Is Mad Max the End of Freedom?

It's a struggle by would-be dictators in a “state of nature”

What a ride is the new Mad Max!

The desert scenes — filmed in Namibia and Australia — remind me of Lawrence of Arabia. So peaceful. At first. Then, in the first scene, Mad Max, who is forced to live off the land, eats a two-headed lizard whole and raw. Blech. But actually this sets up the whole atmosphere of extreme privation that dominates the film. The absence of material provision leads everyone to act in egregious ways.

Then the action starts. Huge and crazy looking cars, motorcycles, and trucks guzzling massive quantities of gas (who makes it all?), racing around the desert blowing each other up.

There are punks, zombied-eyed workers, disgustingly dirty workers and peasants, haggard women warriors, a gross-me-out dictator, a strange economy that seems to live off blood transfusions and mother’s milk, a tireless heavy-metal band with a flame-throwing guitar player riding around on a war truck, and many more wacky things.

The whole film is loud, eye-popping, jaw-dropping, crazy, insane, high-anxiety fun from first to last. It leaves you breathless. Then it turns out to be substantive in a philosophical sense, and even inspires with a message of triumph over despotism.

And yet, I was also reminded of my first experience watching the old Mad Max in my youth. I had recently become convinced of the case for the free society. I had daringly embraced the conviction that it is not the state that holds society together and builds civilization.

Society itself — Bastiat and others convinced me — contains within it the capacity for its own ordering. Markets, property rights, and even law are emergent institutions that allow the creation of the good society. Accepting that meant departing from both right and left.

Somehow, and I’m not entirely sure why, the first viewing of the original film shook my convictions. Is this what freedom looks like? Yikes. I walked away from the film somehow fearing that I had embraced a political vision that would lead straight to the grim, chaotic — let’s use the word anarchic — world of Mad Max. There are no rules, only a vague semblance of morality, and social norms are made up on the spot.

Truly, is this what libertarianism is all about? It’s just an impulse, and one that actually makes no sense, though I can imagine many viewers would come away with that same fear. If this is the way the world looks without powerful central control, no thanks.

But think about it. The setting is usually described as “post-apocalyptic.”

Who destroyed the world (a question one character in the new version asks)? We don’t know for sure, but it’s a good bet that it is the same crew that, in the 20th century, blew up whole cities, dropped bombs on millions of innocents, slaughtered whole peoples in famines, gulags, work camps, death marches, and gas chambers.

I’m speaking of the state. That’s the only institution with means and the will to destroy civilization. So if I had to guess the answer to the question, I would guess: politicians and bureaucrats destroyed the world.

Plus, there is in fact a state, or at least a ruling class with power, in Mad Max.

His name is Immortan Joe. He wears a weird mask and has some strange breathing contraption on the back of his neck. He both controls all resources (including the most precious resource of all, water) and heads a religious cult in which all his followers think that perfect obedience will lead to eternal salvation. He commands them completely and totally.

He is also utterly lawless — any means to the end of keeping his power. That’s his one and only concern. He also happens to inhabit the only green spot in the whole region, monopolizing and devouring the earth’s most valuable resources.

Sounds like a state to me.

As for the rest of society, true, there is no law and nothing like stable property rights. Morality is pretty much out of the question. Even if you believe in right and wrong, the material privation is so intense that acting on moral postulates is out of the question. This is not society. This is society destroyed, a society reset, all norms and institutions for human cooperation erased.

The viewer can’t help asking the question: What would I do if I were in the situation?

Well, I would have to learn not to be squeamish about eating two-headed lizards raw. I would have to learn to be a good driver. I would have to learn how to stab and shoot to kill. I would have to get used to the sight of blood.

But most of all, if I wanted to play some part in improving this ghastly world, I would have to contribute my efforts to unseating the grotesque and loathsome Immortan Joe.

There are plenty of challenges in the Mad Max world. Extreme conditions of scarcity is just the most conspicuous. To solve that problem requires property rights, markets, capital accumulation, and long-term investment. These are great ideas. But they can’t be realized so long as there are thugs extant that will rob you of property the instant it starts to create wealth.

In other words, the problem in the Mad Max world is not too much freedom. It is that freedom is never given a chance to work due to the presence of tyranny. This is the source of the disorder, chaos, non-stop violence, and overall poverty and insecurity.

Until the tyranny is overthrown — until the head of the ruling class is dislodged from perch of power — there can be no hope whatever. In the end, the effort to unseat this jerk is led by women who escaped his clutches to live far outside the capital. They long for the freedom to put together something like a life.

To see that requires you look a bit below the surface.

The film does, in fact, reveal something important about sex/gender and politics: namely, that a consciousness of universal human rights and dignity is the product of civilization. A might-makes-right society of poverty and power will be highly exploitative of women. This much we know from history, and the film gets this right.

Finally, for an economist, there is a clever insight here concerning the ancient problem of the diamond/water paradox: Why is water, which is more necessary for life, cheaper than diamonds? Mad Max reveals the answer: It all comes down to marginal value and relative scarcities. In this society, people will do anything for a drop to drink. Or eat.

Thank you, thank you, freedom and trade, for rescuing us all from the world of Mad Max and Immortan Joe.