Love Island: the epitome of mindlessness and moral bankruptcy in a decadent society, or a living symbol of the case for economic liberalism?
Now, Love Island already exemplifies liberalism because only in the most liberal of societies would such a programme be allowed (although the Romans might have enjoyed the sex, they would surely have expected more gladiatorial combat, or at the least the dumped islanders to be fed to the lions). Indeed, the show celebrates the liberal values of the sexual revolution, the luxury lifestyles of capitalism, and the inherent liberalism of participatory democracy.
But those arguments are too easy. What’s been overlooked for too long is that, through a one-to-one semiotic mapping, one can demonstrate exact analogues between the components of Love Island and the characteristics of an ideal market, the existence of which is the fundamental basis of economic liberalism. As Love Island triumphs in the television ratings battle, we can interpret its success as making the undisputed case for a classically liberal approach to economics.
What are the characteristics of an ideal market? We require a large number of traders, none of which have market power, with perfect information about the market, all of which are freely able to enter into or refuse trades with each other. We might add to this that we wish minimal state interference beyond an effective competition enforcer to prevent abuse of market power.
So how does Love Island stack up? Mapping coupling up to trading, islanders may freely choose who to couple up with, provided both of the parties agree, and no islander possesses market power in terms of being able to determine the result of any other coupling.
And while only a dozen islanders may not seem a “large number”, it is more than the number of major players in the highly competitive groceries or telecommunications market: Alfred E. Kahn has argued convincingly that even a small number of players may result in effective competition in a highly competitive market, which Love Island most certainly is. In the goldfish bowl of the villa, we have as close to perfect information as one could wish for, and the producers, beyond enforcing a very small number of rules, have no power to determine who couples with whom.
As with any good mapping, we see the behaviours of an effective liberal market mirrored in the villa. When new islanders appear, such as during the period in Casa Amor, some bomb with the surety of a MySpace or Altavista, while others smash the comfortable complacency of the established couples in the villa like an Uber or Deliveroo disrupting the incumbents’ market dominance. And just as in business, we see partnerships of mutual trust endure for an entire season, while where one party, such as Curtis, has only their self-interest at heart, all trust is quickly destroyed.
To mix metaphors, even the voting system exemplifies liberal economics. In a competitive market, the customer alone determines whether your product succeeds. The experts may rate your new WidgetTM as the top of the field, outstanding, superb – but if it won’t sell, you’re sunk.
Similarly, no matter how successful a couple may appear, evictions are entirely in the hands of the public and islanders themselves. Other reality shows such as Strictly Come Dancing or the X Factor, with their expert panels or judges, represent the hybridised market systems of post-war socialism, where customer choice is fettered by the diktats of nationalised industries and price controls. Only on Love Island does the untrammelled free market reign supreme.
Economic liberalism results in the best outcomes for society: increasing wealth, maximising individual freedom, and lifting a billion people out of poverty in the last twenty years. What it does not do is guarantee success for the individual firms within it.
The bankruptcies of individual firms are an inevitable – indeed necessary – part of creative destruction as the economy advances, constantly innovating and evolving. And so through the tears and heartache of break-ups and the turmoil of recouplings, Love Island powers on, amassing record figures and endless column inches, all the while demonstrating by analogy the undeniable case for economic liberalism.