The Politics of Zombies

Political scientist Dan Drezner has an interesting essay in Foreign Policy magazine that explores how different international relations theories would cope with an invasion of zombies. It’s based on his forthcoming book Theories of International Politics and Zombies, scheduled to be published by the Princeton University Press. Drezner analyzes the possible responses to a zombie invasion predicted by realist, liberal, and neoconservative theories of international relations. Great stuff!

Unfortunately, he doesn’t consider the possible predictions to be derived from libertarian theories of politics. So I will take a (merely metaphorical) stab at it myself:

I would expect many governments to try to use zombies for their own nefarious ends. Zombies might be an excellent tool of repression for authoritarian states. Government efforts to combat the zombie menace might well be hampered by public choice problems. Various interest groups would surely exploit the zombie crisis as an opportunity to lobby for special benefits for themselves under the pretext of combatting the zombies. For example, farm subsidies for dead farmers will surely go up, as lobbyists argue that the dead farmers might turn into zombies themselves unless they are paid off. In democracies, anti-zombie policy might also be compromised by widespread voter ignorance of zombies and irrationality about them. I venture to predict that voters are likely to be even more ignorant and irrational about zombies than they are on most other policy issues.

Finally, I want to congratulate Drezner on his success in persuading a major academic press to publish a book on this subject. It is a great inspiration to all academics who love science fiction and fantasy literature. As soon as I finish my own forthcoming books on political ignorance and the Kelo case, I hope to try to follow up Drezner’s achievement. Perhaps it’s not too early to to see if Princeton University Press might be interested in publishing my proposed book on the law and economics of orcs? As numerous fantasy novels will tell you, they’re a much more imminent threat than zombies.

UPDATE: In the comments, Dan Drezner writes:

While the excerpt in FP does not address the issues you raise, I promise that the book does discuss the ways in which regime type, interest groups and public opinion would shape/constrain counter-zombie policies.

I can’t wait to read all about it! This will surely be the definitive social science work on zombies.

UPDATE #2: Conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg responds to this post here:

I think Somin is letting his commitment to libertarian theory overtake his judgment. It is fundamental to all zombie scenarios that efforts to “weaponize” zombies fail almost immediately. To be sure, governments would try to use zombies for their own nefarious ends, but these efforts would only hasten the advance of the zombie menace….

I will have more to say about this. But let me just throw it out there: a true zombie invasion will trump traditional international theory (never mind farm subsidies!). The computer modeling of zombie proliferation alone would convince realists, neocons, even the vast majority pacifists to either liquidate the zombies at all costs or to bunker down for their own protection. Zombies, quite simply, would be a game-changer.

I think Goldberg may be letting his commitment to conservatism overtake his judgment here. If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, you know that tyrants have many ways to control zombies and use them for for their nefarious purposes. Even if such efforts are doomed to failure, that doesn’t mean they won’t be tried.

I’m also not convinced that a zombie invasion would necessarily trump all other considerations and suspend the usual tendencies of political systems. In the past, interest groups exploited even the greatest crises (including the Great Depression) to lobby for special benefits. I’m not sure a zombie crisis would be any different. Moreover, Goldberg implicitly assumes that zombies would spread quickly and endanger everyone more or less equally. In reality, their spread might be uneven and some places may be more at risk than others. This would tend to undercut efforts to unite against them.