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Why free-marketers watch The Walking Dead

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One of the most anticipated television premieres of the year occurred this past weekend: the start of season six of The Walking Dead. It came on the heels of the season finale of the incredibly successful prequel series Fear the Walking Dead, which recorded the highest rated first season of any cable show, ever. Both shows have been enormously successful for AMC but the question that always puzzled me was why so many free-market friends avidly watched the show. (Several had launch parties over the holiday weekend.)

An answer was recently offered that’s worth considering as season six gets underway: the show explores a rich set of philosophical questions including the nature of humankind, our ability to cooperate with one another, and the conflict between a Hobbesian and Smithian/Hayekian view of the world.

Thomas Hobbes’s best known and most influential writing, Leviathan, argues that a social contract between people is necessary in order to emerge from the state of nature and create social structures and institutions within which humans can flourish. One of the most famous passages from the book describes life without such structures:

In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The underlying premise of The Walking Dead, and why so many people interested in philosophy and politics gravitate to it, is that such structures and institutions required for progress (even survival) as described by Hobbes completely break down. Lawlessness and the absence of any rudimentary justice system are the foundation of the show.

But the show goes beyond just exploring what the world would look like in a Hobbesian state of nature. Indeed, I believe one of the things that captivate the audience is how different groups of people come together and organize themselves in order to survive, and within which a set of social norms and rules emerge. The concept of social order emerging over time is heavily rooted in the philosophical writings of Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith, and the more contemporary F.A. Hayek. The core idea is that social norms and rules of conduct will emerge within groups over time as people interact and learn from experience.

A related and equally as contentious issue is how and why people cooperate with one another. Viewers of the show observe how people within groups learn to cooperate with one another and all the problems that ensue when their group’s interests intersect with other groups of people that more often than not have developed different social norms and rules.

As season six gets underway, it’s natural to applaud the quality writing and superb acting as the foundation for the success of the show. However, it’s also worthwhile to consider the deep philosophical questions being explored in the show, which is one of the reasons I believe so many people interested in philosophy and politics are drawn to it.


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