"Fallout" through a Liberty Lens

I realize that this is not usually the forum for television critiques, and I am certainly no television critic. Nonetheless, while I very much enjoyed the show, there were some issues raised in the new Prime drama Fallout that made my Austrian senses tingle. I often find that when I discuss politics or philosophy with people, I am constantly asked or expected to defend positions that I have never occupied and would never occupy.

This seems due to imprecise understandings of what I mean when I say I am in favor of things like free markets. The mythologies and misinformation about what things like “capitalism” and “America” represent so widely diverge from what such terms mean to me that I am occasionally motivated to reset the whole conversation. This came to the fore as I enjoyed Fallout (which is a gas and something I highly recommend, even if you did not play the games). Caution: The following contains spoilers.

In the show, the end of the world as we know it is brought about by the conglomerate Vault-Tec and their apocalyptic business plan, at first in pursuit of monetary gain, but mainly as an atrociously draconian final solution to all human conflict. Obviously the first motive is humorously ironic, as their actions obliterated the economy they sought to control. I would hope that the viewer would focus on the latter motivation, which at least on its face is a plausible cause for action, but words and phrases like “capitalism” and “this is America” crop up enough that I worry there may be some confusion about how those two concepts are interrelated.

To be clear, they are enemies. Nothing about America (as a state) is capitalism, and nothing about capitalism (free markets and personal liberty) is the state. Capitalism is to the state as a man is to a tapeworm. The latter cannot exist without the former, is wholly unnecessary, and will eventually kill its host as it devours everything the man provides and eventually the man himself. Without the parasite, the man is free to thrive according to his own understanding of the term.

(We could go further: At first, as the man loses a little weight and can eat whatever he wants, the tapeworm might even feel like a benefit. The state creates similar illusions.)

Sure enough, not only friends and colleagues but the media were quick to claim that this show is some kind of indictment of capitalism, lumping free markets in with the American state and conflating the idea with the cronyism under which we currently suffer and which is exaggerated for effect (but is not an impossible expression of the endgame of our current statist system). The Cold War–esque setting certainly helps drive them there, as that period is routinely pitched as a battle between capitalism and communism (when most readers of Mises.org will know that it was just two states seeing who could drain the resources of their respective people less completely). It therefore feels important to point out how diametrically opposed to the ideas of personal liberty this dystopian world really is.

The War

Obviously, war is the purview of the state and the state alone. “War is the health of the state,” we are famously reminded. While opportunistic oligarchs with the right connections are allowed by the state to profit from the horrors of war, even to the point of pushing policies that incite or extend the conflict, none of this is “capitalism.” This story should remind us not of the evils of free markets but why no one should interfere in their operation. Without a government, there can be no government contractors, no artificial demand created through the making of wasteful wars, no productivity wasted on death machines, no inflated profits harvested from the productivity of peaceful citizens, and, in fact, there can likely be no wars at all worthy of the name.

The Weapon

A nuclear weapon is an unholy terror of a product that has only ever been developed, ordered, and deployed by states. Even extragovernmental organizations accused of pursuing them are doing so to engage in conflict with states they perceive as threats. No demand for the end of humanity would exist in a rational world without states and the conflicts they engender between themselves. The liberal use of these weapons, even to achieve the ends of the allegedly private firm Vault-Tec, is not free markets taken to their logical and terrible conclusion. This instead should once again serve as a warning to all: Where there is government, expect hardship, privation, and death on a massive scale.

The Contractor

I find it hard to believe, but there are a great many people, perhaps even the majority of viewers, who will consider Vault-Tec a creature of the market, despite it actually and undeniably being a war-profiteering government agent with an artificial, state-created monopoly, compensated through taxpayer funding in return for meeting the inhuman demands of a war-making murder cult.

What about facilitating a state’s global holocaust is reminiscent of capitalism? I imagine it is the profit motive, which is the bogeyman haunting all objections to personal liberty, as if it were a bad thing. While there can be and often are individual examples of nefarious deeds done in the name of profits, in a free market these deeds are only rewarded with a bad reputation, civil action, and social ostracism. Certainly not more profits in the long term, once discovered. However, mix in a state and a liberally applied monopoly on violence, and travesties that would garner nothing but revulsion are suddenly rewarded and treated as virtues.

The Patent

In the Fallout universe, Vault-Tec has acquired the patent for a cold fusion reactor and sits on it, using it only in their products and preventing its widespread adoption, and by extension, slowing humanity’s development past fossil fuels. This is again apparently done in the name of the almighty dollar (which Vault-Tec’s own actions will soon render useless).

While it is probably a dubious plot point even on its face, I think it is important to point out that this also would not be possible in a free market, where everyone is allowed to copy and improve upon existing products and services. An innovation like that, which takes thousands of people millions of hours to create, would be a hard secret to keep indeed. A company that tried to hide it would have myriad defectors who would seek to create that good in the world (and certainly, to profit themselves, God forbid). In a free market, the reactors would quickly spread and improve as word got out, and there would be no state waiting to sue into submission those who dared try it on their own.

The Experiment

As the first season reaches its final episodes, we learn that Vault-Tec was not satisfied merely investing in the destruction of virtually all mankind. Oh no, they also had plans for those who remained. The vaults were set up as massive social experiments of varying levels of barbarism, resulting in terrifying deaths, grotesque deformities, and the promise of even more disturbing revelations to come.

All this is to be controlled from special vaults occupied by management, revealing that this has never been about satisfying needs in a mutually beneficial way (you know, capitalism), but instead it was all born of a megalomaniacal and psychopathic need for control. Seek that need in our world, and you find it well represented in the corridors of state power, where oligarchs conspire to steal and murder for their petty benefit and to the detriment of us all. Less likely is finding that sort of attitude on Main Street at the restaurant or the bowling alley, among the people who actually earn their living by taking risks and bringing happiness to strangers.

Conclusion

It’s not all bad news. On the surface, outside of the shelter of the vaults, markets coalesce, and a hard currency becomes an agreed upon medium of exchange (one sign declaring that an establishment “ONLY” deals in “caps” further suggests that there may actually be competing currencies). Though life on the surface is hellish, it is at least free, and it is demonstrably possible to live peaceably. In fact, even in the Wasteland, most of the violence is done by policing and military organizations created more to drive the plot than as actual predictors of post-state behavior.

The dialogue forming around this excellent piece of small screen entertainment is going to center on “late-stage capitalism.” It is important to remember and to remind people that it is the parasite that is killing us, not our ability to exchange and engage with each other on our own terms.

Originally Posted at https://mises.org/

By Mises