Libertarians and the Walking Dead


By Trevor Watkins

I recently watched the first 3 seasons of the American TV series called “The Walking Dead” (Season 4 is available on the Fox Channel on DSTV in South Africa). As one critic described it, “Its a zombie apocalypse TV series made with cinema level quality and script. Go figure.” Despite the gallons of gore, the barrels of spilt brains, the never-ending horror, I found that this series spoke to me at a visceral (forgive the pun) level, providing many difficult, thought provoking scenarios to mull over.
In brief:
  • a rabies like virus has infected the United States (we never discover how the rest of he world is doing – this is an American series, so who cares).
  • Infected victims rapidly develop a severe fever and die, only to have their basic nervous system and primitive brain functions restart a few minutes later. This provides the victims with limited sight, hearing, smell and locomotion, and an overwhelming desire to feed on fresh meat, rather like a rabid dog.
  • The virus spreads like wildfire, through bites from the infected, turning most of the landscape into a nightmare of shuffling zombies looking for meat. A few hardy individuals avoid becoming infected, band together and attempt to survive in this horrific new world. The TV series is the story of their efforts to find a safe haven, to retain their human values, and to wrestle some kind of future out of their bleak present.
In many ways this is the popular libertarian desert island scenario, on steroids. Fundamental questions are quickly raised, and the consequences of the decisions taken play out before your eyes.
  • Does one elect a leader, and if so, how?
  • Is it every man for himself when survival depends on joint action?
  • Can dissent be tolerated within the group?
  • Do security issues trump all others, including questions of humanity?
  • How do decisions get taken, and who is bound by them once decided?
  • Are individual members with critically necessary skills free to leave the group?
  • Can members be forcibly restrained from taking their own lives?
  • Do property rights continue to have any meaning?
  • Can you execute troublesome members of the group despite having committed no crime?
  • Is it OK to summarily kill other humans who have a dangerous, infectious disease?
  • Which is better? Retain your civilised values, or survive?
Our band of survivors includes lawmen, housewives, religious farmers, pizza delivery boys, white trash, an old man and a handful of kids. What is quickly apparent is that their old value systems do not prepare them to cope with their new circumstances. The lawmen quickly abandon their respect for the law, the Christian farmer loses his faith, the white trash seem to have the best survival skills and ethos, the women and the old man retain their humanity.
 
Democracy is a useless luxury when you have a herd of zombies bearing down on you. Decisive action by skilled killers is required. Anyone not following the leader’s instructions will quickly die.
 
Christian love and charity for zombies? No way. Turn the other cheek and they will bite it off. As the christian farmer remarks in the show, “This isn’t quite how I had pictured the resurrection.” Its difficult to believe in a kind and merciful God when everything and everyone you know is trying to eat you.
 
A feudal system is what appears to evolve in the show, with more or less powerful leaders providing some form of security in exchange for blind obedience from their followers.
 
How would the libertarian consent axiom hold up in such a radically changed world? A fundamental libertarian principle is respect for life – you may not kill anyone except in self defense. As far as zombies themselves are concerned, I think libertarians would have no problem with slaughtering them, as they are no longer technically alive (having died once), are no longer technically human, and pose a grave and immediate threat.
 
So what about dealing with the living? A few examples from the series will help illustrate some of the dilemmas. (Spoiler alert, if you still plan to watch the series)
 
Our little band of mostly decent folk are attacked by a group of bandits. In beating them off, they manage to capture one of the bandits, a callow young man of 17. After treating his wounds, they are left with the question of what to do with him. He consumes scarce food and medical resources, he requires constant guarding, and he’s not very nice. The former policeman recommends shooting him out of hand. Most of the rest of the group agree. Just the old man pleads for the boy’s life. What would you do? Libertarians reject the taking of life except in self-defense. However, they do not feel obligated to maintain anyone else’s life at their own expense. I think we would take the youth to the furthermost boundary of our property and eject him into exile, to make his own way in the world. This is in fact what our noble leader finally decides to do (he is fundamentally libertarian, without realising it, and is often confused). Unfortunately our former policeman takes the law into his own hands and kills the youth.
 
A young woman whose sister has been savaged by zombies is obliged to shoot her sister in the head to avoid her becoming a zombie too. This traumatic event, and their generally poor circumstances, lead her to decide to commit suicide. Her friends deny her this choice by removing her weapons and physically restraining her, to her great distress. Finally she gets over it and becomes a useful member of the community. What would a libertarian do? Nothing. You own your life and it is your choice what you do with it. We would not take an action affecting you without your consent.
 
A large and aggressive group threatens our little band of survivors. The leader of the large group, known as “The Governor”, demands that our group hands over one of its newer members to the governor, or else the entire group will be attacked and slaughtered. In order to save their wives and sons and daughters, many in the group are in favour of acquiescing to the governor’s demand.
What do you do? Libertarians do not take action against anyone who is not a threat without their consent. We don’t believe this out of loyalty to our friends – we apply it to everyone. If you trade your principles for security, you will end up with neither. If you acquiesce to one unreasonable demand, you will end up acquiescing to many. In the end, the group’s leader makes the right choice, and ends up vanquishing the governor.
 
I enjoyed watching this intelligently scripted series. I enjoyed putting my principles to the test in the crucible of a world gone mad. All in all, though, I would rather avoid the zombie apocalypse.
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