The Apocalyptic Vision of The Road
by Ben O'Neill
by Ben O'Neill: The
Vampire Economy and the Market
What is the
"means of production" and what significance does it have
to society? How is it created, expanded, or merely sustained? What
is the relationship between the prevailing moral order of a society
and its accumulation of capital?
These are questions
that economists and political philosophers have considered throughout
the history of economic thought. If you have ever enquired into
the differences between capitalism and socialism you will have heard
of the means of production, and you will be aware that this is very
important to the organization of society. You might have heard of
this, but you might not have spent much thought on the relationship
between capital and moral order. Indeed, why should ordinary people
care about such things? Isn't the means of production just something
that one reads about between bong hits in the dorm rooms at university?
Or is it perhaps something that is the domain of accountants and
corporate managers, concerned with the proper techniques of double-entry
bookkeeping? What is its great significance?
For those who
are not sure, or don't care, The
Road by Cormac McCarthy gives us a chilling glimpse of a
society without capital or moral order a world without a
"means of production." It is a terrifying vision, and
a wake-up call to those who regard questions of capital accumulation
as being merely the dry and technical subject matter of economists.
The novel is set in a postapocalyptic world devastated by a catastrophe
of some kind that has destroyed the natural environment. It tells
the story of a man and his young son trying to survive the dangers
of the new world and retain their sense of goodness in the face
of its horrors.
was looted, ransacked, ravaged. Rifled of every crumb. The nights
were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the
morning had a terrible silence to it.... He walked out in the
gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute
truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate
earth. Darkness implacable.... Borrowed time and borrowed world
and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it. (pp. 129130)
The world of
the novel is cold and inhospitable, and hunger is ubiquitous. Its
natural capital has been devastated, and other capital goods lie
useless in the abandoned homes of the dead. Aside from some surviving
humans (and the occasional animal), plant and animal life on the
planet has become extinct, and the environment is barren and cold.
There is no way to grow crops or create food, and so humans revert
to foraging through the stored goods of the old world, and preying
on the only remaining source of meat other people.
By then all
stores of food had given out and murder was everywhere upon the
land. The world soon to be largely populated by men who would
eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves
held by cores of blackened looters. (p. 181)
Capital, and Moral Order
Where do our
stores of food come from? And where our civilization? Though modern
civilization is a complex thing, it is also very simple in its essence,
for it is built on three forms of capital that form the pillars
of any civilized order. One of these is the natural and man-made
physical capital that humans use to live and to sustain their production
of goods the "means of production" (and perhaps
also the means of distribution of goods). In addition to this physical
capital are two corresponding forms of human capital: the technical
knowledge to operate physical capital and sustain production, and
the moral order required to sustain organized use of scarce resources.
The degree of civilized life that presently exists does so because
we have inherited physical capital and technological knowledge,
but also because we have some sense of a moral order needed to sustain
The story of
civilization is the story of capital accumulation. This has included
an accumulation of physical capital, but also a corresponding accumulation
of technical and moral knowledge. We are civilized only to the extent
that we ask ourselves what kind of moral order is needed to sustain
the accumulation of capital. What kind of moral order sustains a
means of production?
yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking
about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There
could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there?
Fed what? Saved for what? (p. 120)
In the midst
of a prosperous civilization, it is easy for people to become flippant
about the moral order needed to sustain the accumulation of capital.
Large stores of capital goods are already here, and it is the present
concern of many people to worry about how these should be "distributed"
to satisfy their managerial lust and quest for "social justice."
In a situation of such abundance, moral relativism and nihilism
thrive. All is subjective, and the good is whatever "the representatives
of the people" determine it to be. Those who pooh-pooh the
moral rules that sustain the accumulation of capital often imagine
that they are acting on behalf of the weak and downtrodden. But
the breakdown of capital is the breakdown of civilization, and this
is of great harm to the weak and strong alike. Indeed, if there
are any who are most dependent on civilized order, it is those who
are the least likely to survive under the predations of the strong.
he said. He turned and looked again. What the boy had seen was
a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackened on a
spit. He bent and picked the boy up and started for the road with
him, holding him close. I'm sorry, he whispered. I'm sorry. (p.
198, grammatical omissions in original)
shows us the predatory nature of man in the absence of his means
of production, and the degeneration of the moral order this loss
entails. Though the man and his son struggle to remain "good
guys" during their precarious existence, the world of the novel
is mostly inhabited by "bad guys" armed gangs who
enslave unwary travelers and commit terrible atrocities.
two hundred feet away, the ground shuddering lightly. Trampling.
