Hobbesian Misanthropy in The Purge
By Bryan Caplan
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….
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.”