The Economics of 'The Purge': Would Doing a Real-Life 'Purge' Be Good for America?
If you’ve never seen any of the four films in The Purge series, the movies have a fascinating premise. As America continues to go downhill, a political party rises to power by promising to allow Americans to engage in one 12-hour Purge per year, where all crime is LEGAL.
In other words, have you ever wanted to rob a bank or smash a window and grab a new TV? That night, you could with no fear of going to jail. Does your boss make you angry? Well, on Purge night you could go over to his house with an ax and the police couldn’t touch you after you planted it in his forehead. Are you sick of that neighbor’s house blocking your view of the ocean? Well, on Purge night you could just go burn it down because there are no emergency services operating until it ends.
But, you may say, “What would be the point?” Well, in the movies, the Purge actually makes economic sense.
To begin with, there are SOME rules for the Purge. No explosive devices, bazookas, WMDs, etc. are allowed. This presumably lessens the level of destruction. Additionally, high-level political targets are off limits (except in The Purge: Election Year).
In the movies, the populace gets out its more aggressive impulses during the event, so crime drops to the lowest rate ever. This is no small matter because although the amounts estimated vary greatly, crime costs America an almost unfathomable amount of money each year. Estimates range from $690 billion to as high as $3.41 TRILLION PER YEAR.
Additionally, in some of the movies, the government sends out mercenary squads to kill poor people in large numbers during the Purge because they are enormous drains on the treasury. In the real world, poor people are extremely expensive to keep afloat, as you can see from this Cato Institute analysis:
In 2012, the federal government spent $668 billion to fund 126 separate anti-poverty programs. State and local governments kicked in another $284 billion, bringing total anti-poverty spending to nearly $1 trillion. That amounts to $20,610 for every poor person in America, or $61,830 per poor family of three.
Spending on the major anti-poverty programs increased in 2013, pushing the total even higher.
Over, the last 50 years, the government spent more than $16 trillion to fight poverty.
On top of all that, the deaths from Purge night drive down the unemployment rate and the economy takes off, presumably because of all the sales of guns, security systems, and creepy masks.
So, dramatically reduced crime, billions less spent on the poor, and a great economy at the price of some creepos in hockey masks running wild for 12 hours a year? That doesn’t sound so bad, right? So, is it time to write your congressmen to ask them to introduce a Purge bill?
Not exactly. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few flaws in the reasoning behind the movie.
The first is the damage that the Purge itself would cause. Imagine the vandalism, robberies, smashed stores, arson, and bodies in the street. The cost would be astronomical. Just as a point of comparison, the Los Angeles riots went on for five days, BUT — unlike the Purge — there were emergency services responding. Yet and still, even with the police and fire department trying to keep things under control, there was a billion dollars’ worth of damage done in just one city. So, how much damage would a nationwide Purge do? It’s extremely difficult to estimate the costs, but it’s easy to imagine that the number might reach a trillion dollars. If it did, that number would be roughly five percent of our yearly GDP.
But wait, you say. Surely, people would learn to prepare for the Purge. Snipers on the roof. Security firms. Metal doors. Safe rooms. Every middle-class or wealthy home, every government building, every business would become a hardened target. Pretty much everyone except the poorest people would make his own little castle to survive the Purge each year. Think about the economic boom this would create for gun merchants, security systems manufacturers, and bodyguards. Then there would be Purge masks, Purge movies, clean-up services, out-of-country flights… all of this would have to spur on the economy, right?
Actually, no. That’s how it works in the movies, but in the real world, there’s something called the Broken Window Effect. John Stossel does a good job of explaining it:
In a small town, an idiot breaks a shop window. He’s called a vandal, until someone points out that a window installer now must be paid to replace the window. The window installer then will have enough money to buy a new suit. A tailor will then be able to buy a new desk. And so on. The whole town apparently gains from the economic activity generated by the broken window. Of course, if this made sense, cities should hire people to run through town, breaking windows.
But it doesn’t make sense. It’s a fallacy because the circulating money is seen; what is not seen is what would have been done with the money if the window were still whole. The shopkeeper, instead of paying the window installer, might have expanded his business, or bought a new suit or a new desk. The town is worse off because of a broken window.