Behind them came wagons drawn by slaves in harness and piled with
goods of war and after that the women, perhaps a dozen in number,
some of them pregnant, and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites
[boys kept as sex slaves] illclothed against the cold and fitted
in dogcollars and yoked each to each. All passed on. They lay
listening. (p. 92, grammatical omissions in original)
The man in
the novel struggles to protect his little boy from the predations
of other men, while at the same time struggling to maintain his
sense of morality and bequeath good values to his son. He carries
a gun for protection but has only two bullets, one of which he is
saving to kill his own son if circumstance should require it. The
boy is too young to comprehend the atrocities that will be inflicted
on him if he is caught by "the bad guys," but the man
is well aware. Though he devotes his life to the protection of his
son, he also considers the fact that he will kill the boy as an
act of mercy if they fall into enemy hands:
Can you do
it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no
time. Now is the time. Curse God and die. What if [the gun] doesnt
fire? It has to fire. What if it doesnt fire? Could you crush
that beloved skull with a rock? Is there a being within you of
which you know nothing? Can there be? (p. 114, grammatical omissions
2. Why Aren't
We Eating Each Other Right Now?
on the likely effects of massive capital destruction is a fascinating
thought experiment. It is one that gives valuable insights into
the nature of humanity and the fragility of our present civilization.
It matters not whether the destruction is brought about by a sudden
disaster, as in the book, or a slow feasting on the accumulated
capital of the past. If the means of production are destroyed, or
simply not sustained, then we are heading down the road to hunger
and predation, as illustrated in the novel.
us from eating each other right now? How long would it take people
in our civilization to turn to gross acts of predation in the event
of a catastrophic disaster? How long before we would see people
start farming other humans?
There are essentially
two reinforcing reasons that prevent present humans from treating
each other in such a patently predatory way. One reason is moral:
there is widespread acceptance that it is evil to enslave and eat
other people in our present circumstances. The other reason is contextual:
the accumulated capital of our civilization is sufficient to ensure
that we simply do not need to eat other people we
already have abundant food available to us. (One other alleged reason
that might be mentioned is consequential: we fear the punishment
that would be imposed on us for eating other people. However, this
is a very minor concern in our present society and is not really
operative on most people. The vast majority of people would avoid
cannibalism under present circumstances regardless of whether or
not they would be caught and punished for this behavior, simply
because they do not want or need to engage in this kind of depravity.
We mention this motivation only to explain that it is inoperative
on most people.)
These two sources
of civilized behavior moral and contextual are not
independent of one another. Our moral views on slavery and cannibalism
are formed within the context of a prosperous society where these
activities are not needed to supply us with our needs (i.e., our
present context affects our morality). Similarly, our lack of need
for this source of food is itself a result of capital accumulation
generated by having an ordered system of production built on moral
rules (i.e., our moral system affects our activities, which affect
our context). Though the first connection is widely appreciated,
the second is not so well understood, and many people are prone
to treat the fruits of civilization as just being here somehow
(or as a result of science and technology, which got here somehow,
etc.), without any particular moral principles needed to sustain
The fact that
people's behavior is built on a moral foundation that is itself
highly dependent on their context is a scary thought even
though people think it's abominable to eat each other right now,
give them a few months living in a postapocalyptic moribund world
and they might change their minds! Indeed, this is one of the main
salutary lessons of The Road it shows us the fragility
of the moral principles that underlie civilized society.
3. Moral Order?
What Moral Order?
The Road are likely to be struck by the strong connection
between the lack of capital and the lack of moral order in the dying
world. In that respect the book is an excellent instruction in the
importance of capital to civilized life. But if all this is accepted,
then what is the moral order required to accumulate and sustain
To answer this,
we must understand that capital is formed and sustained by productive
efforts undertaken for future reward. By its very nature, capital
accumulation requires a present refrain from consumption with a
view toward expanding one's future productivity. In order for this
trade-off to be worthwhile one must have property rights that function
as the "boundaries of order" in our interaction with other
people. This is what allows us to accumulate capital and avoid predation.
It is what allows us to save for the future with the assurance that
we will reap some reward, rather than having our efforts taken to
feed looters and killers. The proper moral order for civilized life
is one that allows cooperative action for mutual gains but eschews
coercion. To the extent that this moral order has been practiced,
it has allowed man to build capital and develop civilized life.
To the extent that it has been violated, it has led to barriers
to capital accumulation, or outright capital destruction.
peril, the man and boy in The Road are very respectful of
the moral order of private-property rights.
