Libertarianism In A Zombie Apocalypse

How would libertarians and their ideals fare in a world overrun with the undead?

The Canadian Foreign Minister was last month  compelled to state that “Canada would not become a safe haven for zombies”. It was in response to a question about Canada’s plans if/when faced with a zombie invasion from its giant southern neighbour.

The question, of course, was in jest. But it got me thinking. As libertarians, how would we deal with this particular disaster? Would libertarianism thrive or be devoured in a world over-run by the un-dead?

atlas-shruggedTake this scenario; a large group of libertarians attend a late night screening of Atlas Shrugged. As the credits start to roll, a panicked cinema manager bursts in, telling customers to run for their lives. He’s followed by a horde of mindless, bedraggled human shapes shuffling in looking to devour the accumulated offerings in front of them. Assuming one of you takes the opportunity to make a cheap crack about the parallels with socialism, you beat a hasty retreat through the fire exit and into the car park….

Your first step would be to find safety and ascertain what’s going on. Heading home seems the obvious choice. But whose home do you go too, and how do you decide? Do you pick the closest, the largest, the most secure, the one with the most supplies, or you do go your own separate ways?

As libertarians, you place a premium on the individual over the collective, so would splitting up be the natural response? That being said, you also extol the virtues of free peoples voluntarily collaborating for mutual benefit. This then would suggest remaining together, at least as a short term irregular conglomerate.

It’s dark, you don’t know what’s going on, so you decide to head to the nearest of your homes. But what if one of you doesn’t want to go there, preferring another option? Do you vote on it? There are those libertarians for whom democracy is yet another form of despised collectivism, the tyranny of the majority, the rule of the mob. How do you square this circle? The obvious answer here is to let that person fend for themselves and pursue their own course. They promptly do just that. They disappear into the night. Off you trot, homeward bound.

You arrive back to see some neighbours’ cars screeching away, and others barricading themselves in. Some looting has already started. But the main point is that you’re inside. You turn on the TV. Garbled reports of rioting, shootings and religious fervour get mixed in with a declaration of marshal law. By daybreak all television broadcasting has ceased, being replaced by a single looped message from the National Crisis Coordination Committee. You need to decide what to do.

Collapse of central authority

This is perhaps the most fundamental question of a zombie rising, because it affects all other decisions. There’ll be some libertarians who’ll rejoice at the collapse of an overbearing extortion racket calling itself a government. Some will be a lot less keen. It’s made doubly difficult because you don’t know if the absence of authority is temporary (like Shaun Of The Dead), or if it’ll be permanent (like Dawn Of The Dead).

But even if it is temporary, would you continue to abide by the law in the absence of enforcement? Drinking and driving may not be wise, but you won’t get arrested for it. And there are darker aspects of human nature to consider, too. For example would libertarians respect 16 as the age of consent? Would a group of libertarians be able to establish its own collective code of law, or is that inconsistent with the very idea of liberty?  How would it punish those in the group who erred from the established norms? Would force be permissible? Because once you have crossed that threshold, what would stop a clique within the group dominating the others with the threat of force?

Anarcho Capitalists believe that a world devoid of government would function because private security companies would provide for order, but in this scenario there has been no steady, phased withdrawal of the state, but rather an abrupt collapse. You may be all that’s left, so you’re going to have to think about it at some point.


Division of labour

As we looked at before, libertarians have very different views on democracy, but all agree that coercion can and should be opposed. And one would like to think that a group of libertarian survivors would be able to amicably agree on a set of priorities, and divide up the tasks accordingly. Assuming those with specialist skills came forward, the rest would volunteer for specific tasks, with the least appealing roles being rotated among everybody.

But as with any group, there’ll be those who are unhappy with the division of labour, or the decisions that have been made. So how would our merry libertarian band manage dissent? If a quasi  authority had been established, each member of the group would have had to devolve a degree of freedom for the security that comes with being in a group. The alternative is to strike out on your own or descend into a series of micro-contracts, whereby each member strikes deals with the other members, swapping duties and offering what little they have for the best possible deal. Essentially,  a proto-stock exchange would develop, with duties being assigned a constantly shifting value, and traded among those present.

