Bryan Caplan  

Hobbesian Misanthropy in The Purge

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Remember my Hobbesian thought experiment?

Suppose a random person is living on a desert island without hope of rescue. Call him the Initial Inhabitant, or I.I. Another random person unexpectedly washes up on shore, coughing up water. Call him the New Arrival, or N.A. While N.A. is helplessly gasping for air, what does I.I. do? Just to make the story interesting, let's suppose that N.A. is much bigger than I.I.

Thomas Hobbes' prediction, on my reading, is that I.I. will immediately pick up a rock and murder N.A....

Preemptive murder may seem paranoid. But here's the Hobbesian logic: If I.I. waits for N.A. to catch his breath, N.A. will be strong enough to overpower him if he so desires. It's therefore in I.I.'s interest to kill N.A. before N.A. becomes a threat.

In my view, the Hobbesian prediction is crazy. Virtually no one alone on a desert island would choose the route of preemptive murder. Yes, it's possible that N.A. will catch his breath and then attack. But it's far more likely that N.A. will catch his breath and say, "Boy, am I glad to see you. At least I'm not alone." And I.I. will say the same thing back. Two normal humans in a Hobbesian scenario become fast friends, not mortal enemies.

The recent movie The Purge almost perfectly matches my Hobbesian thought experiment. [Warning: spoilers!]  In the movie, the United States adopts an annual holiday ("the Purge") featuring a twelve hour period of utter lawlessness.  People can murder each other free of all legal interference and consequence.  The result isn't quite as awful as Hobbes would predict, but it's close.  Most people hide in their homes, but at least 10% of the population in a nice neighborhood whips out knives and guns and goes huntin'.  Young men, bizarrely, are not overrepresented.  Women and the middle-aged seem equally eager to join the sick, twisted fun.

I'm not a hard sci-fi guy.  But I do place great artistic value on emotional truth.  The Purge has none.  A single-digit percentage of young males probably do harbor murderous urges, but that's about the size of it.  And even young males with homicidal tendencies usually need intense social pressure to overcome their (a) natural squeamishness, and (b) natural cowardice.  Trying to murder alert, well-armed strangers in their own homes is very dangerous even if you feel the urge to do so - a truism that the plot bears out ad nauseum. 

The only remotely plausible non-defensive murder attempt in the movie is when Ethan Hawke's daughter's age-inappropriate boyfriend tries to bushwhack him.  All the remaining violence is ludicrous or worse.  At the end of the movie, middle-aged neighbors of both sexes cackle with glee at the thought of murdering a harmless housewife, her teenage daughter, and tween son.  If that's not misanthropic paranoia, nothing is.

What would really happen if we had the Purge tomorrow?  95%+ of the population would hunker down.  5% of young males would initially run amok... until a few hundred were shot dead on national t.v. by well-armed home- and business-owners.  Remember: In the typical modern American riot, many of the targets are easily identifiable when the dust settles, so they can't aggressively defend themselves from anonymous rioters.  Under the rules of the Purge, however, nervous targets could safely play, "Shoot first, ask questions later."  Young men hoping to "release the Beast" would soon release the Jackrabbit instead.

In any case, imagining a Purge tomorrow is a worse-case scenario because it leaves so little time to adjust.  Given one year's warning, private security services, motivated by the power of reputation rather than legal obligation, would energetically fill in for absent government police.  After a shockingly peaceful Purge, fair-minded observers might even proclaim a small victory for anarcho-capitalism.  Not that it would make any difference.  Mainstream observers would quickly drone, "Move on, nothing to see here."



COMMENTS (19 to date)
Andrew_FL writes:

While it is certainly true that as long as we are able to arm ourselves freely as law abiding citizens, a brief suspension of all law and order would be limited in its effects by our ability to defend ourselves, the same could not be said if before the suspension of law and order the "law" included extensive restrictions on our ability to arm ourselves.

If law and order was suspended suddenly in, say, Britain, the result would not be quite so rosy.

eric falkenstein writes:

I dunno, I think it depends how strong the neighborhood is. Consider that in some American urban areas a good more than 5% of the young males are raping and stealing everything that's moderately attractive.

Now, they aren't murdering at will--only a few psychopaths like murder for murder's sake--but it's still pretty bad. Further, the idea middle aged women would become dangerous is probably far fetched for any of those places.

Matt Zwolinski writes:

"A single-digit percentage of young males probably do harbor murderous urges, but that's about the size of it."

Well, maybe. Here's a short excerpt from Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature:

In separate studies, the psychologists Douglas Kenrick and David Buss have posed this question to a demographic that is known to have exceptionally low rates of violence—university students—and were stunned at the outcome. Between 70 and 90 percent of the men, and between 50 and 80 percent of the women, admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year.

Of course, most of us don't act upon these fantasies. And maybe there's a difference between "fantasies" and "urges." But it looks like the human spirit is a bit less benevolent than you assume it to be.

RohanV writes:

Why wouldn't you get one group of people grouping up and taking out a smaller, more vulnerable group of people?

Think gang warfare, Rwanda, Serbia, the Catholic/Protestant wars, pretty much all of human history.

Heh, isn't the biblical story of Esther pretty much dependent on this idea of a legal Purge?

