I’m one of those who believe The Wire is in the running for best TV series ever, and I have a contrarian interpretation of the show.

“Unencumbered capitalism” is completely absent from the world of The Wire. The show’s producer, David Simon, probably believes the drug trade is an example of capitalism at its most raw, but if so it only shows that he does not understand the nature of the economic system (he thinks) he is critiquing. The drug trade is not capitalist, because it is lawless. For example, there is no respect for property rights or impartial adjudication of disputes. Financial success ultimately depends on violence, not voluntary exchanges between consumers and rival producers competing to meet needs in the most cost-effective way. This is the law of the jungle, not the world of market commerce.

In contrast, government is everywhere in inner-city Baltimore.  Residents look to politicians to provide for them, and the same politicians cynically play ethnic and racial groups against each other and provide favors to the powerful and well-connected, not their constituents (basically, the plot in Season Three). Government also runs the dysfunctional school system and, while there are certainly examples of well-meaning and dedicated teachers, they are ultimately stymied by careerist educational researchers and consultants and public sector unions interested in covering their backsides, none of whom have have any real incentive to improve education (Season Four).

The economy of inner-city Baltimore in The Wire is likewise almost entirely dependent on government largesse and being able to grease the right palms or make the appopriate political connections to get things done. Examples include the story of the dockworkers’ union in Season Two, and Stringer Bell’s ongoing efforts to legitimize his gang through real estate development that depends on siting permits and other political approvals. All of these plans end up enriching corrupt politicians but not fostering any significant private sector development.

The press is the focus of season five, and while it is not technically part of the government, it’s coverage of government and public issues is so corrupt and dishonest that it frustrates citizen education or fundamental social and political change.

And of course, the violence, chaos and confusion resulting from failed and dysfunctional government leads directly to an immense police presence to maintain a semblance of order, thereby reinforcing the overbearing and omnipresent nature of government in west Baltimore.

It’s ironic that Simon is such a close observer (he was a journalist covering Baltimore’s inner city before he created The Wire) and talented artist that he can illustrate the strands of social dysfunction in Baltimore vividly, but he is not a good enough analyst to understand the underlying cause. Because The Wire is such riveting entertainment, however, the real lesson is there on the screen and developing storylines.