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Madmen and Government Regulations

August 18, 2009

Tags Free MarketsMedia and CultureInterventionism

The AMC's Madmen, themed around New York advertising executives in the 1960s, captivates viewers for its plots, fashions, shocking levels of political incorrectness, and, most of all, because of the way its draws viewers so closely into a world of the early 1960s that they never knew.

It seems like time travel, like all of this is really happening. It's so realistic that 20-something bloggers constantly talk about how "dead on" the show is, as if they would even know. The whole show has become such a culture phenom that it defines for the whole generation the way it views the postwar/pre-Woodstock era of America.

Having some affection for those fashions and times, I was prepared to like the show, and there is no question that the production values are the tops. But hidden inside the show turns out to be another agenda, which seems designed to glorify the regulatory state that came after the times featured in the show.

A few specific instances. Everyone is smoking, mostly chain smoking, and mostly indoors. It gives today's viewers a sense of creeps to observe the extent of it, as if everyone is working on making for themselves an early grave. And you get a sense of what must have been an overwhelming stench of stale smoke. Hardly anyone can watch scene after scene of this without a sense of discomfort, even to the point of feel grossed out.

A hidden aspect of watching this is to think: thank goodness for the bans on smoking today and thank goodness for the warnings on cigarettes that tell consumers what these people didn't know.

The ubiquity of cigarettes is only the most conspicuous aspect of the overall feeling of danger and creepiness that appears in scene after scene. There is daytime office drinking to an extent that would surely raise questions in the context of modern workplace regulations.

The treatment of women in the movie is egregious and shocking, with every office girl getting ahead by slutting around and dressing mainly to please the men. They are overtly treated like toys, not humans or professionals. Harassment doesn't quite describe it. It is nothing short of ghastly.

Was this really the plight of professional women in those days? Well, the message goes, thank goodness for laws against discrimination and also laws against sexual harassment. If we take even one step away from the regulatory seizure of American business life, we would surely be back in this Hobbesian jungle of booze, abuse, and early death.

But a woman in the show can avoid this hell by choosing instead to be a "housewife," which means making the perfect home for her hubby, and otherwise standing around gossiping with the neighbors and going to tea and growing increasingly lonely and desperate. Meanwhile, her working husband at the office is carousing around and sleeping with the office girls while she pretends not to notice, since — what other options does she have?

Here again we get a picture of a wild world of patriarchal domination and savagery before the federal government tamed it.

This theme appears in scene after scene. The kids in the house are constantly doing dangerous things like wearing plastic bags on their heads, since this was of course before federally mandated warning labels appeared telling us not to do this. Mothers, you see, are way too stupid not know to tell their kids not to suffocate themselves with plastic bags, which is why we need a Consumer Products Safety Commission.

The same is true with cars. And with drinking. And seatbelts. And every other thing big and small you can think of. Every high-profile federal intervention is given a subtle endorsement because we are shown in high relief the sheer awfulness of the world before Leviathan took over our homes, businesses, and public and private lives in every respect. Without them, we would surely be blow-drying our hair in the tub.

This was the constant theme I observed in the several episodes I watched. I'm sure others can think of examples that appear in every episode. It is a Hobbesian tale that posits the inability of society to improve itself without the helping hand of the master.

The truth behind most of the regulations we have today — laws against discrimination, harassment, safety rules, and even smoking — is that there was already a social and cultural movement against the dangers featured in Madmen. This support for change was effectively nationalized by the federal government in the form of coercive rules, rather than permitting social, economic, and cultural pressure to bring about its own noncoercive solutions to social problems.

It is easy to forget while watching the show that this is, after all, fiction: a story made up by writers and producers with themes chosen by them for a purpose. Call it a libertarian-induced paranoia if you want, but I strongly suspect that a part of the agenda of this show is to propagandize for the regulatory world that came after, as if it, and only it, saved us from an eternity of grave social injustice and mortal danger to our lives and dignity.

I'm still waiting for a show about the real madmen of the era, those who imagined that fastening a noose around the whole of business culture was the only way to get us to behave in a civilized way.


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