Pajser writes:

My guess is that existing criminal leaders overtake first. Ordinary man doesn't response on credible threat well enough to fight them. Heavily armed individual in their own homes will be bombed because criminal leaders care for the credibility thing. One kind of people is able to take the fight: the revolutionaries. That's another story.

Martin writes:

"Between 70 and 90 percent of the men, and between 50 and 80 percent of the women, admitted to having at least one homicidal fantasy in the preceding year."

Matt, do you by any chance know which study they speak off? I wonder what is meant by a homicidal fantasy.

Jonathan Monroe writes:
Young men hoping to "release the Beast" would soon release the Jackrabbit instead.

You are assuming that the scary kind of violence is the kind perpetrated by random idiots, probably because that is the only kind that first world states are unable to fully prevent. In fact if the state is absent (Somalia) or ineffective (Sicily), then the violence you need to fear is the organised kind.

If there was a "Purge" with several months warning, then entrepreneurs would be drilling and training militias.

Some of these will have the "steal everything that isn't nailed down" business model. A homeowner armed with a shotgun and home-field advantage is not even going to attempt home defence if the threat model is 12 guys with bulletproof vests and AR15s.

Others will have a business model of "sell protection to people who can't say no". A basic understanding of history suggests that the going rate for serious military protection in a stateless environment is "100% of the value of the property to be protected, less epsilon".

Glen S. McGhee writes:

The misconceptions here begin with the nature of violence, which overall has far less to do with "urges."

Here's why (thanks to Princeton Press for making this available), from Randall Collins:
http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s8547.pdf

Glen S. McGhee writes:

On second thought, here is Roger Gould's take on how status ambiguity leads to violence
in his book Collision of Wills. Again, social group and context are determinative.

OneEyedMan writes:

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Shane L writes:

As a side comment, a film with interesting economics themes also starring Ethan Hawke is Daybreakers. It's a vampire film, based on the idea that most of the world has become transformed into vampires, with a dwindling supply of humans left to farm for blood. The humans aren't reproducing fast enough to meet demand so a blood famine is emerging among the vampires. Would be curious to hear what economists have to say about it!

Bostonian writes:

In the desert island thought experiment, if the initial inhabitant has a female companion on the island, the prospect of his attacking the bigger, stronger new arrival (NA) before that NA takes away his companion is more plausible. A big reason men defend their territory is to defend their women.

Yancey Ward writes:

In the movie, is it completely lawless murder, or are the citizens limited to certain classes of weapons?

In any case, if we really did enact a purge day like this, almost all the additional murders would take place within the locked down homes and businesses, and be between family members.

AlexM writes:

Interesting post. My two cents: I haven’t seen the Purge, but I don’t think, from your description that it matches with the desert island example.

In the desert island, defence is going to be very hard because you most likely won’t have the resources and technology to create defensive fortification. The only option you might have, if the island is big enough, is to hide to achieve security through defensive measures. As such, a rational, non-murderous person who is trying to provide for their own security in a condition of anarchy might well attack the new arrival because it is the best long term security strategy. Even if the two are initially peaceful, the long term situation is far less certain. In the future he may attempt to dominate, enslave, or kill the initial fellow. The initial fellow is taking a huge chance if he doesn’t do something to provide for his own security. In this case, offense works better. We do not need to presume that he is murderous, he just wants long term security.

In the purge, for the average person, defence is the better strategy. You have a house, a fence, a locking door, some weapons, and potentially you can ally with your neighbors (if you trust them). Going outside would be dangerous; attacking others is quite risky. If you did find yourself outside, the best strategy would probably be to hide until the purge was over. So, you are right, hunker down and the outcome would not as bad as people might think. But it is not because Hobbes was wrong, it is because the situation rewards defense, not offense. On the island, offense is better.

JohnB writes:

Bryan

By coincidence I watched this movie for the first time yesterday.

Two questions: Since the Purge would disproportionately affect poor, young men, the most likely to be unemployed, would it reduce unemployment? If it could reduce unemployment, would that make society better off? Losing low wage laborers could be very bad.

Motoko writes:

Jonathon,

"If there was a "Purge" with several months warning, then entrepreneurs would be drilling and training militias."

Given that society as a whole would be poorer if massive gangs were running around (albeit temporarily), other entrepreneurs would do something like this

1) Invest in a general basket of goods
2) Protect the basket of goods

A whooooole lot of people have already done #1. I wouldn't fancy my militia's chances against Google.

Tracy W writes:

My opinion is that The Purge would be very costly for the government, as its employees would take the opportunity to steal money from it, and Snowden types would reveal government secrets with impunity. Hey, the clerk who checks the President's tax return could sell that information to the newspapers!

And what happens at the Smithsonian, or on a military base with all those heavy weapons and engines? Any guys with day dreams of driving a tank? How about stealing a bus?

Psmith writes:

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MingoV writes:
Virtually no one alone on a desert island would choose the route of preemptive murder.
If the desert island has little food and I.I. is nearly starving, then it is logical to bump off N.A. (and eat him).

If the desert island has abundant food, then helping N.A. is logical. N.A. might be able to build a boat or raft for escaping the island. N.A.'s survival does not directly jeopardize I.I.'s survival.

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