Appropriation of supplies

Once your supplies of custard creams and soups have been exhausted, you’ll need to forage. Shops and other homes are naturally going to be your first target. But where does this sit with property rights, arguably the libertarian totem?

Assuming that you don’t know if the owner is ever coming back, is it permissible to take something that isn’t yours? At what point does greed become necessity, or vice versa?

One option would be to leave money on the counter for everything you’ve taken. But what happens when your cash runs out? Do you steal cash, and leave an IOU?

Then there is the question of your group. Do you collectively own the supplies, weapons, fuel etc, or are they the property of the person who acquired them? Do those who’ve risked life and limb foraging to get more of a share, or do you divide the rations based on need? Again, assuming you would need to at least temporarily pool personal sovereignty for security, can you still call yourselves libertarians if you’re compelling others to share for the greater good?


Defence against zombie

On the face of it, this sounds simple enough. Few libertarians preach pacifism, and most would acknowledge self defence as a basic right. But there are three uncomfortable issues here. Firstly, does a zombie have rights in the eyes of a libertarian? If Bob Smith, private citizen, becomes a reanimated corpse, is he now Bob Smith, living impaired private citizen? You could argue that when a person is pronounced dead, they lose the rights enjoyed by the living. But in this scenario, who would pronounce them dead? How long would they have to be dead before they became fair game for the crossbow treatment?

The second issue, linked to the previous point, is the question of how far ‘defence’ goes. Fending off an assailant is pretty cut and dried. But is picking random zombies off from 500 yards away with a rifle defence, or is it aggression? This may well be a valid strategy if you’re planning on making your immediate vicinity zombie free, with a slowly expanding sphere of safety. But in doing so you’ve crossed from defence into, effectively, militaristic expansionism, increasing your sphere of influence at the expense of the indigenous population.

The third awkward issue for libertarians is how you would deal with a person who’s been bitten. Assuming by this point you’ve clocked that those bitten become infected, do you treat the bitee as a zombie? This has parallels with the ticking-time-bomb argument. Is it ever justified to take one life in order to save many? You might get lucky and they kill themselves. If not your options are limited: shoot the poor sod on the spot and be done with it; hack off the infected limb and hope for the best; throw them out and lock the door or lock them in a secure room and hope that a cure can be found. All of these involve some form of compulsion and coercion and all would need some form of collective will.

And if you do take the decision to kill somebody to save the group, how long before you start killing those with broken legs, who are slowing up the group…?

Interaction with other survivors

Before long, you’re going to have to leave your makeshift fortress and look for supplies. It is not unlikely that you will come across other survivors. Here again, libertarian ideals will be challenged. Ideological purity will meet cold hard reality.

The fact is, most people will not respect property rights, especially in shops. Supermarkets will empty quicker than a bottle of whiskysurvivalist at an Irish Wake. So what’s a libertarian to do? Join in the scrum and grab what you can? Do you go in as a group or send in your crack troops; the quick and the strong? This again needs a decision from either the leadership of the group or a vanguard who’ve taken it upon themselves to act now and ask questions later.

Once the initial carnage is over, you’ll have to decide whether to look for other survivors or to keep your heads down. There are libertarian arguments for both; voluntary interaction can and does yield great benefits. But equally, no one group has the right to demand cooperation from another. If your groups came across survivors, would you offer them help out of humanity, or would verbal contracts be demanded, establishing early on the rights and responsibilities of each party in the transaction.

Similarly, what if a stronger group approached you and demanded you hand over supplies? The imperative for self defence would have to be weighed in a hasty cost benefit analysis. Would the risk of fighting back entail more costs than the value of the supplies demanded, and who would decide this? If the local wannbe-warlord demanded members of your group (doctors or young women) be handed over, would this be justified in order to save the rest of you? How does the idea of Danegeld sit in the transactional world of libertarianism?

Hopefully we’ll never be faced with this nightmare, but the questions it raises are interesting, nonetheless. Libertarianism cannot exist in a vacuum. It has to rub up against the real world at some point. If we think about how our ideals would work in the worst case scenarios, we might have a better chance of espousing them in today’s world.


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