In other words, instead of hiring new employees or getting new equipment, your local gym, bank, auto store, etc., would spend all that money on security devices designed to keep people out during the Purge. Would certain businesses benefit? Absolutely. Would the economy as a whole? Absolutely not. In fact, the Purge would dramatically increase what it costs to create a viable small business. If you can’t create a business that can survive an attack by 50 dirtbags with sledgehammers and shotguns, why even bother? Along similar lines, if you think you pay too much for insurance now (pretty much ANY kind of insurance), just wait until the Purge comes along.
So you may be thinking, “Okay, maybe the Purge would do a lot of damage and might actually not be so good for the economy, but what about the crime rate? Would that plunge outside of the Purge like it did in the movies?”
First of all, most adults don’t currently engage in criminal activity much beyond speeding and jaywalking. So, the idea pushed by the movie that there are enormous numbers of people who would secretly love to put on a mask and beat a stranger to death with a tire iron is contradicted by pretty much everything we know about human beings. That being said, if you give people a night where theft, rape, and murder are legal and they actually take you up on the offer, the possibility exists that these previously law-abiding people will GET A TASTE FOR IT. The idea that someone is going to set homeless guys on fire one night each year, but will be a sane, productive, law-abiding citizen for the rest of the year goes against human nature. On top of that, there’s the possibility of revenge. The famous Hatfield-McCoy feud led to the loss of 13 lives and it was supposedly over someone stealing a pig. If someone shoots your kid, do you think you are going to shrug it off just because it was on Purge night? No way.
Oh, but you say, “Well, even if you want revenge, why not wait until the night of the Purge to get it?” You mean the one night of the year where everyone will be on his guard and will either be with a dozen armed friends or inside a bunker? It would be a bit riskier from a legal standpoint to shiv someone in the neck in a deserted parking garage outside the mall two weeks before the Purge, but your chance of success would also be about 50 times better.
This ties into our final point. The idea that the government could use mercenaries without explosive weapons (along with the general populace) to murder millions of poor people and reduce the payouts made by the government is ridiculous. For example, in The First Purge, government mercenaries go into a housing complex room by room, floor by floor executing all the armed, forewarned inhabitants in a 12-hour period. As retired Colonel Kurt Schlichter, author of the upcoming book Militant Normals: How Regular Americans Are Rebelling Against the Elite to Reclaim Our Democracy, told me, this is bonkers:
It's very hard to clear a building unless you don't care about your life. Almost by definition mercenaries do. Remember what happened in Boston? Two untrained d*ckheadz with a couple of handguns managed to keep the entire Boston police force at bay for a day. Why? They exploited the fact of Boston cops didn't want to unnecessarily risk their lives. Police forces leverage time and combat power to win. So no, in 12 hours any force would actually kill very few barricaded people simply because they'd have no desire to risk being casualties themselves.
Since the mercenaries wouldn’t be using bombs, planes, WMDs, etc., they’d kill very few people. Moreover, chances are very low that homicidal civilians would go into the streets looking for victims. There would be too many people with rifles sitting on their roofs waiting to put a bullet in anyone coming toward their house or business. If someone steps onto your property on Purge night, prudence says you assume the worst and put a bullet in him before he does the same to you and yours.
Moreover, the poorly thought-out liberal economics embraced by the screenwriters (and for that matter, Planned Parenthood) that indicates it’s economically effective over the long haul to kill off poor people is simply incorrect. This is the same fallacy that people who obsess over income inequality embrace. You see, there’s actually a tremendous amount of income mobility in the United States. Most of the economic mobility statistics out there are garbage (i.e. that’s not really what they measure), but it certainly seems notable that 73 percent of Americans reach the top 20 percent of income earners and 12 percent of Americans will find themselves in the top one percent of income earners for at least one year of their life. In other words, if government mercenaries kill a poor part-time fast-food worker in a Purge today, there’s a decent chance they’re robbing themselves of a restaurant manager a decade down the road and a not insignificant chance that they may even be killing a highly paid restaurant owner two or three decades from now. Are poor people an economic drain on the government? ABSOLUTELY. But the beautiful thing about America is that the poor don’t have to stay poor.
Put all this together and much like the zombie apocalypse (Get ‘em, Daryl!), The Purge is a fun concept that would be considerably less appealing in real life than it is in the movies.