They vow not to eat other people regardless of their hunger, and
they show great respect for the abandoned property of others. When
they stumble onto a cache of stored food in an abandoned bunker,
the boy says a makeshift prayer for the people who left it there:
thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved
it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn't eat it no matter
how hungry we were and we're sorry that you didn't get to eat
it ... (pp. 149155)
story of The Road is a grim and uncompromising story of societal
breakdown, it is also a love story between a man and his son, and
a story of the struggles of good people in a bad world. The man
in the story tells his son that they are "carrying the fire,"
meaning that they are carrying the remains of the civilized order
of the old world. They are very much like those described as "the
Remnant" by Albert Jay Nock in
his classic essay: "those who by force of intellect are
able to apprehend [the principles of civilization], and by force
of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them."
Moral Order, and Human Survival
of The Road is a vision of what occurs when man loses the
accumulated capital of civilization and the moral order that sustains
it. The book is vague on the nature of the disaster that lands its
principle characters in the final days of their species, but this
is not really important. What is important is that we are presently
in the process of discarding the moral order that sustains the process
of capital accumulation, and there is reckless disregard by many
people for any connection between an objective moral order for cooperative
conduct and the capital accumulation and maintenance they take for
granted to feed their abundance.
Those who concern
themselves with the "distribution" of the accumulated
wealth of the world are a reckless force chipping away at the foundations
of civilized order. That they do so with pretentions that they are
working for the benefit of the weak and disenfranchised only serves
to show their naïveté, and their disregard for the nature
of man without his civilization. The problem with this decline is
not merely a danger of loss of physical capital, but something far
deeper and more total: it is a moral rot, gradually undermining
people's capacity to produce and sustain production. Every coercive
measure interfering with the moral order of private property and
cooperative exchange is another chip at the means of production
and the civilized life it engenders.
shows us what it means to lose the means of production. It is not
pretty, and it is not at all to the benefit of the weak, nor anyone
The book has
been praised as a salutation to environmentalist philosophy because
it shows the consequences that a total environmental breakdown would
have for humanity. I cannot comment on whether the author intended
the book to convey this view, though it does not seem evident to
me that he did. (The disaster in the book is clearly a sudden catastrophe,
and certainly not a gradual breakdown caused by the activities of
man.) In any case, I take a different lesson from the book than
the alleged environmentalist message. To me, the book conveys the
strong connection between capital and moral order. By depicting
its absence, the book shows us the core of a civilized society,
and allows us to see the importance of capital in a far more commanding
way than is presented by economists and their treatises.
At root, human
beings are animals, and like other animals we have a hierarchy of
needs to satisfy. Despite our ability to reason about our own conduct,
our mode of behavior will always reflect the necessity of satisfying
those needs in some way. In the midst of our present civilization,
with all its abundance, the idea of enslaving and cannibalizing
other people (including children and babies) is horrific and revolting,
but it is a reality of human nature that this can come about under
dire circumstances. What protects us from this result is the accumulated
capital of the past, and our capacity to protect that capital by
formulating an appropriate moral order to guide our actions. If
we are reckless about the connection between our moral order and
the accumulation of capital, then we are asking for disaster.
When a person
glibly tells you that moral rules are just subjective judgments,
or that they are something that transcends petty concerns over material
goods, ask yourself where that position leads. If man adopts such
a view on a wide scale, will he still exist in another thousand
years? Or will his fate have been embodied in The Road.
backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in
its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put
back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived
all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery. (p.
This discussion should not be taken to mean that the moral order
of private property ought to be operative irrespective of context.
The proper moral principles applying to human interaction may
legitimately depend on context; see, e.g., Moral
Rights and Political Freedoms (1995) by Tara Smith. It
is quite possible that a moral order of private property would
not be legitimate in a moribund world such as in the novel, and
one might even make the case that cannibalism could be morally
legitimate when humans are one of the few remaining sources of
food possible. I take no position on these questions in this essay,
but they are worth noting to avoid misunderstanding of the source
of rights. What is important is that, in the context of a world
where it is possible to sustain a means of production, a moral
order based on private property and nonaggression is proper and
O'Neill [send him mail]
is a lecturer in statistics at the University of New South Wales
(ADFA) in Canberra, Australia. He has formerly practiced as a lawyer
and as a political adviser in Canberra. He is a Templeton Fellow
at the Independent Institute, where he won first prize in the 2009
Sir John Templeton Fellowship essay contest. Send him mail. See
archives at Mises.org.
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.