you think the political portrait in House of Cards is? What, if anything, do you think should be done to change the political system in the United States today?

Learn More:


What Psychopaths Teach Us about How to Succeed [article]: An article on the psychological commonalities between serial killers and politicians


Hayek Was Right: The Worst Do Get to the Top [article]: Lawrence Reed revisits F.A. Hayek's most infamous assertion about democracy


Introduction to Public Choice Theory [article]: A beginner's guide to a foundational theory in libertarian political science


Rent Seeking [article]: David R. Henderson outlines the basics of one type of behavior that does much to undermine democracy


America's Bipartisan Political Class [article]: The Cato Institute's Doug Bandow on how to look at class structure beyond the simplistic Marxian "bourgeois vs proletariat" lens

Frank Underwood's Top 3 Lessons for the Voting Public | House of Cards Review

In a world where politicians will do almost anything to punish their political enemies, from closing down lanes of bridge traffic to turning loose the IRS, Netflix’s series House of Cards and its tale of the ruthless and ambitious congressman Frank Underwood straddles the line between fiction and reality. Here are the top three lessons to help you better understand the much anticipated second season of House of Cards.

Number one, as a general principle, we should be very skeptical of politicians. After all, the motives of people who desire to rule others should be regarded suspiciously. The series presents politicians as no different from any other human being in their desire to satisfy their own interests first. For example, Frank was passed over for the Secretary of State position he was led to believe would be his, and sets his plan in motion to essentially get revenge and higher office. House of Cards is a strong realistic alternative to the romantic view of politics so often seen in the media.

Number two, House of Cards shows the constant backroom trading of favors among the politicians, their staffers, special interests, and, occasionally, the public. Politics is yet another way in which people try to make themselves better off through exchange. Take Peter Russo for instance. Frank saves Russo from the cops, who busted him for DUI and solicitation, and now Russo is effectively Frank's pawn. He encourages Russo to flip-flop on the shipyards that employ his constituents in order to promote a green project for the Underwoods' own goals, with only a fig leaf of public interest. Unlike the market, where mutually beneficial exchanges tend to produce unintended benefits for society, the consequences of political exchange are often harmful.

Number three, politics attracts those who are especially skilled at public relations, favor trading, and power plays, not necessarily those who best affirm the public interest. Where the object is to manipulate other people into doing your bidding and to look good publicly while doing it, those who have a comparative advantage in wielding this ugly form of power will rise to high office.

As the economist F. A. Hayek put it in his book The Road to Serfdom, this is why the worst get on top. If we want to prevent more Frank Underwoods from climbing the political ladder, we need to change the incentives of politics in order to reduce the power of politicians. We need a more limited government without the possibility of dealing with these kinds of special favors.

Though some might call House of Cards deeply cynical, it’s better described as an unromantic and realistic view of politics, and one that finds support in political and economic theory. You can learn more about this in our interactive Learn Liberty Academy taught by yours truly and fueled by passionate Facebook discussions and riveting content. And we might even be able to provide you with some ideas on what you can do about the problems raised in House of Cards. Please register now.

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