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Monday, June 10, 2013

The Law and Economics of "The Purge"

"The Purge" is the number one movie in America -- by a healthy margin!  People are pretty surprised.  Perhaps it's because it stars Jesse and Cersei.  Or perhaps it's because of its concept.  As Box Office Mojo says: "The fact that The Purge wound up so much higher can be attributed to the movie's unique, intriguing premise—what if all crime was legal for 12 hours once a year?"  You can check out the trailer here.

I haven't seen the movie, but it seems to focus more on one particular home invasion than it does on the broader implications of its premise.  (Cf. "Panic Room.")  But I want to focus on that frankly unbelievable premise.  First, what does it mean that there is no enforcement of the law during the twelve hours of the purge?  Do norms still exist?  The father in the trailer indicates that he has "no need" to engage in the atavistic free-for-all, because he has no violent urges to purge.  But is society endorsing those urges, or simply acknowledging they exist?  I'd be curious to know how the movie treats it.  (Of course, it looks like our heroes have to get violent to save themselves in the end, which is how most of these movies have their cake and eat it, too.)

My second question -- and the basis for the somewhat silly title for my post -- is whether the film's premise has any tether in criminal law theory.  Basically, the idea is that the purge -- or, The Purge -- allows the nation's criminals to beat up on each other for a night and kill each other off.  The lawlessness is justified by its overall effects -- crime rates go down, unemployment goes down, the other 364.5 days are better.  I don't know if a purer faceoff between consquentialist and deonotological theories could be devised.  Let's assume that a lawless 12-hour period would reduce overall crime, and that the primary victims would be the criminals themselves.  Would that justify such a period?

Of course (and again, I haven't seen the movie) I think part of the movie's philosophical bent is that the purge leaves the wealthy elites better off, since they have their fortresses to retreat to, but society as a whole is not better off, particularly the poor.  And from there you could argue that the purge is not so unlike the everyday reality of Rio de Janeiro or even -- name your U.S. city of choice.  So the faceoff is really a false faceoff -- which is the attack that a lot of law & economics critics have leveled against that form of utilitarianism.  Again, I'd be interested to hear whether the movie explores these themes, but even if it doesn't -- there's always The Purge 2.  Perhaps our blogfather could be a script consultant.

Posted by Matt Bodie on June 10, 2013 at 11:56 AM in Criminal Law, Current Affairs | Permalink


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To me the first analogue that came to mind is Carnival, and Jubilee. The former turns norms on their heads as a social prophylactic, and the latter is a PART of the law. Our Enlightenment society tends to understand these things only in terms of the latter: we cannot quite get our head around value pluralism or multiple sovereigns or "orders."

I'm also reminded of Kierkegaard's "teleological suspension of the ethical," but in a different context, and antinomianism generally. The point is that what matters isn't "the law" per se, but social stability, etc.

I realize this is probably overthinking a thriller, but these things have real symbolic meaning and value as cultural expressions, clues into how we operate as a society.

The discussion of "the Purge" as a sort of disgorging of natural urges doesn't match up with Carnival / Jubilee in the sense that the latter was sanctioned suspension of norms by the authorities, a separate TIME, governed by other ruels. "The Purge" seems to be more protestantized, more individualized, and more banal: the citizen still exists in secular time, but he has natural urges he has repressed previously that he needs to get out in order to comply the rest of the year.

In that sense, "the Purge" as you describe it seems not to fit into the "sacred," but is simply a part of the "profane" (to use Eliade's scheme).

So the question to me is, why make this movie? And why does it come out now? Well, I think it partly expresses and entrenches our collective view that law is unnatural, that there is no connection between "the good" and obeying social norms. Rather, we are being sold the idea that "the good" consists in obeying the dictates of our whim, and this urge is so strong that we need special dispensation from laws as we see fit.

There's a lot here, certainly. I'm not going to see the movie, and it's disappointing to hear that the device was theorized but not realized, but it's interesting nonetheless!

Posted by: AndyK | Jun 10, 2013 1:00:57 PM

I recall an episode of the original Star Trek, in which the people on the planet wandered around all day catatonically, then at sundown exploded into "Festival," a riot of violence, property destruction, and what we now (although properly not in 1967) would describe as sexual assault.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 10, 2013 1:43:48 PM

Little something for HW: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZYTkSFRmKzM

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Jun 10, 2013 4:14:57 PM

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